Would you shell out $28 for a burger? Chef Tom Hurley thinks so. So does Scott Shampine. Recent offerings at each of their Portland restaurants (the eponymous Hurley's and Hotel deLuxe's Gracie's, respectively) handily top 20 bills. Given the average American puts back three burgers every week, according to Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation, this is a beef war that could get very expensive if more local restaurants decide they too want to play. But what makes a burger worth such a hefty price tag, and why the hell would you ever buy it? I ate a handful of Portland's priciest burgers in one week. And, in between extended trips to the gym, I discovered that sometimes a burger is more than just a burger—more, at any rate, than McDonalds' lowly $2.99 Quarter Pounder with Cheese (which, by the way, does not live up to childhood memories). In this case, one gets what one pays for.
As of March 2007, the most expensive burger to my knowledge in Portland went for $13 (we'll get to city's burger evolution in a bit)—until Chef Tom Hurley decided he could get away with more than doubling that price tag at his Northwest Portland restaurant. Imported from his other restaurant, Seattle's Coupage, the Hurley burger is a fist-sized hunk of ground American Kobe beef on a pretzel bun (the bread is shipped from a bakery in Vancouver, B.C.). If that weren't decadent enough, two ounces of seared foie gras top the impossibly tender Kobe flesh, creating a meat mattress where lie sweet caramelized onions, a lively herbed-tomato relish and a chiffonade of romaine hearts that absorbs the overflow of rich house-made truffle mayonnaise. It comes with potato crisps.
With all the pomp of Hurley's—white tablecloths, obsequious service, etc.—it doesn't really feel like eating a burger, but however it's classified, it's awesome. The price tag amounts to sticker shock, but to re-create the Hurley burger at home would cost just as much and wouldn't be as good. Eleven ounces of Kobe beef ($18.99 a pound at Viande) and two ounces of foie gras ($75 a pound, Viande) alone tops $20—and there's no way your truffle mayo is better than Tom's. It's available for dinner and Sunday brunch, and it took the PDX burger king crown—that is, until Hurley's former Chef de Cuisine Scott Shampine took the reins at Gracie's last month.
Just days after the Hurley burger appeared, Shampine (who recently defected from Olea) debuted the Gracie burger on the hotel's new restaurant and Driftwood Room bar menus. The Gracie burger is one of the best things to eat in Portland right now. Like the Hurley burger, Gracie's starts with a hunk of lean Kobe and some foie—but just keeps going. Add two quail eggs, a brioche bun basted in duck fat, bacon mayo with huge chunks of perfectly salty swine, Cantel cheese, foie gras aioli and a bed of frisée that makes the sandwich appear as tall as Yao Ming, and you have a serious food addiction. This burger represents so many distinct (and lovable) animals that it ought to be called the Petting Zoo Massacre. It's so thick you almost need a bungee cord to eat it. A forearm-sized cone of erect and salty French fries seasoned with bacon round out the deal. It's otherworldly, as it should be for $22. Unlike the Hurley Burger, Gracie's burger is available half-price ($11) on the Driftwood happy-hour menu. Just make sure the kitchen doesn't overcook it (medium rare arrived medium well two out of three times).
Rumors abound that the chefs behind these two burgers do not get along, but Shampine says the timing of his burger launch and Hurley's own debut was pure coincidence, born of the desire at Gracie's to create the best burger in Portland. "Tom's burger is nothing like mine...his is very similar to Daniel Boulud's [original $29 db burger at db Bistro Moderne in Manhattan], and mine is something completely different." Hurley, who agrees that the double debut was a coincidence, has since tweaked his burger recipe make identical to the one at his Korean-inspired French eatery Coupage. "I've wanted to do this burger four years ago, and now it's our No. 1 seller in Seattle," Hurley says. They sell 25 of them every day.
Portland did not arrive at this meaty mayhem overnight. Tiny, delicious steps brought us here. In a city where fast-food chain Burgerville features the same Oregon Painted Hills beef that comes über-spendy at fine New York City restaurants, the stakes are high—though PDX expense accounts are not. The Higgins burger (born March 3, 1994) was probably the tipping point. A trip to the Northwest cuisine cornerstone hardly comes cheap, but the restaurant's burger can nearly feed two hungry people if ordered with an appetizer. But don't go looking for anything called "burger" on Higgins' menu. The "broiled, freshly ground and spiced sirloin on a toasted, hearth-baked roll" is what is known on the street as the Higgins burger ($10). Perhaps Master Chef Greg saw in his burger child something so different from the other kids that he named it accordingly. It definitely looks like a burger, with a wrist-thick (my wrist, not yours) chunk of lean broiled sirloin. Add a crucial slice of white cheddar, as deep as a half deck of cards, for $1. The cheese is too thick to melt—it just stays soft, sweaty and perfect. The Higgins burger doesn't come with fries (because it's not really a burger, remember?); it's served with a local greens, toasted hazelnuts and those addictive Higgins pickles.
Cafe Castagna's burger ($11) is Portland's other leading contender. Some say it's a Higgins copycat (due to the similar homemade pickles), but I think that's just part of Portland's whole provincial westside/eastside competition. Castagna's burger works the palate in a similar way but edges out its Higgins counterpart for the simple fact that it comes with fries. The bacon ($1) and blue cheese ($1) are crucial add-ons.
Other great upscale Portland burgers include Slow Bar's ($9), which comes topped with thick-fried onion rings, and the well-kept secret Serratto burger ($12) with thin fried onions (my personal favorite). Fans of the long gone Bima bacon burger ($10) should know it's alive and well at Holden's, which inherited the burger when the Pearl bistro closed in 2000. Also in the Pearl, the Bluehour burger ($10) comes adorned with pickled veggies and razor-sharp cheddar. Le Pigeon's burger ($9) is proper hamburger therapy if you like your meat on a dense ciabatta bun. I sometimes do.
Back to burger rivals Tom and Scott. Whether their spendy hamburgers trigger a belly-out PDX burger war remains to be seen...and, really, how would one go about topping their creations? Lobster mayo? Gold-plated pickles? Caviar ketchup? Black truffles? The premium version of the db burger with "double black truffles" goes for $99 in New York.
But really, why buy these monsters? "The uniqueness, I guess," says Arielle Gannon, a hostess at dbBistro Moderne. Maybe she's right, I do think people like to splurge and feel luxurious. Eat a $99 burger and you're going to tell your friends about it. But Portland is not New York. Our expectations are high, but our pockets are shallow. And we'll always have Burgerville.
Hurley's, 1987 NW Kearney St., 295-6487. Gracie's and the Driftwood Room, 729 SW 15th Ave., 241-3363.