If you're cooking in a kitchen where one sauce takes a week to make, a burger joint probably looks like easy money.
Restaurateurs should know better by now: From Ken Norris' failed fancy hot dog spot to Micah Camden's failed fancy hot dog spot to the failed fancy hot dog spot of Park Kitchen's Scott Dolich, Portland is littered with proof that a highfalutin culinary pedigree is no guarantee you can make a better burger or dog than the old guy with the seasoned grill—and that it's just as hard to make a great hoagie as great sweetbreads.
Here are four new casual spinoffs in Portland—two that are wonderful, two not so wonderful.
Bless Your Heart Burgers
126 SW 2nd Ave., 503-719-4221, byhpdx.com. 11 am-10 pm daily.
John Gorham knows burgers. We just picked his Toro Bravo burger as the best bistro burger in town after it advanced to the final four in our massive Burger Madness, which pitted 64 local burgers in a seeded tournament.
At Bless Your Heart, he's teamed with former employee Drew Sprouse to serve Carolina-style diner burgers ($6.50, same price as a single). What's Carolina style? Well, it seems to involve a dark-brown meat chili that could pass for finely ground Manwich, yellow mustard, a dash of Texas Pete, and crisp slaw.
The chili is good, but we're most impressed with the basic double cheeseburger ($9) with American cheese that starts with an incredible bun—a Martin's potato roll purchased in bulk from the Pennsylvania company and frozen until needed. When that bun is heated on the steam-powered griddle, it becomes delightfully crisp with a great snap. The beef is a blend that's one-third short rib, chuck and brisket and caramelized to juicy perfection and has a steaky character you'd expect from a burger cooked on an older, more well-seasoned grill.
The Bless Your Heart burger is instantly one of our favorites in the city, and it's even better with the animal-style fries called "down and dirty" ($5), which are sopped with the house's beer-cheese and barbecue sauces and topped with onions, peppers and mushrooms. MARTIN CIZMAR.
3384 SE Division St., 503-384-2259, opwurst.com. 11 am-midnight Sunday-Wednesday, 11 am-1 am Thursday-Saturday.
As a concept, OP Wurst is pretty much a no-brainer.
Restaurant and salumeria Olympia Provisions makes sausages and hot dogs that could hold their own against any in the country. But until Elias Cairo and his sister, Michelle, opened their original fast-casual OP Wurst in Pine Street Market last year, you had to go to one of their two upscale restaurants to mow down on a frank.
Not anymore. Pine Street may have been the proof of concept, but the new Division Street sausage bar—a white-on-white shack once home to Honky Tonk Taco and Andy Ricker's Sen Yai noodle house—will be OP Wurst's flagship.
On the restaurant's walls, you'll find what amounts to a menu cheat sheet. "BEER," reads a sign on one wall. "SAUSAGES," reads a sign on the other.
There are stacked novelty dogs available—whether blue-cheese hazelnut or mac and cheese —but the classic OP dog ($7) is still the Portland Platonic ideal of frankfurter, the one God would grill in heaven's backyard while cranking up the bass on Pachelbel. That meaty, smoky depth and sulfurous grill char is laid into a Franz bun and topped with the Heinz-French's-relish-onion combo that fuels the beating heart of America.
Take a $5 Ayinger Bräu-Weisse draft to the patio on a sunny day, and all else is wurst, as the Germans like to say.
Sure, you can also get a lovely Day Wines pinot noir by the glass ($10), or a $10 "Lawrenceburg Blvd.," a boulevardier cocktail livened up with cherry and sea salt. The full menagerie of excellent OP sausage is also in attendance—from stately, plump kasekrainer to herbal pecorino parsley. The pickled green papaya slaw on the Pok Pok dog ($10.50) is bracingly acidic, the fried pickles ($5) are fried pickles, and the menu promises that someday on the premises you'll be able to eat an OP pretzel and an unpeeled OP weisswurst; the restaurant just added an OP burger and that same OP charcuterie board you get at the fancy spots.
But after two visits in the first week, my routine may already be set.
Perfect classic dog: $5 at happy hour (3-6 pm daily). Perfect German hefeweizen: $5 anytime. Perfect damn day. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
1100 SE Grand Ave., 503-477-6590, figliapdx.com. 8 am-3 pm Monday-Friday, 9 am-3 pm Saturday.
Maybe the saddest thing ever written by novelist William Gibson was a tweet. "This isn't a cyberpunk future," he wrote in December. "This is the Restoration Hardware version of a cyberpunk future."
Well, Renata spinoff Figlia is a Rejuvenation Hardware version of an Italian sandwich shop. It is, in fact, located inside one of the furniture chain's stores.
It shares with its host store a queasy sense of the ersatz—a cleanly upscale quotation of classic forms.
Figlia's Italian sandwich, for example, is sheathed in a pretty wedge of billowing, almost-pastry-topped house ciabatta—and its soppressata, mortadella and housemade prosciutto cotto are beautifully cured. But not only does the bread bury the thin layer of meat, the hyperacidic olive giardiniera and perplexing addition of mustard conspire to blast a jet of meaty air up one's sinuses.
On a roast beef sandwich, the peppadew and Mama Lil's peperonata atop it was likewise so acidic it almost caused the meat to seem spoiled—and the mix of cotto salami and giardiniera in a cold pasta salad was downright post-digestive in texture and flavor. The beet salad, too, was almost vinegar in its sourness. Each item looked beautiful and luxuriant, casual cuisine for a life lived in sunrooms. And each tasted sour. I went back again and again, confused.
There's a blazing exception, however, among the savory dishes: The white bean, chili and tomato soups were all deep, rich, balanced, subtle and warming down to the heart's cockles. It is a strange double bind to find such comfort where they ask you to do so much acid. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Pok Pok Wing
3120 SE Milwaukie Ave., pokpokwing.com. 11:30 am-9 pm. Monday-Sunday.
Pok Pok's Andy Ricker has had a rough go of late. Earlier this month, the local restaurateur had to shutter his Los Angeles restaurant after diners rejected his upscale take on Thai cuisine and decided to stick with the mom-and-pop shops of the Thai Town neighborhood. This followed the flop of Pok Pok Wing (and Pok Pok Phat Thai) in New York and the closure of Sen Yai in Portland.
We hate to heap trouble on Ricker, but the new Pok Pok Wing he opened across from the Aladdin Theater in a former teriyaki spot is plagued with problems.
It's not a place you'll want to linger long enough to eat a meal. The shiny, red-tiled floors and plastic-sheathed tables feel like they were reclaimed from a '70s McDonald's, and the room smells, for lack of a better word, schmaltzy.
Worse, though, the food shows a sloppy hand you're more accustomed to seeing at a fast-food place than at Ricker's excellent flagship on Southeast Division Street.
The spicy fish sauce wings lacked the umami punch of the ones you'll find at the original spot, instead tasting how a hermit-crab tank smells. I've had Pok Pok wings many times, and enjoyed them every time but this one.
Likewise, the green papaya salad here has the texture of jarred pickles, and tasted equally jarred. The Thai iced tea ice cream had a chalky texture, and was overly sweet with a weird prickle of bitterness.
Now that Ricker's empire is contracting geographically, let's hope he brings the focus to this fast-casual outpost that made Ike's wings famous in the first place. MARTIN CIZMAR.