We're a little bit spoiled here in Portland. Even in our most touristy downtown restaurants, it's rare to find $16 hamburgers, $9 milkshakes or a $5 happy hour pint depicted as a good deal. Most restaurants are decorated with performative modesty, and no one makes or takes reservations.
In other words, Portland is pretty much the opposite of a city like Las Vegas.
And yet, Vegas-based Block 16 Hospitality picked the Pearl for the second offshoot of Holsteins Shakes and Buns, a splashy burger spot that's part of a portfolio that also includes Public House-brand public house, Flour & Barley brick-oven pizza and two different bougie hot dog concepts. The failure of our branch of Scottsdale-based P. F. Chang's China Bistro left 6,400 feet of premium Pearl real estate open for Block 16.
So we get Holsteins, a massive, extravagantly appointed and vaguely Fierian new burger spot serving very average hamburgers.
The decadent space makes a statement. The restaurant is anchored by a life-size white cow statue, graffiti-style artwork hangs on the ceiling and big, fluffy half-moon booths could each accommodate a bachelor party. The bar is gray marble. The absurd extravagance carries over to the food—like a $15 shake that comes rimmed with candied bacon and a full cupcake perched on top, or a sandwich called the Captain Hook, which has a seared steelhead patty topped with smoked salmon ($15).
I was excited to try Holsteins, having grown a bit weary of Portland's barnwood and housemade mustards. Sadly, two meals there, spaced a month apart, were not good.
Let's start with what worked pretty well. The best thing we tried was a bulgogi quesadilla appetizer ($12) made with a little steak and a lot of Oaxacan cheese sandwiched between two tortillas and topped with kimchi plus criss-crossing drizzles of kalbi and aioli. The gooey cheese and acidic kimchi played well off each other. Buttermilk-battered onion rings (a $2 upcharge to substitute for fries with your burger) were hot, crisp and tasty. Oh, and they bring you complimentary popcorn—a nice treat I haven't encountered at a family restaurant since I was a kid eating at Ground Round, when my parents refused to order pizza at Chuck E. Cheese next door.
But things go downhill pretty fast from there.
All the burgers are made with premium beef, either "Kobe" as in the Nom Nom Burger ($15.50)— topped with cheddar, Thousand Island and potato chips—or dry-aged sirloin as in the Gold Standard ($15.50), topped with bacon, cheddar chevre, garlic-chive aioli and "tomato confit."
Sadly, all of the burgers we had were dry, overdone for the requested medium and lacking a meaty punch. The exotic sauces and huge stacks of greenery atop them further dampened the beef flavor. The El Caliente ($14), topped with pork rinds, mayonnaise that was purported to include cilantro and tequila, and thin slices of pickled jalapeno was literally not edible with the pork skins on it—the laws of physics prevented this—but rather unremarkable with the skins on the side.
A plate of 10 wings ($12) came under-sauced and overpriced. Oddly, they came garnished with a few thin slices of jalapeno. A shallow cast-iron pan filled with fried dill slices ($10) suffered from overly dry pickles: Without a vinegar bite, a fried pickle is just a fried cucumber, and nobody wants a fried cucumber.
Another thing nobody wants: an $8 "Cereal Bowl Panna Cotta" that's runny and, under the berry compote, tastes basically like the milk left over in kids' cereal.
Then again, I've been wrong before about what other people want. Maybe Portland has been crying out for a pricey, over-the-top Pearl District burger spot. We'll know once the rain returns and the tourists fly home.
Holsteins, 1139 NW Couch St., 503-616-4321, holsteinsburgers.com. 11 am-11 pm daily.