Happy-hour burger at Little Bird, $6
215 SW 6th Ave., 503-688-5952, littlebirdbistro.com.
Before 6 pm, after 10 pm and all day Sunday, in the bar of downtown French bistro Little Bird, gain access to a true Portland marvel: a $6 double-stacked brioche-bun brie burger literally cheaper than at Burgerville. It comes à l'américaine and reassuringly greasy.
Double cheeseburger at Bless Your Heart, $6.95
At Carolina-style burger joint Bless Your Heart, deep in the bowels of Pine Street Market, chef John Gorham of Toro Bravo and former employee Drew Sprouse have made perfect Carolina-style burgers with a patty that’s one-third each of short rib, chuck and brisket. That beef is caramelized to juicy perfection, showing a steaky character you’d expect from a burger cooked on an older, more well-seasoned grill. Then, it gets an incredible bun—Martin’s potato rolls 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 specialty of the house might be a chili-topped Carolina-style, but that burger doesn’t need garnishing except maybe with a $2.50 order of fries: Our favorite is a double cheeseburger with American cheese.
Half-Reuben at East Side Deli Madison, $7
1109 SE Madison St., 503-206-8107, pdxdeli.com.
East Side Deli understands that meat makes the sandwich, and its toasted Reuben is a mountain of beef and Swiss that makes even the halfer a hearty meal. The new Madison Street bar in the former Mad Sons offers cheap booze, pinball and a whole upstairs arcade.
Half-sandwich and chips at Grant's Philly Cheesesteaks, $7.75
1203 NW 23rd Ave., 503-477-7133. Lunch and early dinner Sunday-Friday.
Grant's lives in two places: an A-frame house on Sandy Boulevard way out near the airport and a nigh-unmarked basement in Nob Hill. The counter service offers few frills, and neither does the little box of a space on 23rd Avenue across from the hospital. They've never attracted the attention of trend-hopping tastemakers or Instagram influencers, and they've never quite needed it: Good is good is good, and for a decade in a row Grant and Diane Schuler have been making the best damn Philly cheesesteaks in Portland—in part by not really caring if they taste like the ones in Philly. You get fresh-made potato chips with every sturdy roll of a sandwich made with magical, thin-sliced sirloin, Italian bread, sweet and hot peppers and—if you order like us—provolone cheese. A half-sandwich is a fine lunch, and a full $14 cheesesteak is an experience that will leave you glutted, big-gutted, happy and unable to walk. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Falafel at Wolf and Bear's, $8
Amid the sprawl of greasy downtown lunch carts, Wolf and Bear’s falafel is a beautiful respite. It’s satisfyingly carby and creamy, but isn’t a gut bomb. Cradled in pillowy grilled pita are rich tahini, super-smooth hummus, greens and bell peppers that are roasted so thoroughly they practically melt in your mouth. Even the crispy fried falafel tastes fresh, thanks to a generous amount of parsley blended into the batter. But the eggplant might be the wrap’s most addicting component. It’s hard to cook eggplant that meaty yet buttery out of a full kitchen, let alone a food cart.
Chicken shawarma at Moonlight Mediterranean Food, $8
232 SW Stark St., 503-208-0019. Lunch, dinner and late-night daily.
Saad Alameri, a friendly and chatty Baghdad native who runs the Moonlight Mediterranean Food cart downtown, is proud of the halal food, particularly his chicken shawarma and the spicy red sauce he adds upon request, which he says was a game-changer when he opened here in 2010. “I brought this from my country and it was very popular, so other people started doing it,” he says. There’s a cone of lamb pictured on the side of the cart, but Alameri gave it up because of the hassle, instead tossing a few thin slices of frozen lamb on the flat-top then topping the gyro with two cream sauces and a little spice. It’s a hulking pile of food for just $8, but the main draw here is the chicken, which is fresh and well-seasoned. It gets even better with the hot sauce and creamy white sauces.
Lamb gyro at Gastro Mania, $8
Portland is not a gyro town, but the best gyros we’ve eaten have been in Portland. Bulgarian-born Alex Nenchev’s tiny blue-collar Slabtown cafe eschews the spit—which he says is bad for freshness—using instead fresh-cut meat on a flat-top grill. Each of Gastro Mania’s gyros—whether lamb, chicken, salmon or tuna—is cooked fresh to order, and the herbs and spices that flavor them are equally fresh. And yet they still cost only $8 with a generous Greek side salad.
Almost There burger at Stoopid Burger, $9 with fries
2329 NE Glisan St., 503-477-5779.
The Ocean food mall's Stoopid Burger is home to $15 monstrosities too large to fathom—but for the budget-minded the "Almost There" strips Stoopid's ostentatious house style down to the nuts and bolts. Cheese, bacon, tomato, lettuce, Stoopid Sauce, super-fresh—it comes out looking like the burger emoji, and lacks for nothing.
Fried chicken sandwich at Basilisk, $9
820 NE 27th Ave., 503-234-7151, basiliskpdx.com.
Cart the towering, double-thick, fried chicken sandwich from fast-casual Basilisk over to whiskey bar Paydirt in the same food mall, and you make a lot of new friends. "Oh my God," says your new admirer. "Where did you get that?" You got it at Basilisk, and it's the best fried chicken sandwich in Portland.
Grilled ham and cheese at Tails and Trotters, $10
Portland's best ham spent a year in the cold. In February, the delicate, sweet walnut-fed pork of Kerns butcher Tails and Trotters went up in literal smoke—victim to a fire that had started in a vacant space next door. Its 18-month-aged prosciutto, 10 years in the making, was gone in a night. As of March 14, Tails and Trotters is both back and maybe even better, with a newly expanded seating area in front of the ham display that might persuade you to eat the excellent porkstrami Reuben or deep ham-stock soups inside. There's no need to get fancy here: T&T's basic ham is the best in Portland—we confirmed this in a blind taste test—salty, just a touch sweet, impossibly rich in flavor. It is ham-flavored ham. The grilled ham and cheese melts four cheeses onto a half-inch of ham served inside rustic levain bread and kissed with a touch of dijon. It will be the best ham and cheese sandwich you've ever had.
Bunk Burger at Bunk Bar Wonder, $10
Not all Bunks are created equal. Any time anyone complains the Bunk sandwich chain isn’t what it was when Tommy Habetz personally made each Cubano and muffaletta, I tell them they are correct. And then I send them to Bunk Bar Wonder, the best Bunk in the empire. For five years, chef Josh Luebke has made the best classic Bunk Cubanos, the best smoked and brined turkey, the best offbeat sandwich specials made with pulled pork or eggplant. But best of all, he makes this burger. Only a dozen Bunk Burgers are made each day from Thursday to Sunday, starting at noon opening time. Perhaps this is clever marketing, or perhaps it’s a loss leader. The $10 behemoth is a thick double cheeseburger patty layered with a classic pickle-lettuce-mustard-mayo combo, which is then amplified by 110-decibel onion: The beef patty is umami’d up with onion powder, and then the bun gets slathered with garlicky guajillo-pepper onion jam made with both pork stock and pork-fried onions. It’s a big, beefy monster made of bad breath and good feelings. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Fried chicken sandwich at Kingsland Kitchen, $10
The saucy fried chicken at downtown fast-casual English spot Kingsland is a gob-smackingly chili-spiced take on a General Tso's sandwich. Saucy sweet heat, aged cheddar, slightly smushy breading and a wealth of very English "gherkin mayo" mash up three continents' worth of junk food into joyous ecstasy.
Five-spice pulled-pork sandwich at Devil's Dill, $10.25
In a world of Caviar, Hawthorne spot Devil's Dill is one of the only places in town to o er late night delivery utterly free—unless you want to eat your sandwich with a beer at the No Fun bar next door. The No. 1 is the sandwich we always return to: tender, slaw-topped five-spice pork cooked up to 15 hours, then slathered in bright chili-garlic sauce.
Reggie Deluxe at Pine State Biscuits, $10.50
In 2006, three friends from North Carolina wanted to bring the perfect biscuit to Portland. Opening and closing and opening countless locations, they’ve turned this idea into empire. They take that flaky, buttery, golden-brown biscuit and serve it in the form of the gooey, sloppy Reggie Deluxe. For $10.50, you get a piece of fried chicken, bacon, cheddar, fried egg…all topped with their delicious peppery gravy. Though a mere biscuit sandwich, it is one of the heartiest breakfasts in town.
Veggie sando at Milk Glass Mrkt, $11.50
The veggie sando at Milk Glass Mrkt is one of the most delicious lunch items in the entire city, full stop. I feel conflicted telling anyone this. Nancye Benson’s charming little spot on Northeast Killingsworth is already plenty busy, especially at weekend brunch, when the Overlook neighborhood spills out onto the sidewalk for cheddar biscuit sandwiches, fish plates or a take-home jar of the house granola. But the hero is that sando: salty homemade focaccia slathered in almond butter and piled high with beets, spicy pickled carrots and peppers, fresh greens, and spreadable sheep’s-milk MitiCrema. It is a symphony of sandwich: the acid from the pickles, the crunch of the greens, the creaminess of almond butter and cheese, and that fluffy, perfect bread, topped with just a little bit of crunchy salt. Who puts almond butter on focaccia? What planet are we on? We dream of the veggie sandwich at Milk Glass.
Porchetta sandwich at People’s Pig, $12
Two years after taking over the former Tropicana soul-food shack on Williams, pitmaster Cliff Allen’s pork loin has slipped a bit from its original earnest perfections. But at the new East Burnside Street location in a former Subway, Allen has a new piece of transcendent pork to play with: a porchetta sandwich made with a combo of roast pork loin and pork belly, massaged with a fennel-garlic rub that might as well be the flavor of American childhood. That meat is both pepper-spicy and deeply herbal, unctuously rich and crisp but not too crisp. Served on house sourdough and set off with a bit of citrus and the bitter charge of arugula, that porchetta might as well be a tunnel to the still-smooth parts of your brain that know only comfort.
Italian beef at Sammich, $12
Sammich is all about the house giardiniera. That spicy, pickled mix of chilies, pepper, celery and carrots is the flavor of Chicago, available everywhere from hot dog shops to Potbelly to Subway franchises. At her East Burnside sandwich spot—plastered with Cubbies and ‘Hawks wall art and fronted by a smoker full of beef and bacon—Texan-Chicagoan Melissa McMillan’s housemade mix is the light, bright, quick-pickled and thin-sliced North Chicago variety. That giardiniera adds crunch, spice, and acid to everything from her “Cubbie Cubano” to the burger, albacore sandwich and Italian beef. That Italian beef is our favorite version in town. Her jus—pronounced “juice,” in open defiance of the French—is deep, rich, fresh daily and well-seasoned, a balance difficult to achieve and especially to maintain. The beef, roasted and sliced in-house, is tender and just a bit on the fatty side. And the hoagie buns have the right amount of rubber in them to stand up to the jus without dissolving into fluff: McMillan worked with a baker at Philippe’s Bread and Lardo to get just the right texture, rolling through countless attempts to get just the right elasticity.
Cheeseburger, tots and lemonade at Bottle Rocket, $13
1207 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-279-4663. Lunch, dinner and late-night daily.
Modeled loosely after a fireworks stand, the Bottle Rocket food cart is like a parallel-world imagining of a burger joint in East Asia, except at the Hawthorne Cartopia pod. The burgers aren’t cheffy. They also aren’t fancy, and they’re definitely not stupid. They are, quite simply, some of the best damn burgers in Portland: The basic burger ($9) is 5 ounces of salt- and pepper-seasoned, hand-formed chuck from Nicky Farms down the street—the same people who serve up bison, boar and elk to restaurants all over the city. The lettuce is green lettuce, the pickles are kosher, and the onions come both raw and grilled to mix crunch and depth. The mayo is mixed with Sriracha for a little bit of spice and tang, a secret sauce that’s really no secret at all. Add a buck and you get cheese, and at $3 more you get a nice house lemonade and a small piece of genius: crispy fried tater tots brimming with chili spice and the sticky-sweet brine of fish sauce. They’re trashy and delicious.
Pork slider plate at Grand Army Tavern, $14
Woodlawn’s Grand Army Tavern is an elegant wood-slatted hall of refreshing, citrusy cocktails and nose-to-tail, whole-pig butchery, with a rear wall fashionably papered in decorative flamingos whose necks overlap in lovingly baroque abundance. The $9 Paloma—often degraded in Portland to acrid grapefruit soda and tequila—is here a silky, refined quaff gussied up with Campari and agave. The spicy ranch-flavored pork rinds ($4)—a detente between hot and cool in the Dorito world—are served warm and still a little chewy, with the savory richness of skin fat still present. But the nose-to-tail sliders are what will fill you up. They’re decadent and terrific, from a truly excellent spicy kielbasa to trashy fried baloney to deep-flavored butt roast, all served with fatty butter, house pickles and live lettuce. Those sliders are a porky cornucopia, spilling over with wonders—and the platter drops to the happy-hour price of $12 all day Monday. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.