This weekend, we’re revealing the winners in the first round of 64. Here are the bistro winners.
MATCH-UP #1: Le Pigeon (1) vs. Allium (16)
738 E Burnside St., 503-546-8796, lepigeon.com. 5-10 pm daily.
Beard-award-winning chef Gabe Rucker's trademark burger is messy. It is also legend. It's been listed among the best burgers in America by national food media and among the "12 Wonders of Portland Food" by WW. So it's an easy pick for the top seed. The juicy grilled patty, ground in-house daily, is topped with melted aged white cheddar, twice-grilled pickled red onions, and an iceberg slaw. The ciabatta bun takes razor-sharp teeth to make sure the whole thing doesn't end up in your lap, but a Franz bun would dissolve on contact with this delicious monstrosity. A little horseradish in the mustard on the bun makes sure your olfactory is clear to enjoy such a well-crafted sandwich.
1914 Willamette Falls Drive, West Linn, 503-387-5604, alliumoregon.com. 4-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 4-10 pm Friday-Saturday.
The grilled onion, cheddar and lettuce with a bun-soaking Cascade Natural beef patty on Allium's burger ($14 with fries) should give the restaurant a chance at a serious underdog run. But its tomato jam and aioli don't have much more zip than regular ketchup and mayo, and the kitchen managed to forget the bacon advertised on the menu.
WINNER: This was a way closer matchup than the seeding would suggest— and if this was contest for best fries Allium might come away champion with their duck-fat shoestrings. But it isn't, and Allium won't be a Valparaiso Cinderella story. Le Pigeon wins.
MATCH-UP #2: SuperBite (8) vs. Roost (9)
527 SW 12th Ave., 503-222-0979, superbitepdx.com. 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday. 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
Before co-founding Ox steakhouse, Greg Denton cooked up the juicy burger at the now-closed Metrovino, which I judged the best in town for BurgerQuest 2010. At the Dentons' new small-plate spot, SuperBite, the burger ($16 with steak fries) is no mere bite. It's two mostly beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame seed bun—a gourmet Big Mac. But while the shiitake mushroom ground into the burger adds interesting umami, it comes at the cost of juicy meat. Still, the generous and perfectly melted mix of cheddar and fontina cheese balance out beautifully against tangy special sauce and tart pickle.
1403 SE Belmont St., 971-544-7136, roostpdx.com. 5:30-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-9 pm Sunday; brunch 10 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.
On paper, the burger ($15.50 with fries) seems like a contender for the elite eight—with an ample, properly cooked beef patty juicy enough to soak through the arugula into the untoasted bun. But the smoked Gouda cheese sauce was too thin, lacking intensity and running off the burger before I even took a bite. And the tomato relish, while deliciously tart and spicy on its own, was spread meagerly. The parts are there; they just need to play better as a team.
WINNER: SuperBite. Roost had all the ingredients for a solid showing, but the parts couldn't come together well enough to pull off a victory. Superbite's mix of flavors and texture, on the other hand, is so tried and true they wrote a song about it.
MATCH-UP #3: La Moule (5) vs. Bamboo Sushi (12)
2500 SE Clinton St., 971-339-2822, lamoulepdx.com. 5 pm-midnight daily.
La Moule's single, well-seasoned patty sits on a soft, plump Ken's Artisan bun toasted sufficiently to keep the sandwich together. Two wedges of buttery brie, still creamy even when cooled, join two long slices of Niman Ranch bacon extending from the bun like wings. The burger comes with an unlikely balance of pickled and raw red onions, plus a slather of bracing Dijon to bring out subtleties of the beef and brie.
310 SE 28th Ave., 503-232-5255, bamboosushi.com. 4:30-10 pm daily.
Scouting report: A wagyu beef burger from Portland's sustainable sushi chain.
Bamboo Sushi meat always comes with a pedigree. The fish is marked sustainable, while the beef on the popular burger ($14) cries wagyu. That fatty beef makes a juicy burger even if overcooked—which it was here. It also comes with the welcome additions of Japanese-style pickles and momiji sauce on the plate, topped by default with aged cheddar and caramelized onions.
However, the bun was dense and dry, and the bland richness of a sumo-style burger adding egg, bacon and fried shallot rings is unlikely to help much.
WINNER: La Moule wins handily. In a talent-packed bracket, this was still a lopsided contest: Bamboo's burger came overcooked, and if that weren't enough, the the bun was also dry, and the tempura-onion-ring nod to the restaurant's Japanese roots cry out for a trip through the Burgerville drive-thru come Walla Walla season. La Moule's solid execution and unlikely balance let them breeze by the first round.
MATCH-UP #4: Toro Bravo (4) vs. Serratto (13)
120 NE Russell St., 503-281-4464, torobravopdx.com. 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
If serial restaurateur John Gorham is the Rick Pitino of Portland burgers, Toro Bravo is still his Kentucky Wildcats. The secret to the burger at Toro Bravo ($14) is housemade romesco, the special sauce of Catalonia in northeastern Spain. Alongside bread-and-butter zucchini pickles, that creamy housemade blend of garlic, nut, and roasted red pepper acts as counterpoint to the deep salt and richness of the 6-ounce, grill-caramelized Cascade Natural beef, pungent manchego and housemade bacon.
2112 NW Kearney St., 503-221-1195, serratto.com. 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday, 11:30 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
The burger at Nob Hill spot Serratto ($16 with fries) comes with tangy-sweet barbecue sauce and all-American grill marks on the patty, balancing out the rich saltiness of sharp cheddar and bacon. Matchstick-sized crispy onions add more crunch than any shredded lettuce or slaw. Still, the beef patty was thin and dwarfed by a soft, untoasted bun.
Winner: Toro Bravo crushed it. Though thin, Serratto's patty arrived a bit overcooked. But it wouldn't have mattered. Toro Bravo's mix of house bread-and-butter zucchini pickles, creamy romesco and pungent manchego just had a lot more firepower.
MATCH-UP #4: La Moule (5) vs. Bamboo Sushi (12)
3155 E Burnside St., 503-206-3097, laurelhurstmarket.com. 5-10 pm daily.
Burgers at most of Portland's best steakhouses offer as much excitement as a deflated basketball. But the balance of flavors is what lets the Laurelhurst burger ($15 with fries) at nontraditional steakhouse Laurelhurst Market compete with the best in the city. Tart balsamic onions and house pickles harmonize with the salty-sweet umami hit of bacon and Tillamook aged cheddar cheese. The squishy Fleur de Lis potato bun is grilled thoroughly, making it hold up until the finish. But while the beef is hearty as bison meat—nicely charred yet still juicy—the burger was a little undercooked, and a little short on the housemade herb aioli.
Irving Street Kitchen
701 NW 13th Ave., 343-9440, irvingstreetkitchen.com. 4:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 4:30-9:30 pm Sunday; brunch 10 am-2:30 pm Friday-Sunday.
The Irving Street's burger ($13 at happy hour) retains a Southern feature that makes it stand out: the sort of beautiful, tangy iceberg slaw that sets off sweet and smoky pulled pork in Memphis. You'll be lucky if you can get your mouth around the burger's two overfat patties of beef, topped by a pickle almost as fat—enough to overwhelm the delicate bun. The thin melted cheese on top is an afterthought.
WINNER: Laurelhurst Market. Five match-ups in, and we are still without an upset. It was a tight match, but the south loses again. That slaw and big beef just couldn't muster the coordination of Laurelhurst's entry, with a decadent hit of rich beef alongside the salty-sweet harmonies of bacon, cheese, onion and pickle.
MATCH-UP #6: Paley's Place (3) vs. 23 Hoyt (14)
1204 NW 21st Ave., 503-243-2403, paleysplace.net. 5:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday.
Vitaly Paley's burger is at Paley's original Slabtown restaurant—home to one of Portland's very first brioche-bun, house-ground bistro burgers when it was introduced at the turn of the millennium. The grilled onion on the Paley's burger ($15 with fries) is revelatory, a full slab of onion grilled on both sides until caramelized, with an almost translucent and buttery interior. Creamy and bright notes come from mustard aioli and ketchup. But on a recent visit, the patty was undercooked enough it resembled tartare, and the bacon add-on ($1) was hammy and chewy.
529 NW 23rd Ave., 503-445-7400, 23hoyt.com. 4-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 4-11 pm Friday, 10 am-11 pm Saturday, 10 am-9:30 pm Sunday.
Old Town's 23 Hoyt has the best burger of restaurateur Bruce Carey's empire. The Rogue burger ($16 with fries) is a classic bacon-blue with shredded iceberg lettuce and a decently crusted, lightly seasoned patty. The bacon is plentiful, and the smoky blue cheese from Rogue is both saucy and assertive. Chopped, caramelized onions are tart and sweet, and the buttery sesame-seed brioche is light, sturdy and well-toasted.
WINNER: Paley's Place. It's a head-to-head between two of Portland's most iconic '90s-era restaurateurs, stacking Zefiro's founder against the Paley in Paley's Place. It was the tightest head-to-head in this round, coming down to a single point in the scoring. But Paley's edged it out despite some problems with execution, on the strength of that revelatory slab of grilled onion.
MATCH-UP #7: Clyde Common (7) vs. Cafe Castagna (10)
1014 SW Stark St., 503-228-3333, clydecommon.com. 3 pm-midnight daily.
The burger at Nate Tilden's Clyde Common ($8 during happy hour, or $16 off-menu) is one of the most plain on this list—though it'll swap out to a Texas Rodeo burger as this issue prints. Simplicity isn't bad, of course. American cheese has many devotees who love the puddingy texture that only comes from milk mixed with sodium citrate, gelatin, and cheese scraps. The meat came well done, but it was nicely seasoned with the old-school griddle crust you'd expect from a guy in a wife beater smoking a cigarette. But the real MVP of this meatwich is a secret sauce as good as any on this list: crunchy, bright and creamy.
1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-231-9959, castagnarestaurant.com/cafecastagna. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday.
For more than a decade, Cafe Castagna's burger ($13 with fries) has been famous for hitting the fundamentals and for those still-unbeatable bread-and-butter zucchini pickles. The burger arrives naked and cooked precisely to spec, on a slightly sweet, plain brioche from Ken's Artisan. All toppings are placed on the side, including pristine butter lettuce, onion, tomato (in season) and those great pickles. For $2 each, you can add bacon, sherry-grilled onions and cheese—cheddar, swiss or blue—or add nothing at all.
WINNER: Cafe Castagna, in a drubbing. The oddsmakers whiffed this seed hard, failing to take into account the long-honed perfection of that Cafe Castagna burger, not to mention the raw power of those bread-and-butter zukes that remain the best house pickles in town.
MATCH-UP #8: Trifecta (2) vs. Meriwether's (15)
726 SE 6th Ave., 503-841-6675, trifectapdx.com. 5-9 pm Monday, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 4-9 pm Sunday.
AtKen Forkish's most upscale restaurant, the most casual entree is still its best dish. The pimento burger ($15 with fries) couldn't be simpler: Meat, cheese and bread. It's two Cascade Natural beef patties, a housemade brioche bun, pimento cheese, and a special sauce of aioli, ketchup and fermented dill. That's it. Melty pimento cheese is a brilliant burger topping, almost like cheese and fry sauce in one. You almost can't screw it up, and yet two other burgers considered for this list managed to do so.
2601 NW Vaughn St., 503-228-1250, meriwethersnw.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, 9 am-9 pm Saturday-Sunday.
The Meriwether's burger ($16, plus $1 for cheddar) looks great, with a brioche bun sopping up the juices of a properly pink patty topped with plenty of bacon and several rings of nearly translucent grilled onions. But the flavors don't sing. The meat is underseasoned, the cheese is thin, and the pepper relish is disappointingly subtle, with no acid to make the flavors pop.
WINNER: Trifecta dances past the competition.