At John Hunt's last burger joint, if you kept it simple, you were literally boring.
On the menu at Stoopid Burger, the restaurant he co-owned until earlier this year, a hamburger with lettuce, pickle, tomato and onion was called the "Boring Burger." Even the name of the bacon cheeseburger judged you: It was called the "Almost There." Meanwhile, the signature eponymous burger came topped with cheese, a fried egg, ham, bacon and a hot link sausage.
It was as much about the fixings as the meat. But at Hunt's new place, he's embraced simplicity, with a menu that includes just three basic items: a hamburger ($6), cheeseburger ($7) and veggie burger ($8.50).
"I cut everything down so I could focus on giving people a better burger," says Hunt of Union Burger, his cart along Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "People love a classic American hamburger. And I noticed a lot of successful chains, like In-N-Out or Little Big Burger, all have simple menus. People are gonna order what they see."
Hunt's partner at Union is Deon VanZee, whom he met when both worked at Washman Car Wash 13 years ago. The cart was set for a grand opening in late March before COVID-19 shut down every restaurant in the city. But becoming takeout-friendly turned out to be a blessing, as did its location in a busy shopping corridor full of essential businesses that have remained open during the pandemic.
The location also brings Hunt home: Stoopid Burger originally opened as a cart on North Vancouver Avenue before relocating to restaurant pod the Ocean in 2017. The new cart's name and street sign-themed logo is a tribute to Portland history: Union Avenue is what became Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1989.
"The heart and soul of Portland is MLK," Hunt says. "I always say I'm back in the 'hood, and it feels good to be back. I'm very personal with my customers, they're like my family. Food is what we use to tie back to the community in a positive way."
Although minimalism is the cart's defining characteristic, Hunt's brother, Dante, suggested a few weeks after opening that he put a lemon-pepper chicken sandwich on the menu. It's become the cart's bestseller, even as the Popeyes drive-thru down the street remains packed.
But the pride of Union remains its classic cheeseburger. Here's how it breaks down:
Hunt says Union uses "a more premium blend of beef" compared to Stoopid, which did its buying from a restaurant wholesaler. Union started out getting its freshly ground meat exclusively from Cason's Fine Meats, a Northeast Portland staple now located just a few blocks south; the Cason's logo is still on the cart. But its current supplier is another locally owned stalwart, Western Meat Market on North Lombard. It's a larger patty—more Five Guys than In-N-Out—that's still thin enough to get a good crust on the griddle. The 90/10 ground beef also shrinks less than an 80/20 blend, without sacrificing flavor. The patty is seasoned not just with salt and pepper but onion powder and other undisclosed spices.
In-N-Out bakes its own, while Shake Shack and Portland's own Bless Your Heart use Martin's Rolls from Pennsylvania. At Union, Hunt keeps it local, heading over to the Franz Bakery four times a week to keep the cart supplied with what he says is "a top-quality brioche bun."
THE SECRET SAUCE
Fry sauce, special sauce, Shack Sauce, In-N-Out Spread—everybody's got their secret, vaguely pinkish, mayonnaise-based dressing. Besides mayo, the main ingredient in Hunt's is barbecue sauce, which can do the work of several condiments.
Nothing local or artisan about American cheese, as it should be. The lettuce is shredded romaine, and the onions and tomatoes are freshly cut each day. If you're so inclined, though, you can still get pretty Stoopid at Union Burger: extra cheese, bacon, a fried egg and, yes, a Zenner's hot link, are all available as add-ons—only ham is missing.
EAT: Union Burger, 7339 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-744-9745, unionburgerpdx.com. Noon-7 pm Monday-Thursday, noon-8 pm Friday-Saturday, noon- 5 pm Sunday.