Believe it or not, there was a time when Portland had no smashburgers, or any sort of higher-end, thin-and-crispy, fast food-style burger that was made by a local purveyor.
Boys and girls, the year was 2014. LaMarcus Aldridge was (barely) coexisting with Damian Lillard. John Kitzhaber was (barely) governor of Oregon. And just about the only burger that could conjure up memories of Steak ‘n Shake or In-N-Out was served at a place downtown called All-Way, which didn’t even last a year.
Then, in 2016, Don Salamone opened Burger Stevens in Hillsdale. 2017 brought Bless Your Heart Burgers to Pine Street Market, which was also the first place in town to use the Martin’s Potato Rolls made famous (outside of Pennsylvania) by Shake Shack. In 2018, Little Big Burger founder Micah Camden joined the fray with SuperDeluxe.
Now, burgers are everywhere, their growth accelerated by COVID-19 trends: outdoor dining, takeout ordering, low overhead, high concept. Like bacon, kale salad, and putting an egg on it, smashburgers may not be the hot new thing, but they also aren’t going anywhere. And if 2021 was the Year of the Smash Burger, Judith Stokes of Derby and Tai Pfeifer of Yes Please Smash Burger were both ahead of their time and just a bit late to the party.
Derby’s burger came in at No. 4 in Portland Monthly’s roundup at the end of 2020, but after that list came out, you couldn’t eat it again until early 2022, as the restaurant was then in the process of moving and also had to wait more than six months for its kitchen hood.
Yes Please was a pop-up when it made the The Oregonian’s list of “Portland’s 14 Best Smash Burgers” in March 2021. It opened its cart at Southeast Hawthorne and César E. Chávez boulevards a few months later, and is currently for sale. Ironically, since opening the cart—and after getting COVID—Pfeifer has stopped eating meat (he went vegan for a while and is now pescatarian), which is part of why he’s putting Yes Please on the market.
“But I’m not under the impression that everybody on this earth is going to stop eating beef in my lifetime,” he says. “I know that this business stands for something that is so important for people who do eat meat.”
“It’s crazy. There’s so many burgers,” says Stokes, who now serves three herself: a smashburger, the Flip Dip (a tamarind-spiced riff on French dip) and the PB & Bulgogi. Derby’s double ($12, with a $6 single available during happy hour) consists of two 3-ounce balls of meat smashed on the flat top in butter, with two slices of American cheese on a brioche bun from Portland French Bakery. It’s topped with shredded lettuce, bread-and-butter house pickles and Derby Sauce—the same mustard aioli you’ll find on the restaurant’s breakfast sandwich, doctored up with ketchup.
At Yes Please, Pfeifer, who started out doing community and mutual aid cooking after losing his job during the pandemic, ran the Duo breakfast food cart next to Olé Latte and is also one half of the team behind Chio Pistachio Cream. And now he’s something of a burger missionary. Pfeifer started Yes Please, in part, because a burger was something he could cook without being guilty of appropriation.
“The hamburger is actually one of the only foods that was invented in America by Americans,” he says.
As the child of a naturopath and a herbalist, Pfeifer also grew up eating fresh and healthy, and was determined to bring that to his slow fast food. The Yes Please Smash Burger ($10 for a single, $12 for a double, $14 for a triple) is grass-finished (as opposed to “grass-fed,” a term that still allows grain consumption). And until recently, Pfeifer ground the meat himself, using a mixture of brisket and heart. He also eschews seed oils as both toxic and environmentally unsound, using 100% grass-fed beef tallow for his french fries.
You can taste the beefiness in those old-school McDonald’s-like potatoes as well as in the burger, which strikes a perfect balance between Maillard reaction crust and pinkish center. There’s also housemade lacto-fermented pickles, though ketchup is nowhere to be found, both because of the high-fructose corn syrup and because, as Pfeifer learned from hamburger writer and TV personality George Motz, the condiment didn’t exist when the burger was invented.
Granted, some things can’t be fully healthed-up or de-processed. Pfeifer’s Yes Please Sauce includes tomato paste and Crystal Hot Sauce, and the bun is Martin’s. He also makes his own American cheese from real cheddar, which requires a chemical (sodium citrate) but not the dozen-plus ingredients you’ll find in Kraft Singles. It’s also actually a cheese sauce, which gets poured directly on the burger during cooking, resulting in an almost fricolike crusty crispy cheese halo.
It’s a burger that’s as good as it is virtuous, though perhaps a little too good—Yes Please offers more of a special-occasion burger, whereas you might otherwise crave the more classic flavor profile Derby serves, even if that means you’re scarfing down ketchup and corn-fed beef. But really, there’s no right way to do a burger and no optimal style. The best one might just be the best one in your neighborhood, or the one that reminds you of what you grew up with.
“I think that the best part about the American hamburger is that any American can take this concept and their life experience and speak through that vehicle,” says Pfeifer. “I definitely have a favorite, but I don’t think there is one best way.”
EAT: Derby, 8220 N Denver Ave, 503-719-7976, derbypdx.com. 10 am-2 pm Monday and Wednesday, 10 am-2 pm and 4:30-9 pm Thursday-Friday, 9 am-2 pm and 4:30-9 pm Saturday-Sunday. Yes Please Smash Burger, 3950 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 707-500-2117, yespleasesmashburger.com. Noon-5 pm Wednesday-Sunday (closed May 11-12).