Burger Madness is a seeded tournament pitting 64 Portland patties against each other. Our critics ate through the best Bistro Burgers, Bar Burgers, and Brewery Burgers and Burger Burgers in Portland—and will reveal their picks round by round until the best burger in Portland is crowned.
You can complete your own bracket this week before midnight Friday, March 3. Whoever gets the closest to our winners will get $150 to spend on drinks and burgers at Bar Bar on Mississippi.
Taster Matthew Korfhage ate a lot more pub burgers than the ones on this list to arrive at the 16 vying for the prize here—and he's eaten some of these burgers many, many, many times.
Seeds were assigned by fame, longevity or reputation. If asked, he ordered each burger "as the house prefers," and favored simple over stacked—with emphasis on balance of parts and the strange pull of memory that sometimes makes cheap ingredients taste better than fancy ones. But stacked is stacked and fancy is fancy, and sometimes both are amazing.
1. Slow Bar
533 SE Grand Ave., 503-230-7767, slowbar.net. 11:30 am-2:30 am daily.
Scouting report: Portland's most-loved dive-bar burger, towering with onion rings and beef.
You don't eat the Slow Burger slowly.
The first thing you do is mash its pair of inch-tall beer-battered onion rings into its thick slab of melted Gruyere and half-pound Columbia River Reserve beef patty, thus compacting the juiciness of meat and pickle relish and house aioli into a fat-acid stew somehow contained by its toasted sesame bun.
And then you never put it down. Otherwise, you risk losing it all, like the guy who made too many wishes on a leprechaun. Do you need a halftime break? Cut it in half.
Since Slow Bar opened in 2004, it has been known to every bartender in town for stiff drinks, deep booths, a jukebox stacked with metal and that towering Slowburger ($12 with fries), cooked on a flat-top seasoned over time into something that might even be subtlety. Have you had the Slowburger only at Slowburger, at the Ocean food mall on Northeast Glisan Street? Then you haven't had the Slowburger.
No other burger is more deserving of the top seed in our rankings. It is the unholy monster of Portland bar burgers, the behemoth that made even fancy-restaurant burger-makers take note.
And yes, its towering construction makes it tenuous. Thrillist's national burger critic, Kevin Alexander, declared it too unwieldy for his presumably tiny hands. But Portland is not a welcome place for short-fingered vulgarians.
2. Parasol Bar
215 SE 9th Ave., 503-239-8830, parasolbar.com. 5 pm-2 am daily.
Scouting report: The pork belly-topped follow-up to the cult favorite Biwa burger.
The Biwa burger had a cult following, in part because of its elusiveness. Served only at happy hour, its recipe changed multiple times without dimming its popularity.
Chef Gabe Rosen's new bar Parasol, in the old Biwa (which is now around the corner), serves the pork-bellied stepchild of the Biwa burger every hour it's open. Like a sports franchise that moved to a different city but still has all the talent, Parasol keeps its No. 2 seed.
The Parasol burger ($9) is a mountain of fast-caramelized patty, pork belly, multiple kinds of quick-pickled veg and butter lettuce on a bun toasted to a slight char, a stack of lightly sugary umami with enough salt that we wrongly thought it had been marinated in soy sauce. It is a worthy successor, though a bit loose with the sodium.
3. Red Fox
5128 N Albina Ave., 503-282-2934, redfoxpdx.com. 3 pm-1:30 am daily.
Scouting report: The blue-cheese burger dream of drunks.
Red Fox is a bar whose burger ($10 with fries) is legend in North Portland, but almost unknown outside of it. This tiny spot near Mississippi Records, popular among old-school indie rockers and writers, is home to a neighborhood blue-cheese-burger fave so entrenched that the bar's owners would pretty much prefer that drunk locals stop rolling in late to sop up their booze with it.
The secrets to its success are Worcestershire sauce, a grill more seasoned than its Painted Hills beef, and judicious application of blue cheese along with three crisp sheets of lettuce. On our most recent visit, the tomato was almost shockingly fresh—ripe and red for a winter month. When the Red Fox burger is perfect, dear Lord, it is perfect. But there are many cooks in the kitchen, leading to occasional inconsistency.
4. Bar Bar
3939 N Mississippi Ave., 503-288-3895, mississippistudios.com/bar-bar. 11 am-2 am daily.
Scouting Report: The no-frills burger fueling a fine music venue.
Bar Bar's classic burger is a wadded-up and wonderful thing, shrouded in a squishy potato bun from Italian bakery Alessio. It contains shredded lettuce for perfect sauce delivery, Painted Hills beef and a combination of special sauce and housemade ketchup that comes off like spiced molasses. It is like fast food, but better: There's just enough lettuce crunch to counteract mushiness, and a sneakily beautiful balance of acid, fat and salt. And at $6, it's the cheapest burger on the bar list. Perhaps this burger is not as ambitious or pedigreed as some—but neither is your mom, and you maybe still love her.
5. Sandy Hut
1430 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-235-7972. 2 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10:30 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: An old-school revival burger in an old-school revival bar.
The nearly century-old Sandy Hut's Skinny Man is "burger" the same way the newly rehabbed Hut itself is "dive bar"—an archetypal quotation of the form. The actual meal to get at the Hut is the $14 Wednesday prime rib, but for a mere $7, the Skinny Man is lettuce, tomato, onion and cheddar on a quarter-pound patty and toasted bun, with Thousand Island sauce the menu says has a million islands in it.
In its simplicity, it offers nostalgia more visceral than the Al Hirschfeld mural on the wall. But its success depends on sauce distribution and char that can vary.
6. Tannery Bar
5425 E Burnside St., 503-236-3610, tannerybarpdx.com, 4 pm-1 am Monday-Saturday, 9 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: A food-forward bar with a big-ass burger.
Tannery Bar is a little cocktail chalet at the edge of Tabor with a record player in the back and a focus on well-sourced meat and cheese. Its burger is a giantess—a 6-inch-tall stack of big beef, fluffed lettuce, meaty tomato, copious raw onion, goat-milk cheddar, sweet onion compound and bacon. But the burger is $16 with fries, which means the thing better be Rembrandt on a bun, and thick offseason tomato and abundant raw onion are trouble spots.
The bun is thrown in an oven rather than grill-toasted, making it too hot to touch on top but undertoasted on the bottom. This burger may have a hill to climb.
19 SW 2nd Ave., 503-477-8637, bartryst.com. 4 pm-2:30 am Wednesday-Sunday.
Scouting report: A subtly Asian-inflected burger at the old Berbati's Pan.
Ankeny Alley spot Tryst, in the old Berbati's space, is a homey bar with a friendly owner who's almost always there slinging drinks. There's a healthy smattering of '90s-style Asian fusion on the menu—and this includes the burger ($12 with fries). But the accents are subtle, with the chili-garlic of hoisin submerged into the aioli, and sichuan pepper infused into crisp house pickles. The fried shallots come off like grilled onions. And that beef is beefy as fuck.
Turns out Asian flavors on a burger are downright all-American, and this is a fine burger. The $7 happy hour price tag is a privilege.
4057 N Mississippi Ave., 503-284-6669, interurbanpdx.com. 3 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: A pig burger on Mississippi Avenue.
Interurban has better than decent taps, $5 happy-hour cocktails and a killer burger.
The boar burger ($12)is cooked medium rare the way pork usually can't be, topped with Los Roast Hatch chiles and cilantro-jalapeño queso fresco, along with pickled jalapeños and aioli.
Interurban is also one of too-few Portland bar burgers with fried rather than raw onions. The result is a spicy-fatty monstrosity with the fattiness and gaminess of boar: Instant winner. Only one thing, though. There's enough pig's blood in that burger to bathe Milo Yiannopoulos.
9. C Bar
2880 SE Gladstone St., 503-230-8808, cbarportland.com. 4 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: A towering burger in an old-school pinball bar.
Once known as the waiting room for Yoko's sushi next door, this labyrinthine Southeast Gladstone Street bar added not only the city's best-stocked pinball room outside of Quarterworld—like American Splendor with plungers and noise—but a digital tap list and decent pub grub.
The C Bar Burger ($11 with fries, soup or salad) is a mountainous grill-charred beef patty piled high with thick onion and tomato. Its bitter arugula fronds transform the copious mayo into yogurt somehow, making the whole production feel much like a gyro. It's an odd, but oddly addictive combo.
10. Grain & Gristle
1473 NE Prescott St., 503-288-4740, grainandgristle.com. Noon-midnight Monday-Friday, 9 am-3 pm and 5 pm-midnight Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: A gastropub burger with Hawley Ranch beef that is butchered and grinded in-house.
I feel like a fool. I have eaten at Grain & Gristle for years, but never ordered the burger ($12 with fries). The ingredients are as simple as a scratch-made pie: The thick half-pound patty of medium-rare beef comes from a line of Herefords cultivated since 1856 at Oregon's Hawley Ranch, butchered by sister restaurant Old Salt in Cully and fresh-ground each day.
The pickles are housemade, as is the garlic-lemon aioli. The bun is baked by Grain & Gristle's former in-house baker, the green lettuce shocked in frigid water for crispness. And that's the end of the ingredient list. It is simplicity as virtue, with all things made only for their purpose in this burger.
11. Pop Tavern
825 N Killingsworth St., 503-206-8483. 2 pm-2:30 am daily.
Scouting report: Simple pub burger from the Kassapakis family that made the original Bonfire and Hilt burgers.
Pop Tavern is full of kitsch, but no trivia. The No Dice is a pub burger made the way a dive-bar burger should be—a half-pound utility burger devoted to simplicity, with a touch of grill char. The smashed patty is medium-cooked, with onion and tomato sliced thin enough to get crunch and juice without distraction, the lettuce shredded for maximum sauce dispersal. It ain't Mozart, but it's $6.50 with crinkle fries—which is the purest music our ears know.
5424 NE 30th Ave., expatriatepdx.com. 5 pm-midnight daily.
Scouting report: Naomi Pomeroy does Quarter Pounders.
Beast chef Naomi Pomeroy's mixology bar Expatriate serves delicate Asian-style treats like Burmese tea-leaf salad alongside onion-butter James Beard tea sandwiches.
But Expatriate now has a hilariously faithful rendition of the Quarter Pounder, except way richer and served medium rare: a thick pasting of American cheese on much better beef than you get at Mickey D's, topped with Heinz and French's and a sliver of raw onion between that perfect Elmer's Glue gluten-pasted bun. It's dime-store poetry—delivered, albeit, at $13 a pair.
13. Free House
1325 NE Fremont St., 503-946-8161, freehousepdx.com. 4 pm-midnight daily.
Scouting report: A fine, simple burger at a Northeast Portland bar that does most things well.
Fremont Street's Free House is a place of resolute middlebrow comforts. There are fancy hot dogs, shoestring fries, house ketchup, and a pleasant half-covered patio. And there is a reasonably priced $9 burger with an expertly toasted bun, very seasoned meat and mild-spiced sauce, plus a thick slab of Tillamook hard-welded to the patty. Along with a side of house chips, the burger comes with quick-pickled cukes to counteract the burger's dryness. But while the meat tastes perfectly seasoned all by itself, the salt builds up.
14. Backyard Social
1914 N Killingsworth St., 503-719-4316, backyardsocialpdx.com. Noon-midnight daily.
Scouting Report: A grill-burger cookout at a bar with a hell of a patio.
Edenic patio spot Backyard Social serves the only burger on this list actually cooked on a backyard grill.
The $10 Backyard Burger is a tall stack with creamy "awesome sauce" and American cheese sweltering over an almost ovoid 5-ounce patty, sitting on a bed of mini greens and thick-cut house pickles. Both patty and bun are nicely grill-kissed—though the burger arrived medium well and less seasoned than some, which doesn't bode well.
15. Doug Fir Lounge
830 E Burnside St,, 503-231-9663, dougfirlounge.com. 7 am-2 am daily.
Scouting report: The original vagina-named burger at Portland's original Eastside edifice.
Ah, the Fir Burger: Your name is so gross. When I tell people I'm going to eat one, they look terrified.
But back when Doug Fir stayed open till 4 am, the bacon-topped Fir Burger ($9) was famous. It comes charred outside and juicy inside, with tangy mayo and lightly pickled, crisp onions and cukes stacked onto its brioche bun.
Still, Tillamook cheese comes hard-welded to a patty that's a bit dense and underseasoned—and damn if that ain't a lot of arugula.
16. Tabor Tavern
5325 E Burnside St., 503-208-3544, tabortavern.com. 11 am to 11 pm Monday-Wednesday, 11 am-midnight Thursday-Saturday, 10 am-11 pm Sunday.
Scouting report: Arugula! Bacon jam! Blue cheese! Brioche! The '90s!
The Tabor Burger ($13 with fries, soup or salad) is precisely what would happen if a hamburger got attacked by an episode of Frasier: arugula, brioche bun, blue cheese and bacon jam. But it comes together better than expected—a balance of fat against salt and bitterness, rather than acidity. But is it weird I sometimes feel I'm eating a Cobb salad?
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