This week, we're revealing the winners in the round of 32. Here are the bar burgers, whittled down to the top four bar burgers in town on this mighty day.
MATCHUP #1: Slow Bar (1) vs.Interurban (8)
533 SE Grand Ave., 503-230-7767, slowbar.net. 11:30 am-2:30 am daily.
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. And yes, its towering onion-ring 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.
4057 N Mississippi Ave., 503-284-6669, interurbanpdx.com. 3 pm-2:30 am Monday-Friday, 10 am-2:30 am Saturday-Sunday.
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.
WINNER: Slow Bar. That Interurban boar burger is a thing of greatness, a creature of fattiness and spice, but on that visit the grill char locked in the juices so tight that the first bite sent a geyser of myoglobin gushing onto my arm and book and the bartop, an oddly disconcerting experience. The Slowburger, meanwhile, chugged along like the juggernaut it is, steamrolling into the round of 16, and the top four bar burgers in town.
MATCHUP #2: Expatriate (12) vs. Bar Bar (4)
5424 NE 30th Ave., expatriatepdx.com. 5 pm-midnight daily.
Naomi Pomeroy-owned mixology bar 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.
3939 N Mississippi Ave., 503-288-3895, mississippistudios.com/bar-bar. 11 am-2 am daily.
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.
WINNER: Expatriate. Among classic tastes, this was a mighty head-to-head, and Expatriate was up against the memory of countless Bar Bar burgers past. I love the simple Bar Bar burger and its squishy, weirdo Alessio potato bun. But the undertow of memory from McDonald's, made so much richer with medium rare beef and set of by a charred bun, was even stronger with Expatriate. Yet again, Expatriate yanks out an upset against a classic Portland bar burger.
MATCHUP #3: Pop Tavern (11) vs. Red Fox (3)
825 N Killingsworth St., 503-206-8483. 2 pm-2:30 am daily.
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.
5128 N Albina Ave., 503-282-2934, redfoxpdx.com. 3 pm-1:30 am daily.
Red Fox is a bar whose burger ($10 with fries) is legend in North Portland, but almost unknown outside of 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.
WINNER: Red Fox. Another painful battle between two burgers I love. But Red Fox won out with sheer beefiness, the improbable ripeness of their tomatoes, and that salty tang of blue cheese adding salt and richness all at once. The Red Fox burger steamrolled over the simple No Dice burger of Pop Tavern.
MATCHUP #4: Grain & Gristle (10) vs. Parasol Bar (2)
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.
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.
215 SE 9th Ave., 503-239-8830, parasolbar.com. 5 pm-2 am daily.
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.
WINNER: Grain & Gristle. Grain & Gristle wants to give you the egg and bacon and cheese, and that's what's pictured above. But the burger that straight-up thumped Parasol's Biwa-burger successor out of existence was nothing more than meat, bun, lettuce, pickle and fancy mayo. It was a school in simplicity, the entire movie Hoosiers made beefy flesh. Fundamentals, or you don't get to play.