This week, we're revealing the winners in the bistro burger Sweet Sixteen. Here are the bistro burgers, whittled down to the top two bistro burgers in town on this mighty day.
MATCHUP #1: SuperBite (8) vs. Toro Bravo (4)
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.
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.
WINNER: Toro Bravo. Having destroyed the WW food editors' advance pick of Le Pigeon last round, Zukin now destroys his own pick from the epic Burgerquest he undertook in 2010—or its successor, anyway—launching Toro Bravo's tangy-sauced, grill-caramelized bacon burger above the SuperBite successor to the Metrovino burger he named the best in the city. Toro Bravo heads to the Elite Eight.
MATCHUP #2: Laurelhurst Market (6) vs. Cafe Castagna (10)
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.
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. Showing up the seeding yet again, the classic Cafe Castagna Burger, one of the original Portland bistro burgers of the modern era after Paley's and Wildwood, is still beating down the competition. It's the pickles—it's always been about those zucchini pickles—and they remain triumphant.
Next up: Toro Bravo vs. Cafe Castagna for the title of best bistro burger in Portland—and the chance to compete against the Classic, Bar, and Brewery burgers for the crown.