The first time I ordered from Bottle Rocket, I used a food-delivery app. When the driver arrived, she handed over my order with joyful approval. "Really good choice," she said. She seemed almost embarrassed at her own enthusiasm, but also unable to contain it. "Those fish sauce tots—I eat them every single day."
At Bottle Rocket, a Hawthorne Boulevard beer and burger cart opened this July by Chicken and Guns' Dustin Knox and Potato Champion's Mike McKinnon, those fish-sauce tots taste exactly as their name would lead you to expect: Ike's Wings at Pok Pok gone budget Americana. Five dollars nets a generous basket of crispy fried taters brimming with chili spice and the sticky-sweet brine of fish sauce. They're junky, delicious and naggingly addictive.
Modeled loosely after a fireworks stand, Bottle Rocket is like a parallel-world imagining of a burger joint in East Asia. Those tots are joined by a hodgepodge of $5 Asian-inflected sides from spicy cauliflower tempura to a basket of blanched, flash-fried Brussels sprouts that might even outshine the tots.
Knox says everything on the cart's menu is designed to survive delivery on the Caviar app, a bonus in the cold, wet winter months when food carts often struggle to pick up customers, which is why we're writing up at least one excellent food cart each week during Food Cart Preservation Month.
But as good as those tots are at Bottle Rocket, the real fireworks come from the hamburgers themselves, cooked by the finest burger chef at Sandy Boulevard dive bar Club 21 before it got crushed by a steam shovel to make way for apartments.
When Knox used to stop in at 21, he would always peek his head around the corner to see who was in the kitchen. If he saw Spencer Bone's big beard, he'd order a burger. "The burgers weren't good unless he was cooking," Knox says. "I mean they were good, but he always made them exceptionally better than the competition."
So after Club 21 closed and the two food-cart owners wanted a place they could sell beer and burgers at their Cartopia pod, Bone was the first guy they wanted to talk to. The guiding light for the cart was simple: "Just make the best burger possible without getting stupid about it."
The burgers at the new Bottle Rocket cart aren't cheffy. They also aren't fancy, and they're definitely not stupid. They are, quite simply, some of the best damn burgers in Portland.
The basic burger ($9) is five ounces of salt-and-pepper-seasoned, hand-formed chuck from Nicky Farms down the street—the same people who serve up bison, boar and elk to restaurants all over the city. The lettuce is green lettuce, the pickles are kosher and the onions come both raw and grilled to mix crunch and depth. The mayo is mixed with Sriracha for a little bit of spice and tang, a secret sauce that's really no secret at all.
Cheese is cheddar and it costs a buck more. Two strips of Nicky Farms bacon is a buck more than that. And for $3 more, you can make it a meal deal with lightly sweet house-made lemonade and whatever side dish you want.
And that's it. That's the end of the burger menu. Each one arrives juicy, tangy, crisp, slightly spicy, and beefy as fuck on a toasted bun. Sriracha aside, it's a burger recipe that could have been written in 1953, except the sourcing on the ingredients is much better.
Since ordering delivery the first time in late October, I've been back to Bottle Rocket four more times in the intervening month. I think about the burger when I'm not eating the burger. I've thought about the burger while eating other burgers. It is a very good burger.
GO: Bottle Rocket, 1207 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-279-4663. 11-12:30 am daily.