Sugarpine and Super Deluxe Offer Retro Drive-In Vibes With Big-Time Pedigrees

If you have fond childhood memories of curly-cued Dairy Queen creations or thin discs of beef straight from the griddle, you can’t go wrong with either pit stop.

With weeks of construction snarling traffic on freeways and critical interchanges, you'd think Portlanders wouldn't want to spend an extra minute idling in their vehicles this summer. But the opening of two new drive-up eateries by reputable industry vets has drawn parades of cars packed with people eager to order simple staples well-suited to hot days.

The lines were first to form in mid-July at Sugarpine Drive-In, which took over a former 1920s gas station near the banks of the Sandy River and lit up social media with photos of the humble soft serve turned into art. Just days later, Super Deluxe put its fast-food neighbors in Foster-Powell on notice by pumping out top-notch burgers that had people drawing comparisons to In-N-Out and Shake Shack.

If you have fond childhood memories of curly-cued Dairy Queen creations or thin discs of beef straight from the griddle, you can't go wrong with either pit stop—especially in late summer when the food should be easy and breezy and perhaps even make you grin.

Sugarpine Drive-In

1208 E Historic Columbia River Highway, Troutdale, 503-665-6558, 11 am-6 pm Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday, 11 am-9 pm Friday-Saturday.

Sugarpine isn't the type of drive-in you might imagine out of the '50s or '60s, where high schoolers on roller skates deliver trays filled with milkshakes to your driver's-side door. In fact, you'll be fighting for a place to park if you skip the row of Subarus returning from the Gorge waiting to place an order at the drive-up window. That's because the business essentially shares a lot with Glenn Otto Community Park—the most heavily used in Troutdale's network.

There's no indoor dining area, but a patio shaded by giant white umbrellas offers four bistro tables and seating at one long, communal picnic bench. You're at the Gateway to the Gorge and it feels like it—towering Douglas firs are just feet away, and wet kids fresh from the river mingle with grimy hikers. The vibe is almost that of a camp mess hall, until you remember that camp food was never this good. The husband-and-wife team of Ryan Domingo and Emily Cafazzo operates the locally farmed and foraged food catering company Larch Provisions, and both have extensive restaurant experience. Cafazzo hails from Beast and competed on Iron Chef, while Domingo, among other accomplishments, managed the Michelin-rated Pok Pok NY.

All of that know-how translates into plates so pretty, the food might start to wilt as you're too busy sharing pictures with your friends. The most photogenic item on the menu is the ice cream. Layers of chocolate, vanilla or swirl ($3) climb skyward in a housemade waffle cone ($1) until they're as tall as your face. The unicorn of them all is the vibrantly violet blueberry seasonal fruit flavor ($1). Have it coated in multicolored sprinkles (50 cents) along with matcha magic dust ($1.50) and it's about as close as you can get to eating the horn of a Lisa Frank unicorn.

Mimicking the sunken squares on the soft-serve cones is the waffle grilled cheese ($6). Toasting it in a waffle iron rather than on a skillet results in a softer sandwich with melted black pepper cheddar, Muenster and fontina that stretches into gooey strings with each bite. Add slices of heirloom tomatoes at their peak of ripeness and onion jam ($1.50) for a hint of sweetness.

A pair of Traegers near the patio aren't just lawn art. Adhering to the rule of low and slow, these grills hold fat-marbled pork shoulder for six hours before they're finished in an oven and shredded. Those succulent chunks are tucked into a sesame seed brioche bun to create the pulled pork sandwich ($10), which is a balancing act of smoke and sweet, amplified by the barbecue sauce, with a surprising tang courtesy of a thin layer of whole mustard aioli. Depending on which region of smoked meat you pledge allegiance to, some purists might consider this condiment barbaric. But it tastes appropriately fresh here when combined with the carrot and cabbage slaw, while enhancing the complexity of flavors.

You might expect a drive-in would be all about melty cheese and dripping frozen treats. But the Sugarpine salad ($9) is the most fun you'll have eating everything from cauliflower to chickpeas as you zigzag from roasted char to earthiness and softness to crunch. It's easy to drive right in and sample each seasonal veggie alone, but take a moment to mix it up from the bottom—that's where whipped feta is hiding, and it provides a slight bite.

It might've been the brutal late afternoon sun that rapidly thawed the frozen rose slushie ($8) on my visit, but it was more wine-cooler-you've-let-defrost than refreshing adult Slurpee. While tempting to order because of its alluring coral hue and fresh-picked viola floating on top, the drink was too cloying and tended to cling to the palate. Better to skip this novelty and stick to one of the solid pint handles ($6) or Buoy Beer in a can ($3).

Super Deluxe

5000 SE Powell Blvd., 7 am-11 pm daily.

Not many new restaurants create gridlock.

On a recent Saturday night, cars were spilling out of the Super Deluxe parking lot and onto Southeast 50th Avenue. During the first week of business, waits were rumored to run nearly an hour. The hype surrounding the business has neared In-N-Out proportions—the streamlined menu has begged comparisons, but given the breakfast menu and chicken options, it has some Sonic in its DNA as well.

Two of the forces behind Little Big Burger, Matt Lynch and Micah Camden, are once again offering up seared beef between two pieces of bread—only this time, they're trying to elevate the quality of sandwich you'd expect to get handed to you while behind the wheel. Don't expect a thick slab for a patty like those you'd find at Little Big Burger. The single deluxe ($4.75) is thin, but that allows the edges to brown for a satisfying crunch. Drizzled in a combination of mayo and ketchup, it's reminiscent of an old-school Arctic Circle burger slathered in Original Fry Sauce. Texture is not lost on these sandwich artists as there's a generous layering of pickle, shredded onion and lettuce.

Most customers seem to prefer a to-go meal, but there are wide booths for those who'd like a stationary setting inside the former Taco Time, which has been made over with bright, primary colors and a graphics motif that seems to pay homage to minimalist corporate designs from the '70s.

During the 10-minute-or-so wait for the order, a fresh-fruit fizzy water ($1.75-$2.50) will keep your mouth occupied. There are three flavors: passionfruit, strawberry and blackberry, the latter of which was recommended by my cashier with sparkly eyeshadow. It was the perfect bright, bubbly aperitif (without the booze) for a rich meal and pleasantly chewable pebble ice.

Demand and newness surely mean you'll hit a few speed bumps even when approaching the drive-thru at a crawl. One came in the form of the bland Yukon fries ($2.75), which lacked the advertised truffle character and come in frozen. If you're looking for a salty side, go for the chicken nuggets ($3.75-$4.50). Not every morsel in the five-piece batch was perfect, but those that were good would smack down any other fast-food nug in a taste test. Each is hand-breaded with onion and garlic powder, paprika, salt and pepper, creating a rough crust around the moist meat.

But even with kinks left to be worked out, Super Deluxe reigns as the true burger king of Foster-Powell fast food—ignore the pretender to the crown across the street.

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