Walking into Portland's best restaurants and ordering the burger can feel a little boorish. But if you want to sample most of the city's best burgers, that's what you're going to have to do.
Taster Nick Zukin is Portland's original burger critic. In 2010, when fancified burgers were still a new trend and the city's chefs were in an arms race to make the best, Zukin ate 72 bistro burgers across Portland for a landmark story we called BurgerQuest. That piece—written when Zukin was an opinionated blogger and not yet the owner of Mi Mero Mole Mexican restaurant—remains the definitive survey of Portland burgers.
But seven years is a long time, and seven of the 10 burgers Zukin picked for the top 10 are now gone. So we asked him to reprise that project for Burger Madness. He started by trying over 40 bistro burgers across greater Portland to arrive at the top 16. He ordered all of them medium when doneness was an option. Cheese was also always added, usually blue or something similarly pungent. Whatever came on the side—onions, pickles, lettuce, what have you—was also put on the burger. Except Heinz ketchup. That's disgusting.
1. Le Pigeon
738 E Burnside St., 503-546-8796, lepigeon.com. 5-10 pm daily.
Scouting Report: The city's most iconic burger, from the best restaurant in the city.
If you sit at the bar at Le Pigeon, you can get the rare experience of chatting with a two-time Beard Award-winning chef while he makes you a burger ($18, including gratuity and butter-lettuce salad) as good as any of the fancier stuff on the menu.
Be warned, though: Gabe Rucker's trademark burger is messy. The juicy grilled patty, ground in-house daily, is topped with melted aged white cheddar, twice-grilled pickled red onions, and an iceberg slaw. The ciabatta bun takes razor-sharp teeth to make sure the whole thing doesn't end up in your lap, but a Franz bun would dissolve on contact with this delicious monstrosity. A little horseradish in the mustard on the bun makes sure your olfactory is clear to enjoy such a well-crafted sandwich.
Le Pigeon's burger is legend. It's been listed among the best burgers in America by national food media and among the "12 Wonders of Portland Food" by WW. So it's an easy pick for the top seed. But this contest puts its fate in the hands of one man, and that man has previously ranked it sixth best in the city, below the burgers at Toro Bravo and Foster Burger.
Walking into Portland's best restaurants and ordering the burger can feel a little boorish. But if you want to sample most of the city's best burgers that's what you're going to have to do.
726 SE 6th Ave., 503-841-6675, trifectapdx.com. 5-9 pm Monday, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 4-10:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 4-9 pm Sunday.
Scouting report: Pimento cheese and housemade bun made by one of the city's most talented bakers.
One of the newer burgers on this list comes from Ken Forkish's Trifecta, which opened in 2013 in the former Spike Auto Upholstery.
At Forkish's most upscale restaurant, the most casual entree is still its best dish. The pimento burger ($15 with fries) couldn't be simpler: Meat, cheese and bread. It's two Cascade Natural beef patties, a housemade brioche bun, pimento cheese, and a special sauce of aioli, ketchup and fermented dill. That's it. Melty pimento cheese is a brilliant burger topping, almost like cheese and fry sauce in one. You almost can't screw it up, and yet two other burgers considered for this list managed to do so.
3. Paley's Place
1204 NW 21st Ave., 503-243-2403, paleysplace.net. 5:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday.
Scouting report: A heavenly slab of grilled onion, with your choice of cheese for a buck.
Vitaly Paley has recently branched out into a mini empire of hotel restaurants, but his best burger is at Paley's original Slabtown restaurant—home to one of Portland's very first brioche-bun, house-ground bistro burgers when it was introduced at the turn of the millennium.
The grilled onion on the Paley's burger ($15 with fries) is revelatory, a full slab of onion grilled on both sides until caramelized, with an almost translucent and buttery interior. Creamy and bright notes come from mustard aioli and ketchup. But on a recent visit, the patty was undercooked enough it resembled tartare, and the bacon add-on ($1) was hammy and chewy. The accompanying frites, though, would be devoured by discerning locals in the best brasseries in Paris.
4. Toro Bravo
120 NE Russell St., 503-281-4464, torobravopdx.com. 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
Scouting report: Tangy Catalonian secret sauce on a heap of meat and pickles.
Since founding tapas spot Toro Bravo in 2007, chef John Gorham has filed a bistro burger into almost every restaurant, from Tasty n Sons to new Pine Street Market burger spot Bless Your Heart. But if 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.
5. La Moule
2500 SE Clinton St., 971-339-2822, lamoulepdx.com. 5 pm-midnight daily.
Scouting report: A brie burger from a spot known for Belgian-style mussels and frites.
St. Jack is chef Aaron Barnett's French flagship, but his Clinton Street mussels spot, La Moule, has the heart of a champion, and a better burger ($12, plus $2 for herbed fries).
A single, well-seasoned patty sits on a soft, plump Ken's Artisan bun toasted sufficiently to keep the sandwich together. Two wedges of buttery brie, still creamy even when cooled, join two long slices of Niman Ranch bacon extending from the bun like wings. The burger comes with an unlikely balance of pickled and raw red onions, plus a slather of bracing Dijon to bring out subtleties of the beef and brie.
6. Laurelhurst Market
3155 E Burnside St., 503-206-3097, laurelhurstmarket.com. 5-10 pm daily.
Scouting report: Good beef, better burger.
Burgers at most of Portland's best steakhouses offer as much excitement as a deflated basketball. If all you wanted was good beef, get a steak. The balance of flavors is what lets the 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.
7. Clyde Common
1014 SW Stark St., 503-228-3333, clydecommon.com. 3 pm-midnight daily.
Scouting report: Plain old American cheese from Portland's original hip hotel bar.
Nate Tilden's Clyde Common, at the Ace Hotel, is the self-consciously hip open kitchen that launched a thousand New York Times photos. But its burger ($8 during happy hour, or $16 off-menu) is one of the most plain on this list—though it'll swap out to a Texas Rodeo burger as this issue prints.
Simplicity isn't bad—American cheese has many devotees who love the puddingy texture that only comes from milk mixed with sodium citrate, gelatin, and cheese scraps. The meat came well done, but it was nicely seasoned with the old-school griddle crust you'd expect from a guy in a wife beater smoking a cigarette. But the real MVP of this meatwich is a secret sauce as good as any on this list: crunchy, bright and creamy.
527 SW 12th Ave., 503-222-0979, superbitepdx.com. 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday. 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
Scouting report: A gourmet Big Mac by the maker of the Metrovino burger.
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.
1403 SE Belmont St., 971-544-7136, roostpdx.com. 5:30-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30-9 pm Sunday; brunch 10 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: Lots of talent, but no teamwork.
The signature sandwich at Belmont neighborhood restaurant Roost isn't a burger. It's the fried chicken sandwich served out the side door during lunchtime, cash only. But on paper, the burger ($15.50 with fries) seems like a contender for the elite eight—with an ample, properly cooked beef patty juicy enough to soak through the arugula into the untoasted bun.
But the smoked Gouda cheese sauce was too thin, lacking intensity and running off the burger before I even took a bite. And the tomato relish, while deliciously tart and spicy on its own, was spread meagerly. The parts are there; they just need to play better as a team.
10. Cafe Castagna
1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-231-9959, castagnarestaurant.com/cafecastagna. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday.
Scouting report: Portland's original and best house zucchini pickles, on an old-school solid burger.
At Cafe Castagna, the casual adjunct to the fancy Hawthorne prix-fixe spot next door, there's nothing flashy. But for more than a decade, this burger ($13 with fries) has been famous for hitting the fundamentals and for those still-unbeatable bread-and-butter zucchini pickles first made famous at the late Judy Rodgers' famous Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. You'll see zuke pickles all over town now.
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. Have it your way. It'll be a great burger. A fry sauce would be welcome, however.
11. Irving Street Kitchen
701 NW 13th Ave., 343-9440, irvingstreetkitchen.com. 4:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 4:30-9:30 pm Sunday; brunch 10 am-2:30 pm Friday-Sunday.
Scouting report: Memphis-style slaw on a mountain of beef.
These days, the Pearl District's Southern-inflected Irving Street Kitchen is as likely to be influenced by the South of France as South Carolina. But the burger ($13 at happy hour) retains a Southern feature that makes it stand out: the sort of beautiful, tangy iceberg slaw that sets off sweet and smoky pulled pork in Memphis.
You'll be lucky if you can get your mouth around the burger's two overfat patties of beef, topped by a pickle almost as fat—enough to overwhelm the delicate bun. The thin melted cheese on top is an afterthought. The fries, though, are the best steak fries you're likely to find in Portland—thinner and wider than most, which means more golden brown and delicious potato.
12. Bamboo Sushi
310 SE 28th Ave., 503-232-5255, bamboosushi.com. 4:30-10 pm daily.
Scouting report: A wagyu beef burger from Portland's sustainable sushi chain.
Bamboo Sushi meat always comes with a pedigree. The fish is marked sustainable, while the beef on the popular burger ($14) cries wagyu. That fatty beef makes a juicy burger even if overcooked—which it was here. It also comes with the welcome additions of Japanese-style pickles and momiji sauce on the plate, topped by default with aged cheddar and caramelized onions.
However, the bun was dense and dry, and the bland richness of a sumo-style burger adding egg, bacon and fried shallot rings is unlikely to help much.
2112 NW Kearney St., 503-221-1195, serratto.com. 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday, 11:30 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
Scouting report: A cheddar-bacon burger from a Nob Hill Italian old-schooler.
Serratto owners Alex and Julie Bond are into revivals—buying first Saint Cupcake, then old-school steakhouse castle Clyde's Prime Rib. And the burger at swankier Nob Hill spot Serratto ($16 with fries) comes with tangy-sweet barbecue sauce and all-American grill marks on the patty, balancing out the rich saltiness of sharp cheddar and bacon. Matchstick-sized crispy onions add more crunch than any shredded lettuce or slaw. Still, the beef patty was thin and dwarfed by a soft, untoasted bun.
14. 23 Hoyt
529 NW 23rd Ave., 503-445-7400, 23hoyt.com. 4-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 4-11 pm Friday, 10 am-11 pm Saturday, 10 am-9:30 pm Sunday.
Scouting report: The finest Bruce Careyburger.
Bruce Carey changed Portland dining with Zefiro back in the '90s. But these days Clarklewis, Bluehour and 23 Hoyt all have a certain elegant sameness about them—and all are known for their burgers.
Old Town's 23 Hoyt has the best of them. The Rogue burger ($16 with fries) is a classic bacon-blue with shredded iceberg lettuce and a decently crusted, lightly seasoned patty. The bacon is plentiful, and the smoky blue cheese from Rogue is both saucy and assertive. Chopped, caramelized onions are tart and sweet, and the buttery sesame-seed brioche is light, sturdy and well-toasted.
2601 NW Vaughn St., 503-228-1250, meriwethersnw.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, 9 am-9 pm Saturday-Sunday.
Scouting report: A country-club burger shy on tang.
When 1 percenters say something like they're going to lunch at "the club," they mean somewhere that looks and feels like Meriwether's, where Bunk's Tommy Habetz once cooked—a sprawling edge-of-West Hills chalet with seas of tablecloths and a water-fountained garden bower.
And the Meriwether's burger ($16, plus $1 for cheddar) looks great, with a brioche bun sopping up the juices of a properly pink patty topped with plenty of bacon and several rings of nearly translucent grilled onions. But the flavors don't sing. The meat is underseasoned, the cheese is thin, and the pepper relish is disappointingly subtle, with no acid to make the flavors pop.
1914 Willamette Falls Drive, West Linn, 503-387-5604, alliumoregon.com. 4-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 4-10 pm Friday-Saturday.
Scouting report: Burger pride of the 'burbs.
Tucked next to a plastic surgeon's office on West Linn's main drag, Allium is helmed by Pascal Chureau, founding and closing chef of spectacularly failed restaurant Lucier in 2008. But French-inflected wine bar Allium is one of the best eateries in the 'burbs, scooting past Camas' Roots in the play-in round.
The grilled onion, cheddar and lettuce with a bun-soaking Cascade Natural beef patty on Allium's burger ($14 with fries) should give the restaurant a chance at a serious underdog run. But its tomato jam and aioli don't have much more zip than regular ketchup and mayo, and the kitchen managed to forget the bacon advertised on the menu.