WHAT'S PORTLAND BURGER WEEK? In a nutshell, the Mercury gathered 13 popular local restaurants, asked each to create a unique, limited-time burger, and made one stipulation: they had to sell it for just five dollars. Meat purveyor Nicky USA offered each chef a generous meat credit, Widmer Beer was a generous sponsor, and I drove around for a week to try them all. Well, all but two—it was a tall order. Long story short, the chefs went crazy and put together some combinations that utterly blew me away. These are burgers that would normally run $10-$15, and ran the gamut from spruced-up classics to patties of elk, buffalo, and venison, with chanterelle mayonnaise, pickled cherries, cold-smoked cheeses, and custom-designed buns.
What do you get? For one week, August 5-11, these remarkably polished, highly eatable (no knife-and-fork stunt piles here), and delicious creations are available at each of the following restaurants, during their normal business hours, and served a la carte, with no additional purchase necessary. There's no catch.
For more info, hit portlandburgerweek.com; the following are my notes on each.
TILT, 3449 N Anchor
TILT has created an epic stack based on the Big Mac—only they pick up where the golden arches left off. TILT's gigantic Big Tilt (named by the owner's 6-year-old son, Max) is two 100% beef patties, custom-baked three-layer bun, special sauce, thick double-smoked applewood bacon, two slices of American cheese, pickles, tomato, thin-shaved onion, and the wise choice of shredded iceberg, which will take you back to those better times before over-thought greens took our innocence away. Oh, and there's an egg in there too, so you get finishing notes of Egg McMuffin.
For those of you who are mindful of such things, yes, the Big Tilt can still be picked up and eaten as a sandwich—despite its grandeur.
Ate-Oh-Ate, 2454 E Burnside
The beef in Ate-Oh-Ate's Hawaiian-inspired "Spam Musubi" burger has an intense, mouth-watering char, and a juiciness that speaks volumes about its quality. The tenderness of the fried Spam is texturally in sync with the thick, medium-rare patty, meaning it does the seasoning duty of bacon without any of the pull-away issues. The well-matched brioche bun handles all this—as well as an over-medium egg and a superbly-matched set of dressings—without any loss of integrity. It's one of those rare "eyes roll back in your head"-type burgers. I sensed the kitchen was so happy with it that they were considering keeping it around after the promotion, but it would be quite wise to go in and try it while it's only five bucks.
Slow Bar, 533 SE Grand
Slow Burger, 2329 NE Glisan
A Southeast Grand favorite renowned for its burger, Slow Bar (and sister Slow Burger on NE Glisan) has fashioned a special version that combines the flavor of their thick, juicy, medium-rare beef patty with the salty, vinegary profile of a proper Italian hoagie. Thinly-sliced, fennel-spiced Finocchiona salami, Italian-dressed baby arugula, melted provolone, and caramelized onions create the interest of both sandwiches in one, and a sesame-seeded brioche bun holds it all steady well through the last bite. It eats cleanly, and begs for a cold pint from their draft selection. Slow Bar's tall, spacious booths might as well be private meeting rooms, so bring company, or sit at the airy, polished bar and catch a game.
Victory Bar, 3652 SE Division
UPDATE: DUE TO OVERWHELMING DEMAND, VICTORY HAS PULLED OUT OF BURGER WEEK... BUT ALL OUR OTHER BURGER PURVEYORS ARE KEEPING UP AND READY FOR YOUR INSATIABLE APPETITES!
Victory Bar has one of the most consistent pub menu visions I've ever seen. Reading it, I hear brass tack after brass tack falling into place as all the countries in Europe proffer the sturdiest versions of their nutrition to a war-shattered England: spatzle with gruyere and shallot sauce, beef Bourguignon frites with brandy butter, venison burger... it's that last one they chose to fashion into their Burger Week special. Distinctive, beefy-but-not-gamey Nicky USA venison is blended with house spices and topped with—instead of cheese—a remarkably well-behaved ladle of the aforementioned gruyere spatzle. House-pickled red cabbage, ketchup, crispy shallots, Worcestershire and mustard aioli, and a Grand Central brioche bun finish a burger you could walk all day on.
Club 21, 2035 NE Glisan
Club 21, which seems to have been the one-story, step-saver castle of a weird little old man who liked owls, privacy, and alcohol, is offering their legendary Perkin Burger for only $5. As the story goes, Mr. Perkin was a grumpy old prick of a regular, and he made the barkeep at Club 21 cook him this sandwich (fresh-ground patty, caramelized onions, Swiss, hoagie roll, cup of au jus for dipping) so often they added it to the menu sometime in 1978. During a recent remodel, a photograph of the Perkin, with its customary glass of milk and cigarette, was discovered and hung over the very stool where Portland's own Elliott Smith used to sit and let the universe crush him to pieces one watery Scotch and soda at a time.
Pause Kitchen and Bar, 5101 N Interstate
Pause handcrafts some seriously solid food, and now that their legendary cheeseburger is only $5, it's time you discovered this neighborhood gem. The kitchen crew doesn't tout how much of their menu is made from scratch on site, though by all rights they should. Whole sub-primals of beef are ground in-house for their monolithic patties. They cure their own pastrami, grow their own vegetables, and pickle their pickles. Tender, finely-textured sausages are seasoned and stuffed in-house, and they smoke a variety of meats in owner Mike Raleigh's custom-built smoker. Their special 1/2-lb burger, dressed with cold-smoked Tillamook cheddar and a roasted jalapeño aioli, is a mouth-watering archetype, and I bet we see it find a home on the regular menu.
White Owl Social Club, 1305 SE 8th
White Owl Social Club, the rock-and-roll restaurant, bar, venue, and million-acre-outdoor-patio brainchild of the unstoppable guys behind Sizzle Pie, completely owned Burger Week's vegan angle. Their brilliant vegan burger, built with beets, crushed Oregon hazelnuts, seaweed, quinoa, and flax, looks like an actual medium-rare burger, and has the varied texture and rewarding richness such patties usually lack. In order to completely nail the concept to the floor, they top this $5 masterpiece with creamy, buttery Daiya jalapeño havarti, "misonnaise," the legendary New Mexico roasted Hatch chilies, onion rings, and chimichurri sauce. If you live vegan, this item is a must-try.
Alberta Street Pub, 1036 NE Alberta
Kevin Sandri, who made his name in Portland with the beloved and lamented Garden State cart, and then went on to help start Lardo's brick-and-mortar, finally has his own restaurant in the Alberta Street Pub. His signature sense of heft and attention to detail has resulted in an elk burger dressed to the nines with earthy chanterelle mayonnaise, pickled cherries (flavorful game and tart cherries, a timeless pairing), and a powerful Rogue Smokey Blue cheese sauce, among other finishing graces. The fully gutted and restored Alberta Street Pub rings true as a cozy, sturdy drinking room that will outlast us all, and the tremendous patio (both covered and open) can seat dozens more.
Skyline Burgers on Broadway, 2200 NE Broadway
Skyline Burgers on Broadway, the more accessible arm of the Forest Park institution, is offering a pastrami-stacked "New York" burger with light hints of horseradish, melted Swiss cheese, and the classic assortment of crisp, refreshing local vegetables. The 1/4-lb Fulton grass-fed beef patty is griddled and then finished on the grill for thorough flavor and aroma, and comes on a Franz brioche bun. Skyline's Broadway location is cavernous, with a full bar, arcade games, broadcast sports, and dozens of spacious booths well suited to families or multi-pint dinners. Want to speak broadly, without fear of prematurely educating the younger generation? Take your burger outside to the large, private, and shaded patio.
Rockin' Robyn's Sassy Burger, 5221 NE Sandy
Robyn's Burger Week entry takes advantage of Nicky USA's roster of more exotic meats, and the buffalo she's chosen tastes beefier than beef itself, with a tender texture and long, clean finish. Her specially-spiced grind is brightened by the sweetness of roasted red pepper, and peppered bacon adds bursts of salt and spice to the mellow overall richness. Thanks to careful prep and stacking order, the fresh brioche bun never splits or sogs. This $5 burger makes the Carl's Jr.'s "$6 Burger" look like someone peeled out on a disused draft animal and threw a bun on top. It's one of the best cart burgers in town.
Dick's Kitchen, 704 NW 21st, 3312 SE Belmont
Dick's Kitchen, a diner whose nutritionally-aware dishes truly look and taste like the indulgent comfort food you want, has used Burger Week to draw attention to the quality of their Carman Ranch 100% grass-fed beef patty. Owner Richard Satnick—who gave us the Laughing Planet franchise—is a tireless and compelling advocate of this meat, the way it's raised, and the positive environmental impact the methodical husbandry of the animal has. But talking isn't delicious—this cast-iron crusted, lightly salted, and nearly unadorned burger is. Served on an undersized Kosher challah bun, it compels you to taste just the meat first, before working your way to a center dressed with a sweet, salty, bacon-onion marmalade that creates deeply satisfying flavor dimensions. Their "not-fries" are actually quite good, too.
Widmer Brothers Gasthaus Pub, 955 N Russell
Widmer's Burger Week entry starts with fresh, hand-formed, intensely flavorful Nicky USA beef patties. Gasthaus chef Travis Hansen customizes the job with a smoked paprika aioli, and then the real crowning achievement: a bourbon-bacon jam (slow cooked with onions, sherry vinegar, brown sugar, maple, and spices), which, when it melds with the burger's crumbled Stilton, creates a sweet/salty condiment so powerful that they should sell crocks of it for everything from toast to wedding cakes. Standing up to all that is a sturdy, tender, and sound potato-flour bun from Grand Central.
I tried this burger on the first day of Burger Week, and there was at least one on every table.
Foster Burger, 5339 SE Foster
St. Jack chef Aaron Barnett designed Foster Burger's entry. He started with their standard all-natural Northwest beef patty, then smothered it in fireworks. Pepper jack cheese, combined with an American cheese sauce, add creamy richness; thick, smoky bacon adds bite and salt. A locally made kimchee hits with a funky, bright, pickled intensity that's followed in flavor by a spicy cilantro aioli. City favorite Vietnamese bakery An Xuyen—a Foster Burger neighbor—provides the sturdy sesame-seed bun. Despite all this talk of pepper and spice, it's nothing to be afraid of: The heat is more playful and appetite bolstering than painful. It's fair game for pretty much any palate.