IN THE 1927 Hardy Boys youth I never had, sturdy wasp-waisted fellows in high dungarees and thick white undershirts popped into old, low-slung wooden roadhouses for ice-cold fountain sodas and fresh hot hamburgers. By birthright, they enjoyed that mythical char promised by a well-seasoned griddle—spiced with onion and yellow mustard, bound with a wilting slice of American cheese, and tucked inside a cottony bun with a crunchy, buttered crumb. It is a simple time—as idealized and seemingly unattainable as the elusive "perfect" all-American hamburger itself—and it is something different for everyone, an assuring personal fiction in the library of our someday pleasures.
On the recommendation of friends, I stopped at the unassuming Killer Burger on NE Sandy during their happy hour, which offers one of their well-regarded burgers at half off ($4.50, includes fries). I ordered two: the Classic (a version of a bacon cheeseburger, with the usual vegetables and house sauce) and the curious Peanut Butter Burger. Peanut butter sounded like a goofy novelty, but it often pays dividends to gamble against reason, I thought. How else would we have come up with bicameral congress, or the cartwheel?
After a sizzly little wait while the hand-formed 1/3-pound patties—pink like the flesh of a strawberry—were squashed on the griddle, ragged and happy, my baskets arrived. Frozen fries are often more successful than house-made, thanks to the onward march of rheology and the J.R. Simplot Company, and these were a fragrant, golden example of the former. Three-eighths of an inch thick and textbook harvest yellow, crisp with a soufflé-light interior, they snapped rather than bent, and were so fresh from the oil that the retreating sheen of it easily held a second salting.
From the first bite the aptly named Classic landed me squarely back at that old roadhouse counter, caught entirely off guard by its archetypal perfection. The hand of the master—who here has designed a worthy iconic American hamburger, and not some britches-bursting gourmet version, piled high with weeping beets and flecks of gold—was present in everything from the beautifully integrated bacon, to the chop and tenderness of the humble iceberg, to the pickle, which was a corrugated plank rather than a spear or chip so that it complemented the numerous other traction-seeking ingredients. The imploding division between patty and bacon and cheese, like the cloud that rises over a just-collapsed structure, was transporting bliss.
The pleasure remained steadily high, each bite nuanced with the caprice of toppings. This carefully toasted white bun of which we have spoken so much stayed strong through to the end, never getting soggy, tearing, or losing hold of its motley cargo, as so many do.
The Classic nearly complete, the baseline established, I eyed the Peanut Butter Burger. Its brown dressing—which looked nearly broken, like applesauce in the heat—lolled like a drunken tongue down one side of the sandwich. After an intellectual scrunch of the nose, followed by a reassuring glance at my audaces fortuna iuvat embroidered iPhone case, I threw caution to the wind.
The creamy richness of the peanut spread created a seamless liaison between the juicy, crusted meat, the vinegary vegetables, and the salty, smoky bacon—a binder of fabled umami. My decidedly white-bread palate's first experience with peanut in an entrée—in a fancy chilled chicken dish at the age of 11 at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC, and yes I remember what I was wearing—was a similar awakening. The burger tasted slightly Thai or Vietnamese—especially with added Sriracha, try it—but resoundingly American. I surprised myself on future visits by alternating the comforting Classic with the more expansive pleasure of this oddity.
There are other well-designed burgers on the small menu. The Jose Mendoza, with its roasted green chilies, Jack, and grilled onion, takes juice and sweetness from the fruit, which critically enlivens the lull of its smoky spread. The blue cheese and onion Teemah (named for the owner's dog, who is sadly rumored to suffer from terminal halitosis) lacks acidic balance and eats heavy, as does the Swiss and mushroom Fun Guy, but these both have their place, along with their happy advocates. For me I'll stick with the satisfying, easy genius of the Classic, sometimes forsaken for a burger that would've had old Frank and Joe chuckling and scratching their good-natured, Brilliantined little heads.
Burgers are generally $7.95, and include American cheese and bacon unless otherwise specified. Beverages are cheap beer, expensive beer, and soda. Happy hour (Mon-Fri 2-5 pm) makes this quality meal cheaper than Burger King.