News coverage of Portland the last couple of years seems to have eroded our status as an escapist wonderland—our bubble of artisan anarchism suddenly feels silly, possibly to the point of irresponsibility.
But people need escapism, too. Now and then you still want to walk out of the world of bad government and bad response to bad government, into a place that’s weird in an old-fashioned, aloof way. It can be hard to tell which crazily themed restaurant is going to fit that bill, though.
For instance, the hole in the Pearl stretch of NW Couch left by a P.F. Chang’s closure has been filled with an equally mall-worthy mega-restaurant, Vegas-based Holsteins Shakes and Buns.
Holsteins, a pop-art cow-themed burger and milkshake emporium, feels a bit like a cavernous P.F. Chang’s inhabited by a crew of semi-sentient 3D printers programmed by a CBS set designer to make “cool street art, subcategory: cows.”
Other than the general too-clever-by-half aesthetic, the burgers are also inconsistently cooked despite the server’s warning that “the chef cooks burgers a little on the rarer side,” and also despite asking how you want it cooked. Much of the beef is actually excellent, though it only really shines on relatively less saucy sandwiches like the Gold Standard, made with a dry-aged sirloin that hits every juicy, meaty, mineral note a slab of beef should hit ($15.50).
Even if you love spending money, you can skip the Billionaire Burger: fancy Akaushi Wagyu beef and foie gras are both criminally overpowered by a drowning pour of truffle mayo, and the bun and frisee feel underdressed compared to their richer companions. Also, for a place this superficial, there’s surprisingly zero fanfare when you order this 28-dollar burger. It should be served on a bed of fake money and balloons should fall from the ceiling to celebrate that someone (like me) was actually dumb enough to buy it.
Thankfully, Holsteins isn’t the only new crazily themed burger place. Behold the Rock and Roll Chili Pit: a rock music themed burger spot. And when I say “themed,” I mean themed: Check out the arena-style colored lighting, the repurposed drum light fixtures (not to mention a full drum kit mounted upside down on the ceiling), and a bartop shaped like a giant flying V guitar.
Opening a rock-themed burger spot just blocks from Killer Burger’s downtown location seems like an odd move, and in fact RRCP is owned by an ex-Killer of Burgers, and claims to be “the best burgers in downtown Portland.” The burgers certainly hold their own, from the Classic Rock Burger (bacon, cheddar, etc., $9.95/$6.75 happy hour) to those doused with one of the namesake chilis. I’m partial to the Darth Verde, both for its name and for how surprisingly tidy it is, even filled with the Iron Flamin pork chili verde—spicy, though not as scarily hot as the menu implies ($11.95).
Things get more extreme, however, with a barbecue “Epic” burger with pulled pork, a Top Jimmy with hot dog and chili, or even a Greasy Spoon burger incorporating a pancake and syrup. A generous happy hour runs from 2 pm to close, and head in on Tuesday for a “taco on a burger,” whose only misstep is a texturally redundant soft tortilla where a hard one would add welcome crunch. (They also have one of the cutest kids menu names: Little Rockers. But you honestly probably shouldn’t feed your kid a burger with a s’more in it, $5.95.)
The chili is tasty, warming, unaggressive—in fact, the whole place is. Where Killer Burger’s aggro un-PC aesthetic can feel insidiously bro-servative (remember when their small burger was “girlie sized”? Or how they still call the veggie burger “go metro”?), RRCP wears its rocker slogans like a faded KISS tattoo on the arm of an uncle at a family cookout. Yes, the salad is called Our Food’s Food, but there’s also a vegan chili (awesomely named ZZ Slop), delicious cornbread, and even baked potatoes. And the stylized graffiti in the bathroom says “Rock Out with Your [picture of a rooster] Out!” followed by “(Please Don’t).”
This sort of casual intensity is the right way to do an insanely deep theme job: to acknowledge that it’s ridiculous without even coming across as self-deprecating.
The trick of escapism is that it only works if the place you escape to doesn’t try too hard to distract you from the real world. Holsteins is a manic Patch Adams whose shiny red nose can’t help but reflect the world’s horrors. Rock and Roll Chili Pit is that uncle at the cookout who says, “Chin up, kid. Everything’s okay,” and doesn’t try to prove it, except by cranking up the tunes, and piling your plate with burgers, dogs, chili, fries, sweet moist cornbread, and a creamy banana honey milkshake (oh yeah, get that too, it’s $6.50).