Kerns, Portland, OR, USA, January 2018: It’s a messy world, and I’m a prissy eater. An insufferable whiner about sticky fingers, a sauce-on-the-side and do-you-have-a-wet-nap wuss. I wish finger bowls were as commonplace as soda fountains, and I wish soda fountains were more common.
But as the Doomsday Clock ticks to two minutes to midnight, with stealth bombers on the way to the Pacific and random sirens ringing in Hawaii, it’s time to admit you can’t take your pristine digits with you. Nobody’s getting out of this clean, so you might as well go down clutching the messiest, sloppiest, unwieldiest pile of bread, sauce, and what-have-you. And right now, there’s no better place to do that than Kerns.
And no, I’m not just talking about Güero’s sprawling tortas, although their Jalisco-style ahogada (drowned) torta, so smothered in achiote sauce that you aren’t even allowed to take it to go, might still reign supreme as the sloppiest sandwich in Portland.
Maybe that wet pile of bread and meat was the doomsday prepper/foodie clarion call, maybe it’s blind luck and market factors more future-facing than I can fathom right now, but Kerns has, in the last few months, become the finger-licking-est neighborhood in all of Portland with the arrivals of Sammich, People’s Pig, and Stoopid Burger.
If those names sound familiar, that’s because these aren’t exactly newcomers to the game, but pros finally settling into permanent digs, expanding menus, and spreading empires block by block or even city by city.
The farthest-traveled award goes to Sammich, the Chicago-style brainchild of Ashland, OR’s Melissa McMillan. Though the original Sammich in Ashland spun off a Portland contingent in 2016 with the Pastrami Zombie cart, it wasn’t until late 2017 that Sammich’s full menu of ballpark monsters reached the Columbia.
And it’s about time. While Pastrami Zombie’s titular sandwich—and especially its “Da Burg” burger, piled with shredded iceberg and American and Swiss cheese to please everybody ($10)—certainly wet the whistle, it wasn’t until the Chicago Italian Beef arrived on my plate (a homey round, white plate; a nice touch amid an otherwise slightly cold, industrial aesthetic) that I understood what the big deal was.
While the contents of the Pastrami Zombie are better served on a bed of French fries in the Zombie Fries, where jalapenos and tangy zombie sauce can punch it up, the roast beef, soaked in a peppery jus, covered in giardiniera and peppers, and overflowing a thick baguette is the kind of meat-boat I want to take a cruise on ($14).
The Sammich sandwiches on sliced bread are even more of a challenge for the prissy-fingered—and god help you if you take one to go, as you may get home with what looks and feels like a paper bag of French onion soup. A standout among these is a rare veggie sandwich, the Melanzane, starring eggplant cooked perfectly to offer some substance, and piled with feta cheese and red peppers ($10).
Meanwhile, just a few blocks away in the Ocean complex at 24th and Glisan, Slow Burger has abandoned its post, making way for the expansion of a beloved burger cart: Stoopid Burger. Stoopid Burger, with its goofy double-o and its flat, googly-eyed cartoon mascot are maybe the most accurate branding I’ve ever seen. What makes a burger stoopid? How about bacon, ham, hot links, eggs, cheddar, LTO, 911, and your Weight Watchers sponsor on speed dial. Maybe the Luni is more your style: hot jalapenos and pineapple-habanero chutney. Feeling fusion? The Dumiyaki is a teriyaki burger, replete with onion rings. Pretty much all of these burgers are $15 and come with fries, so they don’t get lonely.
But we haven’t even talked about the main attraction. What’s a circus without a strongman, fat lady, and an elephant all piled on top of each other? Witness: the Ignorant Burger. Three beef patties, two eggs, ham, hot links, bacon, cheddar, blue cheese, LTO, onion ring, grilled onions, jalapenos, that chutney, an extra bun in there somewhere, and a goddamn chicken strip or piece of fried catfish on top. Oh, and in the middle, a plate’s worth of steak.
The most ridiculous thing about this burger is that every part of it is actually delicious, from the unfussy, flavorful beef to the sweet-hot chutney, and even that chicken strip on top. It’s over a foot tall, so there’s no way you’re wrapping your hands around it, much less your mouth. After letting you photograph its foot-plus-tall glory, they’ll lay it down on its side, give you some forks and knives, and leave you to your methods. There’s no game plan, no guidance from the staff beyond a well-deserved proud grin when they serve it to you. Drooling around it like hungry hungry hippos, my two compatriots and I found the most satisfying process was breaking it down and building tiny sliders, bite by huge, honking bite. And honestly? For $40 and served with a basket of fries, for three or four people, it’s kind of a perfect meal.
But is it the finest pile of meat in Kerns? Time will tell. Enter: People’s Pig, once a humble cart-based purveyor of porchetta on Southwest Washington, that expanded four years ago into the old Tropicana space on Williams, maintaining one of the finest smokehouse barbecue joints around. With the same intimate (read: cramped as hell) layout as Tropicana, however, it was only a matter of time before People’s Pig’s reputation required another location.
Now, on East Burnside, the People’s Pig can breathe a little easier with roomy booths and a longer countertop. But have no fear: the new spot keeps the dingy diner vibe of the Williams location, and perhaps because it revels in the unpretentiousness of what preceded it—in this case, a Subway. Prepare to become obsessed with the muted retro colors with odd little pops of teal and red on the booths, the timelessly not-quite-tacky décor, and—how cute is this—the parking lot.
But prepare to become even more obsessed—or re-obsessed, if you’ve been slavering for the five years since the cart closed—with owner Cliff Allen’s original specialty: that juicy, lemony porchetta sandwich ($12). Every sandwich is improved just by being crammed between two halves of People’s Pig’s housemade sourdough roll—maybe the only bread in Kerns that can stand up to the sandwich inside. Crusty, chewy, and lightly smoky, you can trust it not to disintegrate on contact with its filling, be it sliced pork shoulder or the secret contender for best fried chicken (smoked category) in Portland (also new with this location: chicken-fried mushrooms, both $10).
It’s also the only one of these three new spots that currently has liquor. Many of the cocktails are “smoky” versions of classics, and whether that’s because they include smoked simple syrup or because they share a roof with a bunch of wood on fire, they’re all delicious. The margarita is the best match to the richness of this food, though, and it’s of course made with mezcal.
But you don’t have to drink away the apocalyptic angst when you can stuff your face with Sammich’s Italian Chicago eats, Stoopid Burger’s menu of double-dog-dares, or smoked and fried chicken at People’s Pig. Hell, some things even point toward a gentler time, like that porchetta sandwich. But if you’re going out to eat elsewhere in the city, wear your worst jeans: we’re taking all the napkins to Kerns.