Ten years ago, New York food writer Josh Ozersky barreled into Portland for a 36-hour food binge. He prowled the city for honest Americana food, fuel for his legendary anti-modern food screens. He found it here, calling Portland “America's New Food Eden” in Time magazine. He even moved here years later. But his hunger was not truly sated before he died in 2015. “Where are the burgers?” he bellowed incessantly. Ozersky had a point. Weird-ass chef burgers were everywhere, stacked with barbecued pork or perhaps, dear God, donuts. But good luck finding a transcendent exaltation of the humble American icon, with its molten American cheese and squishy bun.
Now, in Portland dining's darkest hour, as the very places that won his heart and stomach hang by their fingernails, Ozerky's burger heaven has arrived. We're in the midst of a Burger Reformation. Food carts kicked it off a few years back, followed by Super Deluxe's drive-through rebirth and miles-long line of cars. The movement is still steaming, incomprehensibly, during the pandemic. To wit: three of the city's best classic cheeseburgers were born in this godforsaken upside-down world. Across the city, cooks are paying homage to the cheeseburger icons, among them: McDonald's Big Mac (double decker with special sauce), Shake Shack’s ShackBurger (thin, fast-griddled smash burger with lettuce, tomato, and special sauce on a potato roll), and In-N-Out's cheeseburger (frilly lettuce, tomato, onion, and “secret sauce”).
Perfecting a classic burger is nowhere near as easy as it seems. Any teenage employee or backyard barbecuer can serve up a patty on a bun. To fine-tune each element to perfection, to create a chorus of flavors, to find and release our inner burger endorphins, is no easy task. But when done right, few things in life are more satisfying. So we had to know. Where are they? Which ones would Josh eat?
Enter The Burger Cabal. A year ago, Portland Monthly food critic Karen Brooks invited four burger nuts to join the quest: famed fast-food poet-reviewer Bill Oakley, the former Simpsons writer behind the much-memed “Steamed Hams” sketch; legendary Portland diner Gary Okazaki (aka Gary the Foodie), and hard-core food couple Drew and Pauline Lewis. To be considered, a contender had to be nominated by one of us, based on personal experience, reputation, or word-of-mouth buzz. Roughly 60 places made the first cut. Then we set out to eat with one goal: to give you our Top 20 recommendations, ranked.
The rules: Classic cheeseburgers only, topped with classic condimentia. No fast-food chain burgers, no outré toppings, no sliders (sorry Canard, you super delicious ode to White Castle).
How we scored: We filled out secret ballots, scoring burgers on a 100-point system. Once revealed, we had to defend our scores like prosecuting attorneys. Turns out, even for burger purists one person's meat heaven is another’s over-salted poison. To reach consensus, dozens of contenders were tossed. To reach the final ranking, we averaged our final scores. In the end, our favorites flashed a distinctive meat flavor, contrasting temperatures (cold toppings against the warm elements), and a sensual texture—that swoon of creamy sauce and cheese goo; that magic crunch; a beautifully toasted bun. Ultimately, every burger faces the moment of truth. Will it haunt your dreams and craving zone? You know it when you taste it.
Our mission is now complete. Take note: during the pandemic freeze, burgers are take-out or delivery only. The wise eat them in the car, as the cheeseburger gods intended, hot and fresh off the grill.
RANK #1: EXPATRIATE
5424 NE 30th Ave, @expatriatepdx
DEETS 4-ounce patty, onion, ketchup, mustard, 1½ slices American cheese, An Xuyen Bakery butter roll
PRICE $18, two per order
CABAL CONSENSUS We arrived at Expatriate one evening last spring, full of burger exhaustion and eater's remorse, slumped in a corner booth. But then a tell-tale smell from the kitchen revved our salivary glands. Just as whales have sonar, burger people can communicate via scent—a beefy perfume that taunts olfactory caverns and shouts, “Baby, you're home.” Then they landed: a sea of shiny bun domes, their mouths opened like Pac Man to reveal juicy meat; an extra-thick blanket of American cheese, ecstatically melted; and two onion slices with the gravitational pull of planetary rings. No lettuce, no tomato, no secret sauce; just a big plunk of Heinz ketchup and French's mustard on top.
As a fun quest, Naomi Pomeroy, Kyle Webster, and their merry crew once set out to create the perfect burger. Based on our scores, four of us agreed: Expatriate’s American Standard is Portland’s best burger. Even the one hold-out on that designation gave it 96 points, noting, “Hey, I like my toppings.” What united us? The dialed details, top to bottom—the buttered bun, toasted golden; the excellent meat with just the right grind, flavor, and texture; the artful proportions. Call it a chef burger without the chef burger trappings. Even now, as a pandemic take-out option, it hasn't missed a beat.
RANDOM NOTE The “hot and sour spiced Indian fries” elicited F-bombs of joy all around, down to the dippers—house curry ketchup, sumac ranch, and cilantro-raita aioli. Drew said it all: “Just the right level of weird.”
QUOTABLE “It's not a smash burger,” says Pomeroy on bucking the trend. “Smash burgers are made for high-volume, fast-cooking. We're not trying to turn and burn. Our burgers take 6 minutes. We love a juicy burger. We are a medium-rare family.”
RANK #2: HIT THE SPOT
4835 NE Sandy Blvd. @hitthespotburgers
DEETS 3.2 ounce beef patty, shredded iceberg, tomato, sweet onions, dill pickles, smoky chipotle aioli, Franz bun
CABAL CONSENSUS Instagram, avert your eyes. Behold: the anti-food porn burger, humble and homely. To us, this single cheeseburger best resembled its counterpart at the legendary In-N-Out chain, but with better execution. The building blocks are similar: the smash burger etched in crispy, caramelized crust; the toasty, pillowy bun; the blissful contrasts of sweet/crunch/warm/cold that burgerheads crave. But the sauce goes its own way, subtly infused with the smoke and dry heat of chipotle peppers. We cheered the quality—natural beef; sweet onions shaved right off the bulb; home-canned Pennsylvania farm pickles—from a parking lot food cart with a “farm-to-table fast food” motto. All this for five bucks? No arguments here. This is Portland’s best food cart burger. Most impressive: the sense that every burger is carefully made just for you. Owner Jeremy Sivers takes your order, spins around to man the grill, then delivers your bag out front. Sorry, In-N-Out.
QUOTABLE On two occasions, we asked Sivers if In-N-Out is his muse. Once, he said, “Not a huge fan.” The other: “I love what they do.” We're all complicated.
RANK #3: ROUGH DRAFT BURGER SHOP
6620 SW Scholls Ferry Road (outside Uptown Beer Co), @rdburgershop
Take-out; outdoor seating available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 2.5-ounce patty, onions, pickle, Rough Draft sauce, American cheese, Franz hamburger bun
CABAL CONSENSUS How excited were we to try this Seattle transplant when it appeared last August, out of nowhere, in the midst of pandemic, in a bare bones,, half-hidden food cart in a deep Southwest parking lot? Day 1: Okazaki, who does not drive, took a $70 ride to taste a $6 smash burger. Day 2: Oakley was first in line at opening time; 15 minutes later, he dropped a rave review on his Instagram story. Even Pauline dug it! And consider this: no lettuce, no tomato, no plot twists. Just the art of simplicity. Every move has been considered by friends and co-owners Nick Jarvis and Aaron Wilcenski: Oregon's prized, pasture-raised Painted Hills Natural Beef, fast-griddled into a crispy-edged beauty; wonderfully molten cheese; some pickle snap; thin onions melting into the action, and a notched-up mayo-ketchup/mustard sauce throwing faint notes of funk and barbecue. Oakley proclaimed it “the Platonic ideal of a McDonald's regular cheeseburger but with a taste and execution far better than that inspiration.”
RANDOM NOTE If the super-crispy waffle fries ($5) were any lighter, they would levitate from the box. Best deployed with the cheesy house “whiz.”
RANK #4: DERBY KENTON
Pop-up Dec. 12-13, 11 am – 3 p.m., 8212 N Denver Ave; @derbykenton
DEETS Two 4-ounce patties, shredded lettuce, house pickles, two slices American cheese, Derby sauce, Portland French Bakery brioche bun, with house potato chips
CABAL CONSENSUS Make no mistake, Judith Stokes is determined: solo business owner, proud Filipino American and, with Tita's Pista, a one-time pioneer of Mississippi's food-cart scene. Her philosophy at Derby Kenton, opened in 2018, was direct: “My burger, my place. I'll put chocolate sauce on it if I want.” Alas, her turmeric-laced burger experiment flopped. So she dove into classic burger research and emerged with Portland's best-kept smash burger secret. Behold: two melty cheese-clad patties; the sublime crunch of lettuce ribbons and homemade pickles; a ketchup/mayo sauce boosted by the kitchen's stoneground mustard aioli. Okazaki is still talking about it. Pauline called it a Top 5 favorite. Moaned Oakley, “This is Heaven's version of a Big Mac. Imagine those rough flavors and textures, done to perfection.”
CIVIL WAR We battled over the brioche bun, more typical of a bistro burger than a purist's classic. Said Oakley: “The best non-Franz, non-Martin's bun yet. Honestly, I am reminiscing about the bun, which I rarely do.” Retorted Pauline: “Too soft, too floppy.”
RANDOM NOTE Derby Kenton is currently closed to remodel its new location, reopening in early spring. Last chance till then: mid-December's window pop-up. We'll fight you for the last one.
QUOTABLE We had to ask: Is a Big Mac Stokes’s new muse? “I've boycotted McDonald's for twenty-three years now. By no means an homage. I'm super anti-them. I support small businesses.” Got it.
RANK #5: CLYDE’S PRIME RIB
5474 NE Sandy Blvd., @clydesprimerib
Take-out and delivery; indoor and patio dining available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, “burger sauce,” American cheese, Franz pub bun; fries included
CABAL CONSENSUS The Cabal’s biggest surprise. A legit, soul-warming drive-in burger (humble, detailed, crave-inducing) hiding inside of an ancient, dimly lit, beef-meets-Goodfellas steakhouse, complete with creepy chandeliers and curvy leather booths as big as Tilt-A-Whirls. At the helm: newish chef Will Boothe, who flipped the beloved burgers at historic Lighthouse Restaurant & Bar. His little-known Lounge Burger elicited gasps of happiness. The meat: Booth is bringing it—rib eye, tenderloin, brisket, ground in-house. His smash burger crust is magnificent; fuhgeddaboudit. The condiments: fully loaded for crunch, contrast, and mayo-ketchup-pickle drip. Only quibble: the brioche bun, a bit heavy and bistro burger-ish.
MAJOR BONUS Stellar fries, served gratis on the side. A killer deal for 9 bucks.
QUOTABLE “A lady who's worked here for 20 years breaks down fresh potatoes every week,” confides Boothe. “It’s a whole different ballgame to make all the fries in-house.”
RANK #6: FARMER AND THE BEAST
1845 NW 23rd Place (Nob Hill Food Carts), @farmerandthebeast
Take-out and delivery; outdoor seating available, depending on restrictions
DEETS Two 3-ounce patties, lettuce, shaved onion, pickles, special sauce, two slices American cheese, Franz sesame bun
CABAL CONSENSUS Two laid-off pandemic-era cooks are making a last stand in a food cart that espouses dueling thoughts on the mind-body connection—one half is devoted to unrepentant, meat-rampaging smash burgers; the other, artisan bowls and salads via their longstanding farm connections. What's surprising is how well it works. The burger captures the zeitgeist of a Big Mac without the middle bun, backed by lots of crust and crisp edges, assorted textures and crunches, and what Okazaki deemed a “truly special sauce.” We all loved that brain-transporting fusion of warm gooey cheese and sauce, what Oakley calls “the glorious glop.” Points lost: the meat density is fierce, without a ton of seasoning or vegetable contrast, despite good quality beef. But overall, quite satisfying.
RANDOM NOTE Hard not to love a food cart serving polenta from Oregon's erudite Ayer's Creek Farm.
QUOTEABLE The secret to that sauce? A hidden thrum of spicy brown mustard. “It's the most underrated condiment out there,” confides co-owner Jeff Larson.
RANK #7: FULLER’S BURGER SHACK
10131 NE Cascades Pkwy, @fullersburgershack
Takeout/delivery during freeze; indoor dining available depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, lettuce, tomato, crinkle-cut pickles, sweet onions, secret sauce, American cheese, Franz sesame bun
CABAL CONSENSUS The cheeseburger is still a fixture at Fuller’s Coffee Shop in the Pearl, an icon and relic of Drugstore Cowboy Portland. And, as legend has it, Fuller's cheeseburger has not changed since 1947. Now, under a local restaurant group, it has a secondary life—star attraction and raison d'etre of sister operation Fuller’s Burger Shack, a sterile mall spot with dreams of franchising. If anything, the Burger Shack version is a hair better than the coffee shop original. What we loved: the warm creaminess, the perfect proportions, the luscious char, the splendid crunch of whole iceberg leaves, the way the cheese pooled over the edges.
CIVIL WAR We clashed over the sauce's uber-sweetness—distinct note or palate killer? Yes, this is the lone burger blessed with 100 points, via Oakley, who swooned, “It's nearly identical to Burger King’s Whopper in construction and the Platonic ideal of that style. It’s everything I want in a burger.” Brooks logged in 96 points. But Drew was less convinced, going 85, and Pauline locked down at 78 points, deriding its “fake-y sweetness.”
QUOTEABLE Under phone interrogation, a Fuller's employee revealed the secret to its secret sauce: “mayo, ketchup, and six exotic spices, including cayenne, curry powder, and white pepper.” Somewhere in Portland, it’s still 1947.
RANK #8: BLESS YOUR HEART BURGERS
5410 NE 33rd Ave., @byhpdx
Pick up or delivery; outdoor dining available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, shredded lettuce, sweet onions, homemade pickles, Duke’s mayonnaise, brown mustard, ketchup, American cheese, Martin’s potato roll
CABAL CONSENSUS Famed founder John Gorham is famously gone. But the house classic is the same as it ever was, backed by chef-loved Duke's mayo, a Southern specialty, and East Coast cult-worshipped Martin's potato rolls, made famous at Shake Shack. We found it handsome and nicely scaled, with a party of long lettuce shreds falling all about. The patty boasted a juiciness that eluded many burgers we tried. Where it lost points: the bun (despite that nice squish, needed more toasting), the sweet onions (elusive), and the zucchini pickles (slightly weird). But bottom line, overheard at first bite: “Damn, that’s good.” Sweet price, too.
CIVIL WAR We battled over the impact of brown mustard, an unconventional choice. Okazaki called it “a nice touch, an unexpected zing.” Oakley cringed.
RANDOM NOTE $3 for a can of Diet Coke? For two buckeroos, we coulda ordered your Miller High Life instead. The Cabal rage-sipped.
RANK #9: BOTTLE ROCKET
1207 SE Hawthorne Blvd., @bottlerocketpdx
Take-out, delivery, outdoor seating available depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, shredded iceberg, raw and grilled onions, kosher dills, Sriracha mayo, Cheddar cheese, Franz pub bun
CABAL CONSENSUS Head into the heart of Cartopia, Portland’s OG food cart pod, to find a fun-loving, hand-hewn burger-joint diner without walls, with calls out to Asian kitsch, artisan culture, and Portland's beloved, R.I.P. dive-bar Club 21 burger. First, let's be clear: the house mayo sauce is hoo-boy spicy, but in other respects, this burger worships classic form. What grabbed us: the rich flavors, the cold-crisp-crunchy elements, the toasty Franz bun, and the hard-formed, nicely charred patty flashing chuck from esteemed meat purveyor Nicky USA. Kudos on the onions, which go acoustic and electric, some raw, some sweetly caramelized. Drawback: the M.I.A. cheese flavor on the burger's back half.
CIVIL WAR That Sriracha mayo sauce. Most agreed: the heat overwhelmed an otherwise lovely burger. Only Okazaki dissented, arguing: “I gave it extra points. It's different.”
QUOTEABLE Opined Oakley mid-bite: “After years after worshipping Martin’s potato rolls, I now conclude that a well-toasted Franz bun can be superior.”
RANK #10: PDX SLIDERS
3111 SE Division St., @pdxsliders
Take-out and delivery; indoor and outdoor dining available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 6-ounce patty, raw onions, pickle, aioli, American cheese, Portland French Bakery brioche bun; fries included
CABAL CONSENSUS In 2016, a Yelp army rallied behind this Sellwood food truck. Aa year later, it was a brick-and-mortar and now, PDX Sliders has Portland’s mini-chain fever. Though best-known for playful sliders, the kitchen also erects a full-sized classic cheeseburger. It’s not The Wire of burgers, but more like Friends: rewatchable, well-crafted, very likeable. Noteworthy: the ring of smoky char on a tasty bun; that little smack of salt in the beefy meat; the right cheese drip; and big-tasting pickles. What it lacked: contrast, so key to a truly great burger. With lettuce and tomato, or maybe ketchup and mustard, it could be pretty perfect.
RANDOM NOTE The deal includes, seriously, a tray of fries. Noted Drew: “It’s like a generous pour. You taste something more than potatoes here.”
RANK #11: TULIP SHOP TAVERN
825 N Killingsworth Ave., @tulipshoptavern
Take-out only; indoor dining available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, shredded lettuce, dill pickles, onion, special sauce, American cheese, Dos Hermanos milk bun
CABAL CONSENSUS When we extracted insider lists from other classic burger hunters, one name kept popping up: the tasty “drive thru” model at Tulip Shop Tavern, open mid-2019. The place immediately grabbed us, a new spot that feels like an old shoe—warm and personal; crooning vinyl music; spot-on vintage drinks. Burgers to beer list, it's what you might expect from industry vets with trench time at Higgins, Rum Club, and Saraveza bottle shop. Admittedly, the vibes elevated the pleasure of a solid, straight-up 1960s-era burger with some loving touches—a thin smash patty, cooked just crisp-right; a fluffy milk bun toasted in clarified butter for a cleaner flavor. Happy to eat one again. Wish list: more cheese, please.
RANDOM NOTE Surprisingly great fries, hand-cut and double fried. Choose a trio of gratis sauces from eight options, curry ketchup to honey mustard.
RANK #12: SUPER DELUXE
5009 SE Powell Blvd., @eatsuperdeluxe
Drive-through only; delivery expected in January
DEETS Two 3.2 -ounce patties, shredded lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, ketchup, two slices American cheese, Martin’s potato roll
CABAL CONSENSUS No arguments here: self-made fast-food mini-baron Micah Camden (and biz partner Matt Lynch) have carefully studied the influential Shake Shack model—not to mention America’s iconic drive-through culture, smartly reimagined here, with an endless line of cars to prove it. Bottom line: This is the best burger you can get in Portland without leaving your car, edging out McDonald’s Fresh Beef Quarter Pounder Deluxe by a hair.
CIVIL WAR Still, no burger was more divisive. The Cabal snarled like members of a Jordan v. LeBron debate team. Brooks and Oakley awarded 90 points each. We cheered not just the Martin’s rolls, which have the soft sink of memory foam, but also a warm pop of creamy cheese, good char, cool crunch, and the sweet surprise of caramelized onions. But Pauline and Okazaki were totally out, unmoved by our persuasions. What’s wrong with these people?
RANK #13: SAMMICH
2137 E Burnside St., @sammichportland
DEETS 6-ounce patty, lettuce, marinated onions, Sammich sauce, Swiss and American cheese, Grand Central potato bun; includes potato chips.
CABAL CONSENSUS Chicago expat Melissa McMillan rules her little sandwich shop in a faded Cubs tee and backwards cap. Everything here is an extension of her soul, the boisterous Windy City sandwich homages, the Kanye-level braggadocio. Natch, her burger was outsized, complete with red wine vinaigrette-marinated onions, a shredded lettuce blizzard, and a serious blob of mayo/ketchup/pickle/mustard sauce. Drew said it all: “Think adult Big Mac, beautiful in an over-filled, drippy way.” Added Oakley: “A very good burger, but every bite tastes the same, which is not an A for me.”
QUOTABLE Da Burg’s inspiration? Utters McMillan: “It’s like the burgers I had when I was a kid. You needed extra napkins. It reminds me of the shit I used to eat at home.”
RANK #14: JOJO FOOD TRUCK
3582 SE Powell Ave. (John’s Marketplace cart pod), @jojopdx
Take-out, delivery; outdoor seating available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, lettuce, onion, house pickles, Jojo sauce, American cheese, An Xuyen Bakery butter roll
CABAL CONSENSUS The thigh that binds the Cabal: we all dig Jojo's famed fried chicken sandwiches, born in a sky-blue food truck in 2019. Gigantic and colossally crunched, they appear in ever-changing wack combos, detailed on owner Justin Hintze's delightfully unhinged Instagram feed. When word circulated of a Jojo burger in February, we bolted en masse. Upshot: We fell hard for the original bodacious, spicy-relished specimen, but deemed it too far outside of our classic burger pursuit. Brooks is still dreaming about it. Then came the pandemic and Jojo's move to two smash burger options, one classic, one spicy. Alas, they split the difference of the original, both good but neither a peak experience. The meat still sings: Hintze actually grinds his own meat, a mix of chuck and brisket griddled with attention to crisp and char, juice and flavor. Otherwise, standard gooey-melty cheese, shredded lettuce, and sauce. Points off for the butter-slathered butter bun; too greasy. Botton line: Jojo's "classic cheeseburger" is kind of a drippy, wet bomb. That didn't stop Pauline from assigning 90 points, noting, “It's full of dynamite bites.”
RANDOM NOTES Hintze doesn't call this “home of the jojo” for nothing. These exuberant, shattering fried potato monuments (and fun sauces) are worth the trip alone.
RANK #15: OK OMENS
“THE BURGER WITH FRIES”
1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd., @ok_omens
Take-out, delivery; outdoor dining available depending on restrictions
DEETS 5-ounce patty, butter lettuce, grilled and raw onions, pickles, Omens sauce, Tillamook white cheddar and American cheese, Franz brioche bun; fries included
CABAL CONSENSUS Chefs love towering burger monuments, and Justin Woodward, Portland’s reigning modernist, is no exception. It was almost too cheffy for our mission, but the classic elements won us over. Upsides: the delicious meat, which somehow tasted like umami bacon, and the double-onion whammy—a fat raw slice teetering over grilled ones. We wished for more of that Omens sauce, amplified by house-smoked beef fat, which Woodward uses “to capture the smoky, beefy flavor found at McDonald’s or Burger King back in the day.” But it would take an unhinged jaw to clamp down on the entire lofty construction. Upshot: Lose the skyscraper and we’re talking. (Woodward is already making this move, recently swapping silky butter lettuce for the iceberg). Wonderful fries.
RANK #16: THE OLD SCHOOLERS
Jim Dandy, 9626 NE Sandy Blvd., jimdandydrivein.com
Mike's Drive In, 3045 NE Harrison St., Milwaukie, mikesdrivein.com
Helvetia Tavern, 10275 NW Helvetia Rd, Hillsboro, therealhelvetiatavern.com
Skyline Restaurant, 1313 NW Skyline Blvd, skylineburgers.com
Roake's, 18109 SE McLoughlin Blvd, Milwaukie, roakesthehotdogfolks.com
DEETS Roughly 4-ounce patty, lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo or mayo/ketchup sauce, American or Tillamook cheddar cheese, sesame bun
CABAL CONSENSUS Let us pause a moment to pay respect to The Legends—the old-schoolers, the places still dripping with atmosphere, history, and unfussy burgers. Jim Dandy, born in 1937, is still plastered with newspaper clippings from its days as a hot rodding, illegal drag-racing, Rebel Without a Cause hangout. Hell, James Beard, the food king himself, once called Skyline's burger one of the country's best (OK, it was years ago). All of them have multi-generational customers and fierce defenders. Truth be told, the differences in their burger geology were hard to detect, as if they all came from some secret cloning machine. Still, Oakley, an old-school burger hand, gave Jim Dandy a slight edge. Most impressive? The consistency—nice grill, nice toasted bun, fresh toppings. Our unsolved riddle: How did these self-trained grill sergeants best dozens of chef-driven classics that didn't rise to our Top 20 list?
RANK #17: LAY LOW TAVERN
6015 SE Powell Blvd.
DEETS 4-ounce patty, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, white American cheese, sauce, Portland French Bakery pub bun; fries included
CABAL CONSENSUS Come for the dive-bar atmosphere, stay for the utterly bumping ‘90s hip hop playlist. The burger? A bit ho-hum, but solid enough when you’re having fun with friends (at socially distanced tables), everybody air-shimmying to bumping house music and shoveling the gratis crispy fries. The high/low points: a mediocre bun but bravo toasting; meat with good char but not-so-good actual beef flavor; barely visible cheese. No one mentioned the sauce. Nice, friendly folks, generous portions.
RANDOM NOTE Owners Marcus Archambeault and Warren Boothby live to revamp old-Portland dives, including the digs here, formerly home to Coasters. They have a great eye for vintage Oregon ephemera, beer signs to bowling trophies, and understand that dive-bar lighting is dark as hell, even on a sunny day.
RANK #18: LARDO
1212 SE Hawthorne Blvd., @lardopdx
Take out, delivery
DEETS 6-ounce patty, lettuce, grilled onions, kosher dills, “Castle sauce,” American cheese, Dos Hermanos milk bun
CABAL CONSENSUS The latest burger at Portland’s popular sandwich shop winks at White Castle, steaming the patty and griddling the onions before their journey inside of a fluffy Japanese milk bun. But the house “Castle sauce”—a creamy whoosh of mayo, ketchup and pickle juice—is straight from the Big Mac school. The meat, while nice and juicy, cried out for some surface char, that good bun some toasting. Bottom line: not exceptional, but solid and enjoyable.
CIVIL WAR Drew declared his love for the Kumar’s intense pickle game; his wife Pauline found them manifestly “too salty, too acidic.” Marriage Story 2?
RANDOM NOTES OK, this burger has nothing to do with White Castle. But we’re glad the 2004 stoner-comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle inspired someone to do something other than roll blunts.
RANK #19: GRAIN & GRISTLE
“THE CLASSIC BURGER”
1473 NE Prescott St., @grainandgristle
Take-out; patio and indoor dining available, depending on restrictions
DEETS 5.5-ounce patty, leaf lettuce, pickles, aioli, Cheddar cheese, Grand Central Bakery potato bun; fries included
CABAL CONSENSUS This artisan meat burger handily won Willamette’s Week’s 2017 burger survey. Does it still stack up? The answer testifies to the rampant inconsistency we found in Portland's Burger World. Consider: This one went from delicious to dead … in a matter of hours. Lunch delivered a gorgeous toasted bun and glistening organic beef, still custom-ordered from Oregon’s premiere Hawley Ranch and ground daily. But Cabal members who arrived that night for dinner found a bit of an undercooked mess. The pickle action was prime on both tries, popping with tang and crunch, but flavors overall were a bit muted. Still, we admire the passion here.
RANDOM NOTE The onion rings, the kitchen’s Funyuns homage, are off the hook—cut into thin squiggles, soaked overnight in buttermilk, then fried up super crisp. YOU CAN PUT THEM ON THE BURGER. Do it!!
UNRANKED: BURGER STEVENS
4237 N Mississippi Ave (Prost Marketplace), 4250 SW Rose Biggi Ave (BG's Food Cartel) @burgerstevens
Take-out; outdoor dining available depending on restrictions
DEETS 4-ounce patty, leaf lettuce, tomato, pickles, sweet onion, secret sauce, American cheese, classic Franz bun
CABAL CONSENSUS In 2016, Burger Stevens vaulted from an unknown “chef-driven” food cart to cult burger status. His secret: a near flawless smash burger, constructed like a Shake Shack burger, frilly lettuce in tow, but with his own paprika-jacked sauce. Heading into The Cabal’s burger tournament, this was our No. 1 seed. Not to be. Our February cheeseburger tasting was shaky—not bad, but not glorious. We called it an off day. Then, the downtown cart went offline during the pandemic. In early November, owner Don Salamone, who once traded high-end cheffing for nostalgic burgers, stormed back. Hopefully the fact that he opened two carts in one week during a pandemic spike explains the manic swings we experienced over four separate visits: good sauce, bitter sauce; delicious meat, half-raw meat. Clearly, it was too early to rank it. On a good day, this is a good burger flashing primo beef , nicely crusted and seasoned. We trust Burger Stevens will be back in contention soon. Even Damian Lillard has cold streaks.
RANDOM NOTES No arguing with these slender, salty fries. Excited to try the new offering: the family lemon chiffon pie.
Portland Monthly food critic Karen Brooks recently guest-starred on Eater's Guide to the World, now on Hulu. Bill Oakley is a Portland-based TV writer and showrunner best known for his work on The Simpsons. In his spare time, he reviews fast food and snack food on Instagram @thatbilloakley. Gary Okazaki's Internet fans track his latest food adventures on Instagram @garythefoodie. Pauline and Drew Lewis have only one platform: Portland's food scene, which they explore with abandon.