Create the Perfect Burger
“HEY!” TOMMY HABETZ HOLLERS in a fit of mock indignity. “Who turned off the yacht rock?”
Inside a tiny test kitchen in Southeast Portland, someone has silenced Kenny Loggins—and Habetz, the slightly burly chef and owner of Bunk Sandwiches, is none too pleased. The breezy rock was a nice reprieve from the chaos surrounding him. To his right, Oswaldo Bibiano, the chef and owner of Autentica, hurriedly slices cucumbers. To his left, Naomi Pomeroy, the saucy lady behind Beast, covers everything within arm’s reach in butter. Photographers and a small crowd of onlookers circle the trio, capturing every cut, dollop, and squirt of condiment.
The smell of sizzling meat hangs in the air. So too does the feeling of anticipation—pressure, even. And now someone has shut off the stereo. The smooth warbling of Kenny Loggins will have to wait.
Naturally, it’s all Portland Monthly’s fault. We’ve already handpicked the best burgers in the city, but then we thought, Why not go further? So, with help from contributing food editor Mike Thelin, we dreamt up an impromptu battle starring renowned local chefs who aren’t known for their hamburgers. The threesome would take to the grill while we documented the entire affair. It would be like Iron Chef—without Chairman Kaga’s sequined kimonos.
The response from local chefs was immediate. (And a little daunting.) Habetz, Bibiano, and Pomeroy took time away from advancing Portland’s dining landscape to take part in our little game. Our judges were equally impressive: Cathy Whims from Nostrana, Lisa Schroeder of Mother’s Bistro, and Robert Reynolds, a culinary teacher who runs the Chefs Studio.
Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. The hamburger is, after all, the quintessential American dish. Not just for master chefs, but for every backyard Beauvilliers from here to Beaverton. “A hamburger appeals to our animalistic side,” Whims explains. “You eat it with your hands. You lick your fingers. It’s all of the things your mother would never let you do.”
Of course, maybe the magnificent meeting of cheese and meat is of an altogether higher calling. “Burgers,” Roberts says solemnly, “are like a religion.”
At least for one day, this tiny kitchen is a cathedral, and as soon as Habetz reaches the stereo, Kenny Loggins will be the choir.
“What’s better,” Bibiano asks, “than meat on meat?” The obvious—nay, only—answer is “nothing.” And so, before the patty is even pounded out, the bun toasted, or the accompanying aioli emulsified, Bibiano—who’s served time in the kitchens of Basilico, South Park, and Pazzo—busies himself hacking off thick cuts of hanger steak. When you’re the brains behind one of Portland’s best Mexican restaurants, and you’ve just been dubbed by the Oregonian as a “Chef to Watch,” something as rote as a bacon cheeseburger just won’t do.
THE PATTY: A generous mix of ground pork, lamb, and 65 to 75 percent lean beef gingerly bound together and laid out in big, bun-filling patties.
SECRET WEAPON: Asadero cheese. Bibiano cuts half-inch slabs of the hard white cow’s milk cheese and places them straight on the griddle. They don’t melt, but a charred crust forms on the outside, and there’s just a touch of gooey goodness on the inside.
PRESENTATION: A pale-red swirl of heirloom tomato and habanero aioli is swiped across the plate, as well as freshly pickled cucumber and onion. The slab of fat-on hanger steak creates a meat-on-meat mélange (separated only by a thick-cut tomato) whose delicious drippings are captured by the quickly moistening bun.
REACTION: “Juicy bread, lightly grilled cheese, a fresh tomato flavor,” Schroeder says between mouthfuls. “There’s everything I wanted in each bite.” Reynolds, too, reveled in the delectable mess of the creation. “I love the messiness,” he says. “A burger should be wet and soggy and flavorful.”
For someone who’s made her reputation on meat, Pomeroy certainly spends a lot of time on garnish. While the rest of the kitchen balls itself into a fit of frenzy, she gracefully runs a massive sprout of fennel over a mandolin. Again and again. She’s in no rush. “This isn’t a competition, right?” she says, sipping a bottle of beer. She doesn’t mean it as a taunt, but considering her recent selection by Food & Wine magazine as one of the nation’s best new chefs, it could be.
THE PATTY: After gently forming the meat—Highland Oak beef bought at the Portland Farmers Market—into face-size mounds, Pomeroy covers it in salt to keep in the moisture, a maneuver that results in a buttery-soft mouthful of heaven.
SECRET WEAPON: “It’s all about crazy German condiments,” Pomeroy explains, nodding to a slender plastic bottle of Hela Curry Gewürz Ketchup. The spicy kick of curry adds a layer of subtle heat that good ol’ sugary American ketchup just can’t touch. And then there’s the mayo, a Swiss brand called Thomy that has a creamy consistency and comes in a toothpaste-tube container.
PRESENTATION: With a formidable burger hogging the plate—Pomeroy’s finishing move was a beer-washed Brewleggio cheese from Washington’s Estrella Family Creamery—she chooses a subtle accompaniment: a colorful salad of parsley, nasturtium flowers, fennel, and radishes.
REACTION: “Luxurious,” Whims sputters, temporarily at a loss for more words. “I can’t believe there’s no foie gras in here. It’s so juicy and moist.” Schroeder offers a little advice to Whims: “You could charge $27 for this in your restaurant, Cathy.” Which would still be a bargain.
Chef/owner, Bunk Sandwiches
When Tommy Habetz is at the grill, things get messy: calories pile up; fat and grease are considered good things. Calling the blue-collar works of belly-filling art he creates at Bunk “sandwiches” is like describing a muscled hunk of man like Javier Bardem as a mammal: far too broad, and criminally insufficient. So when Habetz—who sharpened his skills at Pó Restaurant and Mesa Grill in New York City—begins frying a hunk of pork the size of his forearm, mouths water. “Oh, that,” he says, “that’s just to snack on.” We hope he’s only kidding.
THE PATTY: He prefers 10 percent fat beef, but because of a snafu, Habetz is forced to use some of Pomeroy’s Highland Oak meat. He works each patty into a dense cake about as thick as a CD case.
SECRET WEAPON: Pickles. Habetz prefers to get his green gold at Picklopolis. “I usually use green-tomato pickles,” he says. “But regular pickles seem more in keeping with burgers.”
PRESENTATION: Habetz is not a fancy man, so when his burger lands on the plate, it does so all by its lonesome. The skinny patties ride atop a thick layer of mayo, spicy brown Creole mustard, and lettuce. Just when you think he’s forgotten about it, he takes the pan of fat rendered from the pork steak and drizzles it over everything.
REACTION: “You’ve taken a complete dinner and put it between two slices of bread,” Schroeder says. “As it should be.” “It looks different,” Reynolds says, pointing out the hoagie bun, “but it still speaks the same delicious language as the rest.”