17 Portland Burger Joints Better Than Your Backyard
Every month, we dig through our restaurant listings to bring you a themed (and non-comprehensive!) roundup of places to eat out in Portland. In the June 2017 issue, we highlight 17 spots making some mighty-fine burgers.
Bit House Saloon
In a city of craft bars and unconventional thinking, the key ingredient to a great drink is something elusive. It’s called “fun.” No one’s embracing the idea more than Bit House Saloon’s posse of fine barfolk, dreaming up ideas in near darkness in a labyrinthine saloon that could be an extra in Ken Burns’s Civil War. Find single-barrel whiskeys, barrel-aged beers, boisterous cocktails, and conversation with customers (favorite topics: ’90s hip-hop, philosophy, and ring flair). Sure, Clint Eastwood would shoot holes in the sous vide machine behind the bar, but even Old Squint Eyes couldn’t resist a Quentáo cocktail, bursting with fresh, tart cider, rich with cinnamon syrup, capped with amaro chantilly cream, and waiting warm for us in a circulator. This is how the West was won. Have two.
There are plenty of monstrous, fancy burgers in town, but Don Salamone’s sweet cart, nestled under a grand old tree in the Hillsdale cart pod, gets the humble sandwich right. He pairs a well-seasoned patty of custom-ground Pioneer Ranch beef, griddled for crunchy bits but still crazy juicy, with chunky onions, tomato, lettuce, sweaty Tillamook, and classic sauce on an old-school squooshy Franz bun, generously buttered and toasted up right. It’s like McDonald’s, if that fast food giant ever had a soul. A few thick slices of bacon and a fried egg will up your tab to $10, or stay basic and tack on a paper sleeve of perfectly golden fries for $3. Soft serve, too!
Set in the ground floor of the Ace Hotel, Clyde Common's bar serves the best negroni in town, barrel-aged into something new and transcendental. The food isn't bad, either, thanks to chef Carlo Lamagna, a Filipino-leaning cook known to turn out entire, deep-fried pork trotters. Lamagna doubles down with “shared entrées,” most recently a platter of galbi beef ribs, scallion pancakes, kimchi, and iceberg lettuce for four. Noise-sensitive diners, beware: high ceilings and resonant wood surfaces can make the buzz and clatter here deafening.
Danwèi Canting aims to give Portlanders a best-of playlist from Beijing’s melting pot of regional Chinese cooking, from Chongqing egg noodles to Xianjiang lamb skewers. The La Zi Ji fried chicken is a must-try: a mountain of whole scarlet chiles, minefields of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and crackle-crisp nuggets of chicken plastered with shreds of ginger, sesame, and green onion. Danwèi is a new breed of Portland Chinese restaurant: an earnest attempt at regional cooking aimed at Westerners, yet pared down from the laminated phone-book-size menus found at many restaurants, with not a General Tso in sight. And, at the very least, it’s one of the best takeout spots west of 82nd, especially after a visit to the neighboring Slammer dive bar.
→ “Burger” is a bit of a misnomer. Danwèi’s lamb variant, braised with cumin and chiles, and topped with herby Asian salad, is essentially wonderful pot roast caught between a pair of chewy, griddled dough rounds.
Candlelight spotlights what matters here: two turntables spinning vintage moods, outsize images of old European movies projected on the wall, drinks balanced like the scales of justice, and heat-seeking Asian snacks dispatched with ornate gold silverware. Then there are the corn dogs remodeled with spicy Chinese sausage, or the Korean fried game hen blistered beneath pickled watermelon ranch dressing. But Kyle Webster’s eight nightly cocktails are the show, meant to pair with Naomi Pomeroy’s loose take on Southeast Asian street eats. It could feel pretentious if it all weren’t so damn good.
→ Expatriate does Ronald proud with two quarter pounders glommed with American cheese, Heinz ketchup, and French's mustard for $13.
After four years in the food cart trenches, the beloved torta spot has transformed into a full-on cantina. The counter-service spot serves up eight or nine tortas, with bowls, salads, fried snacks, and one helluva burger. Güero’s version is essentially a griddle burger, complete with fried American cheese, habanero slaw, pickled jalapeno, tamarind-habanero-roasted tomato, and a big dollop of guacamole. The small mescal and tequila-centric cocktail list has all the greatest hits: a margarita available in slushie form, a mezcal margarita with sour orange juice, a horchata cocktail, and a solid Negro Modelo michelada. For agave lovers, there’s also a tidy, curated list of mescal (served with orange and worm salt, of course) and tequila by the glass or carafe. Come summer, Güero's outdoor tables are a prime spot to hang your sombrero.
One of the first farm-to-table restaurants to open in Portland in the early 1990s, Higgins has staying power. This can be attributed in part to its timeless cuisine: impressive house-cured charcuterie, seasonal risottos, and a walloping whole-pig plate, not to mention chef-owner Greg Higgins’s longtime loyalty to the local farmers who produce his ingredients, which translates to a surprisingly vegan-friendly menu. Regulars often skip the white-tablecloth dining room and settle in at the homey, wood-worn back bar, with its formidable beer list, uptown lunch menu, and some of the city’s best soups, changing daily.
Gabriel Rucker is a Portland original whose ideas crackle into something electric. Working off-the-cuff in his own world of complex flavor combinations, Rucker is possessed by French bistro cooking and Americana. Meat rules the ever-changing list—foie gras, pigeon, and pig parts are frequent guests. But salads can also be brilliant, and the French-focused wine list is deep, smart, and personal. The voltage extends to the softly lit, Parisian atmosphere, with communal tables and great energy. Le Pigeon embodies Portland’s rise on the national scene in a single, sharply focused snapshot.
→ Perhaps Portland’s most famous burger, Rucker’s take involves a Ken’s Artisan bun, a bloody, juicy patty, sharp Tillamook cheddar, and iceberg lettuce.
Little Big Burger
If Ray Kroc went to the Rhode Island School of Design, with a semester in Tokyo, history may have looked like this: fast and fun, eco-minded, and feeding a demand for real food, made to order, on the cheap. Little Big Burger’s limited menu includes a locally sourced quarter-pounder served with a picnic mentality: no dishes or trays, just make-your-own plates out of takeout bags. Go for the Rogue chèvre burger or the veggie burger, and add some fine truffle fries on the side.
Loyal Legion is no Hofbräuhaus. This Oregon beer hall takes a different inspiration altogether: our love of beautiful spaces, of all things local, of simply gazing into space and people watching. Here, the exhaustively curated, 99-tap, all-Oregon beer list encourages methodical choosing and deliberate drinking. The food menu is dominated by beer-soaked Olympia Provisions bratwursts, frankfurters, and Käsekrainers. The cheesy, gooey, messy burger, served on a pretzel bun with a generous heaping of pickles, is an instant favorite.
→ The beer hall has an entire burger menu, from fungi (with thyme-roasted criminis) to a brie-topped number.
There’s something refreshing about an honest, no-frills sandwich: no coffee aioli, no plum-thyme conserva, and, please, no foie gras gravy. At Pastrami Zombie, the cart version of Ashland’s cult-worshipped Sammich sandwich shop, owner Melissa McMillan channels that blue-collar magic through Italian beef with giardiniera “served wet,” and consummate tuna salad made with house-poached Oregon albacore. But the cart’s raison d’être is the Montreal-style pastrami: natural Angus brisket, brined for four days, smoked with black oak, and sliced thick. Best sample it in Reuben form, stacked high with crunchy slaw and Russian dressing, the rye bread soaked through with smoky, fatty goodness. New Yorkers, take note: this is not your Jewish deli pastrami.
→ The beloved cart’s “Sammich Burg” is griddled with ground Angus beef, special sauce, and a cap of fatty, deeply smoky Montreal-style pastrami.
B. J. Smith’s east-side tavern, with its dramatically vaulted ceiling and herd’s worth of taxidermy, includes a full-fledged cocktail menu, stylish starters, and brunch. It stakes its claim as the quadrant’s premier ’cue spot with Flintstone-size ribs: hunks of amber-glazed meat with improbable tenderness and blushing smoke rings. Sides are solid, too: fingerling potato salad laden with cornichons and mustard seeds, diabolically creamy macaroni and cheese topped with corn bread and bacon, well-tuned collard greens. And a weekend brunch of maple syrup–brined peameal bacon (fried slabs of sweet-salty, cornmeal-rolled pork loin) with eggs, greens, and a craggy, honey-drizzled biscuit is an a.m. treat.
→ After 9 p.m, Smokehouse grinds up its beloved brisket with bone marrow and slicks it all in bacon-onion jam.
Star chefs Greg Denton and Gabi Quiñónez Denton’s downtown dining room aims to spotlight wild microplates. Not every dish (gimmicky, truffled “SpaghettiOs,” for example) earns its namesake adjective. Instead, SuperBite excels with a truly super happy hour, bright, balanced cocktails, and anything grilled—the latter two of which already make the duo’s Ox a sexy dinner date. You will gnaw that smoky lamb chop, slathered with dill-and green olive–laced feta yogurt, to the bone.
→ SuperBite’s high-voltage, double-decker burger utilizes thin patties ground with shiitake mushrooms, and a blend of cheddar and fontina, all for a sawbuck.
Tucked inside a cinder-block bunker off of E Burnside, this cozy neighborhood watering hole is home to some of the best late-night comfort food in town. Behind the bar, archival drinks like the Toronto croon dark melodies of rye and fernet, while the tiny kitchen works a rich vein of Euro-Oregonian pub fare, turning out a brunch Monte Cristo spiked with marionberries or steak frites sourced from St. Helens. When the needle hits some old vinyl and the booze hits the big ice cube, the Tannery serves indie culture in its most refreshing form.
Swan Island’s beloved burgers and (Oregon) beers spot charms all comers with juicy, salty burgers oozing with American cheese, flaky house biscuits, and fresh baked pie. This second location, in the Pearl’s old General Electric distribution space, is devoutly industrial: a concrete bunker where a monochromatic American flag serves as décor and shop rags double as napkins. Grab a lively house cocktail to keep you lubricated until the criminally good pub grub (like “Tilted” fries smothered in chunky, scratch-made pork sausage gravy) arrives. The echoing chamber is so roomy you may not spot the Ping-Pong table or the fireplace in back until your second drink. And you will get a second drink.
Chef John Gorham imports the rowdiness of a tapeo in Andalucía to his Spanish-inspired east-side eatery. There’s a little French and a pinch of Northwest thrown into the mix—evinced by the creamy sherried chicken-liver mousse and the garden-fresh salads made from local greens—but it’s all guided by the spirit of boisterous tapas. Expect flavorful paellas, fried green tomatoes with pickled mayo, juicy crab-and-pork croquettes, seared scallops and braised lamb with apricots and coriander, and salt-cod fritters, not to mention bottles of pétillant txakoli and robust Rioja from the modest wine list.
By Portland’s micro-loving standards, Ken Forkish’s Trifecta Tavern & Bakery is the Coliseum. The sky-high industrial ceiling makes room for a raucous marble bar shaking highbrow classics, a bustling, wood-fire powered kitchen, and stretch-limo booths for all. Your best bet? Snag a seat at the bar and share a sizzling cast iron pan of brussels sprouts mingling with spicy house chorizo and apple butter or the simple, salty-sweet triumph of a fresh shucked oyster followed by house-cured ham, just-churned butter, and honey tucked inside a warm roll. “It’s the perfect chaser,” swears the bartender. He’s right.
→ Apart from an expertly-baked house bun, Trifecta’s burger gets its pluck from pimento cheese, a spicy, goopy spread even better than American.
The Gastronaut Report
Top-reviewed burger spots on Portland Monthly’s local food app
- Little Big Burger: “Truffle fries! Is there more to say?” —jpwarne
- Broder: “The lamb burger will make you drool!” —imhannahm
- Tilt: “My go-to with large groups. Try the breakfast burger, it’s delicious and huge.” —Biscuits
- Lardo: “The double burger was perhaps the best burger I’ve ever had. Their dirty fries are amazing!” —garlicgrits
- Grain & Gristle: “Everything on the burg is from scratch, even the bun and Hawley Ranch meat is butchered on-site.” —Food4life