Out of the blue and in a pandemic haze, an email arrived the other day from Allecia Vermillion, editor in chief of our sister mag Seattle Met as well as its longtime food writer. “Hi ladies. Rough Draft Burger Shop was a breakout hit of this pandemic summer; their smash burgers are fantastic. I see they’ve set up a Portland presence as well (one of the partners actually lives in Portland). Passing along in case it’s of interest.”
Of interest? Seriously? In Portland? Where smash burgers—thin, fast-griddled, crispy-edged—are considered an art and a science. Where the pursuit of simple, elemental perfection is as powerful as a whiff of truth serum, where every decision, from the toast of the bun to lettuce or no lettuce, is a biblical argument. So yes, we’re interested.
Some nine years ago, bartender Nick Jarvis and Aaron Wilcenski, a playful cook, met in the food trenches of famed Seattle restaurateur, Tom Douglas. On days off, the fast friends launched a fine dining pop-up, Rough Draft, known for a “what the hell? we’re having fun” approach and, according to another Seattle publication, the Stranger, some “serious magic.” Jarvis moved to Portland three years ago. But he went up to Seattle during the pandemic, and the duo reunited with a new model, the Rough Draft Burger Shop, turning their love of burgers into another successful pop-up and possibly a future.
Now, Jarvis and Wilcenski are test-driving Portland as a possible permanent home. Rough Draft Bottle Shop opens 4–6 p.m. Thursday, August 27, taking over the food cart at Uptown Beer Co on SW Scholls Ferry Road. The plan is to stay until the year’s end, then consider the next step.
Over the phone, on a cold call, I subjected the genial Jarvis to rapid-fire questions about his smash burger details and philosophy. Here’s how he held up.
Your burger philosophy? “The whole thing is about simplicity. Minimal toppings, excellent technique in preparation. We use American cheese, of course. Still experimenting on pickles … but the main thing for us is crispness, snap (and we like a crinkle-cut). No lettuce. Lettuce has its place, but, on our burger, it doesn’t add to the experience. Tomatoes? Nope. We don’t condone unseasonal tomatoes and want a consistent produce year round.”
Onion game? “White, chopped, raw. We like a good amount.
What special about your special sauce? “There’s mayo, chopped pickles, onions, some good fermented flavor, a tiny bit of ketchup for sweetness and a little mustard. The texture is adjacent to tartar sauce: thick, creamy, chunky.”
Bun choice? “Franz Bakery’s four-inch roll, buttered and medium-toasted until crisp on the edges and golden in middle. We did a ton of experimenting, including the famed Martin’s Potato Rolls (from Pennsylvania). But we wanted to stay local with Franz. A Bimbo Bakeries outlet is also nearby. It’s big in LA, so we might check that out, too. We’re still experimenting.”
Smash patty theocracy? “We’re still finalizing the meat ratio, but looking at a high fat-to-lean mix, in the 80–20 or 73–27 range. It needs enough fat to caramelize well on the flat top but not fall apart. Smash burgers can be dry. We think our method seals in a lot of the juices. Smashing at a high temperature on a hot flat top, with a higher fat ratio, keeps it juicy.”
Sides we shouldn’t miss: “Our super-crispy waffles fries with hot cheese whiz dip ... house-made! The fries are frozen. Personally I like frozen fries, for consistency. Also, our healthy-ish crudités or crisp vegetables; essentially, what we pick up that day, raw and crunchy with ranch.”
Desert-island Rough Draft order—single or double patty? “I’m a single guy myself. I’d rather have two singles than one double. Our burgers are best eaten by the bagful—our best-selling item is “burger bag,” with five singles. Size-wise, they're not sliders but the next step up. Singles are $6, doubles $8, burger bags, $25.”
Finally, I asked Jarvis how Rough Draft will make a stand in Portland’s smash burger world. His favorite local smasher is Burger Stevens, which he calls fantastic. “But in terms of no lettuce, no tomato, just simple straightforward, I think ours stands up,” says Jarvis. “It’s another not-fast fast-food option. A rising tide lifts all burgers. Or something like that. I need to work on my pitch.”
Rough Draft Bottle Shop, opening August 27 at Uptown Beer Co, 6620 SW Scholls Ferry Road, rdburgershop.com, @rdburgershop. Planned hours 4–9 p.m. Wed–Thu and noon–9 p.m. Fri-Sat