Portland’s newest smash burger was born in New Orleans. It’s a simple, no-nonsense burger: meat, cheese, and sauce on a bun. But for its creator, chef Mike Aldridge of Mid-City Smash Burger, the path to simple was anything but.
Aldridge’s CV includes work with Headwaters, Imperial, and Urban Farmer, three of the biggest hotel restaurants of pre-COVID downtown Portland. It took moving clear across the country, all the way to New Orleans—a city synonymous with reinvention—to figure out the sort of food he really wanted to make. “I had to get away from Portland for a while,” he tells me. “I needed a break.”
Then coronavirus hit, and like many in the food and beverage industry, he found himself without a job. “One night in New Orleans, after I had been laid off, I was telling friends I wanted to serve food off my front porch, like I’d seen other people do,” he remembers. “I couldn’t find anything less than an 8-ounce cheeseburger in that city, and when it’s 100 degrees in the middle of the day, that’s not what you want to eat.”
Aldridge went in a different direction, serving up a small, easy-to-eat, fairly priced “smashed” cheeseburger to friends and neighbors from the front porch of his home in NOLA’s Mid-City neighborhood. It was a hit. Before long, a silent partner back in Portland offered to stake him in a food cart off SE Stark, luring Aldridge once again to the city he had previously called home.
Now in its third week of service, Mid-City Smash Burger’s momentum has, perhaps improbably, translated from the Mississippi to the Willamette. The little white cart off Stark has come roaring out of the gate, serving more than 1,000 burgers in its first eight days and quickly building a social media following.
What exactly is a smash burger? The chef is asked this question several times a day, and for him the definition goes back to simplicity. “It’s a simple greasy spoon–style burger that I grew up eating in North Dakota,” Aldridge says. “It’s easy to eat, not a crazy mess.” But diving into specifics reveals a careful balance of elements. This burger fuses two thin beef patties of 80/20 Oregon beef sourced from Nicky USA, smashed flat (hence the name) beneath a cast-iron press (check out the Instagram video above to watch Aldridge’s smash in action), resulting in super thin, crunchy-crispy patties. They’re then covered in American cheese slices—“as cheap as possible”—and slathered in the chef’s own smash sauce, a sort of saucified version of every desirable burger condiment including ketchup, mayo, pickles, onions, and spices. Set this all between two fluffy Franz buns, serve it up for the neighborhood-friendly price of $5, and you’ve got a Mid-City Smash Burger.
The cart also serves maximally crispy crinkle-cut fries (available plain or doused in cheese and smash sauce), alongside a lightly chocolaty, Frosty-inspired milkshake, but the burger is plainly the star. Aldridge’s smash burger is both immediately simple yet deceptively complex, a miniature universe of interlocking textures and flavors: sweet, salty, crunchy, crispy, yieldingly soft yet bracingly tart, at once comfortingly sweet and primally savory.
“I take as much care doing this as I would running a downtown kitchen,” Aldridge says, “and I have a lot of fun doing it.” It shows: Aldridge is clearly enjoying himself behind the griddle, and judging by the early response (and the party vibe in the line for food), the city is along for the ride.
The cart is open Thursdays through Sundays for now, beginning at noon and available until sold out. For the upcoming Mardi Gras weekend, Aldridge will lean into the truck’s NOLA roots by serving up individual king cake desserts and inviting in some local musicians, weather permitting. “I want to get you in and out of here before a song ends,” he says, “get you your burger and send you on your way.” There is something beautifully simple about that. 1015 SE Stark St, @midcitysmashburger