Sandwich Review: Burgers

The amazing Kobe beef burger at Bamboo Sushi.
If there's any sandwich, or any food at all, that could be called typically American, I'd point to the hamburger.

Originally from Europe, it came to America, shortened its name to Burger, and became famous in New York city in the early 19th century. Burgers in visited the 1904 St Louis World's Fair, and when automobiles pushed the frontier of travel to the in-between spaces of the country, the burger came along for a fast-food ride.

Like other immigrants, the burger has adapted, showing the occasional regional influences with bacon, BBQ sauce, avocados, and evolved, turning into Gardenburgers, veggie patties and shrimp burgers. Patties can be fried, broiled, or grilled. For consideration as a burger, however, the key ingredients remain constant: a patty between buns (it's sad how Patty Melt, burger's cousin, has been cut off from the family due to a lack of buns).

The flexibility of the hamburger is so great that I lose all interest in any version of it that's institutionalized. I'd include McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Carl's Junior, Dairy Queen, Jack in the Box, A&W, Red Robin, and Fuddruckers in my list of mass-produced burger machines. There are a few regional examples that stand out. Burgerville, for example, has marketed itself as a local company using local ingredients, which gives it integrity, if not a distinctive taste. Meanwhile, in the Seattle area Dick's Drive-in has a cult-like following that earned it a place in a song from the Presidents of the United States. I'm sure there are hundreds of other examples of regional chains like In and Out Burger, or White Castle, but my iconic image is of the Generic Hamburger Stand that used to exist in an old Der Wienerschnitzel building in Corvallis, Oregon. This restaurant used the generic labeling scheme as a marketing ploy, and served hamburgers for 59 cents in plain white wrappers. The last time I ordered a burger from the hut I caught a glimpse of the cook, an obese teen, sweat-stained and ill-groomed, surrounded by four grills of sizzling patties. That's my takeaway from the institutional version of the hamburger.

Even when it's not a distinctive meal, the restaurant setting can be worth it. Portland alone has hundreds of these examples. I remember many lunches at Skyline Restaurant, enjoying the pre-retro retro feel of the linoleum tables and vinyl-topped chrome stools at the counter. After we moved to our house near Mt. Tabor, my wife and I moved our lunches to Seaton's Pharmacy, which had a lunch counter that served thick shakes, crisp crinkle fries, and grilled burgers that were just about the same as Skyline, but with an entirely new crowd of daily regulars (unfortunately Seaton's is gone, now a chiropractor's office, but Fairley's Pharmacy on NE Sandy still offers a similar experience). McMenamin's, another local treasure, used to offer burgers hand-formed by hippies in a distinctive "Grateful Dead" milieu. The decor is still the same, but unfortunately the burgers have slid downhill into mass-produced conformity.

This site has a map of PDX burgers

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Recently Portland has experienced an interesting twist: local restaurants are trying to make a distinctive burger. Maybe it's in response to the rise in vegan restaurants, or just a burger rebellion, or maybe it just another phase in the evolution of the burger in America: for any need, for any hunger, for any price the burger will be served.  Just as Ruth Stafford Peale said "find a need and fill it," restaurants have found a need and fed it.  So, now we have spendy burgers, going at $28 a sandwich, nearly 10 times the average hamburger price; and a quest for gourmet burgers.

Up next, a review of the burger at Dick's Kitchen.

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