4262 SE Belmont St., Portland OR 97215 (map); 802-734-8706; lardopdx.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The big fat Double Burger does the Lardo name proud, but too many minor shortcomings keep it from reaching true greatness
Want Fries with That? You'd be a fool, a damn fool, to pass up these spuds fried in pork fat and dusted with salt, parmesan, and herbs
Prices: Double Burger with Tillamook cheddar, $8; Lardo fries, $4
Portland has wallowed in food cart overload for most of 2011 (even longer, some might argue). While it might not be fair to say it has jumped the shark—or even nuked the fridge—the Portland food cart scene has ballooned to such epic proportions that it cannot sustain itself at its current levels, a sad reality you can see for yourself in the sheer number of carts closing each month. Part of the crisis lies in the mediocrity of the food being served at a high percentage of the carts, a problem that isn't echoed by the estimable Lardo.
Founded by Rick Gencarelli, formerly of the award-winning Inn at Shelburne Farms restaurant in Vermont, Aqua in San Francisco, and Olives in New York, Lardo puts out some of the best (and, it should be noted, saltiest) sandwiches in the city. Having sampled a number of these over the past few months, I had to know if his Double Burger, at a mere eight bucks, could qualify as one of Portland's best burger deals. The answer depends on how high your standards have been set.
For me, I can't call it a great burger, although it is certainly a good one. No one component is keeping it from greatness; rather, it's a confederacy of minor blemishes that conspire against it. Gencarelli begins with two 3.5-ounce patties (ground to a whopping 60/40 fat-to-beef ratio, the highest I've seen since In-N-Out) from Cascade Natural Beef, but after a stint on the griddle all the pink is cooked out of them and no sear or crust develops on the outside of the meat. It's a strange predicament. You'd think a burger cooked medium-well would sit on the griddle long enough to form a sear, but this just isn't so here. My only conjecture is that the cooking surface isn't set hot enough for that.
Depending on who you talk to, the inclusion of the one-to-two-ounce slab of pork belly on top of the seven ounces of ground beef may be seen as excessive, magnificent, or mildly distracting. I think it's a little of all three. The pork belly itself is delicious, but it's somewhat smaller than the beef patties nestled beneath it, leaving some bites sans pig. It also leads your palate a considerable distance down the path from the flavor of the beef, an unfortunate side effect which could be remedied by using a thinner slice of belly (one reason why bacon works so well). Still, others may be grateful for the inclusion of more flesh on this burger, so take my hesitations with a grain of salt.
Speaking of salt, there is no shortage of it in this burger. In fact, in stark contrast to Dick's Kitchen, Lardo is fearless (reckless?) in its use of the little white crystals. I tend to like my food on the salty side, so I was fine with the sodium level in this burger, but I could see some being put off by it. Fair warning: Everything I've eaten at Lardo has been high-sodium, so make sure you bring along a good liter or so of water to replace whatever fluids the food leaches out of you.
A pity mild cheddar makes yet another appearance here in lieu of a sharper, more strongly flavored cheese. The toothless yellow squares offer little more than a glimpse of gold between the meat coasters, whereas a longer-aged cheddar would do a better job of complementing the meat. Thankfully, the copious smear of "Lardo sauce" on the bottom bun makes up for any flavor lost by the lackluster cheese. Equal parts mayo, Dijon mustard, and relish, it has a nice sour profile that isn't so puckery that it steals the spotlight from the beef, but cuts the richness of the fatty meats.
Rounding out the Double Burger are the requisite greens (sliced green lettuce, in this case) and the Kaiser roll from Portland's Fleur De Lis Bakery. The roll's pretty big, and while a decent amount of bread is needed to hold up to this much cow and pig, this particular roll is a smidge too large; you'll end up finishing the meat with plenty of bun left over. Again, not a gamebreaker, but another candidate for improvement.
My nit-picking end there, because I have nothing but applause for the Lardo fries. Pre-cut, frozen, then deep-fried in pork fat, they're hit with a very generous toss of salt, parmesan, and herbs (predominantly rosemary and sage). Gencarelli cooks them perfectly; no limp noodles here. You can even order them "dirty" for an additional two dollars, which gets you pork scraps and Mama Lil's pickled peppers. The fries are outstanding, among the best in the city, and perfect alone or dipped in the housemade ketchup. But oh are they salty.
Unfortunately, as is far too often the case at food carts, quality control is an issue that can't be ignored. Lardo is one of the more popular Portland food carts, so working alone, Gencarelli can get overwhelmed very quickly. On one occasion the parmesan and herbs were omitted from my fries; on a separate to-go order, the ketchup was forgotten. Just make sure to double-check your order before leaving the premises and I'm sure Gencarelli will be more than happy to set things right.
Despite the bevy of criticisms I laid on Lardo's Double Burger, it's important to note that it is still a good burger and worth its $8 price tag, even though it can't in my opinion be called great. Most places in the city are charging over $10 for a burger of this size, so you really are getting some bang for your buck. But if you accompany it with Lardo's fries (and why on earth wouldn't you?), just know going in that the spuds are probably going to be the highlight of the meal.