533 SE Grand Ave., Portland OR 97214 (map); 503-230-7767; slowbar.net
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A formidably tall burger stacked with two crunchy onion rings is delicious, incredibly messy, and a heck of a bargain
Want Fries with That? Hand-cut fries come with the burger, and they're a pretty good rendition of the style
Prices: 8-ounce Slowburger w/fries, $9.75
Esquire recently polled readers of its Eat Like a Man food blog on the "most life-changing burger joint" in the country, and among the 18 nominees, only three had not yet received a review on Serious Eats. One of those was Slow Bar right here in Portland, an oversight of considerable magnitude on my part. So without further ado, here is my take on what is surely the tallest burger I've ever attempted to eat.
On a dingy corner of a busy stretch of Grand Avenue in Southeast Portland sits the drab and easily missed Slow Bar, a dive possessing little in the way of exterior charm with which to draw in the kind of clientele seeking the caliber of upscale burger typically served in fancier digs. Breach the threshold and glance at the menu, however, and clearly there's more at play here than the aging vinyl booths and scuzzy locale portend.
For its signature Slowburger, Slow Bar starts with a painstakingly measured half-pound of 20 percent fat Painted Hills ground chuck and cooks it to order* on the flat top. Apparently they used to blend in herbs and spices into the meat, but thankfully someone put a stop to that misguided practice in recent years. The beef is quite tender, arriving with a lovely crust on the top and bottom and a semi-loose grind that keeps most of the juice inside the meat and off your plate (or hands). The thick slice of nutty Gruyère melting on top of the patty is a good match for the simple beef, though in all honesty another slice or two would make for a more complex (and, sadly, more expensive) burger.
Not that it isn't complex as is; the meat and cheese are just the beginning of this monument to excess. The burger's most noticeable trait and selling point is the pair of beer-battered onion rings stacked on top of each other, forming a solid inch-and-a-half of deep-fried crunch. The rings trigger the same pleasure sensors as potato chips stuffed into a sandwich while managing not to overpower the beef with either onion or grease. Slow Bar probably wasn't the first place to try this, but few have accomplished it as expertly.
A crisp leaf of butter lettuce and a healthy smear of garlic-heavy aioli round out the above-the-meat toppings, while a layer of tangy pickle relish augmented with ketchup and horseradish provides the much-needed "pucker factor" and locks the beef in place to the bottom of the Grand Central Bakery brioche bun. That bun, known for its delicate airiness, works successfully on numerous bistro burgers around town, but here it is far from the ideal choice. The mighty Slowburger is simply too heavy for bread this dainty, and the pickle relish alone eats through the bottom bun halfway before you finish. Swapping it out for something more substantial and dense would be a smart move on Slow Bar's part. As it stands, expect to get a lot of that relish all over your hands.
Earlier in the review I mentioned that Slow Bar cooks burgers to order, as they should. Well, as is the case with at least 90 percent of chefs cooking burgers (and that number is probably too generous), the folks manning at the flat top in Slow Bar's kitchen are not skilled enough to deliver your burger exactly as requested all the time. I ordered this particular burger medium rare, yet it arrived in the narrow rift between medium and medium well. I've seen others come out well done. It's doubtful most patrons will care, but those of us who do, let's hope they start paying a little more attention in the future (and start using a thermometer).
Hand-cut fries are always a dicey proposition. Most of the time they just end up dense and flabby. I can't promise they'll always come out this way, but the skin-on fries that accompanied my most recent Slowburger were crisp and well-salted, lacking the burnt taste that signifies improper frying. They come with the burger, so you don't even have to fork over any extra greenbacks for these beauties.
At $9.75, Slow Bar's Slowburger is a major value. I can think of very few places in the city serving a burger and fries of this quality at this price point, and despite the unconventional topping choice of onion rings, the burger really works as a cohesive whole. It's a shame Slow Bar's chefs can't be more consistent, but it's a risk worth taking. Intrigued? Then you'd better start your mouth-stretching exercises right now.