738 East Burnside Street, Portland OR 97214 (map); 503-546-8796; lepigeon.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This "fancy-pants" burger is a juicy, messy, slaw-covered, mustard-punching delight
Want Fries With That? The crispy little potato nubs are great, but the salad is a good choice too
Price: Burger w/potatoes, $11; w/mixed greens, $13
Notes: Only five burgers served per night
Fellow Serious Eats editor Erin Zimmer and I went on a three-day trip to Portland a few weeks ago to do research (and by that I mean "eat way too much") for our upcoming Serious Eats book. The research focused mostly on street food, sandwiches, and breakfast, leaving little room for burgers—but before we left Ed Levine insisted that we add the burger from the acclaimed Le Pigeon to our impossibly long list of places to hit up.
And so with three other friends in tow, we popped into Le Pigeon for an early dinner (after which we went to Potato Champion and Whiffies, followed by our best impressions of beached whales). And you should get there early, right when they open at 5 p.m., because they only serve five burgers a night. There's no evidence of this on their menu, which lists the burger as the last option on the menu sans any warning such as, "THERE ARE ONLY FIVE OF THESE A NIGHT."
Our waiter explained that James Beard-nominated chef/owner Gabriel Rucker has been serving the burger ever since Le Pigeon opened in 2006, but as their menu has evolved since then, so has allocation of their kitchen's resources and chef's responsibilities. It would take too much out of the kitchen to make burgers all night, but by limiting them to only five a night they can still offer them with the peace of mind that their kitchen won't suffer from meat patty-induced collapse.
Sometimes they sell out quickly; other times they don't sell any at all. Considering our party of five claimed three burgers right when they opened, methinks that was a "sell out" day.
Their burgers are made with eight ounces of Cascade Natural Beef ground in-house, grilled with flames-a-plenty, and topped with Tillamook four-year aged white cheddar, grilled pickles onions, iceberg lettuce slaw, housemade aioli, housemade ketchup, and housemade Dijon mustard on a grilled ciabatta bun from Ken's Bakery. For sides you can choose between crispy pan-fried potato chunks or a salad of mixed young greens.
We cut our medium rare burgers in half to share. And then the juices flowed. Oh man.
This was one of the juiciest meat sponge-y burgers I've ever had, and due to the mass of creamy slaw on top and slathering of aioli, also one of the messiest. The slaw was my favorite topping and certainly worth the mess—it lent cool crispiness to every bite. When seemingly half of it fell out of my burger as I worked my way through it, I ate the remains with my fork. Note to self: must procure more slaw-covered burgers.
Overall, I liked all the toppings—the slaw, tangy cheese, sweet ketchup, and mildly tart pickled onions went together and complemented the beef—except for the mustard. It was tear-inducing, blow-out-your-sinuses strong. Thankfully, it wasn't in every bite, but when it was you couldn't taste anything else. Even Erin, self-described mustard lover (she did orchestrate our mustard taste test after all) said the mustard was a bit much, although she did enjoy it on the burger. The mustard had an army of toppings to compete with, and compete, it did. By shoving a big 'ol roundhouse kick to their metaphorical groins. And to my nasal passages.
If you like mustard, you'll be into this burger. If you don't, you might gag after a few bites. And if you're neutral like I am, you'll probably still like it.
Although the bottom bun looks totally soaked in the photo, it held up to the very end. The soft, slightly chewy bun was a great fit for the burger for not interfering with the fillings in texture or volume.
Despite the mustard, I'd totally eat this burger again. It's a fantastic deal for only $11 with potatoes, or $13 with the salad. Although crispy potato nubs would be the more popular pairing for a burger, the salad dressed in a light lemon vinaigrette made me happier—maybe because I don't eat enough salads (nor come across ones that a perfectly dressed), but eat far too many versions of fried potatoes.