Portland, OR: Foster Burger Classes Up the Classic Burger Minus the Snobbery
5339 SE Foster Road, Portland, OR 97206 (map); 503-775-2077; fosterburger.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Three major players in Portland cuisine combine forces to serve top notch burgers without pretension
Want Fries with That? Of the three side options (including slaw and a salad), the fries are your best bet; they're well-salted but could be crispier
Prices: 6-ounce Foster Burger, $8; Kiwi Burger, $11; Foster Road Pile-Up, $11.50
Somewhere between fast food and fancy-pants lies a middle ground populated by burgers made quickly with quality ingredients by chefs who know how to cook but want to serve food that appeals to as many stomachs as it does wallets. They should be unpretentious enough to please the simple lover of burgers, but also indulge those looking for something more sophisticated for their palate than, say, a Whopper. Foster Burger in Portland, Oregon, is one of the rising stars putting out this kind of elevated blue-collar food, and it was named one of Bon Appetit's Top 10 Best New Burger Spots for good reason.
A godsend to Portlanders living in the culinary wasteland south of Powell Boulevard, Foster Burger comes courtesy of a triumvirate of goliaths in Oregon cuisine: Daniel Mondok, chef-owner of Willamette Week's 2008 Restaurant of the Year, Sel Gris; Andy Ricker, chef/owner of the emphatically venerated Pok Pok; and Kurt Huffman, developer of newer Bridgetown staples Ping and Grüner. After a very rough start in the first couple months of operation (to see early reactions, just check out the hilariously idiotic one-star reviews from Yelpers posted proudly on the wall), the restaurant seems to have finally hit its stride, consistently putting out a burger that's a clear step up from the average drive-in.
If the only thing you try here is the basic Foster Burger, chances are you'll wonder what all the fuss is about. Don't get me wrong, it's a solid, well-constructed burger, cooked to medium unless otherwise requested, but I wouldn't categorize it as great. Instead, it's content to just be very good.
The beef is from Lindsay Ranch in Lexington, Oregon, and ground in-house with pork fatback to get the lipids to around the 20 percent range. This is a grilled burger, and you can taste the char in the blackened grill marks on the beef's exterior. The six-ounce patty rests between the halves of a house-made brioche bun, which is much more substantial than the flimsy buns they had been using from neighboring An Xuyen Bakery. Locals often complained of the sweetness of those buns, but I think the new buns are just as sweet as An Xuyen's (and honestly, I don't have a problem with that). What could do with some tweaking is the size of the bun, which overshoots the diameter of the burger by about half an inch all around.
Toppings include a thick layer of lettuce, tomato, onion, wonderfully tart/sweet house-made pickles, and Foster Sauce, which tastes like a slight variation on the standard fry sauce (essentially mayo, pickles, and ketchup). Together they don't add much in the way of flavor, with the exception of the pickles, which are dynamite. You can add cheese (cheddar or Swiss), applewood-smoked bacon, sautéed onions, pickled beet, or a fried egg if you want to amp things up (and indeed, the Foster Road Pile-Up does just that—by including all of them). I recommend you at least add bacon and cheddar, because otherwise the burger can come off a little flat and underwhelming.
This is especially true if you happen to have tasted what is I think is the best reason to dine at Foster Burger: The Kiwi Burger. Here, the beef is swapped out for lamb, and boy does it ever make a difference. Comparing a bite of each reveals how much juicier the lamb burger is, and how much more flavor its Foster Burger iteration packs per square inch than its bovine cousin. I thought it would be gamier than it was, but I tasted none of the light funkiness that often accompanies lamb (which shouldn't affect your love of this sandwich in any way).
The toppings are also considerably more noticeable than those on the regular beef burger, and play off the lamb beautifully. The pickled beet is tart and provides a bright contrast to the delicate but supremely meaty lamb, and the sunny-side up egg doesn't get lost in the other bold flavors, especially when the yolk breaks and all that delicious orange goo comes spilling out the sides. As if that wasn't enough of a field day for your palate, those same great pickles make also make an appearance, along with mayo, lettuce, onion, and Tillamook cheddar. The downside to this smorgasbord of food? Good luck keeping it all sandwiched between the two halves of the bun. Eating this burger is like having a cannibal babysit your children; sometimes things might work out fine, but sooner or later you're going to lose some meat.
All burgers come served with fries, slaw, or a side salad. Naturally, I almost always opt for the fries. They're hand-cut and well salted, and they give you nearly a metric ton of them in each basket, but I wish they were crispier. Chopped rosemary used to come standard sprinkled over the fries, delivering a superlative herbal flair that more places should consider trying, but unfortunately Foster Burger gave that up months ago.
You also have the option of, for a fee, substituting your fries for the Black and White Fries. These are topped with Parmesan and truffle oil and served with a small cup of very thick squid ink aioli. Many Portland food critics have raved about the Black and White Fries, but I've yet to have them come out anything but incredibly bland. You'd think that was impossible with truffle oil (which I happen to hate, but you can't say it doesn't taste like something), but apparently I'm unlucky enough to have had it served that way every time. Even the squid ink aioli, as exotic a condiment as I'm ever likely to try, barely registered. But enough people have praised this side as a revelation that you should still order it if you're interested; perhaps you'll get a better batch than the ones I've been given.
A fantastic side to consider is The Pickled Jar, literally a small glass jar filled with brine and your choice of green beans, cauliflower, radish, egg, carrots, onions, garlic, and a few other options. You can also opt to try all of them on a full pickle plate. The pickled green beans were outstanding and very tart, with just a hint of spice to fire up your taste buds. They came with a few cloves of pickled garlic, which made their presence known despite the powerful brine, albeit subtly. If your mouth starts to pucker, do what I did and chase it with a sip of their delicious chocolate malt, which may or may not come with the mixing cup of leftover ice cream, depending on who's making it (again, luck is definitely a factor).
Foster Burger has taken a lot of flack for not elevating the hamburger to something deserving of prostrated worship, given the pedigree of its creators. But I don't think that was ever their intention. These are the burgers you wished your local 24-hour diner served, made by real chefs who know that sometimes it's not necessary to overcomplicate comfort food. Foster Burger delivers a quality product to a part of town that has a dearth of palatable food, without breaking the bank. What more can you ask of it?
About the author: Adam Lindsley is a Seattle-based novelist and the author of the pizza blog, This Is Pizza. As a contributor for both Slice and A Hamburger Today, he is contractually obligated to say he loves pizza and burgers in equal amounts. Which is to say he is a polygamist.