Portland, OR: Grüner Makes a Burger Worthy of Obsession
527 SW 12th Ave., Portland, OR 97205 (map); 503-241-7163; grunerpdx.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: German-inspired restaurant serves what's debatably the best burger in Portland
Want Fries with That? The burger is served with fried smashed potatoes, which laugh in the face of common fries
Prices: 8-ounce burger w/cheese and fried smashed potatoes, $11
I've eaten a lot of burgers over the years, and while many of them were quite wonderful at the time of consumption, over time most have faded from memory like a Polaroid photo in reverse. But every now and then, when the planets align and a patch of four-leaf clover sprouts in my yard and a double rainbow arcs over my house, one comes along that makes me want to drop to my knees and weep at the sheer pleasure I have been so generously granted by whatever higher beings currently reside in the firmament. The burger at Grüner in downtown Portland is one such trigger of emotionally jellifying bliss.
Chef/owner Chris Israel describes Grüner's cuisine as "Alpine"—a quick perusal of the restaurant's offerings reveals a slant toward German dishes, served in a classy, simple, upscale setting by chefs who are not content to serve you the status quo. While everything I've eaten here has been outstanding, the burger is so good that it completely overshadows everything else on the menu. To have it once is to set yourself up for a lot of disappointment thereafter: Most of the rest of the burgers you'll eat in this lifetime won't be nearly as good as this one.
Not yet convinced? Let's tackle this godsend component by component, starting with the Cascade Natural beef. It's ground in-house, with the fat taking up a glorious 25 percent of the eight-ounce patty. After a stint on the grill, that one-quarter fat ratio becomes abundantly clear, as evidenced by the juices nearly bursting from the medium rare center once you take your first bite. After that, expect a shallow puddle of fat to form on the plate beneath the bun, and if that's not an excuse to lick your fingers every time you pick up the burger, I don't know what is. The meat is unctuous and full of so much beefy flavor you'll think they packed a thousand cows into each patty. It's of such high quality that when bits of it crumbled off onto the plate, I couldn't stop myself from going back for them later with the fork.
With so much juice leaking out, a burger like this needs a competent bun to catch as much of that liquid flavor as possible without disintegrating. The house-baked poppy seed-topped potato bun is more than up to that task once toasted, with a browned crust giving way to a soft but substantial interior that remains intact while soaking up the fat (though some will invariably still find its way to your hands, your arms, and your clothing). I certainly can't think of a better burger bun, but as far as I know, Grüner isn't sharing.
Next up, the one-two punch of creamy Fontina and Nueske's smoked bacon. The cheese is nutty and rich, and strong enough to stand out among so many other powerful flavors. The bacon is cooked perfectly, neither limp nor brittle, with just the right amount of smokiness to create two distinct, equally delicious layers of protein in conjunction with the hamburger.
Finally, we have the greens, and like the meat they're key factors in what makes the Grüner burger so irresistible. Front and center are the insanely good bread-and-butter pickles. They're sweet and tangy and essential to cutting the richness of the meat and cheese; just try to resist the urge to pop them in your mouth instead of layering them on the burger. The neon pink pickled onions combine the sweetness of grilled onions and the bite of vinegar, and the mustard greens further widen the flavor spectrum by adding a touch of bitterness. I am a minimalist when it comes to burger toppings and often find vegetation extraneous, but here I cannot imagine the burger without it.
As if the burger wasn't already transcendent, Grüner also gives you one of the best sides you're likely to find anywhere: fried smashed potatoes. Made with skin-on Yellow Finns, they're fried until crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside, then dusted with salt. They're excellent, putting most fries to shame. They're great dipped in the house-made ketchup, which is sweet and tastes uncannily like the holidays, as it's spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. I recommend spreading a little on the burger as well for that one final touch of acidity.
Desserts at Grüner change frequently, but the raspberry doughnuts I had on my last visit were to die for. An order gets you three inch-and-a-half-thick spheres that have been deep fried and piped with a bright raspberry jam, then rolled in sugar. You can smell them frying from the dining room, making your mouth water and brewing a nigh-unbearable level of anticipation that escalates until they hit the table and you tear them open. One was undercooked and doughy in the center, but its two brothers were perfect, providing a magnificent end to an indulgent meal.
I won't lie: I am obsessed with this burger. But it's so godly that I think it deserves to be obsessed over. When a chef pays attention to the little things, it really does show, as this burger so epically demonstrates. If you're in Portland and looking for a hamburger, I cannot recommend Grüner enough.
About the author: Adam Lindsley is a Seattle-based novelist and the author of the pizza blog, This Is Pizza. He'd start a blog called This Is Burgers, but that doesn't have quite the same ring to it.