Portland, OR: Small Prices and Huge Flavor at Little Big Burger
Little Big Burger
122 NW 10th Ave., Portland OR 97209 (map); 503-274-9008; littlebigburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The first truly great fast food-style burger in Portland
Want Fries with That? Damn right you do; they're basically a truffle-tinged version of McDonald's fries
Prices: 4-ounce hamburger, $3.25; cheeseburger, $3.75
Good food is not hard to find in Portland. Throw a rock in any direction and you'll hit half a dozen restaurants run by James Beard Award-nominated chefs or humble food carts rightly fawned over by national publications. What you'll have trouble striking, though, is a burger joint that can be called both cheap and genuinely good. Oh, there are good burgers in Portland (even great ones), but in all my time there I never had a fast food-style one that was worth the bus fare to reach it. The city can put that sad reality behind it now with the arrival of Little Big Burger.
Portland restaurant magnate Micah Camden is behind this godsend. While his Kobe burger at Yakuza may get all the attention, I much prefer the less ostentatious one he's whipped up here in the pedestrian-choked Pearl District, and so does my wallet. The place feels like a less scuzzy throwback to diners of yore, albeit one populated by hipsters instead of shady cigar-smoking types.
The burgers are deceptively small. Deceptive because the patties are actually a quarter-pound each, even if the circumference is only a few inches across. They're cooked to medium on the griddle so that the meat stays pink and juicy in the center while maintaining a nice crust. Burgers are served on a squishy Portland French Bakery brioche bun with shredded lettuce, red onion, pickles, and a lightly spicy Camden signature ketchup, which is made with sriracha. Seasoning on the burger is simple, just salt and pepper, but the Cascade Natural beef sings with strong beefy flavor that cuts through everything else.
The Tillamook cheese on the cheddar-topped burger wasn't thick or sharp enough to notice in the midst of the beef, veggies, and ketchup, so I wouldn't recommend it. Go for the chèvre burger instead. The creamy goat's cheese is tart and rich enough to go toe-to-toe with the beef, and really works well with the sharpness of the onions and the sourness of the pickles. The whole thing is barely the size of your fist, and feels even smaller than an In-N-Out burger, but that's only an illusion. I felt it was the perfect size, leaving me sated without the typical burger gut ache.
Along with the chèvre burger, the Yukon Gold fries are a must-order. They're thin and crispy and fluffy on the inside like McDonald's legendary fries, well-salted, and augmented with just a hint of truffle oil. They're frozen, not fresh-cut. The truffle oil, noticeable without becoming overbearing or distracting, makes these fries a step above almost anyone else's in town.
And their root beer float, served in paper Coca-Cola cups? Delicious and completely unpretentious. A few scoops of Tillamook vanilla ice cream get doused in Barq's root beer—that's it, no frills. Not that it needs frills; it's perfect as is. Best of all, they serve you more ice cream than root beer, so you're getting the proper ratio of ice cream to soda as it slowly incorporates in your cup.
One of my biggest laments about living in Portland was the lack of a great cheap burger. Foster Burger was the first place to cast the dim light of hope, but Little Big Burger flips the switch on the flood lights to full blast. If there's a better burger under five dollars in the entire city, I haven't eaten 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.