Portland, OR: Nostalgia Can't Save the All-Too-Familiar Burgers at Stanich's
4915 NE Fremont St., Portland OR 97213 (map); 503-281-2322; stanichs.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: While this burger may have been worthy of its considerable praise in the past, its striking mediocrity in 2011 is unmistakable
Want Fries with That? How hungry are you? The hand-cut fries are okay, but they're too soft and need a lot of salt to season them up.
Prices: 4-ounce "The Special," $6.50; regular 4-ounce cheeseburger, $5.75
Stanich's is one of those Portland institutions that must have had one helluva heyday to garner the kind of praise that's been showered on it over the years. AOL Cityguide placed it on its "15 Burgers to Try Before You Die" list, and it even earned a spot in the venerated George Motz's Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 100 Great Burger Joints. The Portland Monthly chose it as the city's "Best Old School Burger." The local Willamette Week has picked it as the best burger in Portland, and Stanich's won the Best of Citysearch Best Hamburger award multiple times. With all those accolades, this has to be a pretty awesome burger, right?
Want to find out? Get in your car, hop on the freeway, and the first non-national-chain "Hamburgers" sign you see, get off at that exit, find the burger joint, and have one of their burgers. Finished? Congrats, my friend. You've just eaten a burger from Stanich's.
The purpose of that little analogy was to point out the fact that Stanich's makes burgers like the vast majority of roadside burger shacks make burgers. Flat, perfectly round, underseasoned quarter-pound patties on a huge bun with a lot of veggies piled on it. I've eaten this burger a hundred times or more across America, and the burgers I tried from Stanich's are only the latest in that long, long list.
Which isn't to say Stanich's burgers are awful; they're not. They're just very mediocre. And while they may have once been among the city's elite burgers, the explosion of quality burgers in Portland—including its first great fast food-style burger at Little Big Burger—has left it in the dust.
Not that the regulars will care much. It's a dark, quiet little tavern plastered floor-to-ceiling with a kajillion sports pennants, with lots of cozy booths and nary a window to the outside world in sight; it's been that way since 1949. And the staff...well, prior to my inaugural visit, I'd heard the employees were a rather prickly bunch with a fair amount of disdain for newcomers, but my experience couldn't have been further from that. The woman who took my order and rang up my check was as friendly and accommodating as anyone I've met in the service industry.
On to the burgers. The Special, noted on the menu as "The World's Greatest Hamburger," begins with that uninspired disc of beef (menu says "fresh ground," for what it's worth) and a slice of melted American cheese and rests it atop a pile of shredded iceberg lettuce, onions, tomatoes, sweet pickle relish, mayo, mustard, bacon, a slice of ham, and a fried egg. Sounds like a lot, and it is. Keeping this burger from collapsing into a big greasy pile is a challenge in and of itself, and the overabundance of toppings forces a situation in which only the strongest flavors will cut through the mix, which means this is essentially a ham-and-onion sandwich.
The beef is almost completely overshadowed by the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to this burger. The egg, with its bright, inviting, sunshine-yellow yolk, is a total loss. I enjoyed the flavor of the ham, though its pedigree seems no higher than the lunchmeat variety (not that I'm complaining for a burger this size under $7, I'm just pointing out the facts). I could not taste the bacon to save my life. And one more gripe: the bun is just too damn big. A good half-inch cleared the circumference of the patty, meaning that I bit through nothing but bread and veggies for the first two bites until I actually reached the beef. Can you picture my sad face?
The regular cheeseburger was a bit more balanced. Sure, the same humongous bun makes a reappearance here, but the beef isn't quite so inundated with veggies this time around. It still tastes like it could use more salt and pepper pre-griddle, though. My waitress informed me that they cook the burgers medium, and if you squint really hard I suppose you can see a little pink in the center, but a juicy burger this ain't.
If the burger doesn't fill you up, then you could do worse than order a small basket of Stanich's hand-cut fries. They aren't crisp, and they require copious use of the salt shaker, but you can add them to your burger basket for $1.25 (or get a whole basket for only $2). Like the burgers, they're squarely in the not-terrible-but-not-good camp.
Seems cruel to pick on Stanich's, a much-beloved and once (even recently)-lauded dive purveying burgers long before I or even my parents were born. But I've eaten at other decades-old establishments (most in Los Angeles), and some put out absolutely phenomenal burgers that, if the longtime fans are to be believed, have always been like that. If Stanich's burgers were always like this, then they were never special to begin with.
About the author: Adam Lindsley is a Seattle-based writer, musician, 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.