Portland, OR: An Absence of Balance at Killer Burger
4461 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland OR 97213 (map); 971-544-7521; 3 other locations listed at killerburger.biz
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A heavy hand on the toppings hamstrings any chance for the beef to shine on these well-crusted but unbalanced burgers
Want Fries with That? A thicker frozen variety that's cooked perfectly; better yet, they come with every burger
Prices: 1/4-pound burgers, $7.95; "Girlie"-size burgers, $5.95
I have no good excuse for not getting to Killer Burger sooner. It opened two years ago not a mile from my apartment to mostly positive reviews from the local food hounds, and it has since garnered a fiercely loyal following. So behind schedule am I that the restaurant now has four locations in and around Portland. It was time to see what all the fuss was about.
The simplicity of Killer Burger's menu is one of the best things it has going for it. Burgers and fries are the only items emerging from the kitchen, and beverages are restricted to soda and beer. Now, granted, they do let their creative flag fly when it comes to what goes on those burgers. Purists undoubtedly will scoff at that, but if the result is delicious, I won't turn my nose up on sheer principle.
Let's start with the more conventional burgers on the menu, all of which come topped with bacon and some kind of cheese. The Old School ($7.95; seen at top) comes with a 1/4-pound patty seared on the griddle until a beautiful crust forms on one side. Cheddar, bacon, raw onions, mustard, and mayo accompany the beef between the squishy halves of a toasted, cornmeal-topped Franz bun made specially for Killer Burger.
While I appreciated the relative simplicity of the burger (i.e. no unnecessary vegetation), the construction kept it from greatness. A far too heavy hand was taken with the mayo and mustard, and the burger was served positively drenched in the condiments. It was pretty much all I could taste, even overpowering the bacon, which is no easy feat. A shame, because the patty was plenty juicy despite being cooked medium well. It just wasn't seasoned enough to bring out those beefy undertones.
Oddly, the true flavors of the beef began to surface on the more elaborately topped burgers. Take the Teemah ($7.95), for example. Same bun, same patty, same bacon, but toss on a thick layer of blue cheese sauce, grilled onions, and pickles, and suddenly—don't ask me how—you can actually taste the beef a little. But just a little. A cowl of creamy blue cheese sauce encased the patty with a richness that didn't quite carry the funkier notes of true blue cheese, but it was a nice addition nonetheless.
Also good was the Jose Mendoza ($7.95), which featured roasted green chilies, jack cheese, and the "smoky house sauce." The green chilies imparted their characteristic bitterness to the burger without adding mountains of heat (although Killer Burger does offer a ghost chili version for the über brave/stupid). The chilis were so flavorful, however, that it was difficult to pick up on the cheese, onions, or the house sauce. Like the Teemah, the beef did come through, albeit weakly.
Confounded by the lack of a strong beefy presence and concluding that the perhaps-too-generous proportioning of toppings and condiments was probably to blame, I returned to Killer Burger to try their "Girlie"-sized burgers. These are half the size of their main attraction counterparts, meaning they're about as large as a regular cheeseburger from In-N-Out. I further set up my beef-finding expedition for success by ordering the Kids Killer Basket burger ($4.95), which tops a Girlie-sized patty with the can't-lose combination of American cheese, bacon, grilled onions, and the house sauce. But as with the regular-sized burgers, the beef was still hidden, this time by the smoky house sauce, which is a combination of mustard, mayo, and spices. So much of it had been applied to both halves of the bun that it forced all other flavors—the bacon, the cheese, and especially the beef—far into the background.
At a complete loss for this development, I ordered one more "just for the hell of it" burger: the Girlie-sized version of the Peanut-Butter-Pickle-Bacon ($7.95). I didn't expect the beef to come through on this one, and it didn't. On the other hand, you do get an enormous hit of Killer Burger's housemade peanut butter sauce, which includes small chunks of peanuts in a very sweet sauce that completely takes the burger into PB&J territory. Even with the satisfying crunch of the puckery pickles, the sauce was just too sweet for the burger to be enjoyable.
Thank goodness for the fries, because an ample portion comes with every burger. They're of the frozen variety and about the thickness of your pinky finger, give or take. Crisp, salty, and fluffy on the inside, they're hard to stop eating and an example of better frozen fries.
The fries pair wonderfully with Killer Burger's mildly hoppy Bloodshed Red ale. I highly recommend grabbing a pint (or three).
Killer Burger employs an incredibly friendly staff, and it clearly knows its way around the griddle (I don't know of another place in Portland that gets such a gorgeous crust on the meat). Unfortunately, the final product is sadly unbalanced. These are decent burgers, no question of that, but if nothing else they prove that the beef should be able to stand on its own and that toppings and condiments should complement it, not steal its thunder.
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.