2454 E Burnside St., Portland OR 97214 (map); 503-445-6101; ate-oh-ate.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A fancy-pants burger from a cheap eats Hawaiian joint that puts many of its more expensive brethren to shame
Want Fries with That? Too bad! Your options are green salad, mac salad, or taro chips
Prices: 1/2-pound Aina Burger, $8.95
Whenever I'm sitting around feeling too lazy to cook, chances are good I'm picking up some Hawaiian grub from Ate-Oh-Ate for my next meal. It's the kind of place that never wins Restaurant of the Year but serves quality food at a fair price without any kind of crowd to worry about. For years I've been chowing down on their kalua pig, tonkatsu, and saimin without a thought of ever ordering the burger on the menu. "A burger from a Hawaiian joint?" I snickered dismissively. "How good can that be?"
As it turns out, pretty damn good.
Obviously, a great burger starts with great beef, and Ate-Oh-Ate (the name's a play on Hawaii's area code) uses an 80/20 blend from nearby Laurelhurst Market, one of the premier butcher shops and steak houses in Portland. Beneath the beautiful crust on the salty exterior lies a pink center of juicy, coarsely ground beef packed with flavor. The burger is cooked to medium by default, but I've seen them come out quite bloody, so your mileage may vary. Lucky for you, the Grand Central Bakery bun is more than up to the task of absorbing the juice deluge without disintegrating in your hands.
In the grand burger tradition of topping meat with more meat, Ate-Oh-Ate throws a couple thick slabs of pork belly on the beef patty, to great effect. Crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and streaked with melt-in-your-mouth fat, it's a more than worthy substitute for the more prevalent use of the same cut of pig. The rich flavor of the pork pairs well with both the beef and the mound of crunchy shredded iceberg lettuce and shaved sweet onion.
The Aina Burger's third secret weapon is slathered on both buns: kimchi relish. Though most often found in Korean cuisine, kimchi is served all over the Hawaiian islands and therefore finds a place on Ate-Oh-Ate's menu. The Aina Burger blends all three of the restaurant's kimchi variations (cabbage, cucumber, and daikon), along with sautéed green onion, into a relish that adds a touch of heat to help cut the richness of the fatty beef and pork. It's delicious and unique, and it helps further distinguish the Aina Burger in a town already crowded with great bistro burgers.
Ate-Oh-Ate does not serve fries, so your choices for a side come down to a green salad, macaroni salad, or housemade taro chips. I tried the taro chips for the first time on the visit that produced these photographs and found them...curious. Taro, a kind of tuber, is a staple of the Hawaiian diet, but it's not a plant with which I'm overly familiar. The well-salted chips are paper-thin and brittle, sticking to your teeth as you chew them and tasting vaguely of potato. I found the texture mildly unpleasant, but by all means give them a try to see if you take to them. Me, I prefer the green salad and its creamy sesame-shoyu dressing.
I am happily eating my words when it comes to Ate-Oh-Ate's Aina Burger. It proves, quite handily, that preconceived notions about a kitchen's prowess with any particular dish should be set aside until you've actually tried the item in question. Ate-Oh-Ate has a lot of good food on its menu, but I think the Aina Burger might be the best thing on it.
About the author: Adam Lindsley is a Pacific Northwest-based writer, musician, and the author of the pizza blog, This Is Pizza. You can follow him at @ThisIsPizza on Twitter. His wish this Christmas is to put a thermometer in the hands of any chef who's even thinking about making a burger.