Portland Penny Diner
410 SW Broadway, Portland OR 97205 (map); 503-228-7224; portlandpennydiner.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Scrape off the superfluous veggies and you'll find a simple, quality burger with caramelized and pickled onions
Want Fries with That? A side of delicious waffle fries is practically mandatory; obey my command and order them
Prices: 1/4-pound Imperial Burger, $6.95; waffle fries, $3
When Vitaly Paley announced that he would open a cheap eats counter named Portland Penny Diner, a tangible buzz percolated throughout Portland's culinary cognoscenti. As the owner of one of Portland's most venerated fine dining establishments, Paley's Place, Paley bore a deserved reputation for American and French dishes elevated well above the status quo. Locals familiar with his usual fare waited eagerly to see how he would reimagine lowbrow American dishes for downtown breakfast and lunch crowds on the go.
The results have been well received, but not much talk had been made of the diner's burger (as far as I can tell, no review from any local publication has even mentioned it). Curious to see if the burger held up to Paley's usual high standards, I ventured into the bustling city center on a recent rain-drenched weekday to find out for myself.
On paper, the Imperial Burger won't exactly send shock waves through the legion of veteran burgermeisters. "Beef patty, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, housemade bun," is the extent of the description, along with an alluring price tag of $6.95. In this age of $15+ burgers with every component rigorously detailed on the menu, Portland Penny Diner's approach was a breath of fresh air.
The minuscule kitchen was manned by a single individual, a gregarious gentleman moving with machine-like precision between the flat-top griddle and plating station. While waiting for my burger I examined an eyedropper jar of barrel-aged hot sauce (!) on the counter and sipped on one of the diner's "Fountain Favorites" known as the Buster Brown, a concoction of caramel, Jacobsen sea salt, vanilla ice cream, crushed pistachios, seltzer water, and old fashioned bitters. The hunks of rock-hard pistachio plugged up the straw and clashed texturally with the rest of the beverage, but the hint of bitters amid the sweet blend of caramel and vanilla was pleasant enough. Still, it's no milkshake.
When my burger arrived, I could barely contain my joy at seeing the (admittedly very thin) patty completely engulfed in a cloak of sharp white cheddar. Less titillating was the heap of shredded lettuce and mealy slice of out-of-season tomato adding unnecessary height to a burger with such a thin allotment of beef. I tried a bite with the veggie filler then scraped it all off, and the burger improved significantly thereafter.
Thin though it may be, the patty was properly seasoned and well seared by the griddle. But it just didn't have as much bold beefy flavor as I would have liked. Conversely, the delicious sharp cheese didn't fade into the background like mild or medium cheddar. But the best thing about the Imperial Burger? The ingenious decision to implement onions prepared two ways: pickled and caramelized. This alternately crunchy and melt-in-your-mouth combo delivers a one-two punch of vinegar and sweetness that only has the chance to shine once you've jettisoned all that superfluous roughage.
The burger comes solo, but you'd be a fool not to order a side of waffle fries ($3) with it. They may be of the frozen persuasion, but they're deep-fried to the perfect crunchy-exterior/fluffy-interior texture to which all fries aspire. A drop here and there of the aforementioned barrel-aged hot sauce kicks things up a notch or three, if you're so inclined.
Portland Penny Diner may not hit all the notes of a classic soda fountain like I wanted it to, but at least in the case of the burger, it's better than average. $6.95 is about what it's worth, and to ask for more than that is just plain greedy.