After the success of last year’s “Thai-o-rama” tasting experiment, in which our fellow Portland food bloggers heroically sampled every Thai restaurant in the city, we decided to change things up a little bit for this year’s project. Though we didn’t get on board until the end stages of last year’s project, my sense is that, after their 15th order of Pad Thai, there was starting to be some Thai burnout among the other bloggers. This year, rather than try and tackle every single burger being served in Portland, we are going to be breaking restaurants into categories, and each month, tackling a few burgers from each category. Which brings us to this month’s featured hamburger category: Diners & Sandwich Shops.
First, though, I thought I would take a moment to describe my ideal hamburger, to see if you and I are at all on the same page. My ideal hamburger patty is on the small-ish side, at a diminutive three or four ounces. I like a coarse grind, with an under-handled and under-worked patty. The beef should have a good fat content, but not flood my face and ruin my fries with hot beef juice on first bite. I’d like little, if any seasoning beyond salt and pepper. The patty should have a nice crust on all sides, be pressed thin, and be the same size as the bun on which it is served.
I would also make the argument that American cheese is the only acceptable cheese on a cheeseburger, though it has few applications elsewhere in the food world. This is not about knocking your customers tonsils out with flavor; the choice of cheese on a burger is as important a textural decision, as it is a flavorful one. Blue cheese overpowers. Ditto most Cheddars. Swiss cheese can go all waxy on you, as can Provolone. Muenster tilts too strongly into texture territory, offering little in terms of flavor. Same with Jack. And if you’re really contemplating putting mozzarella cheese on there, I want you to stop reading this review right now. This isn’t a meatball, meatball. It’s a hamburger. Good old pasteurized, processed, bright orange, individually-wrapped American cheese doesn’t overwhelm the beef, and, under even the gentlest heat, melts and oozes alluringly into every nook and cranny in the patty, dripping ever-so-slightly off the edges.
I can go a lot of ways on the topping front. For steamed, slider-style burgers, I prefer nothing but some diced onions, that have preferably been cooked on the burger, with the bun, so that the escaping steam from the onions flavors all the other components of the sandwich. For a more traditional hamburger, I prefer to stick to simpler toppings. A little lettuce, a slice of fresh tomato, perhaps a pickle slice or two, and some onions. A dab of ketchup is just fine, particularly if it is homemade. And, where ketchup is mentioned, and because over the course of this series I don’t ever, ever want to miss a chance to say it, Louie’s Lunch in New Haven can eat 100% of my balls.
Where buns are concerned, again, I think simpler is best. This is not a time to impress me with your artisinal, locally-sourced braided whole-grain pretzel brioche. I am looking for a vehicle for what’s within, one that will not break down under the stress inherent in containing two tablespoons of hot beef blood. I want enriched white flour, with a very slight crust on the outside, and soft, refined goodness on the inside. I’ll take a slight grill on the bun, particularly if butter has first been liberally applied.
To put it into name-brand terms, I will say that my most memorable burgers have come from the tragically now-defunct Yankee Doodle in New Haven, for their buttered buns and homemade tomato chutney, NYC’s Shake Shack for their faultlessly seasoned and crusted burgers, New York’s Corner Bistro for making a day-long event of drinking and hamburger eating, a tray of sliders from the recently-deceased Schnack in Brooklyn, and, on the West coast, the In ‘n’ Out Double Double (naturally), the patty melt from Pie ‘n Burger, which sets a standard for patty melts that is rarely matched by inferior versions, Tommy Burger, who believes, as I do, that chili should be automatically added to everything, and Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar in Las Vegas, which is deliciously, hilariously over-the top (in the case of my $21 freshly-ground bison, fried egg, and black truffle burger).
For our first official foray into the local hamburger scene, we chose the Miss Portland Diner from Portland Food Map’s list of “Diners and Sandwich Shops.” The traditional lunch car-style diner, which dates back to 1949 (though it was originally located on Forest Ave, before being moved lock, stock and barrel to its current Marginal Way location) is a shining example of old-fashioned diner design, with a few small hardwood booths, a long lunch counter, and plenty of chrome and brass detail work. To accommodate more hungry diners, the restaurant added a more modern (but much less interesting) dining room on the back of the building, with about a dozen more tables.
We started with the regular cheeseburger, with American cheese, medium-rare, for $6.95. We opted for the chips on the side. When first set in front of me, the burger was visually impressive, and stood tall and proudly on the plate. The burger appears to weigh in around six ounces, but, sadly, appears to be of the pre-formed, frozen-patty type. A closer inspection revealed grill marks, but it is unclear if these burgers are actually flame-grilled, or factory-seared to appear so. On tasting, some suspicious artificial smoke flavoring made this even more of a mystery. The cheese was generously applied, but not quite melted. A few slices of romaine heart, two overwhelmingly thick, unripe tomato slices, and a few rings of raw red onion finish the burger, which sits on an oddly tall, soft white bread bun, briefly grilled.
Usually, the use of those gawdawful frozen hamburger patties immediately makes me wish I hadn’t ordered a hamburger. The burgers at this Miss Portland Diner appear to be of this variety; big gritty knots of nearly flavorless beef, pressed into submission on the grill so that no juice remains and the patty becomes very dry and puck-like. The character of the burger was not saved by the lifeless vegetables perched high on top, and the burger never managed to become more than the sum of its parts. This felt more like a pile of ingredients that were taking up space that could have been used for more Ruffles, rather than a cohesive cheeseburger.
Jillian ordered the patty melt ($7.50), a hamburger patty with loads of melted Swiss cheese and sauteed onions on a dark rye bread. This burger, though less conventional, was as outstanding as diner patty melts can be. The burger was cooked to a nice medium rare, unlike my hamburger, which felt more like it had been beaten to death, rather than cooked. The Swiss cheese was salty and melted elegantly, and the onions were sauteed until nicely brown, but not pulverized. The three ingredients combined on a very hearty, snappy dark rye bread into a single unit, and, swabbed in ketchup, provided a near-perfect example of this style of burger.
My first thought was that they must hand-forming the patties used for the patty melts, and using frozen for the regular burgers, though that seemed unlikely. I’m not sure how two such similar pieces of beef could have such wildly different characteristics, with Jillian’s beef remaining tender, juicy, and properly cooked, while my burger was left to sit cold, hard, and abandoned on my bun. On closer inspection, though, I realized that they were, indeed, the same patty; the suspect “grill marks” and round-patty-on-square-bread was a giveaway. Somehow, though, perhaps because of the way the Swiss cheese cloaked the meat and prevented over-handling, or maybe because of the way the whole thing was grilled afterward, Jillian’s burger remained far more flavorful and juicy.
The Miss Portland Diner deserves a visit. The antique dining car has been wonderfully preserved, the service is fast and friendly, and there are menu options that I thought existed on Maine menus only in my memory (Ham salad on rye? Liver and onions? Pot roast dinner?). Jillian’s patty melt was delicious, and a perfect place for anyone who hasn’t stepped outside of their normal hamburger configuration to get on the train to patty melt town. You’ll have a hard time finding a better version of this classic diner sandwich. The burger, unfortunately, with its sad, parched appearance and dusty, grainy grind, doesn’t show a lot of thoughtfulness or appreciation of the genre, and isn’t going to make anyone a fan of the place.