I can’t remember eating two cheeseburgers faster than I did at Harmon’s Lunch. I even had the presence of mind to order two, right upfront, so that I wouldn’t be delayed waiting for a second cheeseburger. In fact, maybe that was my mistake: maybe a forced intermission between burgers would have served me better.
Harmon’s Lunch has been serving fresh, homemade cheeseburgers from their small roadside restaurant since 1960. The walls are lined with regional glass milk bottles, and tiny handwritten signs are scattered throughout the restaurant, correcting misbehavior on the part of Harmon’s customers. “This cooler contains ice,” one sign informs, “if you leave the lid open, the next customer will get water.” Another reads, “We made a deal with the bank: They won’t serve hamburgers, and we don’t extend credit. Cash only.” And a tiny sign over the ancient flattop grill, blackened with the remains of probably millions of hamburgers, reads, “This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way. You take it my way, or you don’t get the damn thing.”
Though founder Marvin Harmon passed away in 2003, the hamburgers being served from behind the tiny counter haven’t changed. And for good reason: after over 50 years of cooking primarily one thing (Harmon’s does offer hot dogs in addition to hamburgers, though you’ll never see anyone eating one), you’d better believe they’ve got the formula down, and your dumb requests for lettuce are not going to upset the careful balance of ingredients that Harmon’s has settled on. The “Loaded” version of their burger combines mustard, red relish, and sauteed onions, on a buttered and heated soft roll.
The burgers at Harmon’s are thin, and cooked to a solid medium. They are topped with a thick layer of American cheese, which melts and oozes perfectly into the nooks and crannies on the surface of the burger. The “red relish” is a kind of pickle relish/tomato hybrid, and the onions are sublime; slow cooked for so long that they become incredibly sweet, with the consistency of a marmalade. Skip the fries (which, though perfectly serviceable and admirably homemade, have a tendency to be a little on the limp side), and save the extra room for a second hamburger. It’s a much better use of your stomach’s space, and at only $2.45 each, a second hamburger will deservedly stay in your mind much longer than the french fries will.
In fact, if anything, try the second burger plain. As delicious as the toppings on the “loaded” version of a Harmon’s Burger may be, as carefully balanced between sweet and savory as they are, eating a burger plain, or with just cheese, turns eating a Harmon’s cheeseburger into a blissfully textural celebration. The bun is heated until just warmed through, and it combines with the grilled hamburger and the melted cheese into a whisper of a burger that you smell and feel as much as you eat, that is through your mouth and into your stomach before you even realize what’s happened.
As the weather warms up, Harmon’s is exactly the kind of place we like to find ourselves on a Spring Friday afternoon. It feels like family, even on your first trip, and it feels like your neighborhood place, even if you’ve driven in from Portland. It’s the kind of place where customers will pitch in and clean up some dropped napkins when they see them, or take a minute to mop some spilled root beer off a table in a neighboring booth. Everyone works together, and the payoff is a round of delicate, ethereal little steamy burgers that you will find yourself eating one after another. Go.