The Dogfish Bar and Grille on Free Street was one of the first places we ate in Portland. On a July afternoon last Summer, we stumbled in the front door, sweaty and exhausted both physically from the heat of the day and our drive across the East Coast in a 28′ truck just days before, as well as the more spiritual exhaustion that only four years spent living in Mexico and the recent death of a parent can cause. It was a relief, then, to walk down the two short steps into the dark, cool, semi-subterranean space, and find two stools alone at the end of the bar. We sat perched on our stools, clinked two long-awaited pints of Brooklyn Lager together, ice crystals running down the side, breathed a long, slow exhale, and began to mentally unpack not just the experiences of the past several years, but also our new future in America.
Strangely (or perhaps not; we weren’t obsessively documenting our every meal in those days), I don’t remember what I ate that day, so when it came time for my fellow Portland area food bloggers and I to tackle this month’s hamburger selections in the “Bar & Pub Burger” category of restaurants, I knew that I would want to revisit The Dogfish. It has really almost everything I look for in a bar, now that I am in my thirties and am more focused on “drinking” and “eating” than I am on, say, the other patrons, the cut of my jeans, or whether my t-shirt is effectively communicating my sense of irony. The room is appropriately dim and cool, with a great selection of beer on tap. They serve a standard selection of pub food, with some surprises (Duck Potstickers? Seafood Sliders?) thrown in for good measure. The staff is breezy, welcoming, and friendly, and doesn’t make it a point to let you know how impressive it is to be a bartender. There will be conversation if you want it, none if you don’t. And most importantly, this bar doesn’t seem to fit into the kind of “theme” or identity that most places try to shoehorn themselves into. This isn’t a pseudo-“Irish” pub, or a fistfighty “frat boy” bar, or a self-conscious “dive” bar. It’s not a “sports” bar, or a “tapas” bar, or, for goodness’ sake, a “karaoke” bar. No. The Dogfish Bar and Grille is a just a place, that doesn’t happen to be your house, that you can go and have a drink with other pleasant, like-minded individuals, look at some local art, maybe hear some live music, sit outside when it’s warm, and, if you’d like, get something to eat.
On our most recent visit, we tried the signature “‘The’ Dogfish Burger,” at $10.99. It combines BBQ sauce, chipotle ranch, onion rings, white cheddar, Applewood bacon, tomatoes and mixed greens, on an eight ounce hamburger, served on a wheat bun.
The initial presentation is stunning. This burger stands at least ten inches tall, with a long wooden skewer providing stability. Even after removing a few of the onion rings (which stayed surprisingly crisp, even under the weight of all the other ingredients), there’s absolutely no way to get the whole burger in your mouth at one time. Instead, you are left to put your whole face in it, grabbing a few ingredients at a time with your teeth. This can be, depending on your state of mind, either delightful or awful. The burger was cooked to a medium-rare, as requested, with a very satisfying crust all around the outside giving way to a warm pink center. The bun, some sort of wheat brioche affair, was light and fluffy with a light honey flavor, but couldn’t stand up to the onslaught of juices from the burger; the bottom half of the bun was obliterated before even half of the burger was gone, leaving you with a fistful of meat and cheese that you are repeatedly pushing your whole face into.
If anything, then, that is my only complaint about the burger at The Dogfish. While all of the individual components of the burger are delicious and well-prepared, that is just so MUCH of everything that it all becomes kind of indistinct. At eight ounces, the hamburger patty itself overpowers almost all of the other flavors on this sandwich; it’s one of the few burgers I’ve had where I found myself wishing for less meat. I didn’t detect even a hint of the promised chipotle ranch sauce or barbecue sauce, and didn’t taste any of the white cheddar cheese. The tomatoes were appropriately abysmal for this time of year, and the mixed greens just kind of fell all over the place. This is a minor complaint, however; when you are served beef this delicious, having the hamburger itself be the only thing you taste is a great problem to have. Next time, I will pass on the extras offered by The Dogfish’s signature cheeseburger, and just go for the “Basic” version, where the strongest points of this sandwich are allowed to shine brightest.