I feel like I’m finally getting back into the swing of Burger Week. Living in San Francisco hasn’t allowed me to properly train, and I struggled to reach peak performance during Day One and Day Two. For the first time, I experienced the unfamiliar feeling of being “full”, something that is not akin to my bottomless pit of a stomach. Although yesterday’s TILT burger nearly killed me, it also made me stronger. Now, I’m six burgers down and hungry for more.
After introducing my mom to her first Burger Week, I may have unintentionally created a monster. I walk upstairs, still in my pajamas, and she asks, “where should we go for another burger?!” Oy vey. She's caught Burger Week fever and it's highly contagious – my dad also wants to give it another shot.
I already have plans to meet up for my second burger at 1pm, so we decide to give Aji Tram another go since it’s in my parent’s neighborhood. This time, my rental Toyota Camry takes its place amongst the Lake Oswego luxury cars – six burgers later, and we earned our spot in this parking lot today. We take our place among the Lake Oswego lunch crowd (very different from the Downtown Portland lunch crowd, I might add). Before even looking at the menu, my dad exclaims, “we’re here for the burgers.” My parents are learning.
The Aji Tram “Shaanxi Classic” is a Waygu ground beef patty with chopped pork belly, Chinese spices, cilantro aioli, lettuce, pickled chilies, and white cheddar on a grilled bun. I’m thrilled to see it's a small-sized slider, meaning I’ll be able to eat more burgers today. It has a slight kick to it with the Chinese spices, but the cilantro adds a nice cooling element. Typically, I’m not a fan of cilantro, but it’s working here. Aji Tram falls victim to the common mistake of the slider-sized Burger Week burgers in that it’s slightly overcooked and dry, but they make up for it with a perfect bun. Overall, I rate it a 7/10.
I trek all the way from the suburbs to the outskirts of Southeast Portland to meet my friend and burger aficionado, Cat. I’m excited to try the Lay Low burger because it was my #1 top choice during Burger Week 2017. I walk into Lay Low and immediately feel the comforts of a Portland dive-bar: taxidermy, vintage bar signs, wood paneling, and angsty punk rock music. I sigh with nostalgia, soaking up the comforts of Old Portland. (Side note: I know Lay Low is a relatively new spot, but the Sandy Hut crew knows how to create a great dive bar, and it just feels right).
Lay Low gets points for nailing the proper Burger Week technique: an organized ticket system. You order your burger at the bar, receive a ticket, hand it to the griller outside, then get your burger hand-delivered. As a Burger Week expert, this is the best way a restaurant can handle the lawless invasion of Burger Weekers.
Lay Low’s “The Grappler” burger is a Painted Hills ground beef patty, grilled apples, bacon, Danish bleu cheese, pear and apple butter, and mixed greens on a grilled pub bun. They get kudos for creativity and boldness, as they’re the one of the only places attempting a fusion of sweet and savory. The pear and apple butter is a great addition, however, the longer you wait to eat it, the damper it gets. The grilled apple doesn’t come through with a lot of flavor, but instead provides more of a textural balance. The burger is good, but it nets out at a 7.5/10.
My next destination is Bar Maven. I’m a bit ambivalent because I wasn’t a huge fan of their kimchi burger last year but I’ve heard buzz about this year’s contender. I get there right when they open at 4pm, and there’s already a line.
I order a burger and a honey lavender lemonade. Even though the lemonade was $8, for some reason it didn’t occur to me that the lemonade had alcohol in it because San Francisco has ruined my ability to understand proper prices. Oops.
It’s pretty full inside, so I go to their patio. I sit down, only to find out the patio is the designated smoking section, and the people next to me are puffing down cigarettes like a dog at a bone factory. Second-hand smoke is not ideal for my flavor profiles. However, luck is on my side when a baby comes outside. The smokers have excellent etiquette, and move to another area of the patio to accommodate the baby. The baby and I make eye contact, and we tip our metaphorical hats to each other like two cowboys in a western movie.
A true ode to Oregon, the Bar Maven “Oregon Black & Blue” is a half-pound Angus beef patty, rubbed in Urban Grind coffee and black pepper with marionberry aioli, gorgonzola bleu cheese, and kale slaw on a Grand Central Bakery brioche bun. I always appreciate when a restaurant takes the bun into account, as it’s arguably the most important part of the burger. The brioche bun melts in my mouth, but has enough density to hold it all together. I can’t taste a big distinction with the coffee rub, but the patty is seasoned perfectly and cooked well. The cheese is strong, but paired with other understated flavors so it’s not too overwhelming. The marionberry aioli is an excellent homage to Oregon. I rate it a high 9/10, which just goes to show the unpredictability of Burger Week: one year a burger can be a “meh” and the next year it can win a high ranking.
The half-pound patty from Bar Maven leaves me on the verge of the unaccustomed “full” feeling again, but I press on to Migration to meet up with some Burger Week newbies, Dwight, Kate, and Casey. Dwight escorted me to last year’s Migration Burger Week burger, and Casey has tried a few before, but since they don’t eat more than one a day, I still consider them neophytes. This will be a first ever experience for Kate.
The Migration “Taco ‘Bout It” burger is a seasoned pork and beef patty, hatch chili aioli, southwest slaw, jalapeños, tortilla strips, and cotija. The tortilla strips are a wonderful addition. It reminds me of elementary school when I used to put my chips in my sandwiches for an added crunch. The jalapeños intimidated me because I’m usually scared off by anything too spicy, but they weren’t too bad. The patty was thin and perfectly crunchy – just the way I prefer – the sesame bun was enough to hold it all together. I rate it an 8/10.
Casey leaves to attend a wedding, but she redeems herself later that night with a $30 Taco Bell order at 2am. Kate is instantly a Burger Week convert.
My body feels like it’s finally back in Burger Week shape. I get my second wind, making me more than ready for my next burger. We look at the map, but since it’s almost 7pm, I know we don’t stand a chance with any of the locations nearby; they’re likely sold out already. I opt for Ya Hala, which I believe will be a guaranteed burger at this hour since it’s deep in the Montavilla neighborhood.
Ya Hala’s Burger Week burgers have always been on my radar, but I’ve never been able to try it because it’s not in proximity to my other options. Kate thought I said the restaurant was called "Y'all holla!" so she's confused when we walk in, and it looks like we’re in a Mediterranean Olive Garden. There’s murals on the walls, uneven tiles meant to represent a stone walkway, and tablecloths. In the hipster city of Portland where every restaurant is a remodeled warehouse made up of distressed brick, repurposed wood tables, and industrial steel chairs, it’s nice to see a good old-fashioned tablecloth once in a while.
We’re seated, and I ask with anticipation, “do you still have the Burger Week burger?”
I’m relieved to hear it’s available, and we place our orders.
The Ya Hala “Beef Falafel” burger is a ground beef patty with cheese, caramelized onions, garbanzo and fava beans, coriander, cumin, garlic, parsley, and cilantro, topped with tzatziki on a brioche bun. What they didn’t explain online is that there’s actually a falafel INSIDE the patty! This is true burger innovation, people. I find the caramelized onions a bit dominating, and overall this burger is so messy it’s very difficult to eat, but I must appreciate the effort it takes to put a falafel inside a patty. I give it a 7/10.
As we walk back to the car, we get a faint whiff of fresh waffle cones. We follow our noses to a new establishment – a homemade ice cream shop called Heartbreaker. Even though I’ve eaten 5 burgers today, I buy ice cream because I’m a monster.
I’m only in town for a few more burgers before my flight tomorrow, but it feels good to know that I now have 11 burgers under my belt. And by “under my belt” I mean my sweatpants because that’s all that fit me right now.