LBB bacon and cheddar cheeseburger with fries.

LBB bacon and cheddar cheeseburger with fries.

Well, this could be a problem.

Just months after Bunk Bar opened up next to Salt and Straw, Little Big Burger moved into the space previously inhabited by Flywheel skate shop on Alberta and NE 21st. Painted ketchup red with the brief menu and appealing prices printed in white lettering on the exterior, LBB is hard to miss, and harder to resist.

Located 500-ish steps from our front door (not nearly enough to cancel out any inevitable calories)  we headed over on a recent Friday night to welcome the new burger-focused inhabitants to the neighborhood. We ordered at the counter and had a seat at the bar to watch the staff hustle to fill dozens of orders with systematic efficiency.

LBB pepper jack cheeseburger.

LBB pepper jack cheeseburger.

"This ain't made in Salt Lake City."

“This ain’t made in Salt Lake City.”

Quarter-pound, burgers –not quite skinny patty, but not thick either — are cooked on the flat-top to a caramelized crust and ever-so-slightly pink interior. The perfect proportion to the toasted brioche bun on which they’re served, burgers come with what I consider essential burger toppings: pickle, onion, shredded lettuce, and your choice of cheddar, Swiss, chevre, pepper jack or blue cheese, should you swing that way. On the side, you’ve got one heavenly choice: truffle fries. Still sizzling from the fryer, they’re tossed in salt and truffle oil, pretty much transforming into crack. And though the Camden fry sauce bottle clearly and defiantly states “This ain’t made in Salt Lake City,” it does the hometown stuff proud.

Greedily thinking one burger each may not be enough — LBBs are deceivingly petite — we ordered three, plus two orders of fries, all of which turned out to be way more than we needed. Poof. It vanished nonetheless.

See what I mean by “problem?”

So, LBB, welcome to the neighborhood. We are glad you’re here and look forward to indulging in more of your skinny-patty, fry-sauce-laden goodness.

 

 

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Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.

Meriwether's pantry board

A few of our favorite Meriwether’s pantry board choices.

It’s May!

It’s not Monday!

It only rained three times today!

Each of those is a minor victory, and therefore an excuse to celebrate. That, and we were lucky enough to have a gift card for Meriwethers tucked in a drawer, yearning to be used. So use it we did on a recent Tuesday night.

Meriwether’s is one of the first restaurants James and Zandra took us to before we moved to Portland, and since then it’s been the site of more than a couple of birthday celebrations. Something about this place feels like a special-occasion destination. The historic building once marked the entrance to the 1905 World’s Fair and retains an element of rusticity. Dark wood floors, huge stone fireplaces, log ceiling beams and grand windows add drama to the dining room’s elegant farmhouse feel. It’s the kind of place most people would feel comfortable bringing the parents or grandparents for a celebratory meal: well lit, workable noise level, attentive service.

But, really, it’s the food that keeps us coming back. Meriwether’s, like many Portland restaurants, is a farm-to-fork kind of place, but with a twist: It operates its own farm, Skyline Farm, in Northwest Portland, and the menu changes frequently based on the week’s harvest. On more than one occasion, we’ve threatened to make a meal of the pantry-board section and this one was no different. Choose one, three or five items (better go for five — choosing is difficult) and share the glorious small bites. We had the Oregonzola-stuffed dates; light and crispy fried sweetbreads with a smoky chipotle aioli; crab deviled eggs; cauliflower gratin; and anchovy avocado toast. All were delicious, but of the five, the anchovy avocado toast stood out: avocado spread over toasted bread with two fillets of anchovy layered on top. Salty, creamy, two bites of bliss.

Proscuitto and greens pizza

Pizza with prosciutto and greens.

Tempting as it is to order these delicious nibbles all night, we soldier on to the lower half of the menu. A selection of salads is next, followed by pasta and grains, all of which come in small or large sizes, conducive to mixing and matching, depending on your level of curiosity and hunger. Each of us ordered the farmhouse salad with fennel and shaved pecorino cheese: simple, lovely. For entrees, Zandra had a deliciously chewy papardelle with a meaty ragu — gorgeous. The night’s most-unexpected award went to J’s  halibut entree served over Asian stir-fried vegetables with a bit of spice. (Stir fry? At Meriwether’s? Sure, why not.)  James and I both selected from the bar menu. I had the bacon cheese burger with truffle salt fries. The burger was good, if not memorable. Leftover aioli from the sweetbreads made for tasty fry sauce. James ordered the pizza: a large, oblong flatbread mounded with arugula and prosciutto. With enough greens to satiate a hungry goat, it’s likely the least guilt-inducing pizza on earth, and a tasty one at that.

Chalk it up to being a Tuesday night, or that the service on this particular evening was scattered, leaving us sitting longer than we’d planned, but we skipped dessert. No matter, there will always be the next time we have a reason to celebrate.

Mushroom Swiss burger and fries. And fry sauce. Wait, fry sauce?

A bleak, cold, rainy, winter weekend in Portland. Logical activities for this kind of weather might include curling up with a warm dog, diving into a good book or perhaps organizing a sock drawer. But this is the Northwest, and neither rain, nor wind, nor sleety cold deters any self-respecting PDXian. So what do we do? We head out for one of our epic walks, followed by a late-afternoon lunch. This time, our target is Skyline Burgers on Broadway.

Outside, it’s an inconspicuous storefront with an almost miss-able sign. Inside, a rather unexpectedly cavernous diner displays what I can only call a creative assortment of entertainment and aesthetic choices:  sparkling red and grey vinyl booths, a wall mural of what could be a pair of “Happy Days” characters (if Richie Cunningham had insanely bulging forearms), a gigantic projection TV, and a handful of arcade video games. It’s perfectly quirky, and therefore perfect for us.

We sat down at one of the booths next to the front windows and ordered a couple of drinks — a full bar is always welcome during or after an epic walk. The meaty menu comprises apps, sandwiches, burgers, dogs, salads, soups, classic diner entrees and fountain drinks. We knew going in what we were going to order. If “burger” is in the name, that’s what we’re eating, by golly. For me, a mushroom Swiss burger. For J, a giant cheese burger with bacon. To start, mac-and-cheese wedges (can’t put something as wacky as that on a menu and not expect me to order it) and a cup of split pea soup.

So, the mac and cheese wedges. You’ve got your basic box-style mac and cheese, formed into triangles, deep fried and served with ranch dressing. Oh, and celery and carrots, if you care a whit about vegetables. They were good, not amazing. More of a novelty than a great dish, but a great idea. (I would try a version at home.) The soup: good, hearty and pea-green. Just what you crave on a wet, cold day.

Now for the burgers. These are of the skinny-patty variety, and not a bad example at all. Despite being skinny patties, mine was medium rare — a pleasant surprise. The bun was a decent sesame seed kind. Good bun/patty ratio. Critical. The fixins were lettuce leaves (not shredded), dill pickles, sliced red onions, sliced tomatoes and mayo, resulting in a pleasant flavor combination. In our experience, the skinny-patty burger is as much about the accoutrements as the burger itself. Skyline Burger’s version had a good mix. French fries accompanied the burgers: lovely flavor, could be crisper. But what what’s this? Fry sauce? Why, Skyline, we didn’t expect to see this home-state (Utah) standard here. And is that a hint of horseradish? Well played. We ate. We sipped. We were pleased. And full.

Warmed from the insides, and just numb enough to not care about pulling on already-soaked coats, we headed out, up the hill. Toward the warm dog, unread books and a completely messed-up sock drawer.

Dates stuffed with chevre, wrapped in bacon. I could eat 20 of these.

The first Tuesday in January, and we had tickets to “West Side Story” at the Keller Auditorium — a Christmas gift from J to me.

“Get cool!”

snap

snap

snap

Afterwards, we shish-ka-boom-ba’d (jazz hands!) over to Veritable Quandary to have a late-night supper from the bar menu, and were pleasantly surprised to find a lively crowd sipping cocktails and ordering food at 10:3o pm — our kind of people.  What an awesome little spot this is. The vintage fixtures, high-ceilings, exposed brick walls, milk-glass light globes and high-backed wooden booths reminded me of ancient bars commonly found in Chicago. And the late-night menu doesn’t default to the fried and frozen. Instead, it’s bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with creamy chevre, crispy duck confit spring rolls, grilled flatbread pizza topped with fresh mozzarella slices and a bevy of salty Italian meats.

Though we were tempted, we resisted stuffing ourselves with rabbit pate, the Dungeness crab cake or that seductive burger, and we didn’t even consider looking at the dinner menu. Great excuse to come back, of course. “There’s a place for us … somewhere a place for us …” I think it’s at the VQ bar!

Mash Tun: Summer Edition

August 6, 2011

Mash Tun's Fried Zucchini

Fried zucchini sticks. (Careful: HOT.)

Saturday night in early August. The seasons have shifted, but our cravings remain much the same. So we head down the street for the familiar burgers,  amiable service and laid-back vibe at our fave neighborhood brewpub.

+ daylight.

Mash Tun’s new outdoor patio (wisteria-covered trellis should start to fill in next year) is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. And  with Pine State Biscuits’ outdoor seating just next door, 22nd and Alberta is a corner to be reckoned with. (Oh … and we discovered the fried zucchini strips. Not listed on the menu as an app; only as a sandwich. Ask for them. Good stuff. )

Scrapple and egg

Scrapple and egg with house ketchup and mustard.

A lumberjack must have decorated this place. A free-spirit lumberjack with industrial-chic sensibility, perhaps. Timber prevails at Grain & Gristle on Prescott at NE 15th Ave, represented in the exposed ceiling beams, floors, tables, chairs, benches and the bar at the center of it all.

Cylindrical cages — baskets in which machine parts were dunked and washed, we learned — serve as light fixtures over the tables along either side of the room and contribute to the rustic vogue vibe. Blackboards announce the day’s specials, and a mixed-media mural of a grain harvester lends some amber-waves hominess.

We’ve eaten here twice now, and both meals were engaging enough that we’re threatening to become regulars. Our most recent visit came just as the Last-Thursday craziness on Alberta was winding down. (Perk No. 1 at G&G: They’re open late.) So, what were the winners?

The scrapple topped with a fried egg was a homey meatloaf-style, breakfast-esque dish, tasty any time of day. Also, housemade sausage simmered in a zesty-sweetish red curry sauce on a bed of crispy-salty fries offered delicious contrasts in flavor and texture. Curry fries? Yes, please. Other standouts: a little pot of pork rillets; a beet, arugula and blue cheese salad; a plate of pork rinds so crisp you can hear the crackling from across the room. (Perk No. 2 at G&G: The creative menu changes frequently.) A selection of draft beers complements the menu. (And Perk No. 3: G&G also has a full bar should you crave a martini with your rinds.)

During our first visit, J fulfilled his gastronomic duty and ordered the burger. Though he specified medium-rare, it arrived well-done, breaking a cardinal rule of burgerdom: The patty had shrunk and was smaller than the bun. But flavor and texture were delicious. So on our return he gave the burger another shot, with slightly better results — again a good crust on the patty, juicy, perfectly seasoned, but more medium than medium-rare. There’s some deviousness at work here: Even overcooked, the burger is good enough to keep us coming back, ever hopeful of perfect execution.

Overall, G&G is a welcome addition to our neighborhood. (Even more so now that the patio is open for business.) Get the burger right, and we will be friends for life.

50 Plates in the Pearl

April 15, 2011

Pan roasted halibut, fiddlehead ferns, black trumpet mushrooms.

A dank spring Friday in Portland. The rain-flogged daffodils cower. It’s the kind of evening that begs for a cocktail and comfort food to properly usher in the weekend.

Big bro James suggested dinner at 50 Plates in the Pearl after having met one of the owners through work. The hunt for a parking space frayed nerves a bit, but it was nothing a vodka martini couldn’t smooth over.

The vibe of this spacious corner place combines clubby (sleek wood-paneling, high bar tables and textured white quartz wall tiles) with old-school diner (comfy booths and banquettes, smooth-top white dining tables). The menu features a cross-section of comforting American traditions. Our first bite was a petite California date stuffed with Vermont cheddar, wrapped in bacon. Sweet, salty, not too crisp — we could have eaten a bucketful. Next was a half dozen oysters spiked with beer, a drop of hot sauce, lime and cilantro. Hola, mis pequeños amigos.

After little bites, we moved on to small plates. The four of us shared two chopped Cobb-esque salads from the specials list: addictive with bay shrimp, avocado, cherry tomatoes, egg, croutons and a crunchy mix of lettuces tossed with buttermilk blue cheese, lemon anchovy dressing.  Zandra opted for the Knuckle Sandwich, a buttery mini lobster roll. She reported it as tasty, her only gripe being that the bread overwhelmed the lobster. James ordered, and we all dipped into, a steaming bowl of pan-roasted mussels in a verdant broth of IPA, green tomatoes and chile paste.

For entrees, James, Zandra and I were unable resist the much-hyped pan-roasted halibut atop fiddlehead ferns, black trumpet mushrooms and an herb butter sauce. The rich flavors and textures bolstered the raves from our server, and we were converts. And when she declared that 50 Plates is known for its burger … well, you can guess what J ordered. A perfectly juicy Cascade Natural patty dressed up with Amish gorgonzola and thick cut bacon. “Best burger I’ve had in Portland so far,” he said. High praise, indeed. On the side, perfectly crisp hand-cut frites  (twice fried in beef fat, no less) from the snacks menu. We polished off one serving and ordered another.  God bless America.

We briefly considered splitting another burger for dessert, but level heads prevailed. James and Zandra went for the recommended key lime tart, a smooth-textured beauty topped with plump fresh berries and raspberry sauce. J and I ordered the cheese board — a trio of teleme, ale washed aged goat and that haunting Amish gorgonzola, complemented nicely with a drizzle of unfiltered local honey, fruit mince and crackers.

50 Plates: You transformed a gray, drizzly day into a mini road trip across America. Top down, wind in our hair, refreshed. We will see you again soon.

Mushroom Swiss burger and tomato, bleu cheese soup. Damn. Good.

I’m feeling sentimental.

It’s Sunday night, and J and I are in different cities. With our schedules you’d think we’d be used to separation. But we are seldom apart on weekends. So I am thinking about weekends past, and one in particular: last weekend and our Saturday-night burger fest at The Mash Tun.

Conveniently (and temptingly) located two blocks  from our house,  The Mash Tun is an Alberta Street brew pub with free pool, darts, a full bar and house-brewed suds.  It’s the first restaurant we went to when we moved to the neighborhood, and is usually the first place we think of on nights that we’ve made the effort to get dressed, but can’t muster any more energy than that.

Two giant brew kettles mark the entry on NE 22nd Ave and Alberta. Inside, the feel is casual and convivial with wood paneling, a central pool table and a jukebox that spins everything from 80s pop hits to downtempo jams. TVs hang in three corners for those with an eye on the game, and a pooch-friendly patio beckons in good weather. Most tables are filled with friends out for a casual night of conversation, pool, board games or tasty food.

The menu lists a range of pub favorites — fried apps, sandwiches, mini-pizzas, salads and the like. In an attempt to mask this as anything but an indulgence, J and I typically start with the big, beautiful beet salad. The greens are fresh, the beets plentiful, a little goat cheese adds tang and hazelnuts crunch it up. After that, it’s on to the entrees, and we’ve tried a few: the bratwurst is one tasty, tangy dog with sauerkraut; the BLATO (bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato, onion on sourdough) is a good bet, always. But, truth be told, we’re here for the burgers. Big beefy patties are juicy and flavorful enough to laugh in the face of the tabletop condiments — I go without. My top choice is mushroom Swiss. J switches it up, but last weekend, it was the bleu burger with bacon. (Specify your burger temperature when you order or you’ll get medium.) Fry fanatics, listen up: the frenchies here are hit and miss, and it breaks my heart. But too often they are tepid and mushy. I now avoid them in favor of crunchy tots. A handful of house-brewed beers on tap wet the whistle, but there’s a full bar if your whistle cries out for a cocktail.

Sweetie, I miss you. I miss The Mash Tun. Here is to many more almost-lazy Saturday nights in our neighborhood haunt.