Your guide to Portland’s best happy hour burgers
Part 1: Southwest and Northwest Portland
Part 2: Southeast and Northeast Portland

Poke your head into one of Portland’s finest dining destinations or swankiest steak houses and you’re almost always guaranteed to see two kinds of people: a businessman in a $1000 suit and a blue collar worker wearing ripped jeans and a dusty trucker hat.

It’s this inclusiveness and lack of pretense that helps make our local dining scene so unique. And many upscale establishments here have learned the hard way—embrace the common man or you’re out of business.

Perhaps this is why so many world-class chefs in Portland spend so much time fretting over their happy hour menu. What used to consist of a nacho platter and a charred burger served with wilted lettuce on a plain white bun has practically evolved into a new form of culinary art. And the crown jewel of any happy hour menu is, of course, the burger.

This trend has materialized in a variety of forms depending on what neighborhood you call home. But on the west side of the river—where the chic and stylish fine dining spots of the Pearl give way to the bright lights and big dollar entrees of SW Broadway—it’s all about gourmet, loss-leader burgers, all for around $5. To get your meat hooks on one, all you have to do is mosey up to the bar, order a drink and wait for that magical time we like to call happy hour.


Best Fixins: Saucebox

Crispy Onion Burger, Miyako Burger, Sauvie Island Burger, $4
Happy Hour: Monday-Friday 4:30-6:30 p.m., Saturday 5-6:30 p.m.


Any Portland foodie worth their weight in foie gras knows that Saucebox Executive Chef Gregory Gourdet [in photo above] has created the one of the most unique and inspired Pan-Asian and Pacific Island dining experiences in town. But it’s a trifecta of burgers stacked high with all manner of garnishes and house-made sauces that take center stage during happy hour. And when it comes to burgers, Gourdet believes that more is, well, more.

“Some people are traditional,” he says. “But personally, I like all the fixins… I think it’s about encorporating as many flavors as you want and just going with it.”

Gourdet’s personal favorite, the Crispy Onion Burger, is a great example of this philosophy. Made with Cascade Natural beef, seasoned simply with salt and pepper and set on a brioche bun from Pearl Bakery with red leaf lettuce, this otherwise unassuming burger gets a big kick in the pants from mayonnaise blended with plenty of black pepper and fresh scallions, a spicy yet sweet tomato chutney cooked down with turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, Thai chili, chili garlic sauce and vinegar, and crispy tempuraed onions finished with a five-spice chili salt.

Just like everything at Saucebox, what makes the Crispy Onion Burger so divine is the way the complexity of ingredients somehow narrow in focus to simple, symbiotic flavor profiles.

“For me, simplicity is the most important thing,” says Gourdet. “Sometimes that might translate into 20 ingredients in a dish, but the end result is something that is simple.”

Not one to restrict himself to just one burger, Gourdet also offers the Miyako Burger, a savory slow-burn that tickles the taste buds with house-made wasabi mayonnaise and fire-roasted chilies, then balances itself out with fresh-sliced avocados and drizzled teriyaki sauce. Upon first bite the Miyako welcomes you with a subtle yet stern wasabi-inspired slap to the face, then gives way to the long burning fire-roasted chilies. Somehow the heat doesn’t overpower, managing to toe the proverbial line between not too hot and just hot enough.

Finally, for those who prefer a more traditional meat treat there’s the Sauvie Island Burger, a classic bacon cheeseburger served with a house-made mayonnaise combined with a Korean pepper paste and sriracha to add spicy little twist.

When it comes to originality and breadth of ingredients, no one does a happy hour burger like Saucebox. And at just $4 ($2 more for fries), there’s no good reason not to try all three.

214 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
503.241.3393
www.saucebox.com


Best Beef: Bluehour

Bluehour Burger, $5
Happy Hour: Daily 2:30-6:30 p.m. & 10 p.m.-close, Friday & Saturday 10:30 p.m.-close


Bluehour Executive Chef/Owner Kenny Giambalvo doesn’t take any item on his menu lightly—even a simple happy hour burger.

“The attention to detail, that’s our edge,” he explains. “We pay attention to every dish, every ingredient. Every step is considered, nothing happens by accident. So in that way I feel like the burger is as important to us as the New York steak.”

And, in a delicious twist of fate, it’s the New York steaks at Bluehour that give the burgers their decadent taste.

“We buy a local beef product called Cascade Natural,” explains Giambalvo. “We find that it has a really great flavor profile… We also buy New York strips from them, and whatever trimmings we get from the New York we [grind into the burger meat]. That adds quite a bit of flavor and character to it.”

This unholy union of beef products tastes so right it simply can’t be wrong, and practically melts in your mouth like butter. The patty itself is seasoned simply with salt and pepper, placed on a brioche bun and topped with aged sharp cheddar cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, pickled red onions, oven-dried tomatoes and Arugula, then finished off perfectly with a house-made whole grain mustard aioli.

All the toppings on the Bluehour Burger are meant to complement, not overpower, the flavorful and mouth-watering beef, the tangy mustard aioli and smoked bacon dancing together in perfect concert, but clearly as supporting characters to the star of the show.

“The thing about burgers is that you can do too much,” says Giambalvo. “We wanted to serve a traditional burger but give it our own touch, which I think is the more artisan style where everything is made in-house.”

The chips served with the burger are also house-made and are crisp and salty, not greasy. Happy hour diners can also opt for an order of Kenny’s Fries ($4), a longtime favorite seasoned with garlic butter and cayenne. But really, the side dish doesn’t matter. One bite of the Bluehour Burger and bovine nirvana will instantly be achieved. In this state all burger-related truths are revealed, and tasteless dive bar burgers are never craved again.

250 NW 13th Ave
Portland, OR 97209
503.226.3394
www.bluehouronline.com

 

Best Value: Cafe Nell

Happy Cheeseburger and Fries, $5
Saturday Happy Hour: 4 p.m.-close Saturday
Sliders, $2
Weekday Happy Hour: 3-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday


Cozily tucked into the corner of NW 20th and Kearney, Cafe Nell gives off a friendly neighborhood vibe that belies their serious commitment to top-notch Northwest cuisine. At the helm of it all is Executive Chef Andrew Garrett, who knows first-hand the importance of good beef.

“The secret to making a great burger, in my opinion, is grinding it yourself,” says Garrett, who in the past has worked on farms raising cattle. “So I take the top sirloin, grind it in-house, add just a little bit of the sirloin fat to it so it’s just about an 80/20 mix of lean to fat, and then I add some shallots, garlic, thyme and a little bit of rosemary to tie it all together.”

The resulting masterpiece is the Happy Cheeseburger, a deftly-seasoned and prepared burger with unique, earthy undertones and balanced herbal flavors, offset perfectly by a crisp and caramelized potato bun fresh off the flat top. This tasty treat comes with hand-cut fries for just $5 and is offered during Cafe Nell’s Saturday night happy hour.

But perhaps the best burger value in town is available only on weekdays—Cafe Nell’s $2 Sliders. These little 2 ounce bundles of pure meaty goodness come three to a plate and in three varieties—jalapeno blue cheese, BBQ bacon cheddar, and fried onion and pickle—and are served on a traditional flour slider bun which is also nicely caramelized on the flat top. It’s not often that a chef will give so much thought to such an inexpensive item, but Garrett is all about the details.

“Sometimes restaurants get lost in the idea that, oh, it’s just happy hour,” he says. “It’s still a product that we’re delivering, it’s still a product that I’m putting my name behind, and I want it to be the best that it can be.”

1987 NW Kearney
Portland, OR 97209
503.295.6487
www.cafenell.com


Biggest Burger: The Heathman

Bistro Burger, $4.95
Happy Hour: Daily 4-6 p.m. & 9 p.m.-close


Tipping the scales at a healthy 8 ounces of beef, The Heathman’s Bistro Burger is easily the heavyweight champion of gourmet Portland happy hour fare. And, as with everything served at The Heathman, Chef de Cuisine Karl Zenk utilizes a variety of local purveyors and fresh Northwest ingredients to get the job done.

“We use 100% chuck from Northwest grown beef, which we get ground and patted on a daily basis at SP Meats so it’s always fresh” explains Zenk. “We also use a rich and buttery brioche bun from Grand Central Bakery, and serve it with Tillamook cheddar cheese.”

A variety of options, including pepper jack, Swiss, or any number of French cheeses can be substituted, and the burger is served with French Maille mustard, fourme d'ambert bleu cheese, thick slab bacon, butter lettuce, sliced red onions and a tomato. French fries, which can be added for a couple bucks more, are hand-cut on premises and twice-fried until they’re nice and crispy.

For traditional beef lovers who prefer a big, juicy, straightforward burger at a great price, the Bistro Burger is sure to hit the spot every time.

1001 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
503.790.7752
www.heathmanrestaurantandbar.com

 

Best Non-Beef Burger: Davis Street Tavern

Strip Loin Burger, $6
Happy Hour: Monday-Saturday 4pm-6:30pm

Where’s the beef? Well, you won’t find it at Davis Street Tavern—at least not in the Strip Loin Burger. Instead, Executive Chef Gabriel Kapustka uses braised pork belly in his popular happy hour burger. The results are nothing short of drool-inducing, and the process is a lot more involved than you might imagine for a simple $6 menu item.

First, much like at Bluehour, Kapustka grinds his excess steak trimmings into the burgers.

“Then we braise the pork belly in chicken stock, white wine, garlic and thyme,” explains the chef. “That’s about a three-hour process; we then remove, chill, slice and sear the meat.”

Add bacon, sharp Tillamook cheddar cheese, crisp romaine lettuce and a house-made tomato jam instead of ketchup and what you get is one of the juiciest, most flavorful burgers in the city. Or, as Kapustka refers to it, “a hopped up bacon cheeseburger.”

500 NW Davis Street
Portland, OR 97209
503.505.5050
www.davisstreettavern.com

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Honorable Mentions

Happy hour burgers we would have liked to try but haven’t had the chance
$6 Painted Hills Burger at Serratto
$6 Hamburger Sandwich at Clyde Common
$5 White Cheddar and Chive Burger at Portland City Grill
$5 Wagyu Beef Slider at Urban Farmer
$2.25 Ground Steak Burger at Ringside


What’s Your Beef?

Did we miss your favorite Westside happy hour burger spot? Do you have suggestions for our next article on Eastside happy hour burgers? Sound off in the comments section!

Photos © 2010 Kenneth Aaron, Neighborhood Notes