PORTLAND – Remember the bistro burger? Those towering restaurant creations with a half pound of beef and a small salad’s worth of toppings? The ones stacked high with fried onion rings or crispy pork belly that dominated best burger lists throughout the aughts?
Yeah, me neither.
About five years ago, a simpler sandwich began to dominate Portland’s burger landscape, one defined by thin patties, melted American cheese and minimal toppings. At the time, it seemed like a new fleet of food carts was rejecting the over-the-top, $15 restaurant burgers, swinging the pendulum back towards cheaper ingredients with a side of “summertime nostalgia.”
In hindsight, the change had less to do with vibes, and more to do with technique. Back in 2012, a Serious Eats blog post had upended burger orthodoxy, arguing that pressing down on your burger meat wasn’t just allowed, but actually helped coax maximum flavor from your meat (via the Maillard reaction ). “Smash burgers,” as they became known, made with meat smashed into a rough-edged patty shape directly on a stainless steel grill, became the most important burger development of the decade.
Not that they were completely new. Line cooks at drive-thrus and burger bars have long used grease-slicked spatulas to lean on their burgers. But the modern smash fanatic goes further, using cast-iron weights to obliterate their beef and sharpened paint scrapers to transfer every last browned bit from the grill to your griddled bun.
The resulting super-flat, lacy-edged patties tend to dictate a certain burger style, usually with two small patties doubled up to increase the meat-to-bun ratio, pickles and other acid-heavy toppings capable of cutting through fattier beef blends and fast-melting American cheese to hold everything together. And they tend to go best in a more modest receptacle, which around these parts means regular old hamburger buns from Franz Bakery.
The updated method has been a hit, in part because it guarantees that even if your burger looks like fast food, the meat inside will be fresh, not frozen. Since Burger Stevens debuted in 2016, at least 25 more carts, pop-ups and restaurants have started serving smash burgers in the metro area, including five new spots since January alone. Nearly every important new Portland burger in the past five years – the ones at Burger Stevens, Canard, even Toki’s new bao burger – has been a smash in some form.
We went out and tried all of them, from Rough Draft’s austere smash burgers with their paper-thin white onions to G”uero’s kitchen-sink hamburguesas stacked high with avocado, pickled jalape~nos and ham. To compare apples to apples, we separated smash-adjacent burgers (those where smashing isn’t the central part of the process) and restaurant-style smash burgers (those with thin patties hidden under a cavalcade of extras) into their own sections, focusing our ranking on true smash burgers with classic toppings. For the ranked contenders, points were awarded for taste, with a bonus given for “smash level,” aka how seriously they take the art of the smash.
The burger pendulum could just as easily swing back tomorrow, with super-sized bistro burgers returning to prominence. But for now, the smash burger reigns supreme.
Portland’s Best Smash Burgers
A note on our methodology: The Oregonian/ OregonLive.com visited more than 20 food carts and restaurants to put together this smash burger survey, ordering anonymously and paying for our food. Each classic cheeseburger was assigned a score out of 100 – 90 for flavor and construction, plus a maximum 10-point smash level bonus. This being a smash burger roundup, we only included those that met the definition and that had a smash score of 4 or higher. Ties went to the smash-ier burger.
No. 14 | Black Seed Burger Cult
In different times, this North Portland burger bar, with its red booths, arcade games and Weirdo-stylebranding, would be a worthy hangout for families still adrift after Foster Burger’s 2019 closure. For now, with North Mississippi Avenue under heavy construction, even outdoor seating is on hiatus. Black Seed’s burgers are smashed, then steamed to finish under a dome, arriving with nice browning on one side and an array of toppings. The simple cheeseburger ($10) has the works: lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and the restaurant’s own “better than ranch” sauce, all on a neat-looking black sesame seed bun from Fleur de Lis bakery. This is a very enjoyable burger.
Total score: 75 (71 for taste and construction plus a smash bonus of 4)
Extras: Chicken and egg sandwiches, fries, a selection of fully loaded burgers including bacon, eggs and roasted jalape~no. Everything on the menu can be made vegan.
Details: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (as with all businesses during COVID times, it’s best to call ahead to confirm hours); 3746 N. Mississippi Ave.; 971-544-7277; blackseedburgercult.com
No. 13 | Yes Please
You don’t need to look far to find Portland chefs who grind their own beef, bake their own buns or ferment their own pickles. But make their own American cheese? Yes Please, a roving pop-up set to open a food cart in front of Southeast Hawthorne’s old Third Eye head shop, does just that for its $12 burger, topping well-smashed grass-fed beef (made from a blend including a little heart meat, owner Tai Pfeifer says) with a burger sauce and drippy house American cheese. It’s all a bit much for the lightly griddled bun – eat quickly or remember to load up on napkins before you begin.
Score: 75 (includes a smash bonus of 7)
Extras: Unique burger specials and, on my visit, a tasty pistachio pudding.
Details: Look for Yes Please up at 3950 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
No. 12 | Burger Stevens
At its best, the 5-year-old Burger Stevens makes something close to the perfect backyard burger, with crispy patties, melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles on a golden toasted Franz bun. Chef Don Salamone’s powder-blue food cart, now with two locations, has been the place I’ve casually thought of as offering my favorite Portland burger since it first opened in 2016, and its success inspired several other smash burgers on this list. That burger ($5) is still very good, though on a first visit to the North Portland cart, the beef was dry. A follow-up to the Beaverton location had mushy tomato, a hazard of using the out of season produce. Still, the smash level is fantastic, the fries are near McDonalds-level and the branding is on point. If anyone here looks ready to make the brick-and-mortar jump, it’s Burger Stevens.
Score: 76 (8; remember, tie goes to the smashier)
Extras: Burgers in regular and snack size, hot dogs, shoestring fries, veggie burgers, lemon chiffon pie and add-ons including fried eggs and grilled jalape~nos.
Details: Noon to 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday; at Prost Marketplace, 4237 N. Mississippi Ave., and BG’s Food Cartel, 4250 S.W. Rose Biggi Ave., Beaverton; burgerstevens.com
No. 11 | Holler
Though they’re better known for fried chicken, Doug Adams and Jen Quist take burgers seriously. At their downtown Portland restaurant Bullard, the dry-aged beef burger comes with a swipe of mustard ala Whataburger, Adams’ beloved Texas chain; at next door cocktail bar Abigail Hall, the burger nods to Quist’s favorite In-N-Out. Neither are regularly available at the moment, though I’ve spotted (and ordered) Abigail Hall’s as a pandemic-time special. At Holler, the duo’s latest restaurant, the house burger ($11) nails its nostalgic vibe with two patties, stringy Tillamook cheddar, red onions, sweet pickles, shredded lettuce and a tangy sauce spilling out of a scrunchy soft Franz bun. Smash fans will wish for more crust, and over two recent visits, I longed for a less soggy bottom bun. But that won’t stop you from inhaling your burger in three minutes flat.
Score: 78 (4)
Extras: Big salads, fried chicken, ice cream and cocktails to-go round out Holler’s full pub menu.
Details: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; 7119 S.E. Milwaukie Ave.; 971-200-1391; hollerpdx.com
No. 10 | Monster Smash
After eight years making synthesizers and guitar pedals in Portland, former San Francisco chef Rico Loverde decided to dive back into his first love: cooking. He didn’t need to look far for a spot. Next to his home sat Monk’s Deli, the beloved cheesesteak cart that closed last year. After toying with a tapas concept, Loverde returned to his first idea: cheeseburgers. Monster Smash’s OG Smash burger ($10) is built around two grass-fed patties smashed and seared then topped with American cheese, a sweet burger sauce and cart-made turmeric pickles on a fluffy brioche bun from Dos Hermanos bakery. Pair it with a West Coast IPA from Belmont Station, the great beer bar next door.
Score: 78 (7)
Extras: Salty fries with a Spanish-style garlic aioli, a vegan version with Beyond Meat patties, a fancy salad and a soup & sando combo with tomato bisque and one of the best grilled cheeses in the city.
Details: Noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; 4500 S.E. Stark St., behind Belmont Station.
No. 9 | Union Burger
At Union Burger, John Hunt’s classic burgers are front and center, while you have to opt in to try the over-the-top creations preferred at his previous joint, Stoopid Burger. The year-old cart, which takes its name from the pre-1986 name for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, serves a basic cheeseburger ($7.50) with chunks of romaine, tomato, pickles, onion, secret sauce and American cheese melted on a thicker patty that gets smashed by hand before being placed under a weight on a hot grill. It’s an unorthodox style of smash, and personally, I might swap the romaine for iceberg. But this remains a tasty burger, with a lean beef blend Hunt buys fresh each day and brioche buns from, you guessed it, Franz.
Score: 81 (5)
Extras: Lemon-pepper fried-chicken sandwiches, good onion rings, blue and purple Union Drink and build-your-own burgers with bacon, hot links and more.
Details: Noon to 7:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 7339 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; 503-744-9745; unionburgerpdx.com
No. 8 | Cliff’s PDX
Originally whipped it up as a limited special at the old Bunk Bar Wonder, our 2017 Burger of the Year found a permanent home on the menu after chef Josh Luebke bought the bar two years later. As an early entrant in Portland’s smash burger wars, the Ballroom Burger ($10), named for the Wonder Ballroom that Cliff’s sits underneath, has a style all its own, with a well-griddled brioche bun, a relic of a time before everyone decided to just go ahead and use Franz. (Note: The porky onion jam from the original version is gone, the mustard notes remain.) These aren’t the super-thin patties you’ll see later on this list, but with nicely browned and juicy meat, a golden bun and shredded lettuce, there’s more than enough crunch to go around.
Score: 85 (5)
Extras: A full pub menu and fun cocktails courtesy of co-owner Sierra Kirk-Luebke.
Details: Noon to 9 p.m. Thursday-Friday and 3 to 9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 128 N.E. Russell St.; 503-327-8234; cliffspdx.com
No. 7 | Wolf’s Head Smokehouse
Burger Stevens is a short stroll away in the same food cart pod, but after eating both back-to-back, I was surprised to prefer the one at this overachieving Beaverton barbecue cart. Wolf’s Head Smokehouse makes a stacked smash burger ($10) from fresh-ground brisket, melted American cheese, caramelized onions and plenty of house-made pickles, all doused in burger sauce on a Franz bun (“We’re not doing some half-pound artisanal tomato-jam burger,” owner Jason Wittek says of using those ubiquitous buns. “These are what we want for a smash burger.”) The only problem with ordering a burger? Missing out on a chance to order the cart’s smoked meat. Luckily, Wolf’s Head lets you sub out one patty for a slice of brisket or a handful of the cart’s signature chopped pork.
Score: 87 (6)
Extras: Various sandwiches, smoked meat trays and classic barbecue sides.
Details: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday; 4250 S.W. Rose Biggi Ave., Beaverton; 503-380-8055; wolfsheadbbq.com
No. 6 | Jojo
Jojo, the fried chicken and jojo cart outside Southeast Powell Boulevard beer emporium John’s Marketplace, was among Portland’s second wave of smash burger connoisseurs. When I first tried the burger in 2019, after also plowing through some loaded jojos and a fried-chicken sandwich, I found it too decadent, the handful of pickles unequipped to cut through the richness of the meat and An Xuyen bakery butter roll. A recent revisit on an empty stomach helped me appreciate the burger ($9) more, particularly the way the golden-griddled bun collapsed pleasantly around the iceberg lettuce and crispy-edged double patties. I still longed for a touch more acid, a few more pickles or a less buttery bun, but with a crisp pilsner from the John’s beer window in hand, those seemed like trivial concerns.
Score: 87 (8)
Extras: Jojos, fried-chicken sandwiches and sandwich specials, plus a spicy version of the cheeseburger, if that’s your thing.
Details: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; 3582 S.E. Powell Blvd.; 971-331-4284; jojopdx.com
No. 5 | Tulip Shop Tavern
Holler’s Doug Adams recommended this burger to me in 2019, around the time Tulip Shop Tavern started classing up the space once home to Duckett’s. But what finally brought me in was the beer. Specifically, the otherwise hard-to-find cans from some of Seattle’s most in-demand breweries, including Cloudburst, the IPA specialists that are virtually impossible to find elsewhere in Oregon. Adams was right about the burger, which I love, a simple tavern-style quarter-pounder ($8) given a gentle smash, topped with American cheese, doused in the right amount of mayo-forward special sauce, and placed on a fluffy Dos Hermanos milk bun with shredded lettuce and sliced pickles. It’s not the smashiest of smash burgers, but it just might be your new favorite.
Score: 89 (5)
Extras: A full pub menu, cocktails and a great beer list.
Details: Noon to 10 p.m. daily; 825 N. Killingsworth St.; 503-206-8483; tulipshoptavern.com
No. 4 | Farmer & The Beast
This isn’t so much a cheeseburger as a double-decker Trojan Horse: The burger gets invited in, only for the farm-fresh salads and seasonal lemonades to invade your taste buds. Found at Northwest Portland’s new Nob Hill food cart pod, this forest green cart comes from Jeff Larson and Schuyler Wallace, a pair of chefs who met at David Machado’s last hotel restaurant, Tanner Creek Tavern. The duo had some creative license there, but more crucially, it’s the place they learned the value of a good burger. Compared with the top two on this list, the Beast Burger ($10) doesn’t have the deepest, crispiest smash. But it does have two beautifully seared patties, melted American cheese, shaved onion, plenty of pickle slices and a special sauce with more pickle, all propped up on a chapbook’s worth of iceberg leaves and trapped in a sesame seed Franz bun.
Score: 90 (6)
Extras: On our visit, a rosemary and Meyer lemonade and a fennel and winter citrus salad were too good to pass up. Look out for sandwich specials and milkshakes as well.
Details: 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Wednesday-Friday and noon to 7:30 p.m., Saturday; 1845 N.W. 23rd Pl.; 971-319-0656; farmer-and-the-beast.square.site
No. 3 | Bless Your Heart
In my memory, the patties in Bless Your Heart’s burgers, typically doused in Duke’s mayonnaise or hidden under chili and white onion, more closely resembled a loose meat sandwich at some North Carolina roadhouse than your typical modern smash burger. I was wrong. On a recent revisit, the classic double cheeseburger ($10) at the Northeast Portland stand had a Burger Stevens-level smash, with a smooth, crispy sear and those hallmark lacy edges protruding from a good Martin’s potato roll (Franz only competitor for smash burger supremacy). A distinct mustard note cut through the Duke’s, with lettuce, onions, sweet house pickles and not-quite-melted American cheese rounding out the toppings. Though the former chain is down to one location at the moment, Bless Your Heart is a serious smash burger contender.
Score: 92 (8)
Extras: Various burgers and hot dogs, including the Carolina-style chili burger; regular, barbecue and “down & dirty” smothered fries; soft serve and floats.
Details: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; 5410 N.E. 33rd Ave. (a location at downtown’s Pine Street Market remains closed); 503-719-6447; byhpdx.com
No. 2 | Rough Draft
Last year, a new food cart with serious smash burger bona fides rode into town. Rough Draft Burger Shop, which started life as a Seattle burger pop-up, opened this charming cart at Uptown Beer, a craft beer bar and bottle shop so deep in Southwest Portland you could cross the street and be in Beaverton. Here, chefs Nick Jarvis and Aaron Wilcenski take Portland’s nostalgic burger obsession to its logical conclusion, with its two skinny patties hanging over a soft Franz bun, the meat edges as lacey-crisp as a Detroit-style pizza ($8 for the double). In a recent review. In a recent review, I called this Portland’s new classic smash burger, while also lamenting the limited toppings, with little more than paper-thin white onions, a few pickles and a swipe of tangy house sauce. I stand by that, but this is a smash burger roundup, and in that context, Rough Draft can hold its own with the very best.
Score: 94 (10)
Extras: Waffle fries, deluxe fries, a broccoli supreme, vegetarian Impossible Burger patties, canned soda and 36 taps of beer at the adjacent Uptown Beer.
Details: 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; 6620 S.W. Scholls Ferry Road; rdburgershop.com
No. 1 | Mid City Smash Burger
Born one late night in New Orleans, this fun-loving former porch pop-up relocated to Portland, and an available food cart, in January. Here, Mike Aldridge channels years of cooking experience – first at the Skyway Bar & Grill and Timberline Lodge restaurant on Mount Hood, then at Vitaly Paley’s former Imperial and Headwaters in downtown Portland – into a deceptively simple cheeseburger ($5) with American cheese and buns from nearby Franz. The skill shows in the details. The fully melted cheese. The nicely griddled bun. The superior smash given to each ball of nicely seasoned St. Helens beef by an oversized cast-iron weight. But the magic is in the burger sauce, a mustard-mayo blend with a dozen secret ingredients, including bits of onion and pickle that Aldridge fine-dices by hand. Each burger gets a healthy dollop both above and below two crispy burger patties – a little more than you think you need, but enough to keep the burger from tasting dry.
Score: 96 (10)
Extras: Crinkle-cut fries, also available in a deluxe version with burger sauce and nacho cheese, Pepsi (no Coke), Wendy’s-style Tillamook ice cream milkshakes.
Details: Noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday; 1015 S.E. Stark St., in front of the Art Design Xchange.