The goal: eat 100 burgers in the 100 days from June 20th to September 27th.
The rules are self described. The rewards unknown and unimportant. The risks manageable. Let it begin.
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Tucked along the edge of the crotch-fruit play yard of Crux Fermentation Project is a Hawaiian food trailer. I’d had their nachos, mix plates, etc, and enjoyed them as the sustaining bar food they are. And I was recently informed they have a burger.
I picked this as the day’s burger for its confluence of the past week. It’s a Hawaiian joint with a burger (Big Island Kona Mix Plate) that’s covered in pulled pork (Baldy’s, Wubba’s). Fusion food of my own little microcosm. It’s also the cheapest burger yet at $8, or a mere $5 ‘mainland style’ without the pork.
And confluence it was, bouncing along the mediocre of all. The slow cooker pork and American cheese brought back memories of the Deviled Ham and Kraft Single sandwiches my mother used to make. The bun likely from the “day old bread” bin of a local middle school cafeteria. The once frozen patty at least a majority beef.
And I mean none of that in the negative. They owned their turf by adding pineapple and custom sauce and pork to their ‘mainland burger’. For cheap bar food that hits the spot in a great setting with great beer, go for it. I’ll order it again in a second. But I would just as likely jump for the nachos, or even more likely a taco at Sancho’s next door.
Score: 2.5 of 5
Price: $8 no side
Beer: Crux Pilz
“I hear y’all have a secret menu?” I say.
“Um, I guess. Yeah I mean we got chili fries.” replies Cute Blank Stare.
“………. oh. That’s nice.”
The Lot is the local circle of food trailers. It gets quite busy on sunny evenings like this, lines extending into the streets from each trailer, standing room only in the pavilion, acoustic guitars strumming in the corner. Long lines at all the trailers but one: Burgz n Dogz, the only place in The Lot that offers up burgers. I mean burgerz. I walked straight up, reviewed the sandwich board menu that I assume to be on loan from an itinerant carnival, and attempted to engage the trailer lady in some light banter. It was awkward. I ordered my burger, took my number, and sat down.
History tells me that places like this are likely a front. And the great thing about fronts is they have no regard for profit margins or bacon quotas or basic sanitation, the classic barriers to the American Burger Hero. They lack those constraints of legal conformity that might stifle the budding burger genius. Grand things come from unassuming joints like this. And so I was a bit excited and hopeful as I awaited my burger, tapping my foot to the covered songs of “open mic night.”
And waited. And tapped. And waited.
At one point Miss Cute Blank Stare came over carrying a burger and asked if I could hand her my number. I happily obliged. She then held on to said burger, walked the long way around the common table, sliding between the crowds, passed close behind me, and kept walking back out. Still carrying the burger.
Perhaps I am simply unaccustomed to the habits of this place.
…I won’t play out the remaining details of this tale, suffice to say it all was all resolved just fine. Miss CBS was embarrassed and offered to shower me with milk shakes. A born and raised Bend native proclaimed as much. Somebody, somewhere, got a surprise burger (I’ve been on that end of life. Those are wonderful times).
And the burger? The second one, at least. Well, they grilled up the jalapenos and onions to perfection, letting their heat carry over to melt and mingle with the Swiss cheese. Blissful. The patty was a wafer so thin I can only assume it was held together by a binding agent still pending FDA approval. The bun mediocre, presumably to match the lettuce and tomato.
Carnival food at the heart of it.
Score: 2.0 of 5
Price: $10 with fries
Beer: Laurelwood Free Range Red
Post-run activity: a beer and a soak in Tumalo.
I’d seen this place but avoided it. It had the hyper colorful branding of the food chains you find in airport terminals. Being nestled against a Regal Cinema in a strip mall didn’t help that image. But I’d heard great things about it. Its local esteem was well regarded and it had made its way on my list of places to try. Today, as the burger hunger pangs kicked in I checked to see if they have burgers, which, just a little surprisingly, they do.
Being this early in the 100 Burger game I’ve been sticking to items on the menu. It would be unfair to the future generations using these notes who are wanting to simply “grab a burger.” There will be plenty of time for bold off-menu concoctions in the future. But, despite the dazzling array of wonderful and eclectic items on the Big Island menu, “Hamburger” sits dull and alone in the center. No attempts at pulling the burger into the rest of the flavorful scene. No “Spam Hawaiian Burger” or “Bulgogi Marinated Burger” or other madness. I’m sure they would make them if you laid down the specifications, but nobody really wants to be that guy during the lunch hour playing menu wizardry. At least not me.
So the “Hamburger” it was, adding a slice of cheese (yellow only choices: American or cheddar). And it was good, if not the cliche definition of an American Hamburger, seemingly assembled from Worldbook Encyclopedia diagrams. And maybe that’s how I should look at this. They weren’t trying to colorize a burger with Pacific excitement. This was not fusion cuisine. They are a restaurant awkwardly shoved in the middle of American cultural mediocrity and had to offer up at least one item that fit the surroundings. And on those terms, they succeeded.
Score: 2.75 of 5
Price: $9.75 with side salad
Beer: Boneyard RPM IPA
The Random Burger Selector sent me to Wubba’s today, a BBQ “shack” on the north side of town that gets compared to Baldy’s (the consensus seems to be Wubba’s for pork, Baldy’s for beef). They lack Baldy’s build-a-burger experience, offering instead two choices: Standard or Hogs.
The Hogs Burger comes loaded with pulled pork and coleslaw, providing enough similarity to that Baldy’s burger for an honest comparison. Oddly, their is no typical self declaration of being the best burger around. Instead, the menu frames this as “Wubba’s version of the best BBQ burger ever!” No indication is made of who, where, or what had that title of best BBQ burger ever. But at least this is their version. Such mysteries…
And general BBQ consensus is correct. The pulled pork was far superior to Baldy’s and they exemplified it by loading the burger heavy with the stuff. The patty was flavorless and thin, barely noticeable. A purist would call it a pulled pork sandwich with beef, not a burger. The entire grease fest *almost* required a fork. Fortunately, for somebody with the vast training and experience such as myself, I managed to hold it all together.
Score: 3 of 5
Price: $11.99 with fried okra
Beer: Bridge 99 Brewery Pioneer Stout
I ended up at JC’s Bar and Grill, as instructed by a bit of technology I launched today. Thanks to Reddit and the Suggest a Burger form, the Burger Inventory is well stocked. Too stocked. I was having decision fatigue, drowning under the months of choices I’ll have to make, one day at a time. So the Burger Inventory now randomly chooses a burger for me each day. And today it declared JC’s. Fear of choice averted.
I’d been to JC’s on my first visit to Bend last September, that little road trip that taught me you can’t spell “bender” without Bend. And now I’m back with a purpose that doesn’t focus around Tic Tac shots, adult jenga, and shuffleboard. Thanks, slightly shifted maturity.
JC’s claims the “Best Burger in Bend” and no doubt I’ll visit a few self proclaimed champions over the next few months. And this one was good. Like 3 of 5. All parts came together well, though none overwhelmed. It’s a solid choice, it won’t fail you, quite reliable and worth repeating. If I somehow found myself here late one night, a touch of double vision and lack of context, I’d happily and genuinely declare “Oh! They’ve got good burgers here!” (Personal anecdote: a friend of mine got arrested for making that exact statement once. Long story).
But here’s where my burger quest begins to touch on something, the heart of this Burger Ethos, the social fabric of things burger. This was the first place I told the staff I was on the 100 burger challenge. I felt I needed to, as an excuse to get that picture of me and my food. And oh, their excitement. Not at the challenge, not at what it might mean for me, but the pride that their burger was part of something. This was a burger not to be scarfed and forgotten. They are proud of their burgers, and they shared that glint of happy knowledge that this particular one will be part of something a touch more permanent, however silly.
The cook overheard the brief exchange and came over. “The Black and Blue is my favorite to make. It’s the blue cheese. It acts different than most cheeses.”
Bonus 0.5 points for heart, JC’s. Stay true to the burger spirit.
Score: 3.5 of 5
Price: $10 with fries
Beer: Firestone Union Jack
Here’s where you can submit suggestions and check out a list of all the locations I plan to visit.
Submit a recommendation in the form below! (I scrub through the submissions, so yours won’t pop up immediately).
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The highlighted restaurant is a randomly chosen location in Bend. This is to help me pick a spot to eat rather than spend hours trying to decide. It’s different per user, so what you see will be different than where it tells me to go.
It had been a day of health. I climbed the summit of South Sister in an arduous 8.5 hour hike. I wore space pants at the fitness recovery lounge. And I was going to finish the evening with a veggie burger.
But on the way to said veggie burger, I started to have doubts. Would it really count? It’s a burger only by name, and it’s name is more appropriately “plant loaf sandwich served on bun.” What can I compare it to? Am I even qualified to evaluate one?
Fortunately, amidst this angst, I passed Baldy’s BBQ. I’d heard they offer pulled pork as a burger topping. This didn’t pose the same ethical dilemma and the calm of mind was well worth the illegal U-turn.
And indeed, pulled pork is a $1 add-on in the same category as bacon, avocado, chili, etc. Baldy’s does not attempt at a list of cute-named pre-built burgers. It’s a utilitarian system of check boxes beneath the heading of BURGER. The options are concise and critical. They offer fresh jalapenos as a free topping! And grilled onions! I’d been trying to get jalapenos added to burgers up here, settling even for the pickled type, to very little success. And this place makes a double play in the world of burgerdom. Keep it classy, Baldy’s.
Plus, Caesar salad is a side option, which is second to fries as my preferred burger accompaniment.
(Note: the “patty” check boxes offer a veggie burger. In a future event of burger angst, I’m ordering a bacon chili veggie burger. Because America).
Oh, and the burger was badass. Well layered, juicy, with a hint of smoke. I shall return.
Score: 4.5 of 5
Price: $10 with pulled pork and Caesar salad
Beer: None (healthy day, remember?)
Word of the day: Glissade, verb. To slide down a steep slope of snow or ice with the support of an ice ax
Summertime in Bend. Tourist season in a town without locals. The usual winter small talk shifting from “where’d you move here from?” to “where’d you fly in from?” Outdoor concerts, bikinis in snow-melt rivers, block parties at every block. Heavy foot traffic to all pubs within reach.
Sunriver Brewing Company’s Bend location is as recent a transplant to the area as I am. This is their first summer in town. They make good beer, shipped up from Sunriver proper down south. Their burger is a well rounded “pub burger” similar to those at the more established brew pubs. Great bacon, tender telera roll, 1/3 pound of thin yet medium-cooked local beef. The fries crisp if not a touch oily. Good stuff.
Good god, though. Cheap burgers are $9 in this town. $13 the norm. Madness. I look forward to the fringe. To discovering those Top 5 Under $5, somewhere out there in the borderlands.
Score: 4 of 5
Price: $13 with fries
Beer: Sunriver Brewing Co Cool Water Cream Ale
It’s late Friday afternoon in central Oregon. You’ve had your burger, a modest selection of beers (craft and otherwise), but the sun is high, the wind cool, with many hours of daylight left. That’s all the setup needed to find yourself on a dusty vertical trail, eyes stinging from the salty sweat as you strain straight up Black Butte, the beer long since burned off, a new burger bouncing soundly alongside in its soft little cooler.
I’d been directed to Sno Cap in Sisters by several folk already. Another staple drive-in full of nostalgia to those who’ve been in the area a decade or more. And for the second thin-patty of the day, and high quality at that, I was forced to consider the benefits of the “session” burger, the light but tasty grease bomb that doesn’t cripple. Gourmet burgers, with their fist sized balls of low fat, high density meat in a sea of unpronounceable sauces, are always on the Top Ten Burger lists. But it’s these little packages of classic roadside happiness that you can chomp down and not slow down, still jump about and have those adventures that the burger enhanced, not hindered.
And maybe it’s as simple as that, a burger is either a Night Ender or a Session Burger. Both have their place, but it’s those Session’s that people most fondly recall, associated with sunny days, cheap beers, and good times.
Score: 3.5 of 5
Price: $8.95 with fries
Burger Hike: Black Butte (which the attentive might notice is also the name of a popular beer in these parts)