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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In my initial downtown burger inventory search I’d overlooked Barrio. It advertises itself as a tapas bar. Tapas being the Spanish version of sushi. Sushi being an Asian culinary style focused on spending the maximum amount of money to still be hungry. I’d assumed they’d just have sliders, tops. When I did finally check the menu, I missed the 1/2 pound Barrio Burger because the larger items were listed under “Mas Tapas,” Spanish for “More Tapas,” when I think they really mean “Tapas Grande.” The lesson here is not to depend on Spanish cultural nuances in a town that is 98% white.
The more important lesson is not to rely on a pseudo ethnic restaurant to deliver on decidedly non-ethnic cuisine. The presentation is gorgeous but impractical. They deliver the burger on a wood skillet while the waiter, before even relinquishing his grip, warns you to move it to a plate before eating. The large bun is hand crafted with what I assume is a recipe perfected during the siege of Leningrad, an intensely bland flour-and-water loaf that must have been toasted over a burning pile of pallet wood. Their attempts to put char lines on the bottom of the bun means your tongue is greeted with the essence of soot at every bite.
There was no question of how I wanted the burger cooked. Perhaps they forgot to ask, and the man operating the bonfire in back defaults to “black outside, soggy pink throughout, with a cold raw center.” Now, I like raw meat. Appreciate an undercooked burger. But only if the beef has flavor. Perhaps the all-natural farm this meat came from bypassed hormone injection for a heavier dose of saline injection. This patty provided nothing but the texture of cold oatmeal which only enhanced the charred dough flavor surrounding it.
To make it Spanish, they attempted escabeche. I love escabeche. Because normally it is loaded with intense peppers, onions, spices, etc. This escabeche was some mixture of root vegetables soaked in straight window washing vinegar. It was the only structure of the burger and only in the way mixing straw in mud can thicken it up.
There was a thin film of guacamole in there somewhere. I could sense it more than see or taste. But this might only be giving credit to my highly attuned avocado sensing capabilities.
If it weren’t for the outstanding margarita and the extremely satisfying patatas bravas, I likely wouldn’t have been able to finish the thing.
Score: 1.5 of 5
Price: $15.00 with patatas bravas
Margarita: Jalapeno Cilantro
I used to travel a lot. One of my techniques for finding the best restaurants, activities, events, etc., in a given location was to ask people on Tinder. You get to a town, swipe right on as many people as you can, and then start asking the matches for their favorite things to do. I’ve never (well, rarely) met any of these people in real life. But it’s how I’ve gotten free hockey tickets in Kalamazoo, discovered the best coffee shops in San Francisco, and was directed to Bend Burger Company the first time I ever visited Bend.
Except here’s the thing with Bend Burger Company. Anytime the question “where’s the best burger in Bend?” is asked, about 60% of the people will invariably respond “oh, you’ve got to go to Bend Burger Company, of course.” If you follow that up with “what burgers do you recommend there?” they pause, and then admit “well, I don’t really go there much myself.”
This is called marketing. If you ask about “Bend” and “burgers” then people reactively respond “oh, well there’s this company where that’s exactly what their name is!!” Bend Burger Company is the popular answer.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As the namesake of burger restaurants in town, Bend Burger Company delivers respectable options. A ton of options. All with clever names of local scenic attraction. I had the Lava Butte which includes chipotle peppers and a layer of pickled jalapenos. They’re heavy options and perfect as a post-float, pre-nap meal. I napped accordingly.
Basically, the burgers are good but by no means the best. At time of this writing, I count 10 places just in Bend with burgers as good or better by my judgement. Definitely grab a burger from Bend Burger Company once in awhile. But be a bit more creative when people ask to be directed to the best in town.
Score: 3.75 of 5
Price: $11.95 with fries
Beer: Boneyard RPM
I was attracted to Central Oregon for the high desert. I will be endlessly entertained crawling along lava fields and wandering among the sage and juniper without a shade tree in site. Give me dust and rock over that rotting muck you call “soil.” Keep those humid sticky sweats, itchy bugs, slimy ferns, and those hazy horizons of the coast. A tree covered mountain appears to me as a giant lump of moldy cheese and I feel sympathy for the sharp reliefs and jagged rock ledges that have been weathered down by the roots and worms. There is likely mill worker somewhere in my ancestry.
But this weekend, while we sat on the summit of Black Crater scanning the horizon, my eyes followed the road far below as it snaked through the lava flows of McKenzie pass and watched the endless stream of cars dropping in and out of the valley beyond. The map said McKenzie River was down there. I’d heard good things about that area but never been. Worth a check. We should head there next.
And that’s how we ended up descending 1000’s of feet within a few twisting miles, the temperature and humidity creeping up, the trees growing taller and greener. We found ourselves in the midst of that moist terrain whose beauty I will acknowledge but still disagree with. But there was comfort here. For no matter how rapidly diverse and changing the terrain of Oregon, there is a constant. You can find a hamburger.
The McKenzie Bridge General Store, named for the town of McKenzie Bridge, in turn most probably named for the bridge over McKenzie River found there, is in a stage of rapid remodeling. Step through the standard convenience store front and you enter a large beer garden in back. Fire pits and picnic tables and lawn games. There’s a food trailer in the corner serving up a menu that includes, to my relief, a burger.
At half a pound it’s a hefty burger for a general store food trailer. Bacon and blue cheese are cheap add-ons. The fries traditional and crispy. Red checkered paper in a plastic food basket emphasize the Americana. It’s filling and enjoyable, but not too overwhelming to distract from the camping and hiking you are heading from and to.
Score: 3.25 of 5
Price: $13.00 with bacon and fries
Beer: Hop Valley Citrus Mistress
Rock Triumphant: A hike up Tidbits Mountain rewards with pillars of stone succeeding above the furry green tyrants (aka “trees”).
Bad Wolf Bakery is foremost a bakery and breakfast spot. If you’ve been, it was likely to grab a bloody mary and one of their spins on classic breakfast items like the Rustic Eggs Benedict. But hidden on their menu is a burger. And a good one.
The bun is buttery and flakey, giving a gentle nod of respect to a croissant. A sweet tomato jam is the predominant spread perched on the top bun. This balances perfectly with a the cilantro and lettuce salad hidden beneath the patty (I’m really starting to think the identifier of a true burger professional is lettuce-on-the-bottom. I’m sure debates will rage). Home fries round out the breakfast motif.
This might be the closest Bend gets to a breakfast burger that doesn’t diverge too far from conventional burger standards (I see you glaring at me, Pilot Butte Drive-In. You’ll get your shot).
Score: 4.25 of 5
Price: $13.95 with avocado and home fries
Bloody Mary Vodka Flavor: Serrano (The habanero is good but a bit of a fight. The basil is a strong contender for best. Obviously you’ll have to try them all).
At some point recently the little brew pub tucked back into Old Mill called “The Rat Hole Brew Pub” decided that some rebranding might be in order. So now it’s North Rim Brew Pub. But, as the owner reassures, it’s still run by the same old rat.
Compared to yesterday’s Expressway adventure the setting was a little… dull… eating at an actual restaurant, especially a clean one in the Old Mill. But I appreciated the creative efforts they took with their day’s special, a Western Burger, by building a volcano of onion rings filled with BBQ sauce lava. My inner seven year old giggled with delight.
If you need a burger in the Old Mill this place is so far the best, though still nothing heroic. Their expertise seems to lie in the sauces, with a smokey fry sauce and wonderfully peppery BBQ sauce.
Score: 3.0 of 5
Price: $12 with fries
Beer: North Rim Sunrise Red Ale
This is the heart of it. The reason for this burger quest. Any superficial Top Ten Burgers of Bend list will highlight a few of the usual high quality pubs and eateries, maybe throw in a low rent shack for a touch of controversy, and be done with it. You will never learn of these utilitarian spots with a continuous and fabled history of burger flipping and deep frying. You would never think to venture deeper into the bustling gas station, squeezing past the racks of chips and candy and packaged convenience, and head to the back corner where the glass of the hot case shimmers with oil.
This isn’t fast food. There’s no established line or hard structure to the process. It’s a communal lunch gathering of neon safety vests and concrete crusted boots, half the gentleman waiting to throw an order to whoever will catch it behind the counter, the other half waiting for a cook to hold up a heavy paper bag and call out something sounding similar enough to what they remember ordering. The burgers are made to order, cooked exactly how you ask for them, and meticulously stacked with far more care and effort than even put into arranging the Red Bull display case.
When you acquire your heavy burger sack, the general idea is that you leave Expressway. It may not be fast food, but it is certainly takeaway. If, like our lunch burger posse, you want to enjoy this burger in the general ambiance of roundabout truck traffic, idling Roto-Rooter trucks, and wafting diesel fumes, I recommend picnicking in the fresh green grass of their storm water drainage field.
I’d ordered the XXX Burger (bottom left in the photo). I didn’t want to skirt around the edges of any perceived danger. Might as well dive right in. Brave the mental images as your buddies make reference to the cooks in back “whipping up some more special sauce.” Clear the afternoon schedule of meetings in case the gut goes sideways. Some notion of true journalistic research.
But we were all impressed with our burgers. The buns might have been a touch dry, the “sauses” a messy endeavor, but for gas station burgers they were truly enlightening.
Score: 3.25 of 5
Price: $8.30 with fries
Bonus: Field Agent Ben had sent me this reconnaissance photo of the menu the day before. To prepare myself mentally. Get my head in the game.
Having been properly set in the bowling mentality, I’m back home drafting these quick notes while The Big Lebowski plays in the background. Possibly the finest bowling movie ever made, rivaled only by Kingpin, and reinforcing the notion that the greatest life goal any man can have is to grow a mustache as encompassing as Sam Elliott’s.
Lava Lanes respects its monopoly of Bend bowling by being a comprehensive metaphor for all things great about bowling alleys. To me that’s primarily cheap beer, black lights, and questionable characters. Moments into arriving a teenage couple pulls in next to me in the parking lot, the lady of the duo dangling a set of cowbells from her purse as her boy in bright orange board shorts takes a moment to point and gawk in admiration at a nearby mid-2000’s Corvette with cracked fiberglass. At the bowling alley, these are peers. We are all picking from the same of bin of scuffed balls with poorly spaced finger holes, wearing the same marginally disinfected velcro rental shoes, and ordering beer and burgers from the same walk up counter perched overlooking the crowded lanes.
I’d been excited for this burger. Bowling alleys are typically well regarded for their greasy spoon diner fare. And as for set and setting, it’s hard to beat bowling. They even offer a side upgrade from fries to something called Lava Rocks, which are described in their entirety as being “mildly spicy potato bites served with ranch.” The mystery intrigues.
And the Lava Rocks, which I’m still not entirely clear on, are remarkably awesome. Like potato and cheese hush puppies. But the burger… meh. Ballpark quality stuff. Looks like Lava Lanes will have to maintain integrity on its alley atmosphere alone.
Rating: 2.25 of 5
Price: $11.75 with Lava Rocks
Bowling high score: 124
I’m not exactly sure what Broken Top is going for with their cheese stuffed burger. I do certainly appreciate defying burger convention; there would be no progress without the occasional departure from the norm. But maybe I’m more traditionalist than I’d realized when I can’t recall a time I’ve been part of the conversation: “this cheeseburger is alright, but what would really improve the thing is, now hear me out on this, is what if the cheese was INSIDE the meat? I mean, whoa man, what if we’ve just been raised and conditioned by the system to expect cheese on top? What if it’s all in our heads? What if cheese should come from WITHIN?”
To further prove my grumpy old man status, let me explain why not in a series of bullet points:
- The cheese will, as just proven, eject itself right out the back at the first bite like a bedeviled Hot Pocket.
- Ensuring that the burgers are consistently cooked will require overshooting your temperature target. You must overcook the burger, which will paradoxically be saved from over dryness by:
- the soupy cheese-beef grease goop you now have running down your arm.
That said, the whole thing is still pretty tasty. That cheese-grease soup (or “queso” as we used to call it) has a wonderful sharpness from the Tillamook cheddar. The beef’s good. The bun is good, though has trouble holding together under the stress it’s subjected to. I’d recommend turning the entire thing upside down before that first bite and let the chopped iceberg lettuce act as a buffer. Like sawdust for an oil spill.
Rating: 3 of 5
Price: $13 with cole slaw
Beer: Three Creeks Red Rye IPA
Napkins needed: 4
Ah, Astro Lounge. I’ve met city council members here. Frequently run into old friends I’ve known just a short while. Gathered desert hot springs advice from the bartender. Spent Christmas bowling with another. Traded fireball shots for kamikaze shots with regulars and tourists at even pace. Watched the mess they call cyclepub run in squealing like bachelorettes, order a dozen Watermelon Pucker with lime juice shooters, and just as quickly vanish. I’ve been the only person here one night and unable to push through the door another. And along with best stocked bar in town (M&J might squeeze them out on tequila), they’ve got a solid and eclectic menu of bar food.
When it comes to burgers, pretzel buns are an option. Spreads range from cream cheese to coleslaw to BBQ sauce to balsamic reduction. It’s lounge food, but consistent and hitting it’s intended target.
Rating: 4 of 5
Price: $12 with fries
Beer: Despite a quality tap list, I always crave cocktails here.
The DMV office is rarely a happy experience. Its continued existence is a testament to government’s failure to adapt to the digital age. It has all the same vague procedures, indeterminate waiting, plastic chairs, and colorful characters as the county drunk tank. Except you’re painfully sober. To its credit though, the Bend DMV is staffed with super cheerful and helpful staff that are genuinely excited that you just bought a used motorcycle. They want to give you advice on trails, the small desert towns that have gas stations (and when they’re typically open), and all the little tricks and tactics to dualsporting in central Oregon.
The north end of town is a little sparse on burgers though. If you’re wrapping up a DMV visit, the closest and most accessible option is Riverbend Brewing. And that’s perfect. Burgers are on the happy hour menu until 6:00 ($7 with fries, rivalling Pine Tavern’s deal. Plus you aren’t at Pine Tavern). The burger is served up on a sweet roll bun, the first I’ve had up here, reminding me of the better burger joints back in Texas. The bacon was super crispy and melted into the cheese. The lettuce chopped (for eating convenience) and placed beneath the patty (a style typical of smaller burger shacks and a method I’m rapidly coming to appreciate). All around its the perfect balance between the convention of a burger shack and the added style of a pub burger.
It actually makes me excited for the next trip to the DMV…
Rating: 3.7 5 of 5
Price: $10 adding cheese and bacon and with fries
Beer: Riverbend Brewing Equinox