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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Oh Summit. I’m embarrassed how often I’ve frequented your bro-tastic bar or swayed uncomfortably on your creeper dance floor. Many a social night where you find it the last place open, attracting every drunk Bend socialite around. The “Scummit” as it’s unaffectionately known. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. A shame, because their staff are wonderful folk and their burgers top notch.
So how does the burger seeker justify such a visit? Two doors down is Vector Volcano. For $5 you get unlimited plays at their arcade. This includes Burgertime.
I’ve never played Burgertime, but the gentleman operating the door saw no problem with my scheme to eat a burger while playing it. To wit:
“Like, a photoshoot?” he asked.
“Nope, I just want to play Burgertime while eating a burger.”
“I see nothing wrong with that. Just don’t drip on the controls.”
The geniuses behind Burgertime obviously intended it to be played with a foil wrapped burger in one hand. The rules are simple: use the single joystick to navigate a system of scaffolding where burger ingredients are stacks. If you walk on them, they fall, thus stacking the burger. Also, you’re a chef. And you’re being relentlessly pursued by a gang of weiners and a fried egg. The egg is the brains of the operation. In later levels you will also be haunted by spinning pickle slices. You’re faster than any of them but significantly outnumbered. But you can dash them with salt to escape if you’re in a pinch (or dash away after applying a pinch of salt. The puns are numerous).
I played for a while, the best I could do getting to level three when the demon pickles show up. My high score was around 6,000. The current top score on that machine is 978,100. Think about that. In Virtual Burgertime there is a local who is over 100 times better than me. In Reality Burgertime, I’m pretty confident in my accomplishments. The best I could do stacking digital burgers was 8 in one go. Somebody here was stacking over 800 per game. Damn.
But the Summit burger helped ease that painful realization. Thick and cooked a tender medium with a pillow of soft bread and gooey cheese, it’s a fantastic bar burger. Though apparently when you order them to-go, they package the lettuce, tomato, and onion in a separate little bag. I was not expecting this and was surprised twice: first, at eating a burger that was pure meat/cheese/bread, and second when discovering a bag of veggies beneath my bag of chips long after the burger disappeared. It’s the first deconstructed burger in a bag I’d ever encountered.
I was also surprised to discover that Dragon’s Lair makes absolutely no sense and is near impossible to play.
Score: 4 of 5
Price: $10 with chips
I really want to like Jake’s. It’s traditional East Bend, has that straight ambiance of a greasy spoon classic roadside diner, and it’s never too busy or too empty. The first page of the menu is even dedicated to burgers with a full selection of varied choices.
But it’s never quite… clicked. Service is a touch slow, food a bit mediocre, and it’s location set back off of US 20 behind a liquor store but next to neighborhood means it can’t quite settle between being a divey joint or a restaurant of Traditional American Family Values. I can’t tell whether I’d more expect to see drugs or a retiree’s Buick for sale in the parking lot, but ultimately see neither. Regardless, I’ve never heard the phrase “oh, let’s go to Jake’s!”
To celebrate their indeciciveness, I ordered The Dankenstein, a burger layered with grilled corned beef, roast beef, ham, cheese, and sweet peppers. This is stoner food, made even less subtle as such by its name. But this is either lost or ignored by Jake’s, who present it more as a novelty burger invented by somebody named “Chris.” This Chris character isn’t mentioned anywhere on the menu or website’s “Jake’s History” sections. One can only guess.
I was expecting a day ender, pounds of meat and sodium requiring a crawl under my desk while I cry myself into a food nap. But it was pretty moderate, just enough of each ingredient to form a full sandwich, and likely the smallest beef patty I’d had to date. Less than a 1/4 pound. My first 1/5 pounder. I finished it and the fries without remorse.
Score: 3 of 5
Price: $13.75 with fries
Between touring breweries in Eugene and waste water facilities in Portland, I swung by the Deschutes Portland Pub to chat logistics and check out some troubles they’d been having with their boiler. This coincided with lunchtime, so I grabbed a burger.
The Deschutes pubs make great burgers. Loaded and heavy with sides like truffle oil fries. They’re also pricey, deviating wide from the traditional “pub” grub. Total nap inducers and not exactly fit for a work day lunch. But I’ll persevere.
To round out my Portland tourist experience, I dropped into Powell’s Books and found a copy of Hamburger America, the musings of George Motz as he travelled the country in search of 100 great burger joints. It even includes a DVD copy of his documentary about burgers.
Truly wonderful times we live in when 100 burger adventures are seemingly common and come in every form of media from print to film to internet.
Score: 3.75 of 5
Price: $17 with fries
I was headed to Vector Volcano, the arcade downtown, on hearing they had a copy of Burger Time. I felt I needed to play it. Turns out they’re closed on Tuesdays. Bummer. So I headed over to Blacksmith to grab a burger. Turns out Tuesday is Burger and Brew night. $12 for a burger and a beer. The Universe provides.
After my run of 3rd Street diners and dives, the general cleanliness of Blacksmith is almost unsettling. The music is at the perfect volume and balanced, lights tuned to expertly mingle with the shiny brass bar and matte stone walls, hushed conversations amongst polite clientele wearing watches and jewelry worth more than several months of my salary. But you can still spot little snippets of central Oregon: the live music contracted for the night jammed out a few chords and then huddled in the corner feverishly shoveling in their free shift meal, acting like it was the first hot food they’d seen in a while.
I’d nearly forgotten what a hefty, quality burger was like. One where they ask you how you’d like it cooked and even take the effort to attempt something that side of super well done. Where the vegetables and cheese and condiments are proportioned with dedicated attention. The bun soft enough to enjoy but sturdy enough to contain the slurry within.
Score: 4 of 5
Price: $13 with fries and a beer
Beer: Boneyard Diablo Rojo
Spend any time in Sargent’s and you’ll wonder if your eyes can ever adapt beyond the sepia toned reality you’ve been immersed in. Is this brown vision permanent? Wood paneling covers every square inch of wall, counter, and trim. Plastic “glass” booth dividers are stained the same brown as the plastic water cups, further glowing and refracting earth tones. Plate after plate of toast, gravy, grilled cheese, fries, and other brown starches roll out of the kitchen. A huge bucket of mashed potatoes sits half chiseled away behind the bar. Black coffee served in dark brown mugs. Lacquered wood plaques line a few of the walls, prints of Elvis and The Trucker’s Prayer and eagles and wolves and unicorns that could offer some colored relief if the intense polish of the lacquer wasn’t absorbing and reflecting the tan majority.
Classic rock streams from the radio portion of the combination vinyl/cassette/AM/FM player sitting precariously atop an old refrigerated milk dispenser above a small drop freezer of ice cream. Pictures of several generations of little league teams thank their sponsor, Sargent’s Cafe. Shelves of painted river rocks sit beneath the cash register, each with a little torn slip of paper marking a price. There are stories buried here, ages of intention and purpose and ambition. My mind is still geared to the big city ethos of do or die, succeed or fail. Restaurants are either young or eternally reborn to maintain some image of youth. I’m not accustomed to this slow aging of ancient diner service, a continued and steady existence even as the sands of progress drift up all around ever deeper.
My beige burger was decent. Slightly above average but not far beyond pure utility. But maybe I was too distracted wondering where places like this come from and where they go. And then looking at the waitresses, young and old, and wondering the same. These patrons. A clean cut old man sitting alone in a booth with his oxygen tank cradled beside him. A rambling derelict in an oily jumpsuit trying to make his intentions to step outside for a cigarette overly clear to the waitress. And me, forcing purpose into another burger on another day. The large diner windows face east, away from the mountains, towards the desert and the ancient slow progress that sits out there in the scrub brush.
Score: 2.75 of 5
Price: $8.50 with a side of fries and existential dread
After a surprise week of amazing finds I’ve now entered the burger doldrums. Savage mediocrity in small unhurried spots up and down 3rd and 97. These are the flyover zones, the Midwest states of Bend, places that we know exist but have little reason or inclination to stop at aside from the occasional errand or appointment.
I don’t know Old Bend so I can’t tell when or if these places were exciting and new. Something must have encouraged the development of these cloistered little multi-unit commercial buildings. Perhaps before the dawn of the internet, a time when any True American Business Owner had to have a physical office. These buildings exist as the physical relics of a past since replaced by web pages. Now they exist as shelters for dental offices, nail salons, and the random hobby restaurant.
Cheerleaders isn’t particularly well known. It’d come as a late burger joint recommendation and my first thought was of some Hooters knockoff. But it’s a grill. Not even really a bar and grill; it’s a family friendly joint. The locals that knew of it couldn’t recall the last time they’d been. I’d only heard it referenced again lately as earning a perfect score on its health inspection. It also has hardly a thing to do with cheerleaders. I saw a pair of tasseled megaphones hanging by the door, and that was it. All other surfaces are covered strictly with sports memorability. Photos, gear, pendants, banners. Even the walls are painted the artificial green of astroturf. Not even a picture of a cheerleader. Just hockey sticks in the rafters.
Al and Linda are the proprietors. You will know this because that is exactly what it says on the front door in vinyl letters between the name of the restaurant and their business hours. You will be greeted again by a semi-candid photo of Al and Linda on the menu. A woman named Linda served us, but the setting was so different from the photo that I couldn’t be sure it was the same Linda.
At first glance the menu offers a huge variety of burgers. Further study shows they listed out a different burger for each type of cheese, and again for each other topping. The only real outlier was the Cheerleader Chili Cheeseburger, but yesterday had been the Southside Pub chili burger and it was too soon to head down that path. I played it safe with the Bacon Cheese Burger.
And safe is the name of the game. As my burger aficionado dining companion pointed out, this was the type of burger ordered by the elderly. Completely devoid of risk, adventure, or flavor. Thin and overcooked. The burger analogy to a retirement community in Ohio.
Score: 2.5 of 5
Price: $10 with fries
I accidently drove by the Southside Pub on the first pass, confusing it for a gas station convenience store. It’s a big space, the end unit of a strip mall whose parking lot is dominated by gas pumps and an oil change garage. It’s the most southern point of town before 3rd street and 97 rejoin and you head off into the forests. There’s not much down this way.
In the fashion of 3rd street bars, the windows are tinted a jet black. Walking up you get that confused hesitation of wondering if they’re even open, also aware that anybody sitting inside is able to watch your confused hesitation as you saunter up to the door. You have no idea what to expect behind that mirrored black door, no preconception of the size or people or noise or atmosphere you’ll be greeted by. Just your own reflection facing back among the vinyl lettering of the bar name and hours.
But Southside Bar is calm and quiet inside. Music rarely plays, and the TV volume is turned down but not off. It’s extremely spacious and immaculately clean. Like many of the bars in this area at lunchtime, the tables are empty and the bar packed. I was fortunate to grab a seat as one patron moved himself to a more permanent position at the video casino in back. It’s all regulars here, so ingrained in their routine that they don’t even acknowledge an outsider stepping in from the gas pump parking lot. These are confident folk, old men wearing tank tops, phone holsters, and the general altitude of being the kings, renegades, and badasses of a Bend that once, or maybe never, was. Martini glasses sit hopeful, but dust covered, on the top shelf of the bar, likewise awaiting for the return of a more glamorous time.
The bartender is slow and deliberate, a young woman on that imminent edge of leaving the “young” part behind. From my historical observations from this side of the bar, the skilled female bartenders of the world earn their tips through a mixture of control underlied by some manner of unobtainable attraction. The control part is obvious: they’ve got the booze, you’ve got the money. The attraction takes different forms. There’s the overt, hyper-sexualized type, with boobs propped up to their neck in mechanical scaffolding and dark eye shadow and the smiles and intentional flirting. Those are common, the skinny girls in dark, minimal clothing at most downtown speed bars and clubs. And then there’s the more abrupt type, the gruff ones with a sharp attitude and biker babe ethos that says “even if you had the chance you wouldn’t know what to do.” They’re the fun ones usually operating the dive bars, the ones that make jokes at your expense and razz you for being the drunk you are. But they never miss an order and always make sure everybody gets home alright.
This bartender had an approach that was new to me. She carried herself with the feigned innocence of the damsel in distress from a 1940’s film noir. That woman walking into the private eye office with a simple problem but trying deliberately to hide a much darker and more sinister plot. This bartender would ask her question, “would you like anything to eat?”. I’d give my answer and she’d slowly turn but then pause, as if something about my answer didn’t sit right with her but she had to be careful with what she said next. Careful she didn’t give too much away. She’d turn back and slowly lock eyes. While dropping her chin and her voice just a touch, ask, “and… what would you like with that?”
It was adorable, especially set against the crusty Sunday lunch crowd and the bright view of gas station pumps and roadway interchange just outside the windows. I ate it up as did the regulars around me. They were all well experienced with the act by now but still came back for more.
But, despite all of the back and forth Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall banter about sides, extra cheese, beer, and condiments, the burger was immensely boring. It reminded me entirely of the burger from the Vince Genna Stadium. Just without the baseball game.
Score: 2.25 of 5
Price: $9.75 with coleslaw
Beer: Coors Light
“We’ve got chili today. So we’re putting it on a hot dog for $4.95. Or we’ll do a chili cheeseburger for $5.95.”
I always try to opt for the special, so I jumped at the chili cheeseburger.
“You good with raw onions?”
I confirmed I was. The burger arrived a short time later.
“You want any ketchup or mustard with that?”
“Get him the Guinness mustard,” chimes in the weathered man at the end of the bar. Lean and gaunt, he’d caught my eye for the way his long gray goatee wavered when he puckered his lips between bouts of talking to himself. He was innately focused on three different sports broadcast across the flat screens behind the bar, commenting intently on each in turn. He sat at the worst possible seat to see any of the TV’s, but for all I know he’d claimed that seat long before the TV’s had ever existed.
“It’s a special recipe. They make it here in house,” he continued.
I attempt to carry on the conversation, “…by putting Guinness in the mustard?”
“Yeap. Yeap, what’s what they do.”
Kelly D’s loosely tries to fashion itself an Irish Pub, though more as an afterthought than a deliberate intent. It shares the first floor of The Grover Building with a barbershop. Who Grover is, or why he felt that his namesake office building should be a two story unit surrounded by gravel lots off of 3rd street, remains a mystery. The arched awning leads into the poorly lit central lobby of the Gover Building, where the heavily tinted glass of Kelly D’s sits covered in marker and stickers and looks as welcoming as those uncomfortable convenience stores you see in subway terminals. Inside, the bar was packed and the tables empty. Half the patrons were your professional day drinkers, regulars who had settled on this place for reasons they themselves likely didn’t know. The other half sipped at water or iced tea along with their food, looking like foreman or contractors just grabbing some air conditioning and food on their lunch break.
The chili cheeseburger was mostly chili. The chili was mild and with beans, but personal survival had long ago dictated that I bury my Texas opinion on such matters. Chili exists without definition, more a slowly and geographically transitioning idea than a concrete reality, and you will live a much happier and friendlier life abiding by that loose chili theology. And this chili would do just fine, if not exactly the chili of my upbringing.
The burger couldn’t be eaten by hand. Fork and knife were a necessity. But they’d made a good effort to slowly grill the potato bun to the point of a thick cracker and char the patty to a point of excessive texture. These would be fouls in your normal burger, but under a pile of slippery chili help add a much needed anchor. This is good, visceral bar food. Cheap and to the point.
But the highlight, truly, was the mustard.
Score: 2.75 of 5
Price: $5.95 no side
Beer: Boneyard RPM
As far as downtown fine dining establishments go, 900 Wall is nicely unpretentious. A solid happy hour and welcoming to all manner of riff raff, at least before the high dollar crowd shows up for dinner. Rumor tells it’s the preferred cougar bar once the night gets rolling. But it’s still relaxed at this point during an early Saturday happy hour and I can comfortably expect a calm, perhaps mundane, retreat from the summer insanity outside.
I hadn’t been back into 900 Wall since its long construction hiatus ended. Everything looks nearly identical. Most of the trouble had been with the foundation and a new shiny concrete floor fills the space. The bar had also been replaced, also concrete, maybe just some spare left over from pouring the floor.
Their burger is a standard attempt at burger fanciness. Arugula, natural beef, hefty bun, “onion jam,” and, as if sesame seeds weren’t superfluous enough already, a spattering of black sesame seeds atop the bun to add some contrast. Nothing overly noteworthy, but nothing of low quality either. Just a burger at a nice restaurant.
But I do want to frame something up here. A bit of a public service announcement. A warning to burger makers and eaters alike. This is something I shouldn’t have to tell a restaurant, but here it is:
If you can’t dedicate the skill and focus, turn down the heat.
Sure, you’re used to searing steaks and fish on that maxed out grill. And that’s just swell. But at those temps with a burger, the difference between “raw” and “well done” passes in a flash that you could never hope to notice in a busy kitchen. “Medium” becomes an unsustainable goal. And, worse, don’t try and toast the bun on that same grill. The difference between “toasted” and “ash tray” is razor thin, and either way you’ve failed to actually heat the bun and ultimately only provide a singed casing around a cold lump of bread.
Barrio proved on both counts they shouldn’t be allowed near a burger. 900 Wall pushed the line towards well done and nearly cremated their bun, but fortunately backed off before serving up a carbon crusted loaf. Watch the burger pros, guys: smear on some butter and heat that bun up on the flat top. Don’t be a hero.
It is, after all, just a burger.
Score: 3 of 5
Price: $13.50 with fries
Brewfest. A swarm of beer bellies, fedoras, male tank tops, and stumbling drunkenness. The general ambiance of a frat house 10 year reunion permeated by the blasting of music selected by a wedding DJ who couldn’t land a real gig for the weekend. Seventy five breweries each with several taps all leading to a slow decline in coherency, one 4 ounce beer sample at a time.
Your standard Bend summer festival.
Entry is free. Sample mug with some tokens is $20. I bypassed the mug (for now) to simply slide in and grab a burger. I’d been to a number of festivals in the area and was always disappointed to find there was rarely a burger option among the food stands. Festival food seems to focus on the eccentric. Burgers are almost too mundane. Too American for even the most American of past times, the drunken summer festival.
But not with Brewfest. The Rogue Chef’s food truck stands as one of the pillars in the food court offering up Wagyu beef burgers as their specialty. Topping the menu is the Everything Burger, the perfect complement to a festival of endless booze. Fatty beef topped with melted cheeses and sauteed mushrooms and onions and hyper-peppered bacon on a buttered bun. A structural grease conglomerate to help anchor the system between craft beers. Or in my case, require a refill of coffee to avoid an instant nap at my desk. No flavors are subdued, with an intense mustard seed mayo and fries piled up with garlic. I left the fairground stumbling just like the rest of the crowd, but instead of the beer it was pure fatty stupidity from this gut bomb that was fogging my mobility.
Score: 3.25 of 5
Price: $13 with fries