Decided to put my prejudices aside and start surveying bistro burgers. Partly it's with the demise of Foothill Broiler that I have to look elsewhere for that fix. Most other fast food style burgers just don't quite cut it. This is the first of several reports. As always, photos, addresses, prices, etc, at the link below.
One of my prejudices, though, is being supported. I've always said that the average fast food joint is better at making fries than the average gourmet burger source. So far that's true.
Beaches: I wanted a baseline burger (and another spot in Vancouver) to compare to. This is one of my controls. I'd rather spend my money sitting outside by the Columbia than inside Red Robin being convinced that their ultimate chocolate brownie rocky road ice cream smores sandwich or whatever is a must for dessert. The burger itself was decent, as was the bacon and cheese (which are really cheap additions). But the lettuce, tomato, onion, and bun sucked. They serve jo-jos instead of fries, but they did a good job, as expected, since they're closer to a chain than a gourmet restaurant.
Cafe Castagna: Since this place is the most mentioned "best burger" nominee, I wanted to make sure it got in the first report. While the burger is good, I think the thing that separates Cafe Castagna from the rest is the fries. No one else so far has surpassed the various national chains except Castagna. Really great, crispy fries. The burger is a little plain and boring and not especially flavorful with nothing that really separates it from the other top places. It's also smallish for the price. But those fries....
Caprial's: I'm glad "Cap" comes immediately after "Caf" because as good as the fries from Cafe Castagna are, the fries from Caprial's Bistro are that bad. All different sizes, all greasy and limp. Yuck. I might feed them to my dog, but they'd probably just give him gas. The burger itself is pretty good. Like Castagna and Wildwood in this report they make their own bun, adding some herbs and salt to it. They also, like Castagna, make their own pickles. They also make their own relish and mayo (aioli). It's several dollars cheaper than the burgers from Castagna and Wildwood, too. If they could just make a decent fry. Or hell, offer me a salad, I guess.
Red Star: This was the other control. I think of this as an even more upscale Beaches, but really their burger was probably worse. They tried to make it better by adding things like their own pickled vegetables, but the quality of everything was actually poor and misconceived. The french fries were good, though. Not sure if I really like that Red Robin-like seasoning salt. They should have put it on the burger. Terrible bun.
Wildwood: One of my favorite restaurants and the burger didn't disappoint. The best burger in this survey and one of the best I've eaten so far. Great bun. Great additions like parsley pesto. And the burger was lean but really juicy. It literally dripped down my elbow. Truly grilled, too, with the most char and smoke flavor of any yet, I think. Fries were adequate, but not crispy enough for me. I liked skins on. It added an earthy quality.
Love to hear other recs, especially for places I might not think of like those that aren't in Portland proper.