Returning to the Burger's Essence at Grain & Gristle in Portland, OR

Editor's note: Please welcome Nathan Tucker to AHT! A Serious Eats reader since 2009, he's helping us fill in our major gaps of Portland food coverage, starting with burgers. You can read more from Nathan at Portland Monthly.

Nathan Tucker

Grain and Gristle

1473 NE Prescott St, Portland OR 97211 (map); 503-298-5007,
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A burger that doesn't try anything fancy—and doesn't need to, given the quality and distinct taste of the freshly ground beef
Want Fries with That? Absolutely. The onion rings aren't bad either provided you eat them right away.
Price: Burger (w/fries or salad), $10; w/cheddar, +75¢; w/bacon or egg, +$1; onion rings, +$2
Notes: Burger served à la cart at lunch for $9.

I have a good friend who once told me, "My life is just a series of burgers strung together by moments when I wish I was eating a burger." Now, I realize that in some contexts this could sound like a call for help from a bleak existential void, but if you knew this friend as well as I do, you'd know it was just her way of expressing every burger fanatic's deepest desire: to eat more of them.

The problem is that for many of us like-minded beef partisans, finding more ways to cram ground beef between buns into our gaping maws can be a difficult task. It's not necessarily a question of variety over monotony; rather, in a world so inundated with meat innovation and extreme toppings, the humble eater can feel a bit overwhelmed. Sometimes, you need an everyday burger—a simple, clean eating, and satisfying return to the essence of burger. At Grain & Gristle in northeast Portland, they serve just that.

The neighborhood eatery is sister establishment to Old Salt Marketplace, the Cully supper house that boasts an in-house whole animal butchery serving both restaurants. Grain & Gristle's burger ($10) is a mixture of chuck and trimmings from other cuts, coarsely ground on premises and formed into third-pound patties. The freshness of the meat is on full display, and the trimmings play a key role, giving each bite a distinct funk that hovered pleasantly on the edge of gaminess.

The patty was loosely packed and perfectly seasoned. There wasn't much flavor from the grill, and my burger came out perhaps a shade closer to medium than my requested medium-rare. Then again, with beef this juicy and distinctly flavored, neither of those things mattered.

The patty arrived simply adorned, with only leaf lettuce, pickles, and a cozy blanket of cheddar. This isn't the sharpest cheese in the world, and it's contribution was more of fat than flavor; I was glad to have it, but the lactose intolerant, kosher, and otherwise cheese-averse among us won't miss it. The pickles, on the other hand, were key players. The perfect marriage of brine, sweetness, and crunch, they would elevate any sandwich (though as you'll see from the pickle pile-up in my pictures, I could have been more careful in arranging them).

Grain & Gristle serves their burger on a Grand Central brioche bun. These turn up a lot around town, and for my money, they're just about the ideal vessel. Though perhaps a touch too sweet, they sport a sturdy yet pliable crust and a neither too dense nor too sweet crumb that grills up nicely when split. Though parts of the bottom bun were close to soaked by the time I finished taking pictures, it remained intact to the last bite, keeping most of that sweet, sweet beef fat off my fingers and in my mouth (which is really all I ask).

The restaurant does good things with a deep-fryer, as well. The fresh cut french fries were golden, twice-fried, skin on beauties, perfectly seasoned (read: salty) and portioned. With just enough diameter for the perfect ratio of crisp exterior to fluffy, potatoey interior, they're a side that fans of both thinner and thicker fries can probably get behind. I ate them all, and felt no shame. Shoestring onion rings were great when they hit the table, but time to cool down didn't do them any favors, revealing them to be grease-logged albeit well-seasoned strands that tasted (and likely were composed) mostly of batter.

The burger at Grain & Gristle doesn't boast any bells and whistles, and it doesn't need them. It's a simple and classic combination of ingredients executed pristinely, making it the perfect meal to fill the existential void that is burgerlessness, between more daring and extreme burger experiences. Portland is full of would-be neighborhood joints that are actually worthy destinations, and Grain & Gristle has become just that by serving thoughtfully constructed plates that keep the emphasis on what really matters. In this case, it's the beef.