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Burgers are back after tasty rehab

Bread and Brew
by: JAIME VALDEZ, A Violetta favorite is the half-pound bacon cheeseburger, served with hand-cut Yukon Gold fries and a vanilla shake.

Something strange is happening to the hamburger. In a post-“Fast Food Nation,” post-“Supersize Me” world, you might expect the great American burger to go out of style. But in Portland, a number of successful and experienced restaurant owners are banking on just the opposite. It started with Foster Burger, which opened during the last week of 2009. Now there’s Violetta, anchoring downtown’s Director Park, and Dick’s Kitchen on Belmont. Then there’s the brand-new Little Big Burger, and more on the way. All these places have menus that, at first glance, could have been copied from a 1950s drive-in. On closer inspection, though, they bear the marks of all the latest food obsessions. At Dick’s Kitchen (3312 S.E. Belmont St., 503-235-0146), which opened in July on Southeast Belmont Street, the burgers come on house-made vegan buns. The burger itself is made with grass-fed beef from Eastern Oregon, and it costs $6.50 — well more than the price of a Big Mac, but well under the price of a fine-dining burger. Dick’s Kitchen is a new project from Richard Satnick, who owns the successful local chain of Laughing Planet Café burrito joints. Dick’s has a spare mid-century look, with subway tiles, neutral tones, and widely spaced, simply framed photos of famous Dicks (maybe the giant portrait of Nixon will keep the hippies at bay). The menu is also simple: burgers and hot dogs, tempeh burgers and vegan brats, plus a handful of sandwiches and salads. Or I should say, the front of the menu is simple. The back consists of a lengthy manifesto, billing Dick’s as a “Stone Age Diner,” on the premise that humans evolved to eat a diet of lean protein and fresh vegetables (and pimento cheese? and bacon?) I’ve grown used to menus that list the restaurant’s purveyors, but this is the first one I’ve seen that also includes suggested further reading. In other words, Dick’s Kitchen isn’t the result of a lack of imagination. It’s an attempt to detoxify the burger. The beef patties are cooked to order, and the kitchen is not afraid to leave the center pink. My burger was tasty but floppy. Compared to traditional, corn-fattened beef, it has more flavor, but it doesn’t spread out into the corners of your mouth in the same way. I was glad for the cheese and the excellent homemade pickles. I even salted my burger, something I’ve never done before. Central to Dick’s Kitchen is its owner’s discovery that grass-fed beef is much healthier. It’s leaner, has more vitamins, and is higher in omega-3s, the good kind of fat. “I knew that I needed a place to eat this kind of food on a regular basis, so I designed it really as my kitchen,” says Satnick, who lives upstairs. “I wasn’t really a burger freak but I sure have become one.” His new love for the grass-fed burgers, plus the burger-related research he did before opening the café, has fueled the one-time vegetarian’s appetite. “There are some good burgers out in Portland right now,” he says. “It’s a uniquely satisfying meal. It’s funny how universal hamburger love is.” Back to the basics There seems to be plenty to go around. Downtown’s Violetta (877 S.W. Taylor St., 503-233-3663) is a snack bar inside a stylish glass cube that fits into the overall scheme of the slick, pale new Director Park. It’s not very large, and that’s going to be a problem once the weather turns cold. For now, many from the steady stream of customers can sit outside, under a clear awning. Violetta is the work of Dwayne Beliakoff, who was formerly an owner of North Portland’s high-end, well-regarded Cajun spot Roux, which closed in July of 2009. Now he’s selling burgers, plus roasted chickens, egg sandwiches, chili, milkshakes, and other coffee shop fare. The burgers come from pasture-raised cows, and you have a choice of a third of a pound for $6 or a half pound for $7.50. This is a very fine burger — simple, straightforward, good all around the edges and with one perfect bite right in the center. Violetta invokes the Slow Food movement for its philosophical underpinnings. (Yes, this is what I’m trying to tell you: Burger bars now have philosophical underpinnings.) That means locally grown ingredients, an emphasis on quality, a little bit of hedonism and compostable containers. It also means getting back to basics, and no one is doing that more thoroughly than Micah Camden. The owner of the Killingsworth mini-empire — Fats, Yakuza, D.O.C. — and the founder of Beast, has just opened Little Big Burger (122 N.W. 10th Ave., 503-274-9008), where the menu is only six items long, including drinks. The burgers are $3.25. Obviously, the economy is part of this equation. But it’s not just about money. It’s about a certain sense of insecurity that food can quell — that’s why they call it comfort food. And maybe that’s why, instead of being blacklisted, the burger was sent to rehab. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.