This Pacific Northwest Chain Will Change the Way You Think About Fast Food
This month, approaching the year anniversary of my move to Portland, I started to make a tally of what I liked, what I disliked, and what surprised me about the Rose City one year later. For me, one of the biggest pleasures of living in Portland turned out to be Burgerville. I grab a Tillamook Cheeseburger from there far more often than I’d care to admit. What makes Burgerville so special that you’d want to move near to one? Allow me to explain.
Long before artisanal items were a glimmer in the eye of Portland’s culinary landscape, there was Burgerville. Portland’s answer to In-N-Out, this 40-strong burger chain is one of the unexpectedly delightful things about life in the Pacific Northwest. Who knew that seasonal, locally-grown food paired so well with fluorescent lighting and drive-thru windows?
Turns out, Portland did! The Vancouver, Washington-based chain has cooked up burgers and fries in the region since the first Burgerville opened in 1961. While the old-timey burger stand aesthetic is part of the charm of an In-N-Out, what makes Burgerville so good is how modern it feels in comparison, both in terms of how it operates and the ingredients used. That, and the fact that the grub is far, far better than it has to be for fast food at this price and speed.
The ingredients are seasonal and local; three-quarters of them are from within 400 miles of the Portland metro. This doesn’t just translate into a smaller carbon footprint, it means the food has a very specific connection to the Pacific Northwest. The onion rings that pop up in the early summer are Walla Walla onion rings. There’s everything from tempura asparagus spears to marionberry (that’s Oregon’s proprietary, rarely exported answer to the blackberry) milkshakes. Like the McRib or a summer camp romance, they don’t last long, but they burn bright while they are around. They also develop, like the McRib, quite the fanbase on social media.
Burgerville’s infrastructure is also Pacific Northwest through and through. They’re big on recycling, even turning their used oil into biodiesel. They offset their electricity use with wind-power energy credits. The meat for the burgers is never frozen. They specifically allow bikes to go in the drive-thrus. There’s a Burgerville among Portland Airport’s hyperlocal array of vendors. In short, Burgerville is the fast food chain you’d most likely to find wearing a half-zip Patagonia fleece pullover.
So, does that translate into fast food that is not just principled, but actually good? You bet. You’re still eating a fast food cheeseburger or vegan black bean burger or halibut sandwich--the latter two are excellent, rather than sad hockey pucks for your non-meat-eating friends to chew on—but the lettuce and tomatoes are fresh, the fries are crispy, and the milkshakes are something I don’t really eat because I’m lactose intolerant. That said, my girlfriend is quite fond of them, especially the seasonal ones (strawberries in the early summer, pumpkin in the fall).
It’s hard to make reality-based arguments about fast food. We eat it when we are very young, so it’s all tied up with synapses and neurons and whatever other brain junk gets triggered when we bite into a crispy on the outside, sweet on the inside onion ring. Consequently, there’s no shortage of burger chains people will defend to the death, as well as Roy Rogers. Let’s instead submit to you the idea that Burgerville belongs in the pantheon of “objectively good fast food burger chains” along with In-N-Out, Shake Shack, and Whataburger. If you want to time your visit to the Portland area to ensure you’ll get yourself better access to Walla Walla onion rings, I wouldn’t look at you askance. I moved here for the same reason.