Click image for slideshow.
I’ve been exploring for the topic for several months, and Ruski’s — the definitive neighborhood bar and grill that’s been in Portland a lot longer than I have (over a century) — might just have the best burger in the city.
I went there for the first time earlier this week right after our modest snow storm. The place wasn’t what I expected. I had imagined a long dark room, with crusty bar booths and an even crustier bar and crowd. Instead, the smallish space is garishly lit, lined with high-top tables,, dart boards on the walls, and a fairly small bar area in a room as large as a den. In fact I peeked around the corner expecting to find the dining room off a small vestibule, which instead led to the rest rooms.
A lot of Portlanders rave about Ruski’s home-style pub grub. The establishment—gritty surroundings notwithstanding--doesn’t make much of an impression on the outside. At first glance it personifies the corner bar in a fairly serious rough and tumble neighborhood. One block away is another sort of urban panoply altogether—an historic row of townhouses lining the thoroughfare; but then the scene changes dramatically, becoming sinister dark-corner territory where epicureans might fear to linger.
The bar was not very crowded the night we were there. I expected a crush of Cheer’s conviviality but instead met up with a mixed but spare, low-key crowd out for a bite to eat and libations. A lone woman at the bar was very involved with her computer screen, a few guys sitting at a table voraciously downed their hamburgers and fries; eventually a lively group of single women came in to sit at the bar for drinks and food.
The blackboard specials that night ranged from pork chop dinner with gravy and mashed potatoes to sundry grill fare. The printed menu is larger than I thought it would be. It offered two pages of short-order-cook staples, including fried clams, quesadillas, steak, burgers, and lots of sandwiches and nibbles.
We kept it simple. My friend ordered the blue cheese burger and I chose the fried chicken platter, which our waitress said was a very popular dish. Just about every entrée is priced under $10.
After his first bite my friend proclaimed it was the best burger he’s had in a long time. It was huge. I parlayed a bite and agreed: great char on the outside, prime, juicy meat within, prepared perfectly medium rare. Just last week I had gone to Dogfish Café
on Congress St. as part of my great hamburgers research and was very disappointed: another huge burger — almost a foot high with all the fixings — but my order of medium rare arrived shoe-leather brown; the meat was tasteless and cooked way beyond well done.
Ruski’s blue cheese burger sits under a canopy of melted cheese — more like a sauce than a slice, adding a consummate touch to a fine burger and bun specimen. The accompanying cole slaw was rich and creamy, deliciously seasoned.
My fried chicken was good, but the mashed potatoes were even better. The mash was made from Russets, with a luscious chunky texture and well seasoned. The gravy over the chicken and potatoes was very good, too, not canned (or so it seemed) — far better than the wallpaper paste one often encounters. My entrée also came with that wonderful slaw.
It wasn’t the best fried chicken of the genre but it was very acceptable—crispy, not greasy, a respectable rendition. The bar gets all its meats from the butcher at the nearby Fresh Approach market.
Their beer list is reasonably extensive, a few local brands on tap and the usual names in bottles.
Dinner at this neighborhood bar was quick, easy and inexpensive, and I’ll be sure to try their breakfasts, which get high marks from regulars. But what I’m looking forward to on my next visit is to order my very own burger, especially if it does turn out to be the best in town.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.