By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
We are in Oregon to eat hazelnuts—or, as locals like to call them, filberts—because, each fall, 99 percent of America’s crop falls from trees in a patch of the Willamette Valley west of the Cascades and north of Eugene. But when we pull into the drive-through lane of a Portland area Burgerville, there are Crayola-colored signs announcing that it is halibut season. So not only do we order a brace of Tillamook Pepper Bacon Cheeseburgers on buns from Portland’s Franz Bakery, we also ask for fish and chips.
Burgerville’s North Pacific halibut is firm-fleshed and fine-textured. The cold-ocean fish is breaded, then deep-fried until brittle-crisp. Each piece feels featherlight and flakes into pearl-white hunks that drip flavor. With a pair of fresh-strawberry milkshakes in tall paper cups, we dine in the parking lot while listening to a CD titled Wood, which is filled with songs about the joys of lumbering. What a fine meal.
We did find all kinds of good hazelnutty things to eat on our trip: hickory-smoked handfuls at farm stands, nut-crusted chèvre at fine restaurants, ten-grain cereal loaded with hazelnuts at a trendy coffee shop, and elegant baubles of chocolate hazelnut crunch made by Portland chocolatier Paul Lemieux. But the most unlikely discovery was in the Burgerville in Vancouver, Washington, where we found a salad of Oregon smoked salmon topped with Tillamook cheese (from a coastal creamery) and a great spill of crushed roasted hazelnuts from a farmers co-op called Oregon Orchard.
When we headed for Oregon, we would never have imagined that we’d be spending much time at Burgerville, which goes against all rules of locating good roadfood. With 39 outlets, this is hardly a charming little mom-and-pop affair. Its billboards touting current specials are ubiquitous along area highways. Although there are molded plastic seats and laminate tables inside, half of Burgerville’s meals are served to people who don’t even exit their vehicles. Nevertheless, we found no restaurant, plain or fancy, more devoted to serving dishes that celebrate Northwest ingredients.
George Brown, the person responsible for Burgerville’s markedly regional focus, is not your typical fast-food-chain executive chef. He doesn’t talk about portion control and profit margin, but he practically jumps for joy when he gets on the subject of local produce. “Eighty percent of our menu is Oregon, Washington, and Idaho,” he brags. “Made, produced, grown, and delivered locally.” Although he arrived at Burgerville last year, he has been a fan since childhood. “When I had my tonsils out, my mother brought me from the hospital straight here for a milkshake,” he grins. (One widespread Burgerville billboard advertises chocolate hazelnut milkshakes with the catchphrase “Woo-hoo! Tonsillectomy!”)
On the topic of hazelnuts, chef Brown is an evangelist. “There is no nut like it,” he declares. “Raw, it’s a little bitter and mealy. But roast it, and it is transformed. The nut gets a crunch and golden brown color; its oils bloom and blossom. A roasted hazelnut has flavor in a class by itself.”
“Sultry,” says one Burgerville customer when we ask her what she thinks of the nuts and salmon combination. “A luxury item,” offers her companion, referring to the garnish on her $4.99 salad.
The salad is a new addition to Burgerville’s repertoire this year, the first entrée salad on a menu that has been known mostly for sandwiches, burgers, and fish and chips. Prior to the salad’s introduction, the best-known hazelnut item on the menu was the chocolate hazelnut milkshake, which is available from January through April. According to chef Brown, it is the single most popular seasonal item on the menu, surpassing even blackberry shakes in the spring.
It seemed odd to us that this shake is offered in winter, since autumn is hazelnut harvest time. “It weans you out of the December chocoholic overload into the first of our spring fruits,” Brown explains. “By April, we’re getting strawberries for strawberry shakes, then raspberries, blackberries, and peaches, and we do a huckleberry shake in the fall just before our pumpkin shakes. I feel that hazelnuts have a kind of sturdy, reassuring quality that helps get you through the sad times when fresh fruits can’t be had.”
Brown sings to us of the three-berry smoothies, and of the sour snap of the pickles from Steinfeld’s, in Portland. Then he gets to the subject of hamburgers—made, of course, from Northwest beef—and a new one he’s offering topped with smokehouse pepper bacon and a creamy spread made from Rogue River Valley blue cheese. The cheese, he exclaims, is “velvet-smooth like Maytag, but without that first-bite metallic sting.” He apologizes for not having any of his Walla Walla Sweet onion rings to accompany this magnificent bacon cheeseburger (they’re summer-only produce), but he does bring us an out-of-season chocolate milkshake shot through with the flavor of roasted hazelnuts. We have never had a burger and shake meal so deluxe.
Burgerville (franchise, multiple locations)