Brew pubs and sports bars compete for burger and beer business in Portland, and here’s a comparison look between the burgers at Sebago Brewing and Great Lost Bear.
From the haute to the humble, Portland’s most visible dining establishments rarely elude me as I keep a sharp eye on most places worth visiting. But one glaring omission has been The Great Lost Bear, the Forest Avenue sports bar favored by so many Portlanders–a veritable Runyonesque party of beer, booze and burgers that even that great moral thinker, Tolstoy, might have found amusing.
I don’t frequent sports bars or drink much beer. Circumstances, however, led me finally to seek out, in a roundabout way, the goings on at 540 Forest Ave. One evening last week I wanted a quick, cheap and simple hamburger dinner. I wasn’t in the mood for Ruski’s, which has good burgers. And such places as Caiola’s, Five Fifty-Fifty, East Ender and Blue Spoon are even better, but they’re more expensive than dive-bar versions.
That’s when Sebago Brewing came to mind as the compromise–the middle-of-the-road answer to having a decent burger and fries in an attractive setting. After all, brew pubs and good burgers should have a natural affinity.
Though part of a chain, their outpost at the base of the Hampton Inn on Fore Street is reasonably attractive. The cooks, however, change often there, and from past visits I found the food lackluster at best. But I recall having a good burger and fries when it first opened.
The place was fairly full, and I took a seat at the bar. I ordered the $5 Tito vodka cocktail to go with their basic bacon cheeseburger medium rare ($9.95). I didn’t bother looking at the beer list.
Along with the obligatory pile of fries, the towering burger looked scrumptious. The menu described it as being served on a brioche bun. But that hunk of bread was anything but, looking more like a puffy Kaiser roll. Where was the buttery brioche bun? At first bite and forever after, the overcooked burger had the texture of ground fiddle sticks, without the well-charred crust that defines great burgers. The bacon was equally hum-drum, and the cheese melted and draped over the patty was pasty. The fries were no less rewarding–awful, in fact, tasting like they’d been simmered in a grease trap.
The next day, after reading an article in New York Magazine about the comeback of the patty melt, I posted on Facebook how Portland should copy this trend.
I received a comment from Portland’s inimitable food and beverage maven, Paul Russell (Hugo’s bar man) pointing out that The Great Lost Bear has a terrific patty melt.
So it occurred to me that if Sebago’s burger was so disaapointing, I should compare Great Lost Bear’s to see if their burger is all that it’s touted to be.
I wore my favorite plaid shirt, donned a baseball cap and was lucky to find one of the last seats at the bar. The restaurant–and all its different seating areas–was jammed on a Tuesday night.
Then, wouldn’t you know, sitting across from me was none other than Paul Russell who called out, “Hey, you’re here for the patty melt?”
No, that wasn’t my mission. Next time, perhaps. I was on hamburger detail. Then I looked around at the bar and everyone—I mean no exception whatsoever—had big tall glasses of beer.
I ordered a vodka on the rocks anyway and asked to see the beer list. It goes on for pages to detail the 70 brews–all Greek to me. Then the guy to my right started up a beer conversation perhaps sensing my ignorance of the brew world. The couple next to me also chimed in, even offering me a taste of their mound of wings that I ogled so obviously. Everyone, in fact, at the bar knew each other. As the newcomer I felt finally at ease and realized why the Bear has such favored-nation status in our disparate restaurant town. It was like Cheers on steroids. Why bother with any other burger joint?
I finished my drink quickly, scanned the beer list and saw a brew name I recognized, Funky Bow. Paul Lorraine who owns the brewery is a friend and is always trying to get me to appreciate beer.
Beer doofus that I am, I quickly texted a friend to ask what size glass of beer I should order? And she quickly wrote back, “12 ounces.” Duh?
I chose the classic bacon cheeseburger with cheddar, medium rare. What arrived was a veritable work of art–a monumental presentation of a towering burger with an American-flag-topped toothpick in the bun and a great big mess of hand-cut fries. These could have been hotter but they were crusty, creamy within, well-seasoned and not greasy whatsoever.
This was definitely a good burger with great char, though it was better done than the requested medium rare. The bun also held its own, not disintegrating from the heft of this beefy monster.
Going with the flow I couldn’t help peeking at the dessert list— which carried a banner headline, “Elaine’s Awesome Homemade Desserts.” I was sold. On it were such temptations as Toll House Cookie Pie, Award Winning Snickers Pie and the Bears Cheesecake to name a few. I zeroed in on the Chocolate Cake in a Pint Mason Jar.
Out came an artfully crafted ice-box cake rippling with ice cream, caramel sauce, nuts and whipped cream covering the chocolate cake down deep in the jar. Each spoonful was a reverie.
Lesson learned: when you want a great burger at a reasonable price go to the source—no imitations, please. The Great Lost Bear does it right.