Food & Drink

I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It.

Published On 11/16/2018
Stanich's -- Portland, Oregon | Emiliano Ponzi/Thrillist
I n my office, I have a coffee mug from Stanich’s in Portland, Oregon. Under the restaurant name, it says “Great hamburgers since 1949.” The mug was given to me by Steve Stanich on the day I told him that, after eating 330 burgers during a 30-city search, I was naming Stanich’s cheeseburger the best burger in America. That same day, we filmed a short video to announce my pick. On camera, Stanich cried as he talked about how proud his parents would be. After the shoot, he handed me the mug, visibly moved. “My parents are thanking you from the grave,” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. When I left, I felt light and happy. I’d done a good thing.
W e are a nation of lists and ranks and bests. As a 2013 New Yorker article explained, our mind focuses when things on a page or screen change, which is why bullet points and numbered lists help us process information more effectively (this is part of the reason no one makes grocery paragraphs). But the most important part of the article revolves around a 2011 psychological study on the “paradox of choice.”
"Successful people don't blame others" | Emiliano Ponzi/Thrillist
O n October 9, 2018, I called Steve Stanich. After the Oregonian story, I’d promised myself that if Stanich’s was still closed when I returned to work, I’d go up there myself and see what was happening. And sure enough, when I got back on the job in September, Stanich’s was still closed. I knew I had to go up there. And to do that, I knew I had to call Stanich.
B ecause I can’t make sense of anything on my own, I started talking to restaurant critics across the country about what responsibility we have to preserve the places we write about and direct crowds of eager food tourists to experience. I wasn’t interested in the fates of new restaurants named to “best new restaurant” lists, because modern restaurants would almost always view that as a best-case scenario. I was more curious to talk to folks who’d spotlighted old joints, the analog restaurants operating in today’s digital world. And almost everyone said they’d often provide some sort of heads up. “I often think about our duty to warn,” Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook told me. “Mostly because, when we’ve neglected to, it’s ended up being a shitshow.”
T exas Monthly’s 50 best barbecue list is famous. Every four or five years, the entire editorial staff crisscrosses the state of Texas and attempts to eat at every single barbecue restaurant in the Lone Star state. From there, they compile a list of the 50 best and announce the top 10 in a special sort of ceremony, culminating in a new number one best barbecue place in the state (and thus, a biased guy born in Texas might argue, also the country).
O n a weirdly warm, sunny October day in Portland, I got out of the cab from the airport in front of Stanich’s and stood staring at the giant wooden Stanich’s sign on the side of the old brick building. The red picnic tables where I’d sat and eaten my first Stanich’s burger were peeling, revealing the wood underneath.
"I have to take care of the people who took care of me" | Emiliano Ponzi/Thrillist
W hen Steve Stanich opened his restaurant’s door, I felt myself get dizzy. The place was immaculate and eery, a ghost restaurant in waiting. Stanich showed me all the new things he’d put in while they’d been closed, and how they’d fixed up the bathrooms, and told me about how he’s kept on the coolers and the ice machines and everything this entire time, because if you shut that stuff down for long periods it will break. So he’d basically been paying the bills as if the place was open the last nine months, except he wasn’t making any money, and now he needed to figure out what to do.
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