Quick Note: In my original posting, I misidentified Thurston’s as sitting near Nason’s Corner rather than Woodford’s Corner. (As I live not far from either, I’m prone to confuse them). Thanks to reader Rachael for catching this error, which has now been corrected.
In the eight years that I’ve lived in Portland, I don’t think I ever once visited the now-defunct KFC which sat at 699 Forest Avenue. Mostly, because I’ve never really been able to stomach the food churned out by the nation’s leading provider of greasy skin and morning-after diarrhea. But also because—from a driving standpoint—I really, really hate the Woodford’s Corner area of town.
If you are unfamiliar with it, this little chunk of the city features what equates to two 5-way intersections—the more frustrating of which is Woodford’s Corner itself—within 100 yards of one another. Consequently, it functions as a Hellmouth from which Portland’s worst, most idiotic drivers seem to emerge. (Sure enough, on my visit to Thurston’s this weekend, a blue Mazda sped right through a red light and came within six inches of clipping my vehicle.) As such, I’ve historically regarded the entire area as less of a destination and more of something which I should do everything in my power to avoid. (The key exception is Bayou Kitchen, which is sits right in the belly of the beast, but which is accessible from one or two of the less heavily-trafficked streets, and close enough that I can walk to it from my home in just 20 minutes or so.)
That being said, it is with some degree of bemused skepticism that I regarded the the impending opening of Thurston’s Wicked Good Burgers (which is purported to be owned by Fred Thurston, the owner of the KFC previously occupying the space). As the building’s facade transformed from KFC’s brand standard PMS 187 red to solid coats of green and yellow (making it strangely evocative of the Wally’s Burger Express that sits a mile away from my office in Austin), I wondered if the restaurant’s location would help or impair its success, if (and how) it would be welcomed into the neighborhood, and frankly, whether or not Portland can tolerate yet another burger establishment in the vein of Five Guys and Elevation Burger.
Fueled by these questions, I decided to stop by Thurston’s during its opening weekend for a meal. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m generally not a fan of opening day/night/weekend/week reviews, even when they are clumsily masked by the author as a “first look review.” But I figured that as long as I regarded my Thurston’s experience with a not-too-critical-eye, offering up some observations would probably be okay. And, lets face it, we’re talking about fast food hamburgers and custard here, not sweet bread appetizers and craft cocktails.
Having now performed the mental gymnastics necessary for absolving myself of my hypocrisy, I’m pleased to tell you that my experience at Thurston’s was generally pretty great.
The menu is, wisely, limited to hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, onion rings and frozen custard. A veggie burger and a few salads—one of which is available in the combo meals in lieu of french fries—are offered as well.
Like the aforementioned Five Guys burger chain, Thurston’s approach to burgers basically involves charging a flat fee for a “single” (the 1/4lb. burger) or a “double,” with unlimited free toppings like tomatoes, lettuce, sauces, pickles, onions and mushrooms. There is an extra charge for cheese ($0.50 for your choice of cheddar, American, Swiss or blue cheese) as well as bacon ($1), but if you opt for one of the three combo meals (sandwich, side, pickle spear and a drink), you’ll find that the prices are pretty comparable to what you’d pay at Five Guys. Cola drinks aren’t your standard “monster gulp” size (not necessarily a bad thing) but refills are free.
For my first visit, I ordered the double burger combo, with bacon and cheddar cheese added. I opted for fries over the salad. While it wasn’t offered, I did find out later that you can ask to substitute onions rings as well. I ordered my burger with pickles, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions and the zesty house sauce (a combination of Thousand Island dressing, ketchup, mayo and horseradish).
About eight minutes after placing my order, a fabulous-looking burger was delivered to my table by a sweet, grandmotherly-type of woman.
The griddled burger patties, forged from Certified Angus Beef, were nicely browned, a good size for the bun and more juicy than greasy. As they are of the thinner variety that has been repopularized in recent years, I doubt you can ask to have them cooked to temperature as you would with a thicker burger, but they were tasty nonetheless. (As an aside, as the kitchen staff becomes more acclimated with their griddle, it might be fun to ask them to experiment with a “crust” on the burger, like the ones found at SmashBurger and Shake Shack.)
I loved the combination of toppings on my burger. The mushrooms and onions were especially well-prepared, and the sight of that thick carpet of cheddar cheese provides a pretty great visual, along with the two huge sandwich-size slices of pickle. I enjoyed the zesty house sauce (the horseradish imparts a nice zing) but wished I had a bit more of it. Next time, I’ll ask for extra or to have it on the side.
The hamburger bun appeared to have been lightly buttered and griddled. I sought out more information about the bun from one of the employees, but wasn’t very successful. She first said that it was homemade (a term that I take to be synonymous with house-made) but then mentioned that it came from a local bakery. My query about whether it was a potato bun just seemed to confuse the matter further, so I dropped it. In any case, it was just fine, supporting the burger and toppings right up until the last bite.
French fries are pretty much irrelevant in that they will almost never make or break a place for me on their own, but the hand-cut fries at Thurston’s (made from Maine potatoes according to the menu board) were crispy, golden and well-seasoned. (That said, I did get a “bonus” onion ring in my fries which was good enough that on my next visit, I’ll ask for rings as my side, along with the cup of the zesty house sauce to dip them in.)
(Having already overdone it this weekend, I didn’t attempt any of the frozen custard, but I will be sure to give it a try on a future visit. In fact, it will be a good incentive to walk, rather than drive.)
As I was finishing my meal, I was pleased to see that Thurston’s was doing fairly brisk business, with plenty of folks coming in to eat for the first time, and many others inquiring about take-away menus. By the time I departed, the small’ish parking lot was filled to capacity. Provided that the meal and level-of-service I enjoyed is representative of the Thurston’s experience over the long-term, I don’t think they will have any trouble surviving and thriving in this little corner of the universe.