Friday, December 6, 2013
From staff reports
There is a fine line between a juicy burger and a greasy burger.
The interior, above, and exterior, below, of Congress Bar & Grill in Portland.
CONGRESS BAR & GRILL
WHERE: 617 Congress St., Portland; 828-9944
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
CHEAPEST GRUB: A side of rice and beans for $3. It might not be enough for a meal, but it gets you on your way.
WAIT: It was busy when I arrived, and it took most of an hour to place my order, get my food and pay my bill.
PARKING: On the street
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes
Based on a five-star scale
At Congress Bar & Grill in Portland, you get the juicy kind.
I stopped in at this neighborhood establishment in the Arts District one day last week, desperate for something quick, tasty and not too expensive. Congress Bar & Grill fit the bill. It boasts hearty American fare -- substantial, meaty food with robust sides.
This establishment has been a favorite for a long time. I've known it as Norm's for most of my time in Portland. A name change a few years back hasn't seemed to affect the menu, and during my recent visits I have not detected any slip in kitchen quality.
The lunch menu tempts with many offerings, including a steak-and-portobello sandwich that I have had many times and absolutely crave; a succulent pastrami sandwich; and sweet pulled pork sandwich.
All good choices. But last Thursday, I opted for a burger with swiss cheese ($8). Instead of a side of fries ($2), I went for a cup of haddock chowder ($5) as an appetizer.
The chowder got things off to a good start. Although slightly undersized for the price, the chowder delivered in all other areas. It was thick and creamy, with many large chunks of fish, bite-size hunks of potatoes and a niblets of corn. It tasted rich, but not overwhelmingly so. Each flavor was distinct. It came with a bag of chowder crackers on the side and a small grilled biscuit, cut in two. Very good.
The burger followed. Although it looked lonely on the plate with only a pickle slice, it did not suffer from a lack of accompaniment. I gobbed it up with some Dijon mustard and just a touch of ketchup, adorned it with twin tomato slices and leaves of lettuce, halved it and began to devour it one bite at a time, slow and steady.
One of my pet peeves about a burger is a soggy bun. Too often, when I place my burger back on the plate to give my palate a breather, the bun get soaked from residual grease.
Not this time. The chewy bun absorbed stray juices that were displaced with each bite, but that's about it.
The cheese was melted evenly, and the burger was cooked at precisely medium, as I desired. It was fabulous.
I liked a lot about my visit. When I first sat down, I heard Billy Bragg playing in the background. Later, I got Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Can't beat that.
Back in the days of Norm's, the walls were covered with old baseball photos. Now, there are handsome framed mirrors on the dark red walls, as well as some photographs of musicians who have performed in Portland, among them Willie Nelson and B.B. King.
The burgundy booths were mostly full during my lunch-hour visit. As Thursday was a nice day, the handful of sidewalk tables also were full, and the tall seats at the bar were occupied.
My only complaint was an overworked waiter. He did a fabulous job, and I tipped him well. But he was too busy. He should have had some help, and I fault management for not providing him with additional assistance.
Next time, I plan to sample some of the sides. One thing I have learned about this place over the years is that the sides and other options often are as good as the sandwiches. The black bean soup ($3.50 cup), beans and rice ($3), Thai chicken wings ($7), corn bread and grilled biscuits ($4 each) have been satisfying in the past. Based on my recent experience, I saw no evidence they would not be again.
The staff of GO anonymously samples meals for about $7.