burger battle
Image: David Reamer

Oswaldo Bibiano Chef/owner, Autentica, Tommy Habetz Chef/owner, Bunk Sandwiches, Naomi Pomeroy Chef/owner, Beast.

“HEY!” TOMMY HABETZ HOLLERS in a fit of mock indignity. “Who turned off the yacht rock?”

Inside a tiny test kitchen in Southeast Portland, someone has silenced Kenny Loggins—and Habetz, the slightly burly chef and owner of Bunk Sandwiches, is none too pleased. The breezy rock was a nice reprieve from the chaos surrounding him. To his right, Oswaldo Bibiano, the chef and owner of Autentica, hurriedly slices cucumbers. To his left, Naomi Pomeroy, the saucy lady behind Beast, covers everything within arm’s reach in butter. Photographers and a small crowd of onlookers circle the trio, capturing every cut, dollop, and squirt of condiment.

The smell of sizzling meat hangs in the air. So too does the feeling of anticipation—pressure, even. And now someone has shut off the stereo. The smooth warbling of Kenny Loggins will have to wait.

Naturally, it’s all Portland Monthly’s fault. We’ve already handpicked the best burgers in the city, but then we thought, Why not go further? So, with help from contributing food editor Mike Thelin, we dreamt up an impromptu battle starring renowned local chefs who aren’t known for their hamburgers. The threesome would take to the grill while we documented the entire affair. It would be like Iron Chef—without Chairman Kaga’s sequined kimonos.

The response from local chefs was immediate. (And a little daunting.) Habetz, Bibiano, and Pomeroy took time away from advancing Portland’s dining landscape to take part in our little game. Our judges were equally impressive: Cathy Whims from Nostrana, Lisa Schroeder of Mother’s Bistro, and Robert Reynolds, a culinary teacher who runs the Chefs Studio.

Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised. The hamburger is, after all, the quintessential American dish. Not just for master chefs, but for every backyard Beauvilliers from here to Beaverton. “A hamburger appeals to our animalistic side,” Whims explains. “You eat it with your hands. You lick your fingers. It’s all of the things your mother would never let you do.”

Of course, maybe the magnificent meeting of cheese and meat is of an altogether higher calling. “Burgers,” Roberts says solemnly, “are like a religion.”

At least for one day, this tiny kitchen is a cathedral, and as soon as Habetz reaches the stereo, Kenny Loggins will be the choir.