Little Big Burger

A perpetual line snakes out the door at Little Big Burger, the Pearl District’s first independent fast-food joint, a mere napkin’s pitch from Powell’s City of Books. Suits and dudes, off-duty baristas, Twitter-happy restaurant hunters, even a few hummus-loving yogis, mats in hand, have come looking for instant bliss on a bun. The burgers here sizzle so fast and furious on the open grill that the hiss threatens to drown out the crowd as Michael Jackson shrieks in the background.

The mood in this reimagined soda fountain is at once sterile and familiar but pulsing with personality—Lego-red hues, blond wood and slate walls, mind-bending murals, the kitsch and pop of Asian cool. If Ray Kroc went to the Rhode Island School of Design, with a semester in Tokyo, history may have looked like this. As noon approaches, the energy keeps surging. By the time the sound system blasts Queen’s foot-stamping “We Will Rock You,” a threat emerges: will customers start a wave?

Behind the counter, 32-year-old impresario Micah Camden—the notoriously loose-lipped kingpin of the Killingsworth restaurant oasis that includes Yakuza Lounge, Beast, and D.O.C.—shouts to be heard. “Watch that! Truffle fries coming!” he yells to a T-shirt-clad line cook as he hands customers his newfound gold: foil-wrapped natural beef patties, no bigger than your palm, but commanding lines and blog buzz since opening day in September. Whispers Camden loudly to a friend: “Eleven days open and we’re already at $35,000. Can you believe it?”

That’s a lot of patties and buns. Indeed, Little Big Burger could be the Burgerville for a new generation: fast and fun, eco-minded, and feeding a demand for genuine food on the cheap. Plus, there’s beer—nearly two dozen canned brands stacked on shelves as though posing for a Warhol painting. The menu includes a quarter-pounder, ?made to order for a wallet-friendly $3.25, served with a picnic mentality—no dishes or trays, just make-your-own plates out of brown takeout bags.

In one swoop, Camden and partner Katie Poppe caught the triple zeitgeist of food carts, the artisanal cooking fixation, and the burger craze. Spinning off Little Big’s overnight success, Camden and Poppe already have two more branches in the works for 2011, at NE 30th Avenue and Killingsworth Street (in Camden’s recently closed Fats) and in the West Hills.

Within the vast fast-food landscape, Camden detoured away from the extensive, all-American options found in mega-chains and the region’s beloved Burgerville. Little Big Burger, instead, takes its cues from West Coast cult chain In-N-Out Burger, limiting choices to four items: burger, cheeseburger, veggie burger, and fries. Everything is made out in the open; nothing shrivels under a heat lamp or confronts a microwave—also In-N-Out signatures.