Of course, In-N-Out became a California pop-culture phenom, complete with a “secret menu” (a world of insider custom orders, like “animal style” with mustard fried into the patties) and love from the likes of SpongeBob Squarepants and Fast Food Nation muckraker Eric Schlosser. The Dude’s crew in The Big Lebowski eats at In-N-Out. It doesn’t get cooler than that.
Little Big Burger may not be ready for a big-screen close-up, but its early performances, flavorwise, are already outshining its elders. Yes, the truffle fries are frozen Washington Yukon golds, not handcut fresh like In-N-Out’s. They might not knock over Burgerville’s seasonal wonder, the sweet-potato fries. But they’re pretty terrific and a steal at $2.75: crispy outside, creamy-starchy within, elevated by sea salt and homemade ketchup. The scent of truffle oil is just right—a hint, a seduction, not the usual snort of overkill.
The hand-formed burgers, more tall than wide, disappear in five or six bites, just enough time to deliver some beefy perfume and lip-smacking crunch. I like the compact size (guys will want two) but mostly the craft. Brushed with browned butter before hitting the grill, the locally baked brioche buns gain just a touch of nutty flavor. Fixin’s include organic shaved red onions, lettuce, and pickles from local heroes Pickleopolis.
The choice of four local cheeses is noble, but a fatter slice of Tillamook cheddar would be even better, and a sharper, gutsier Oregon Blue. (Go for the Rogue chevre: the hot, creamy cheese transforms the whole production into a rich, delicious mess.) Aioli, the one “secret” element available by request, could land a more decisive garlic punch. Overall, Camden is playing it a little too safe right now. To jump to the burger big leagues, he needs something weirdly delicious and addictive. And to succeed on any level, consistency will be key. On a recent evening, a request for a medium-rare burger turned up something red seemingly straight from the fridge. (No worries, the accommodating cook assured me, remaking the order and confiding, “We use the same stuff for steak tartare at Yakuza.”)
The mastermind behind four restaurants in Northeast, Camden knows good food. The restaurant–cum–dinner ?party Beast was his most brilliant move, conceived as a showcase for now star chef Naomi Pomeroy (who eventually bought him out). But quality has see-sawed at Yakuza and D.O.C., as he’s churned through chefs. With Little Big Burger, Camden’s played to his talents as a designer and idea man, and set out to blaze the next new culinary trail: fast food done right.