Airplanista Magazine Monthly Column - Chef Stuart Stein: The Money Burger

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This digital aviation magazine content was originally published in the August, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine and can be viewed here.

The Literal $150 Hamburger - Starduster Café at Independence (Oregon) State Airport (7S5)

My “go to” $150 hamburger in Oregon is the Starduster Café at Independence State Airport (7S5). Independence State is located at the edge of Independence, Oregon, a mere 53 nautical miles southwest of my home base of Portland-Troutdale Airport (KTTD). This relatively small, non-towered airport gets overlooked in favor of Salem McNary Field (KSLE), its towered big brother to the east. Don’t let this happen.

What makes 7S5 special? First, Independence State is a favorite of home builders, restorers, pilots practicing narrow strip landings and those traveling through looking for inexpensive 100LL. Second, Nutsch Aviation, owned by Wayne Nutsch, is a small FBO that offers everything you want from flight training, hanger rental, oxygen and courtesy cars to WiFi and pilot supplies. Independence State is also the base of Chapter 292 of the Experimental Aircraft Association. This thriving organization sponsors an annual Biplane Fly-In and the annual Van’s Homecoming/RV Fly-In supplementing their forty RVs on site. If that wasn’t enough, this bustling little strip is adjacent to the two hundred home Independence Airpark.

So why is the Starduster Café and Independence State a favorite? For starters, this is the first airstrip I took a passenger and had $150 hamburger after I received my pilot’s license. Food is a strong trigger of emotion and memory. The smells, sites and sounds of the Starduster brings me back to that joyous and triumphant occasion. Additionally, both the airstrip and the restaurant are welcoming, comforting, friendly and relaxed. Almost as important, it’s a short hop from TTD. This allows one to load up the dog, bring a friend and along and including gas, rental or maintenance allocation and food, have a literal $150 hamburger.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a friend and I tied down N75542, walked around the small outside weathered deck and walked through the nondescript runway-side entrance into the Starduster. As we entered, Jim Hendrix’s rendering of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” was blasting over the speaker. Already a good sign. Airpark residents certainly sustain the business, especially during their dinner hours, but during this midday, one could certainly tell it is a destination restaurant. We sat in our mismatched chairs and noticed fellow aviators from the Oregon coastal town of Astoria, several local EAA members and a Northern California Bonanza owner that stopped for some self-serve while traveling north to Portland.

With breakfast and lunch served till 3:00pm everyday, choices abound. Breakfast is pretty standard fair. There is a good selection of pancakes, waffles and French toast along with a vast selection of egg dishes. Omelets, skillets and scrambles ($8.25-$9.50) come in a variety of incarnations but what really sets breakfast apart is the Starduster’s love of potatoes and meat. Almost every dish I’ve had over the years came with their from-scratch, house-made, crispy hash browns. If yours doesn’t, I recommend investing in a side order. You won’t be disappointed.

The Starduster dinner, also known as Smokey Ray’s, has been operating on Thursdays through Sundays since 2008. They are known for the various cuts of beef, pork, sausages and chicken that are slow roasted for hours at 225 degrees Fahrenheit over a combination of Hickory, Apple and Cherry wood. These succulent mouthwatering proteins thankfully get carried over into the breakfast and lunch menus. A Prime Rib Hash served with Eggs & Toast ($8.95) and the Sweet BBQ Chicken with Roasted Garlic & BBQ Sauce on Ciabatta Bread ($8.50) are the best examples.

For the true “eaters” among us, two dishes should get your attention. The Cheesy Hash Browns is a combination of those house-made hash browns loaded with Ham, Bacon, Sausage, Mushrooms, Roasted Garlic and Sour Cream ($10.95). It’s served with eggs and your choice of biscuits & gravy, pancakes or French toast and tastes as decedent as it sounds. The Outlaw, a combination of two 1/3-pound Hamburger Patties with Ranch Dressing, Mushrooms, Bacon, Ham, Swiss & American Cheese ($7.75) is the deal of the century. You’ll need two hands, more than one napkin and a few extra holes on your belt.

Not everything on the burger, sandwich and wrap menu is a winner. A simple burger on a bun leaves a bit to be desired and doesn’t really show the true talent of the kitchen. The “melts”, especially the tuna and Patty were a little flavorless, somewhat flabby and a tad greasy. Every time I visit, I wish that some more of that Smokey Ray’s dinner goodness ended up between several pieces of bread or on a good locally-made bun.

Despite or because of some of its flaws, the Starduster Café is a great value no matter when you come. It’s consistent, unpretentious, mostly tasty and a relaxing gathering place for a group of like-minded aviators. Almost as important, the total bill for the entire day was $149.50.

Starduster Café
4705 Airport Road
Independence, OR 97351
Phone: (503) 838-1781

Breakfast & Lunch
Open Monday – Saturday
6:00am – 3:00pm (PST)

Open Sunday
7:00am – 3:00pm (PST)

Open Thursday – Sunday
4:00pm – 8:00pm (PST)

Nutsch Aviation
P.O. Box 369
4901 Airport Road
Independence, OR 97351
Phone: (503) 428-7209

EAA Chapter 292
Chapter Hangar
4803 Airport Road
Independence. OR 97351

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