Welcome to Wenatchee, Wash., the “buckle of the power belt” and the self-proclaimed apple capital of the world. There’s definitely some new energy in this city three hours east of Seattle judging by the steady stream of customers at Mission Burger.
Here’s why this Mom-and-Pop shop is a bellwether for big things to come.
Where two rivers meet
The confluence of the mighty Columbia River and the Wenatchee helped this area grow as an agricultural and transportation hub in the early 1900s, its population hitting around 12,000 in 1930. Yet, because it’s not on a major interstate, the region has been somewhat of a hidden gem.
Hit the fast forward button to recent years and it’s definitely on the radar for those looking to retire, folks working remotely and businesses looking to plug into the reasonably priced real estate market. Microsoft has been in the process of building out a data farm for several years, investing in upgrades that can accommodate its needs.
The buzz around the downtown area has been steadily simmering for years, with the establishment of a thriving Pybus Public Market and nearby bike/walking path along the Columbia, a loop trail that eventually passes through the pretty Confluence State Park.
This isn’t exactly the city chef Christian Mikkelsen grew up in.
Doing things a little differently
When culinary school trained chef Mikkelsen first opened Mission Burger in July 2021, there was some initial skepticism, especially when it came to the onion rings. “Some people were like, what’s this? Oh, heck no.”
Customers have since come around. “I don’t think this place would’ve worked five years ago, but things have changed,” he said in a recent phone interview.
After Mikkelsen graduated from the Oregon Culinary Institute in 2007, he worked in Bend, Ore., and then moved to New Zealand to cook at a restaurant on a dairy farm: “That was the first time as a chef that I went out and cut herb and picked vegetables,” he said.
He eventually ended up with the title of executive chef at the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, Wash., a post he held until the pandemic cratered the destination travel business.
“I moved back to Wenatchee and started working toward opening my own place,” he said. “I’d been thinking about doing a modern take on a hometown burger place for about 10 years. I just never thought I’d be opening it in my hometown.”
BTW, his first cooking gig, as a high school kid, was down the road at EZ’s Burger Deluxe.
Smash burgers rule
Rolling ground beef into balls that are smashed onto a flat-top grill is red-hot trending right now, but that practice has been around since the dawn of the diner.
“That’s the way everyone cooked burgers before the pre-formed patties were invented,” Mikkelsen explained.
The cooking technique encourages a crispy coating to form on the ground beef, adding a welcome texture. But Mikkelsen ups the ante by grinding his own beef, sourced locally from Post 5 Cattle Company. “I get brisket and few different cuts of chuck that I trim and grind,” he said. He also uses cures and smokes the brisket for pastrami sandwiches and features the chuck on occasional steak specials.
The menu’s fairly short, with a lineup of fried chicken sandwiches available alongside hand-cut fries, mac-and-cheese and those now-famous onion rings.
“Those came from Lincoln, a fine dining restaurant I worked at in Portland,” he said. He has played with the recipe, adding house-made chili powder and lightened up the breading. “I wanted them to be slightly different than what everyone else is doing,” he said. Done and done!
When ordering those fries and rings, don’t miss out on the extensive selection of dipping sauces including the Apple Capital BBQ and the Peruvian-inspired Aji Verde. Yeah, definitely not your typical hometown burger joint.