Remember when a hamburger joint was just a hamburger joint? You know… the days before we, as a society, wrapped our arms around this need to categorize and sub-categorize burger places (and everything else, for that matter) into a thousand little groupings?
Seriously, consider today’s burger landscape: There’s the low-end/economy burger joint, represented by a couple of chain restaurants that—fifty years ago—actually made pretty decent burgers but then lost their way amidst a sea of promotional gimmicks, synthetic ingredients and out-of-place menu offerings. There are the so-called Burger Boutiques: places like 5-Napkin Burger in NYC, Boston and Miami and Flip Burger in Atlanta. And lets not forget the celebrity burger joints, like Michael Symon’s B-Spot Burgers and Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace.
Hell, there was even at one point a burger joint offering a “luxury” burger to ostentatious Wall Street assholes who—in between flushing away your money (or stealing it outright) and entertaining fantasies about being the love child of Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman—found the time to indulge in a $175 burger featuring Kobe beef, foie gras, exotic mushrooms, cave-aged Gruyère, fresh truffles, flakes of gold and a healthy dollop of pretentiousness. (That particular establishment, the Wall Street Burger Shoppe, folded in 2011.)
Then there’s a relatively new phenomenon, generally referred to as the “Better Burger” genre. It is comprised largely of restaurants using higher quality ingredients but still offering them in a fast, casual atmosphere. Falling into this category are establishments such as Five Guys, Shake Shack, Smashburger, In-N-Out Burger and—the latest entry in the increasingly-competitive Southern Maine Burger arena—Elevation Burger.
Elevation Burger is a ten year-old organization with approximately 25 locations around the United States. While the mountain motif seen in the company’s logo and promotional materials suggest that its origins might lie in Colorado or Oregon, the chain is actually based out of Falls Church, VA. The whole “elevation” thing is actually a nod to founder Hans Hess’ desire to elevate the dining experience beyond the landscape of greasy, chemical and hormone-ridden burgers served by other chains.
Comparisons to Five Guys are inevitable, but Elevation Burger—with its emphasis on sustainability and organic ingredients—probably has more in common with Chipotle Mexican Grill, the popular fast casual burrito/taco chain offering “food with integrity.” (The motto at Elevation Burger is “Ingredients matter.”) According to a Fact Sheet provided to me last November, Elevation Burger uses “100% USDA-certified organic, 100% grass-fed, free-range beef burgers freshly ground on-premises.” Additionally, the chain uses fresh vegetables and produce, fresh cut fries cooked in olive oil and offers a veggie patty option.
The healthy appeal of Elevation Burger is not limited to the ingredients it uses. The decor is composed largely of renewable, non-polluting materials and surfaces like compressed sorghum tabletops, bamboo flooring and low- or no-VOC paints and sealants. (Lest you forget any of this, rest assured that nearly every sign, surface, placemat and cup in the place is emblazoned with various factoids about the benefits of organic food and renewable resources.)
The South Portland Elevation Burger—located at 85 Western Avenue where it resides in the new Western Avenue Plaza alongside Subway and Buffalo Wild Wings—opened its doors last week. I’ve visited twice, once for dine-in and once for take-out.
For my dine-in experience, I decided to try the “Elevation Burger,” which is the restaurant’s flagship burger. It is composed of two organic beef patties, housed by a potato bun and topped with your choice of a dozen or toppings. You can a couple of slices of 6-month aged cheddar cheese to your burger for an extra forty cents, or a bit of blue cheese dressing for fifty cents. I asked to have mine dressed with lettuce, raw onions, pickles and the chain’s tomato-based “elevation sauce.” (One of the few toppings not on Elevation’s menu is bacon.)
Inquiring whether or not there was a one patty option available for less ambitious eaters, I was told that I could order the “kid’s burger.” I confess that I sort of cringed when the girl behind the counter said the words “kid’s burger.” For one, what does it say about our gluttonous society when anything less than a 2-patty burger is now considered something suited only for children? And secondly, the cutesy name brings to mind that 40 year-old guy or gal—and I guarantee you know someone like this—who still eats like an eight year-old when dining out. (“Uh, yes waiter… I’ll have the veal scallopini… and my friend here would love to try the chicken fingers and your finest spaghetti-O’s.”)
I’m nothing if not
a gluttonous hypocrite thorough, so I ordered a kid’s burger anyway. I had that one topped with balsamic mustard, caramelized onions and the blue cheese dressing. (Incidentally, if you’re not satisfied with one or two burger patties—or simply angling to secure a spot on NBC’s “Biggest Loser”—you can order the “Vertigo Burger,” which can feature anywhere between three and ten patties.) I also ordered some french fries and—as an extra special “fuck you” to my heart—a coffee milk shake. Patrons may add up to two additional ingredients (such as cheese cake crumbles, mangos, key lime, blueberries, oreo cookies, etc…) to their milkshakes at no extra charge, but I opted for mine straight-up. The total damage was just under $20.
With my order complete, the girl at the counter took my name and told me that I was welcome to take a seat, as someone would bring my order out to me once it was ready. I used the opportunity to take stock of the decor, a combination of blue-on-blue tile in the kitchen area and earthtones in the dining area. The design is clean and casual, with modern touches like one of those newfangled Coke dispensers offering patrons one of more than a dozen beverage options by way of a touch-screen interface. (While the Coke machine’s tiny footprint means more room for diners, the single dispenser nozzle did make me wonder what happens if there is a long line during peak dining hours. And what happens if it breaks down?) A nearby beverage case does offers a few additional possibilities for those not wishing to order their soda from the year 2077.
One design element that struck me as a tad peculiar was the smallish port cut into the top of the waste bin, requiring patrons to deposit their dirty napkins and placemats with near single-minded focus, lest they miss the hole completely (a second opening for recyclables is even smaller but seemed to be better suited to the size of the objects being inserted). I wondered if this was done deliberately, either as an effort to prevent people from accidentally (or intentionally) throwing away their trays? Or perhaps it was done to make people more carefully consider the amount of waste they are generating? Or maybe it was just shoddy design… I dunno.
While I pondered this and other mysteries of the universe (Kate Hudson… what’s the appeal?), my shake arrived at the table, followed a moment later by my burgers—wrapped in blue paper emblazoned with the Elevation Burger logo—and a basket of fries which, at a cost of $2.79, struck me as being a pretty good value. All of it came to me on a deep-set metal tray reminiscent of something from a World War II chow line. Interesting touch.
After snapping a couple of photos, I dug into my food starting with the 2-patty Elevation Burger. My initial impression was that the burger patties were tasty and well-seasoned, but maybe a little greasier than what I was expecting given the emphasis in the Fact Sheet about avoiding “greasy burgers.” Additionally, I found that the bun—while ample—did not contain the burger patties very well. Try as I might to keep the burger upright on my tray, it wasn’t long before the layers were laid out like fallen dominoes. Upon closer inspection, I realized that this was because the moist lettuce had been placed underneath the burgers, presumably to prevent grease from sopping into the bun. But the problem was that, with pickles on one side of the lettuce and sauce on the other, it created a good deal of slippage between the various components, resulting in total bun failure.
One very nice surprise was the aged sharp cheddar, which worked very nicely with the beef in terms of both texture and taste. It was the highlight of the burger, and really stood out as something unique to the Elevation Burger brand which I’m not likely to find elsewhere.
The fresh toppings—the onion, the lettuce and the pickle—were applied rather liberally to this burger, but I found that I really couldn’t taste much of the elevation sauce. I did see evidence of it, but it appeared to have applied to the bun in such a thin layer that the flavor really wasn’t noticeable.
In between bites of burger, I nibbled on a few fries. They were a nice color and moderately crispy. I can appreciate the fact that they are cooked in olive oil but—to my palette—the taste is neither as distinct nor as enjoyable as the peanut-oil cooked fries at Five Guys. Plus, to the extent that I like french fries, I prefer thicker cut fries to the shoestring-style fries served at Elevation Burger. I also took a few sips of my coffee milk shake made from Blue Bunny Ice Cream. I’m not terribly familiar with the brand, but the shake was pleasing enough that I’d order it again.
But moving on to the kid’s burger, I encountered some real problems. Whereas the bun-to-burger ratio was okay on the two-patty burger, the single patty was completely overwhelmed by the bun. Picking it up, it felt almost completely devoid of substance, making me wonder if this one-patty burger was ideally suited toward children after all.
Biting into the burger, I found that what beef there was tasted fine, but I really couldn’t sense any of the other ingredients. The outside edges of the burger suggested loads of blue cheese dressing, but there was precious little inside. This was also the case with the barely there caramelized onions. And finally, as with the Elevation Sauce on the other burger, I had been given only the thinnest of smears of balsamic mustard. Needless to say, the single patty approach is not something I’m likely to repeat.
Unfortunately, my take-out experience (on another day) left a bit to be desired as well. On this occasion, I ordered an Elevation Burger (with toppings identical to my dine-in burger), fries and another shake. I also went with a vanilla shake with some key lime added. The food was ready to go in no-time, and with it being a fairly quiet night, I was able to travel from door-to-door in just under ten minutes. Arriving home, I went to retrieve the Elevation Burger bag from the front seat of my car to discover that grease had eaten all the way through the bag, leaving a glistening and rather unpleasant-looking stain on the seat. Cursing aloud, I scooped up the remains of the bag as best I could without getting any grease on my clothes or spilling its contents on the ground.
Once inside, I had expected to find that the french fries were the grease culprit, but they sat there—boat intact—looking rather harmless. Instead, most of the grease appeared to have come from the burger, as evidenced by the saturated, disintegrating blue wrapper. While the paper wrapper may be an environmentally-friendly alternative to the foil used by Five Guys, it neither contained the grease very well, nor did it do much to maintain the heat of the food, especially on this chilly winter evening. And again, I had issues with the bun staying intact, despite its ample size. The fries fared okay, but—not surprisingly—were not as hot or crisp as those eaten during my dine-in experience.
The bright spot of this take-out experience was the milkshake. I loved the combination of the key lime with the vanilla flavor, so much so that it all but assures at least one return trip to Elevation Burger in the near future.
All and all, I have mixed feelings about Elevation Burger. My dine-in experience was not without its flaws, but was far superior to my attempt at take-out, which I’m not likely to repeat. In both instances, the beef was flavorful and well-seasoned, but hampered by misfires when it came to the bun and some of the supporting toppings. The coffee milkshake was good, and the vanilla/key-lime shake was divine. Its probably also fair to expect that some of the issues I encountered (namely, the grease) will get resolved over time.
I guess I’ll recommend that you try Elevation Burger for yourself, but with a few reservations. For me, and perhaps for you, the key to successful repeat visits may lie in limiting our expectations to the things they do really well: friendly, expedient dine-in service from an efficient staff, excellent milkshakes and well-cooked, organic beef topped with quality cheese.
Turns out that Elevation Burger was quite the popular topic with Portland Food Bloggers this week. Here are some links to other local reviews: