Here’s an interesting thought experiment for you to try: Imagine what it would be like to try and create a new fast food restaurant, from scratch. You have to try and block all of the familiar imagery that comes to mind when you picture a fast food restaurant, which basically consist of the various branding elements of each restaurant that are seared into our brains, beginning in childhood. Try to picture the inside of a fast food restaurant without Ronald McDonald, without the Golden Arches. No red, no yellow. Nothing flame-broiled. No cardboard “King” crowns. No “Have it Your Way.” Get rid of the little pigtailed redheaded girl. Tell that elderly Southern gentleman in the string tie to shove it. What’s left? What makes a fast food place a fast food place, without these familiar thematic elements?
The inside of Elevation Burger in South Portland may be where you end up, if you continue trying to imagine what an all-new, from-scratch fast food restaurant would look like. Tucked inside a mini-mall that, along with a Buffalo Wild Wings, a cut-rate dentist, and a no-name nutritional supplement store, may be one of the most depressing new shopping malls ever, Elevation Burger is spotlessly clean, and filled with kid-friendly, easy-to-bleach surfaces. It’s rather modern in its aesthetic, all exposed ductwork, high ceilings, and blue-glass energy-saving LED pendant lamps. It’s not unattractive, per se, though it does feel very sterile. Seemingly conscious of this, and no doubt in response to much focus-testing, attempts at warmth are introduced. The tables at each booth appear to be made of grass, or some other similarly-sustainable, Earth-friendly material that reflects plenty of warm, amber-hued light. There are high-gloss bamboo wood floors. The graphics and iconography are all just hip enough, carefully calculated to communicate a mixture of down-home comfort with vectorized, sans-serif cool. There’s something very video game-y about it. The overall effect is that of a brand designed by committee, like too many computerized advisers in “The Sims” all giving you advice on what will most satisfy your virtual customers and keep them from waving and yelling gibberish or peeing on the floor in a knock-kneed panic.
Jillian: As for the atmosphere, it was thin. Also, I think, a calculated effort. There’s an air of the teenage automaton here, an uncanny valley of happy worker bees, all visible behind the glass. Do pay attention to the men behind the curtain. They are clean cut and work efficiently. The entire operation runs smoothly. Which makes me a little nervous, frankly.
If there’s an overall message coming from Elevation Burger, it’s an emblazoned assertion rather unlikely for a fast food company: Ingredients matter. Elevation Burger wants to make perfectly sure you understand that their burgers and fries are made from the kinds of high-quality ingredients you just won’t find at most hamburger joints. The organic beef used in their burgers is 100% free-range, grass fed, antibiotic and pesticide free, is ground in-house, and is as good for the environment as it is good for you, and is totally, totally unlikely to give you Mad Cow Disease. It’s a buzzword-heavy angle that strikes me as kind of peculiar, and is another reflection of the chain’s feel-good Virginian roots. It’s enough to make me want to put on a fleece pullover and start growing medicinal marijuana.
In a marketplace getting crowded with new, so-called “fresh-fast” restaurants, and in a city where Five Guys recently established a successful outpost, the key question is not one of corporate politics or philosophy: It’s a question of flavor. So just what does an Elevation Burger taste like?
We ordered the chain’s signature “Elevation Burger,” a double-patty, double-cheese burger with a list of additional traditional toppings, including tomatoes, pickles, balsamic mustard, and caramelized onions, to customize your burger to your liking. The restaurant’s menu suggests an “Original” topping combination of “Elevation Sauce,” pickles, lettuce, and tomatoes, and also advises customers that they can opt to wrap their burgers in low-carb-friendly lettuce instead of a bun. Feeling the pressure, I settled quickly on “Elevation” sauce, hot pepper relish, pickles, and tomato for my burger. We also ordered a basket of Elevation Burger’s fries, and when I asked for a Coke, was informed that the chain’s much-lauded 100-flavor touchscreen soda dispenser was out of order.
We chose a booth, and a few minutes later, our burgers were delivered to the table by one of the very friendly employees, who must get awfully tired of shuttling burgers around the room with little hope of a tip. Our server advised us that our burgers were arranged on the unusual aluminum trays in the same visual order that they were listed on our receipt, which was a thoughtful detail that I appreciated.
The fries were almost amazing; I really loved how thinly they were cut, with little bits of skin left on each fry, and a light sheen of oil left in the paper basket they came in. I would have liked to see them cooked until a little more crispy, however, a tough feat using olive oil; the healthier choice of frying oil left the fries inexcusably soggy and limp. We didn’t finish them.
The burgers were each wrapped in blue paper, and were each positively overflowing with beef, cheese, and toppings. Elevation Burger makes it another point of pride that their buns are not huge, and don’t overpower the hamburger and toppings; it’s another problem I didn’t know I had at other restaurants, until Elevation Burger pointed it out. In this case, though, the decision to pair undersized potato rolls with two rather oversized hamburger patties doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not only does the bun not overpower the burger, as advertised, it doesn’t even manage to contain it; the bun disintegrates under the weight and heft of the burger long before you’re finished eating it. For some, like me, this only enhances the visceral joys in eating a burger, as fat and blood runs down your chin and down your arm, as you plunge your face over and over into a wet fistful of beef. Jillian doesn’t take quite the same pleasure in a messy burger as I do, though, and was less impressed.
Jillian: Yes, my preference is for a tidy burger. At Elevation Burger, cold condiments dangle down from the bottom of the bun, mingling with juice from the two patties, falling with a resounding splat! onto the paper. I would rather have a burger I can eat one-handed, a driving burger, a burger for the American highway. I, too, found the “Elevation Sauce” so bland it was indistinguishable from the rest of what was going on. Next time, I think I’ll scale back to the kid’s size, a single patty, and skip all the unnecessary adornments. The beautiful beef can stand on its own.
The beef was delicious, with a ragged, cheese-grabbing edge, and a well-seasoned charred crust on all sides. The cheese, an “organic cheddar,” was tasty, but didn’t manage to melt and create another texture which for me, is the primary role of cheese on a cheeseburger. The hamburger patties also didn’t seem to be obliterated on the grill, and it was a rare instance of a fast-food burger that wasn’t cooked to very, very well-done. I liked that my mildly sweet pickle slices appeared hand-sliced from real pickles, but I couldn’t tell you anything else about the other toppings, so overwhelmed were they by beef and cheese. There was no heat from the “Hot Pepper Relish,” and the “Elevation Sauce” could have been made of anything. I can’t state this strongly enough: There were literally no other flavors on this burger, aside from the admittedly delicious, much-celebrated beef and unmelted cheddar.
Maybe it’s my decidedly dated, old-fashioned attitudes about the importance of organic ingredients, free-range, antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef; my attitude, that is, that I really don’t care about those things. When I am in the mood for a burger and fries, I don’t care if you cooked the fries in trans fat-free 100% olive oil, if that means the fries don’t get crispy, and I don’t care what the cows had for their last meal. In fact, by producing beef that’s lower in fat, I’m not convinced that grass-fed is even the way to go for hamburger. If you told me it would make the beef taste better, I’d tell you to go ahead and raise the cows on a steady diet of Quarter Pounders with Cheese from McDonald’s, before you shot them to death with paintball guns. My urge for eating big, sloppy cheeseburgers, and my concern with the ethics of large-scale commercial farming, don’t tend to have a lot of overlap, and yet that’s where Elevation Burger places a lot of emphasis. If these are important factors in your own personal cheeseburger eating decision-making, Elevation Burger may hold more appeal for you.
All that matters, though, is that these are some pretty solid cheeseburgers, made fresh to order, that present a welcome, fresh-cooked alternative to the endless parade of old-school hamburger chains in South Portland, who long ago abandoned any notion of “quality” in favor of cost-savings and improving the efficacy of the latest promotional tie-in for a movie sequel starring Duane “The Rock” Johnson. The next time I want a big, drippy, messy burger and a milkshake, it’s likely where I’ll stop. It’s as simple as that. The politics of the company and the pedigree of the beef don’t move the needle much, for me. There aren’t a ton of options for moderately high-end fast food-style hamburgers in the Maine Mall area, and by that measure alone, Elevation burger is a success.