After the five-and-dimes and the Greyhound bus station gave way to the smoky greasy spoons and the consignment clothing stores, which were in turn replaced by a seemingly endless string of art galleries and rosemary-scented cappuccino-and-focaccia joints, downtown Rockland was primed and ready for a high-end burger restaurant. It was time to improve upon the pub-grub standard found elsewhere in town, to elevate the humble burger from blue plate special to a place of respect, to cash in on the burger trend that swept the rest of the country a few years ago. We all wanted it to happen. L & H Burgers arrived just in the nick of time.
Occupying the ground floor of the Wadsworth Building on scenic Main Street, L & H Burgers is the brainchild of John Stowe, who also owns next door Italian mainstay Rustica. The dining room is modern and spare, with bright walls covered in abstract art, and widely-spaced tables scattered with primary blue plastic chairs that instantly called to mind images of a crowded Ikea on tax-free weekend. It’s a comfortable space, open and airy, with some of the echoes of the high ceilings dampened by a row of soundproofing panels at crown molding height. It’s casual, but at once clearly delivering a different experience than you’ll get dining in at a fast food restaurant.
Jillian: But this is a fast food restaurant. Not what we know now in our cynical time about factory farming, and food created by science to please the palate through chemical trickery. But simple food, reasonable prices, family-friendly, easygoing staff, a bright, happy space. And yes, our food was out within minutes, which is a relief because I was figuratively starving. I loved that the dining room is spare but still very warm with colorful canvases and framed photos of the owners’ daughters on a wooden bureau in the back. The approach to design is spot-on, in my opinion. They’ve created a place that feels fun and intimate at the same time.
The menu spends some time introducing you the restaurant’s commitment to 100% all natural Black Angus beef, which they promise is “the highest quality, humanely raised, hormone and antibiotic free.” It’s the standard pitch, but it’s nice to hear from the get-go that this is a place that is taking their burgers seriously, and it got me excited about what was to come. In addition to burgers, L & H Burgers offers an array of appetizers and salads (which can be served topped with a burger), as well as a few paninis, relegated to the back of the one-sheet menu. A basic burger comes in at $7.50, with customized combinations including goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, wasabi mayonnaise, jalapenos, or avocado adding to the cost per topping.
Rather than get creative, I trusted in the recommendations “From the Masters,” suggested topping combinations that, served with fries or coleslaw, round the price up to an even $11. I tried the “Ragun Cajun,” a beef burger topped with blackened smoked bacon, fried onion strings, cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, and buttermilk ranch. The burger arrived cooked perfectly to my requested medium rare, the beef and toppings piled proudly on a plump round, freshly baked bun that seemed to fall somewhere in between a white hamburger bun and a chewy brioche. The burger patty was large (I am guessing about 6-8 ounces), well seasoned and charred, with plenty of pink in the center. As the juices ran down my arm and into the plastic basket, I couldn’t help but think about how pronounced the flavors of all the toppings were. Usually, so-called “gourmet” burgers just end up a kind of runny mishmash of strong flavors. In the case of the “Ragun Cajun,” I had already chalked up the description of “blackened, smoked bacon” as mere menu-speak.
But here it all was, with smoky, peppery flavor from the bacon, sharp bite from the cheddar, creaminess from the ranch, and a satisfying crunch from the fried onions. Every taste was present and distinct, and served the burger well. The side of fries were outstanding as well, hand-cut thin shoestrings with bits of skin left intact, cooked until perfectly brown and crisp, only to be doused in malt vinegar and swabbed in ketchup. It was an outstanding performance from a side dish I don’t normally care much about; enough to make a believer out of even a casual fry-eater. Rounded out with a Brooklyn Lager tallboy from the restaurant’s beer and wine list, it made for a hearty, satisfying lunch.
Jillian had similar success with her “Shroominator” burger, topped with mushrooms, Havarti cheese, red onion, bacon, baby spinach, and finished with a garlic lemon mayo. Again, I was amazed by how distinct all of the ingredients were, and how they really did combine to make a special burger. A side of onion rings (for a $2 upcharge) were flaky, golden, and crunchy.
Jillian: The “Shroomintor” is simply an excellent cheeseburger. A juices-running-down-your-chin burger, cooked exactly to medium-rare, as requested. Each topping, as Malcolm already mentioned, was distinct and contributed something important, i.e., texture, flavor, meltiness, etc., to the whole. I loved this menu suggestion, and plan to use it as a sort of starting point and guide for further visits. Because, while I found it utterly delicious, and nearly perfect, for me, bacon is not exactly redundant, but kind of unnecessary when a burger is as good as this. A thin, bland, poorly cooked burger of low quality beef might require the quick and dirty, salty pork-fat-flavor injection bacon provides, but this one doesn’t need it. I did love how the heat wilted the baby spinach, how much gooey Havarti enrobed the meat, and the prominence of the mushrooms, always a perfect foil for beef.
We were less taken with the “L & H Grilled Cheese,” an $8 panini packed with mild Cheddar, bleu cheese, plum tomato, and roasted mushrooms. While certainly tasty (and perhaps a good option for the vegetarians in your party), it’s hard to imagine returning to L & H Burgers for panini when the restaurant’s focus on burgers is done so very, very well.
Overall, we left L & H Burgers completely satisfied. The service was fast and friendly, the burgers excellent, and the prices comfortable enough to serve both the tourist crowds in the Summer as well as the locals that will keep the place alive all Winter. An $11 burger and fries may seem steep compared to the bargain varieties available at a bar or at a drive through, but the dedication to quality, creativity, and uniqueness of ingredients, as well as the generous portions that carried us from lunchtime right through to breakfast, make L & H Burgers a welcome addition to Rockland’s food scene. It’s a relief to see hamburgers given the treatment they deserve, right here in Midcoast Maine, and it’s where we’ll head the next time the burger craving strikes.
L & H Burgers: 313 Main Street, Rockland, ME 04841; (207) 593-7995; L & H Burgers on Facebook