Elevation Burger

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?

Elevation Burger South Portland Maine

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.

 Elevation Burger South Portland Maine

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.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as Brocavore, a blog focusing on street food culture, and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.


  1. I enjoyed the writeup, but it runs contrary to almost everything I have ever read about this chain. The consensus seems to be that the burgers are flavorless and bland, and the fries often greasy. If nothing else, it begs the question of how much we can take of the “fresh, local, sustainable” stuff. I’m reminded on a Seinfeld episode stressing the “Not that there’s anything wrong with it…” It’s as if we’ve reached a point in society where to point out your commitment to sourcing is an oversaturation of political correctness which begs the old, “great, and who isn’t these days?”

    That being said, I’d really like to get your thoughts on other burgers around the country. I recently had Shake Shack in D.C., and found it oustanding. My second favorite burger only to the Double Double at In-N-Out, although I, unlike many Marylanders, find 5 Guys only average.

    At some point it is my mission to find a smashburger.

    That cheese looks out of place being so unmelted. I may have missed it, but the beef is griddled, right? Honestly, I like Grass beef grilled. I think it take son a better dimension when exposed to an open flame.

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    1. Thanks for the note, Adam. I think for the purposes of this review, it’s important to consider context. The whole “fresh fast” thing is just beginning to make a dent in the local fast food scene, where places like Five Guys are only just starting to appear and make people realize that Whoppers aren’t the be-all and end-all in fast food.

      I didn’t find the beef at all flavorless or bland; quite to the contrary, the beef was flavorful enough to overpower the rest of the burger, and was well-seasoned and seared. Maybe this is unique to Elevation Burger’s South Portland location, but that would surprise me. And you’re right: a burger is a burger is a burger, and where it came from doesn’t make a huge difference to me. It may to some.

      I’m by no means an authority on national burger brands. When I am in LA, my first stop in my rental car is always at In ‘n’ Out, where I get a Double Double, no fries, and I skip all that “secret menu” business. When I’m in Las Vegas, I tend to hit Fatburger, since it’s more walkable from the Strip compared to In ‘n’ Out. I’m also an enormous fan of Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar in the Mandalay Bay.

      I’ve eaten at the flagship Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, and agree that it is an excellent fast food-style burger, although one that I sometimes pass up when the line gets too crazy. I like Five Guys, again, as compared to other locally available options, because I like to go crazy with toppings. I’ve never eaten at a Smashburger or a Steak ‘n’ Shake.

      As far as the major brands? I am always guiltily happy with a Quarter Pounder from McDonald’s, or a Spicy Crispy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s.

      And I know, right? How depressing is all that unmelted cheddar?

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      1. Clearly, you are a well traveled burger eater, so no qualms by me. One of the issues, it seems, is that the burgers at Elevation are perhaps under-seasoned. Doesn’t seem to be the case here. BTW, are those potato buns? That’s what I loved about the Shack. The Martin’s buns.

        For what it’s worth, I think BK actually makes the best fast food (not fast fresh) hamburger. Their new “Toppers” are quite good, and I suggest giving the new bacon a chance as well. For a buck, I’m not sure that there is a better hamburger than BK’s Single Stacker, especially given the new bacon. To me, BK burgers just have a sweeter, meatier taste that’s natural for beef than what McDonald’s is serving.

        Not that any of it matters to me right now. I found 80/20 at Target the other day for 1.82 a pound, so I made sure to get a supply that should last me for long enough.

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  2. Since this has gone to a discussion on burgers worth traveling for, I will chime in with the Burger Joint in NYC. They are not only worth traveling for, but should be the standard by which all others are measured.

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  3. Who decided the french fries should be fried in olive oil? Its smoking point makes it totally unsuitable for deep-frying. I guess they were trying to seem “healthy” (deep-fried potatoes will never, ever be good for you), but as you discovered, they only turned what should be crisp and crunchy into a soggy mess.

    I find the beef at Five Guys totally flavorless. I assume the appeal is that 1) the burger is huge and messy, and 2) you can choose amongst a wide variety of toppings. A burger with fries for one person at Five Guys approaches $10 here, and I think that’s a ridiculous price to pay for a mediocre-at-best fast food burger.

    There’s no Elevation Burger here (what is up with that name?), but based on this review I wouldn’t go out of my way to try it. Ted’s Montana Grill is a sit-down restaurant that’s only a little bit more expensive than Five Guys (mostly because of the tip) and their burgers can’t be beat. The meat is never frozen, (I believe it is ground at the restaurant) and they will make any of their burgers out of bison meat for only a dollar or two more! And no, I don’t work for Ted’s…I’m just a burger snob.

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  4. Just a couple of things…Seeing as everything is made fresh for your order, you have the option of asking for your fries extra crispy. Yes olive oil is a lighter cooking oil, but the cooking temps/times are set accordingly. And, I noticed Jillian said something about cold toppings…. Personally, I would be grossed out by hot toppings. It’s not like the burgers are pre-made, sitting under heating lamps just waiting for your order. Also, whats a burger without a bit of mess? If you want an easy, mess free “American Highway” burger, go grab a McDouble off of the Dollar Menu, which most likely contains beef that was cooked 20 minutes before you arrived. You just may not be as skilled as other burger enthusiasts. Being an Elevation employee, I have seen a customer finish a 5 patty burger, with toppings, mess free, and love every minute of it. It’s all in your technique. Upon your next visit, may I suggest ordering the fries extra crispy. And, as far as the burgers go, lettuce is the one topping that generally causes a lot of mess, so maybe switch up the topping choice? It’s the type of food where the experience gets better every time. You have the opportunity to see what you like, what you don’t, and in time, you’ll figure out the perfect Elevation meal for yourselves.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, Mike. There are a few issues here that won’t be solved by making additional visits. The first is that olive oil just doesn’t make sense for frying. The second is that toppings placed under a hamburger patty will always result in the dreaded topping slideout, which will be bothersome to some, and less bothersome to others. I’m afraid that these are issues fundamental to the Elevation “experience” that just aren’t going to go away.

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  5. If you haven’t checked out Wild Willy’s Burgers in South Portland, you should – just a little down the road from Elevation. It’s probably the best restaurant burger I’ve had in Maine.

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