DON'T FORGET FRIES A Five Guys burger isn't all you get.
Cheap burgers might be the biggest problem in America's culinary landscape. The central trouble is they usually don't taste very good. Ancillary problems include cruelty to animals, environmental devastation, heart disease, and that sleepy-heavy feeling. Would it surprise you to find out that Bain Capital ran Burger King for much of the last decade? Me neither.
One solution is to stop eating burgers — probably not a bad idea. Another is to eat better burgers that cost a little more money. I checked out three (relatively) recent Portland area additions that are banking on the idea: a local, a small chain, and America's trendiest burger.
The local is the oddly named Loft: Portland's Burger House. It is not in a loft, but there is a curved wood ceiling that gives it a bit of a chalet feel. The interior has an informal scrappiness appropriate to its outer-Forest Avenue location. The bar is well-lit, the dining room dim, beer is cheap and the TVs are big. There is a lot of leather.
There is also a lot of beef — 30ish varieties of burger. That's probably too many, but there are things to like about them. The burgers are big, but patted hard enough to prevent that burger-as-ball effect that makes many upscale versions hard to eat. Not that these burgers are upscale, exactly. At $10 including fries, they are around the same price as burgers at the Five Guys and Elevation chains. A burger cooked medium got it right, with a nice char, and a just-pink middle. The meat could use more seasoning, and they seem to achieve their variety mostly by what happens outside your burger rather than any suffusion of flavor into the meat itself. The beef is juicy enough, but the meat (from New York butcher Pat LaFrieda, says their website) is on the leaner side — pretty rich, and just a touch gristly. The bun has heft, perhaps a touch too much, and has the word loft branded on top. You can replace the bun with a glazed Holy Donut, or a waffle, but would you? Waffle fries were a touch soft.
At Elevation Burger, tucked into a health-conscious bit of South Portland strip-mall, you can replace your bun with lettuce, which tells you something. Though the chain is owned by devout Christians, like In-N-Out and Chick-Fil-A, the only notable sanctimony is of the liberal variety. The bright, blue, clean, and attractive space is constructed from sustainable materials. The beef is free-range, grass-fed, and organic. That sounds good, and it is. It feels stranger handing $10 for your cheeseburger (double stack is standard) and fries over a counter, but the burger is pretty terrific. The meat is ground on site, and not too finely, which gives the burgers added texture without losing juiciness. The flavor is uncommonly rich, the cheese is a genuine cheddar, and the bun is small enough to recede to its proper place as afterthought. The fries (made with olive oil) are the thickness of McDonald's, but do it better, hitting that nice crispy-soggy sweet spot.