If my husband and I were stranded on a desert island (and if we weren’t immediately menaced and killed by smoke monsters, polar bears, or Others), eventually Dan would start hallucinating a cartoon hamburger in place of my head. The boy loves his burgers so much that we’ve had to institute a one-a-week rule, but even still, it seems like we’re always wolfing down more than our fair share. When I heard Montclair, the haute-hippie New Jersey town down the road, had been graced with an outpost of ever-expanding chain Elevation Burger, we had to sample in the name of science.
Elevation Burger’s schtick (because you can’t just open a burger joint any more, you need to fill a niche) is that it uses organic grass-fed beef, always ground on site. Its shoestring fries are cut on-premises as well and dunked in trans-fat free olive oil instead of the vegetable or canola oil used by many outlets. It’s an admirable ethos for the Virginia-based chain, and one I’d very much like to support with my food dollars.
The word on Chowhound was that Elevation was the latest national contender aspiring to In-N-Out-style greatness. Having only sampled an In-N-Out once in my life, I’m not the greatest judge, but the burger seemed a lot closer to Five Guys than any other fast food competitor.
The original Elevation burger gives you two thick patties, tightly packed rather than the looser grind of a Shake Shack patty, but you can order a smaller version with just one—or get a Vertigo burger with anywhere from three to ten patties, your choice. (Yes, that was the sound of my innards exploding from the idea of eating ten patties at once.) And like Five Guys, Elevation won’t cook your burgers with any hint of redness inside.
The lean grass-fed meat, while getting a good outer char, was not as deeply beefy and salty as Five Guys. I made up for the dryness with a few extra squirts of ketchup in addition to the Elevation sauce (your usual “special sauce” concoction). Elevation has a roster of toppings that includes balsamic mustard and hot pepper relish—unusual additions that might be a tacit admission that their beef isn’t telegraphing that good old corn-fed flavor that fast food diners are expecting.
Doing a Half the Guilt burger (one beef patty, one veggie patty) didn’t significantly boost the moisture and flavor content, though the “fire-grilled flavor” of the veggie burger was quite good as those things go. And any burger ordered at Elevation should be a cheeseburger, as the choice of cheddar was fantastic—a sharp, dense slice that could very well be Tillamook. The fries, surprisingly, were not soggy despite the low smoke point of olive oil, and if they let me, next time I’ll ask for them to be fried well-done as well. Extra crispiness on a shoestring fry is pretty close to heaven.
While it’s certainly a servicable burger and I do appreciate the option to order a root beer float for that extra-caloric punch (made with New Jersey-brewed Wild Bill’s root beer and non-local Blue Bunny ice cream), it’s hard to say that I’ll really be craving an Elevation run. Can I reconcile my eco-guilt over beef with the knowledge that it just doesn’t taste as rich, especially with an even-closer branch of Five Guys opening in Upper Montclair in the coming year?
Elevation is certainly optimistic. They recently signed a lease for an NYC branch this coming May, with outdoor seating, at 103 W. 14th St. We’ll see whether New York’s cutthroat online community will condemn or approve (Josh Ozersky, I’m looking at you). Lesser burgers have thrived here, so it’s not improbable they’ll make the leap successfully.
As for the burger addict in our family, Dan’s perfectly happy with it and is especially psyched about Elevation’s punch-card program—every seven patties gets you one free. With us ordering three patties per trip on average, that adds up quickly. If it means he’s filling his gullet with a slightly less killer option, even if its only one out of every four burgers, then I’m happy with it too. It’s still a guilty pleasure, but I’d like to believe that it’s not just greenwashing and that we can take steps toward ethically-raised meat in a fast food package. We can improve our standards, Elevation can improve its flavor profile, and we’ll all benefit.
UPDATE: After many return visits, Elevation has seeped into the craving center of my brain. The condiment combination of mayo with hot pepper relish is key to making the most of the grass-fed beef, providing the perfect balance of tang, moisture, and heat alongside the meat.