When the craving for a burger hits, it usually hits pretty hard. You want the full experience, not just a fast-food fix. The idea becomes an obsession in your mind until the plate is set down in front of you, the aroma of grilled meat offering the first tantalizing hint of what’s to come. A side of fries and a milkshake, too? Is that even a question?
The recently opened BRGR Bar fulfills your burger lust in so many ways, with a menu that takes the classic in new directions. If you’re a traditionalist, the first listing on the menu, the BRGR, is for you. Director of operations Carolyn Dagostino tells me that is their top seller and the one she often suggests for first-time visitors to the restaurant. It’s two thin patties with bacon, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles, as well as a secret sauce. Does that sound familiar? I can assure you that it’s nothing like that drive-through version. The beef at BRGR Bar is a custom blend from Maine Family Farms that is grass fed and free of antibiotics. Owner Phelps Craig and her wife are not big meat eaters, but when they do have that craving, they feel it’s important to know the source and that the animals were raised humanely. “We worked very closely with (Maine Family Farms) to get a blend that’s specific to us,” says chef Jon Vogt. The secret sauce is a sweet and smoky bourbon-based aioli with honey mustard and several other ingredients he refuses to divulge. It’s delicious on the burger and anything else it touches. The sauce is made in-house, as they all are, from jalapeno-lime-aioli to the bourbon-barbecue. A look at the rest of the menu reveals wildly creative variations on burgers, from the Brazen topped with braised short rib, cheddar, a fried egg, and spicy ketchup to the beautifully messy Cow Trippin burger that Vogt created specifically for Portland. The enormous burger is stuffed with mushroom butter and topped with sautéed shiitakes, a shaved brussels sprout slaw, gochujang aioli, and gorgonzola. If beef is not your thing, there are several appealing alternatives. There’s the Off the Hook with a blackened mahi mahi fillet, cilantro aioli, and citrus-pickled red onion, as well as the Hawaiian, a turkey burger with pineapple chipotle salsa, cheddar, bacon, and more. The Earth Burger with a fried quinoa and lentil patty was created by Craig. “Even though I’m a meat lover,” says Vogt, “I’d eat this all day long.” The thick patty is covered with sautéed portobellos, walnut pesto, and a tasty lettuce-tomato relish and is served on a gruyere-crusted brioche bun. I agree with Vogt; the Earth Burger is a winner. Whatever type of burger you choose, a side of fries is the appropriate accompaniment. Specialty fries, like the Vietnamese or poutine, make excellent starters as well.
The milkshakes, both adult and non-alcoholic, are also the brainchild of Craig. “The shakes are one of our biggest draws,” says Dagostino. “Some people come in just for that.” Both types have a vanilla soft-serve base, but that’s the only common element. Adult shakes are sweet and boozy, a drink and dessert in one tall glass. The Original is simple, just bourbon and maple syrup blended with the soft serve, but one of the most popular. Grandpa’s Coffee contains Maine favorite Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy, along with Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum. The Ley Lime Pie shake has a refreshing piña colada-like flavor with coconut rum. Non-alcoholic flavors are fun, too, combining favorite dessert ingredients like caramel, Nutella, marshmallows, and Oreos in enticing combinations. The Fruity Pebbles and marshmallow shake tastes like a cool Rice Krispies treat
Craig opened the first BRGR Bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2014. With a background in fine dining, she wanted to do something “cool and creative,” Dagostino tells me, with a focus on locally sourced food. She came up with this concept, creating a menu that was interesting but simple, and could be replicated elsewhere. The Portland outpost is her second restaurant, located in the spot on Brown Street previously occupied by Margaritas Mexican Restaurant. A full renovation left no trace of the former occupant. Now a sleek stainless steel bar takes up the center of the room, surrounded by high tops and stools on one side and an area filled with booths on the other. Local artist Ryan Adams was enlisted to paint a mural on one wall, filling the expanse with an image of oversized burger fixings. “We felt it was important to use local artists,” Dagostino says. “The vibe here is similar to Portsmouth, but the art scene is much bigger.” BRGR Bar has an upscale feel but fun atmosphere, a place you can bring the kids, a group of friends, or a date. It’s appealing to those who prefer a traditional burger experience, as well as those in search of something more inspired, satisfying all cravings.
BRGR Bar | 11 Brown St. | Portland | 207.835.0786 | brgr-bar.com