When I review a restaurant that is clearly struggling, I have a thought exercise that helps me work out what might be going wrong. I ask myself: “What corners has the place backed itself into?” Sometimes the corners are metaphorical, like poorly structured menus, impractical design choices or overambitious conceptual conceits.

Other times, the corners are literal, like the ones I encountered when I stepped inside the walk-in-closet-sized dining room at Portland’s Butcher Burger a few weeks ago. With its angular bar, narrow walkways and newly repositioned, off-center entrance, the room seems built from overlapping diagonals, producing a space that is practically all corners.

I hoped that wouldn’t be an omen, but if you’ve peeked at the star rating, you already know how this story ends.

To make the most of the small space, instead of individual tables, diners at Butcher Burger eat at counters. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In terms of space planning, owner Kevin McAllister and his team have made the cramped former home of Royale Lunch Bar considerably more functional by ripping out awkward two- and three-top tables in favor of bar-height seating for 16 diners. But one tradeoff is that customers now enter through a corridor that leads rather unappetizingly directly into a bathroom.

Much more welcoming was Butcher Burger’s summer patio, a beachy-feeling seasonal parklet designed to seat 26 on this otherwise unlovely stretch of Union Street. Here, at a picnic table illuminated by the soft, yellow glow of string lights, the restaurant’s design vibe came into focus: black paint accented by rough-hewn wood paneling to echo the décor of its sister restaurant in Bethel. “We’re going for a little unusual, but also warm and inviting, the kind of place anybody would feel comfortable walking into,” McAllister said.

Outside, at least, the plan worked like a charm. On my second recent visit, I sat sipping an outrageously sweet Painkiller cocktail ($12) and was joined on the patio by a party of tourists. I decided to match their order and wound up with a soggy Caprese salad ($15) – really just a mesclun salad with cubed mozzarella and cherry tomatoes – and a gigantic order of pico-de-gallo-topped Choza fries ($15), a Latin-inspired take on poutine. Spicy mayonnaise and avocado crema take the place of gravy, and with no oven in the tiny kitchen to do the melting, there’s no cheese here, but the already loaded dish didn’t need it.

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Across two visits, “Butcher Fries” were the best thing I ate at Butcher Burger, including the triple-cooked version topped with simple sea salt ($7/$10) and the less-successful, unevenly tart and not-very-salty salt-and-vinegar variety ($7/$10). I admire McAllister’s dedication to using Maine potatoes and hand-cutting them into skin-on crinkle-cuts at the Biddeford commissary kitchen that supplies both branches of the restaurant (as well as an Old Orchard Beach seafood shack). When they’re seasoned well, the fries are just shy of great: crisp, steamy inside, with little rough patches from blistered skin.

Butcher Burger’s patio closed at the end of October. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The patio itself wasn’t bad either, while it lasted. Due to city street cleaning and snow removal, the restaurant’s outdoor space closed at the end of October, leaving only those 16 barstools inside. But a poky, constricted dining room isn’t Butcher Burger’s biggest problem.

A restaurant whose tagline is “Lobster Rolls. Burgers. Butcher Fries” really needs to make those menu items its highest priority. In a city like Portland, where we already have several world-class versions of all three of those dishes on offer just a few blocks away, it’s even more important. And as I mentioned previously, Butcher Burger’s above-average fries acquit the restaurant on that particular count.

But the other two…

According to McAllister, Butcher Burger breaks down and picks fresh Maine-caught lobsters at its commissary kitchen every day. But once they leave Biddeford, all bets are off. On my first visit, I asked for a recommendation on which of the three rolls to try and was guided by a server to the bacon-jam-topped Crispy Lobster Roll ($29). “It’s different. I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, “But it’s hard to mess up a lobster roll.”

Hard, but clearly not impossible. I took my first bite, tasted the subtle, smoky heat from the chili mayonnaise, the buttery brioche roll, then hit the deep-fried cylinder at the sandwich’s core. What was once lobster meat had been transformed into a recalcitrant tube of panko-crusted seafood jerky.

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I chewed, I gnawed, I gave up.

To his credit, when I spoke with him over the phone, McAllister told me, unprompted, that he knew the dish had substantial issues. “At the (OOB) shack, we do a tempura crispy roll. But how could we get that to Butcher Burger, since we don’t have a line or space to do tempura?” he explained. “We take a long skewer, stick it through the lobster like a corn dog, and put it in flour, egg wash and panko and then we slide the stick out when it’s cooked enough to hold up on its own. But yeah, there’s been some hit-or-miss.”

On the Surf & Turf ($29), the small portion of lobster held up better, but was still a dried-out “miss,” despite a quick dunk in butter before the meat was deposited on top of the burger patty. I truly wish I had nice things to say about the patty, a blend of house-ground beef and bacon. On paper, it sounds lovely.

But notice the warning on Butcher Burger’s menu – a radical perspective opposing the “eating undercooked meats” caution you see elsewhere. Here, we learn that “All house patties are cooked through.”

Why? I’m still not sure. When I asked McAllister, he responded with a neat, if completely circular rationale: The patties must be cooked through because they contain pork. The patties contain pork to keep them from drying out when they are cooked through.

Perhaps why doesn’t matter. Overcooking anything will dry it out. Hell, even water dries out if you cook it too long. And all three burgers I tasted from Butcher Burger were overcooked until the meat surrendered, crumbly and gray.

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This is how you prepare a patty for a picky, food-avoidant preschooler. This is how you prepare a patty if you want to score a few test slap shots after the Zamboni clears the ice. This is not the way you make a $14 cheeseburger, let alone a lobster-topped version for more than twice that price.

And just as with the lobster, when I asked him about the cooked-through policy, McAllister seemed to comprehend that there are problems with the burger. “Everybody has their own version of what rare or medium-rare is, so we do it this way because we think it’s still going to be delicious,” he said. “There have been some learning curves for us, it’s true. But if you put enough pork in (the patties), you just can’t get them dry, although it’s funny because they do shrink a little more when you cook them.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that what’s disappearing from his parched patties is mostly moisture.

It’s not just the beef (and pork). My Nashville-style spicy chicken breast sandwich ($15) was also overcooked, as was the portion of crispy haddock ($9 extra) served on a Caesar salad drizzled in an unusually thick, tart dressing that tasted more like avocado crema than garlicky Caesar dressing.

To add insult to injury, when I asked my server what was in the dressing, she quite literally snarled at me. I shut up and took another long sip from my savory and well-balanced spicy margarita cocktail ($12), leaving her to go back indoors and return with my check (which I hadn’t yet requested). “Pay inside. I’m out of here in five,” she said, by way of explanation.

Improving service should be an easy fix. So should guiding back-of-house staff on how not to overdress, overcook and overload dishes. Much harder to resolve is Butcher Burger’s complete dependence on a commissary kitchen 20 minutes away to service a restaurant menu that, ideally, should be realized through on-demand, a-la-minute preparation. Shortcuts and advance cooking only take you so far in a city like Portland, and sometimes, they back you into a corner you can’t escape from.

The spicy margarita cocktail at Butcher Burger. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

RATING:  **

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WHERE:  7 Union St., Portland. 207-808-8522. butcherburger.com

SERVING: Every day, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Burgers, lobster rolls and sandwiches: $14-$29

NOISE LEVEL: Ticker-tape parade

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

GLUTEN-FREE: Some dishes

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RESERVATIONS: None

BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: When Butcher Burger’s parklet patio was open, the fast-casual Old Port restaurant was a pleasant-enough place to sit, sip a spicy margarita cocktail flecked red with house-pickled Fresnos and nosh on poutine-esque, pico-de-gallo-topped Choza fries. But that was the best-case scenario for this undersized and underequipped restaurant, which relies on an out-of-town commissary kitchen to service this location, as well as another in Bethel and a seafood shack in Old Orchard Beach. Most menu items are underwhelming, like a dry chicken sandwich and gloppy Caesar salad. Somehow, the eponymous Butcher Burgers manage to be the worst thing on the menu. Tough and overcooked, the bacon-and-beef blend in every patty I tried over two recent visits was gray and desiccated – which led me to a Carrie Bradshaw moment where I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is ‘butcher’ in the name supposed to be a verb?”


Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such): Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously.


Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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