Small Axe Truck Is Making One of the Best Burgers in Portland, ME


A non-traditional burger that really works: cold-smoked beef, Jack cheese, shishito peppers, gochujang ketchup, locally baked bun. [Photograph: Liz Bomze]

Small Axe Truck

Breakfast (7:30 a.m. - 10:30 a.m.): 122 Anderson Street, Portland ME 04101 (map) Lunch (11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.): 385 Congress Street, Portland ME 04101 (map); 207-400-9971;
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Lightly smoked, beefy, and drip-down-your-fingers juicy
Want Fries With That? No fries available
Price: $8

A few weeks ago, the Small Axe Truck debuted its burger, the Smokestack Lightning ($8), and proclaimed it the best burger around. Ordinarily, I'd say that's a bold statement to make, but in this case it might well be true.

Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy, alums of Hugo's and Miyake who added their truck to Portland, Maine's small fleet this past spring, get the raw materials right: local beef chuck (often from Caldwell Farm or Archer Angus), local Jack cheese (Pineland Farm), and light brioche buns designed and baked just for them by the folks over at Southside Bakery, the wholesale division of 158 Pickett Street Cafe. Those components alone would add up to a damn fine burger, but Deuben and Leavy took a few flavor risks that really paid off.

For one thing, they don't simply grill the beef. They cold smoke it first. That process occurs at relatively low temperatures, but to ensure that the burger, a four-ounce patty seasoned simply with salt and pepper, stays as juicy and tender as possible during both the smoking and grilling phases, they grind a little extra fat with the chuck and partially freeze it before smoking. (The patties range from 75 to 85 percent lean.) The effect works because the smoke flavor is subtle and late to sink in, so you get a moment to savor the flavor of the beef itself. And despite being cooked to about medium (a standard doneness that allows for ample browning on each side of the patty), the meat is still quite tender and really, really juicy (note the messy fingers).

The fixin's stand out, too: shishito pepper rings from Green Spark Farm that offer just a little bit of heat and vegetal bitterness. I'm a pickle person through and through, but these are a nice alternative to and an equally effective distraction from the burger's richness. The ketchup is gochujang-based; I was expecting (and would have preferred) even more of that condiment's heat, depth, and pungency, but even the subtler flavors are nice.