Welcome to Eater Road Trips, a series that explores celebrated Maine dishes and dining establishments beyond the borders of Portland. Have an idea for the next road trip? Leave it in the comments or hit up the tipline. The anonymous tip form is also there for all forms of correspondence.
[All Photos: Tom Minervino]
It was five years ago now that the Food Network Magazine named the Seven Napkin Burger from the Owls Head General Store the best burger in Maine, part of its 50 States, 50 Burgers feature that is now a handy virtual map. I recall this being a pretty big deal, back before we reached our food listicle saturation point. I vowed to go get one of these burgers ASAP. Then it occurred to me that, despite being a native Mainer and living here for three quarters of my life, I didn't know where Owls Head was. After consulting my atlas & gazetteer (or maybe it was Google), I realized Owls Head was near Rockland and probably a four-hour round trip journey from Portland. Without another reason to visit, this seemed a bit extreme, even for the greatest burger in the Pine Tree State. So my vow was shelved.
In the meantime, Portland has undergone a burger boom. The Old Port has sprouted three fast-casual burger places in the last few years, each of which offers a good to very good burger. And the $15 burger is now commonplace on menus at nicer restaurants, with all sorts of cow-sourcing, -raising, and -grinding techniques touted to differentiate these offerings from the burger pack. A couple standouts include the NOB burger (fried oysters, bacon, and tabasco mayo) at Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room and the house burger (local beef, ground in-house, and sous vide before hitting the grill) at In'finiti Fermentation and Distillation. I haven't yet tried the special edition offerings from Eventide Oyster Co. or the Back Bay Grill, but both get rave reviews.
So, half a decade and a Portland burger renaissance later, how does the Seven Napkin stack up? I finally hit the road to see for myself.
Up Route 1, through the Wiscasset bottle neck, past the giant concrete plan in Thomaston that looks like something out of a Stephen King book, I eventually reach the Owls Head General Store. It's actually a pleasant and interesting ride, if you aren't stuck behind too many Thule-racked Acura MDXs from New York. The small parking lot is full (an RV is wedged into a spot better suited for a Fiat), but there's plenty of parking along the road. The scent of cooking burgers surrounds the store. Families pack the picnic tables outside.
I head in and get in line to place my order. A few people stand in front of me, but the line moves quickly. The chalkboard menu says nothing about where the beef comes from or what it is fed. My order is easy: One Seven Napkin Burger ($8.75), please. "How would you like it cooked?" So glad you asked: Medium. I get it to go because I want to take it outside to photograph (though I soon learn they'll happily deliver orders to the picnic tables). There are over a dozen burgers on the grill when mine goes on. It's a humble flattop that looks like it's been around a while.
As I wait and drink a Mountain Dew, I watch as a man has to exchange the bottle of Geary's Summer Ale that he's selected from the cooler for a root beer. The beer is sold for take-away only; the store is not licensed to allow alcohol consumption on the premises. Other burger tourists come in looking around for the restroom before being directed to the porta potty outside. A guy asks everyone he sees if they are the owner of the RV that's blocking him in. Folks who order cold sandwiches get them quickly. After about 10 minutes of waiting, a woman gives me an update: The burgers take longer but mine should be up soon. I didn't time it, but I'd say the total cook time was 15 minutes. Inconsequential after a two-hour drive.
A young lady brings me my burger in a brown paper bag that has some heft to it. I take it outside and unpack it on a bench nearby. Along with the burger, there's a small bag of chips and four napkins. The burger is big and messy, as I expected. The first bite sends mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup down my chin and fingers. All the toppings, which include cheese, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, and onions, are applied liberally. With a lesser patty, this could be troublesome, but this hunk of beef can handle the accoutrements. Thick but not dense, juicy, pink on the inside and nicely crusted and seasoned on the outside, it's pretty much a flawless burger. The bun does its job of holding things together, but otherwise is an afterthought. If I had to change anything, I'd cut back on the mustard a little, but I'm really picking nits here.
I devour the burger quickly and need all four of the napkins. It's a complete and satisfying meal by itself. I don't open my chips until I'm back through Wiscasset.
Is this (still) the best burger in Maine? It's as good as any I've had and better than the vast majority. You won't regret taking a detour to seek it out.
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