The pandemic will be remembered in the local restaurant industry as a time of tribulation, marked by layoffs and closures.
For some, though, the hardships created opportunities to find success in new directions.
Take James and Megan Garrigan, the married couple behind the terrific Lily and Liam Bistro across from Intel in Rio Rancho. Since the bistro was open only for breakfast and lunch, the Garrigans decided to launch a virtual restaurant during the dinner hours to make up for revenue lost to the pandemic. They dubbed it Upscale Burgers and Shakes. Customers ordered online and picked up the food at the bistro.
The virtual concept proved so successful that the Garrigans recently moved Upscale Burgers and Shakes to a space on the ground floor of Cottonwood Mall next to Regal Cinema. The location had been vacated by Johnny Rockets, the ’50s-style diner chain where James Garrigan once worked.
The Garrigans gave the dining room a redesign with new flooring and a cobalt blue-and-white color scheme. There’s a combination of booths, tables and countertop seating. The touchscreen ordering system was inoperable the day I visited with a friend, so the server took orders at the table.
While the restaurant’s name conjures thoughts of $15 burgers and $10 shakes, the prices are actually quite reasonable. You can get a burger and a shake for about what you’d pay for a popcorn and a soda next door at the Regal.
Besides burgers, the menu has sandwiches, salads and a few entrees priced mostly under $10. It’s pretty heavy food, relieved by a few lighter dishes like quinoa salad ($10) and jicama melon slaw ($4).
Burgers are divided into two categories: Classic and Upscale. The Upscale Burgers carry toppings like braised shortrib and melted Brie, and land in the same $8-$11 price range as the Classics. As for degree of doneness, there are only two choices offered: cooked through or with a little pink.
Upscale’s Green Chile single ($8.50), served on a small plate in the company of a few cornichons, was an exemplary representation of the form. It’s made smashburger style, the squarish patty extending well beyond the margins of the bun. The patty sported a crisp, browned crust around a faintly pink center. A solid yet airy house-made butter brioche bun clamped it all together, although the bottom half eventually broke apart. The diced red and green chile delivered a fiery opening that quickly mellowed into a mild smolder.
Outside of the burger sphere, Upscale offers sandwiches like Grilled Cheese ($8) and a BLT with avocado ($11). The Chipotle Chicken sandwich ($10) was cheesy, smoky goodness between two pieces of white bread finished on the grill. Cornichons, blueberries and sliced strawberries accompanied the dish.
The four entrees on the menu include Chicken and Waffles ($10) and Steak Burger Frites ($12). The Chicken and Avocado Melt ($11) turned up in a kind of yin and yang arrangement, with one side of the plate given over to sliced avocado and arugula, the other to a craggy mound of sliced chicken breast, bacon and wedge-cut fries. The latter half coalesced under a drizzle of chipotle aioli into a smoky, starchy and salty treat. The avocado and arugula, however, could have used some dressing.
Sides include a couple of variations of loaded fries. The Carne Adovada Wedges ($8) was filling, stick-to-the-ribs stuff. The carne adovada was tender if not particularly spicy, and the parts of the fries sticking out from under the meat and cheese were crisp.
Shakes start with the basic vanilla ($4) before venturing into some calorically charged versions with mix-ins like brownies, dark chocolate ganache and chocolate-covered pecans. A somewhat lighter option is the Berry Shake ($5) in which blueberries and raspberries mingle with vanilla ice cream laced with a berry coulis. Served in a glass beer mug, it was thick and refreshing.
Upscale has made efforts to accommodate vegan and gluten-free diners. There’s a vegan burger made with quinoa ($8), a dedicated gluten-free fryer and gluten-free buns available for $2 extra.
Don’t let the name fool you. Upscale Burgers and Shakes offers reasonably-priced fare that upholds the standards James and Megan Garrigan set at Lily and Liam Bistro.