Here on Roadfood, there are constant discussions what constitutes a Roadfood place. Nowhere is this discussion more heated then on the subject of hamburgers. Besides the independent one and two location burger places, In-n-Out and Five Guys are usually included here because of their philosophy towards burgers and their quality. To this list, I need to add another strong contender, Smashburger. It is a national franchised chain with a local feel. All the meat is fresh, not frozen, 100% Certified Angus beef. Rather than having a menu that is 100% the same for every location, each area is allowed to come up with a few of their own, original burgers that reflect the area that they are in. They also have a unique way of making and cooking the burgers that makes them extremely tasty. Come join me so you can see what Smashburger has to offer. I think you'll agree they are a worthy burger to be included in the Roadfood annals. I have been to two locations and have been impressed with the hand-on owner, not only greeting people but creating his own individual combos for the area. He can often be found cooking on the line himself. To me, that is a sign of excellent Roadfood.
First, the most important part, the burger. Each Smashburger starts as a “meatball” of beef. The smasher (Smashmaster? Smashista?) takes a “meatball” of fresh beef and puts it on the flat top. They then proceed to use their own special tool to smash the meatball down into a patty. As soon as that it done, the top is seasoned. By using the smashing technique, the burger gets that nice caramelized crust that adds depth of flavor to a burger.
When it is nice and crusty, it is flipped over to the other side of the burger on the other side of the flattop where another cook adds cheese if requested. Meanwhile, fresh onions are grilling on another part of the flattop for those who want them.
Finally, the burger is assembled on a house baked artisan bun. There are four types of buns, including classic egg buns, black and white sesame buns, telera buns and multi-grain buns. Like In-n-Out, there is also a lettuce wrap available instead of a bun. It is topped with whatever you want and brought to your table open faced, fresh and hot.
Part of the concept with Smashburger is being able to top it any way you want. This is much more like the small independent place rather then the chains where you get it their way or not at all. Toppings come in three categories. Free toppings includes standards such as ketchup, mustard, grilled onions, kosher pickles, tomato, mayo and red onion. Some of the more unique toppings are truffle mayo, Japanese steakhouse ginger dressing, jalapenos, baby arugula and “smash sauce”, their own creation similar to 1000 Island dressing except with mustard instead of the ketchup. Cheeses include American, Swiss, blue, sharp cheddar, pepper jack and goat cheese. Finally, some premium add-ons are available such as chili, applewood smoked bacon, fried egg, guacamole and garlic mushrooms. For those who want simple choices, there are several burgers they have designed with toppings already chosen such as the OC Burger, the Classic Burger, the LA and the Fresh Mex burger. In other areas they have some other choices. Las Vegas' signature burger is the Sin City burger and someone in the SF bay area created the Bay City burger. New Orleans has the NOLA Burger as their nod to the Big Easy. Even Alabama has a location, featuring a burger and a chicken sandwich made with a white barbecue sauce. They are definitely paying attention to regional styles and places like Big Bob Gibson's. Some locations have items such as fried pickles on the side menu. This is one way they add regional flavors to each area's Smashburger locations.
Some of the burgers I've had include my own creation, with baby arugula, grilled onions, red onions and the smash sauce. I think it's a winner, with the sweetness of the grilled onions accented by the slight pepperiness of the arugula.I ordered it with the sweet potato fries.
As you can see, the burger is nicely caramelized with those great grilled onions on it. This is definitely a hand made burger.
One of the burgers on their list that the owner himself designed is the OC Burger. Both grilled onions and grilled mushrooms make an appearance here, with truffle mayo and aged Swiss cheese. This was a really delicious burger.
One thing I have noticed is the restraint used with the toppings. This is all about the burger. Just enough toppings are used to complement the flavor of the burger and not overpower it. Even the chili, which usually hides the flavor of the meat, still allows the flavor of the meat to shine through as the dominant flavor.
Sides include a variety of fries. Chili cheese fries are an old standby. I really enjoyed the sweet potato fries, nicely crisped and very flavorful.
The signature fries are called Smashfries. They take fresh shoestring cut fries and toss them with rosemary, olive oil and garlic. It is a great way to step up the flavor of the fries, while still keeping their crispness.
Chicken sandwiches are also available. My favorite was the Buffalo Chicken breast, perfectly deep fried and then dipped in buffalo sauce. The sandwich comes topped with a generous portion of blue cheese chunks.
The Fresh Mex is available as either a burger or a chicken sandwich. The marinated chicken sandwich was really good, with avocado, pepper jack cheese, spicy chipotle mayo, lettuce, onions, cilantro and sour cream. A nice touch was a fresh slice of lime with it to squeeze on the sandwich just before you bite into it.
Being a hot dog aficionado, I had to try the chili cheese dog. It was really good, a split and grilled all beef dog specially made for them. Topped with chili, cheese and sliced jalapenos, it was a flavorful dog. Again, they seem to know the exact amount of toppings to put on to achieve a nice balance and allow the flavor of the dog to shine through.
One thing I could not resist was the salted caramel milk shake. Fresh made, coming in the requisite fountain glass with the side container of the rest of the shake, it had that perfect touch of saltiness to really bring out the flavor of the caramel. I was too full to finish but it was so good I finished it anyways.
Beer and wine are available to have with your sandwiches. Again, with a hands on owner, he picks the beers to match the burgers. Beers such as Bikini Blonde and Arrogant Bastard Ale are great choices, and definitely not something you find at In-n-Out or Five Guys. This is a place where you are encouraged to stay, relax, have a beer and enjoy yourself. It is not the type of burger place where you eat it quickly and run.
There are a few hundred Smashburgers scattered around the US. The menus are similar, but due to the encouragement of the management, each area is given the opportunity to create their own burgers and bring their own regional flavors and local products to each area. I had a nice talk with Stephen, the owner of the two locations here in Orange County, CA. He really has the same attitude that I look for in a small place----he's hands on, still cooks in the restaurant, makes sure the customers are happy and works hard to go the extra mile to accommodate everyone's needs. He's constantly tasting the food to make sure it is seasoned correctly and enjoys creating new dishes with a local feel. He feels that the flattop is the only way to get that crust and caramelization that gives the extra flavor to the burger, while keeping it still juicy. One of the ways I judge a burger is how it stands by itself. The Smashburger has enough taste and juiciness that it stands up well, even if you were to not use any toppings at all. Indeed, For me, it's now replaced In-n-Out as my favorite of the small burger chains. But most importantly, when I go in, I don't feel like I'm going into a chain restaurant, but rather a local place where the owner cares about his food. www.smashburger.com
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