This is pretty exciting for me. I’ve never had a guest blogger before, but I’m happy to open up the opportunity to anyone who is a proven subject matter expert on a given food topic, goes to a food event and takes some pictures or tries a new recipe and wants to write about it, so if you have any ideas just shoot me a note!
I won a Denver Eater contest for an invite to a preview of a new SmashBurger opening in the Denver area on January 20th. I really wanted to go, but with homework and other conflicts I had to pass my invite along to my buddy Trevor, who offered to write this wonderful and very thorough guest post.
Smashburger has locations all over the US, plus a few in Canada and even in Saudi Arabia.
All opinions are Trevor’s, but I trust his opinions ‘cause he’s one of us food people and he sits right next to me at work so I know he doesn’t eat crap. 🙂
So, without further ado… here’s Trevor’s take on SmashBurger.
This last Monday I was lucky enough to attend the soft opening of the new SmashBurger located off of Alameda and Wadsworth in Denver. The event was organized to showcase Smash Burger’s selection of burgers, sides, drinks and shakes. The entire demeanor of the whole event was something I did not expect from the soft opening of a chain restaurant. From the very start it was clear that the company was proud of its menu, and they wanted to show it off to foodies.
They started off by giving us a brief summary of the restaurant and its conception. Apparently Smash Burger was a franchise established in 2007 by former McDonalds CCO, Tom Ryan. It was explained that this guy was the brains behind iconic fast food gems like the McGriddle and the Stuffed Crust Pizza. He even was responsible for the conception of McDonald’s famous dollar menu. As the story was told, Tom Ryan really wanted to make a restaurant that sold burgers with premium ingredients, so he founded Smash Burger. By the look and feel of the place, it seemed like the hybrid model of casual dining seemed to be the main inspiration for SmashBurger. The interior feels like the inside of a Chipotle or Noodles and Company, just tailor made for a burger joint; and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Noodles and Company and Chipotle right next door to this place so it fits in. A really nice feature was that they carried several of New Belgium Brewery’s offerings like Fat Tire, Shift, Ranger and 1554 all served up with a frosted mug.
There was nothing wrong with SmashBurger’s modeling though; I find casual dining very comfortable and I was comfortable here as well. Still the SmashBurger representatives insisted that this chain was one of a kind because it was a place where you could pick up lunch to go or bring in a date on a Friday night. But the point they really drove home was the premium ingredients: Angus beef that was never frozen and ingredients that were found regionally when possible. I would have to wait a little while to try these premium burgers though, the first thing we had a chance to try were the sides.
First up was the flash fried carrot sticks and green beans- which was something very odd to find at a burger joint. These vegetables weren’t battered either; instead they simply were dipped into frying oil and lightly salted. To be honest they didn’t taste fried, they almost tasted sautéed. They were slightly flimsy with a firm crunch, which really gave it an aura of freshness. The biggest problem with these was that they were quite oily. These vegetables had carried a good amount of grease from the fryer with them to our table. Despite this fact, they did not have too much of an oily taste; the vegetables tasted like the vegetables they were supposed to taste like and it still felt like a healthy alternative to the French fries.
The French fries were thinner than many fries you find at other restaurants, very close to shoe string fries. While they weren’t really unique to SmashBurger, they were thin and crispy. They chose an interesting route in seasoning the fries though. Instead of simply salting the fries they tossed the fries in garlic, rosemary, and a small amount of olive oil (that explains why it was oily). It made for a batch of French fries that screams “I’m gourmet!”, but it honestly didn’t grab my attention too much.
The one side that I happened to like the most was the sweet potato fries. These were in the same shoe string style as the normal French fries but were seasoned more simply— just salt. I can’t say that its anything you can’t get anywhere else, but these were the first sweet potato fries I’ve had that were this thin and crispy and I highly recommend them.
Alright, now that we got those three sides out of the way, its time to get to the SmashBurgers burgers. At this point it was further explained to us that SmashBurger makes its burgers by taking balls of the Angus ground Beef and literally smashing them down with a spatula on a hot buttered grill. Knowing that many of us would question the juiciness of the patties they were quick to explain that this was all done while the patties were ice cold, and that no moisture had escaped during this process. As they began to show us their burgers it was evident that the patties had indeed been “smashed” because each patty was very thin. With patties so thin it soon became clear that despite all the talk about “premium beef”, SmashBurger wasn’t about the beef at all. Instead they were about the flavor combinations that they could throw on top of their beef- that’s what this tasting was about. Each burger that I would see henceforth was a burger that downplayed the beef, and upsold the toppings. Toppings are good and fine- but they are meant to compliment the beef. When I talk about how I like my burgers I often reference a restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut called Lois’ Lunch (self proclaimed birthplace of the hamburger sandwich) where Ketchup and Mustard are outlawed because they mask the hamburger’s flavor. That’s the emphasis I like on the beef. SmashBurger takes a different route.
Here’s the breakdown:
The Classic Smash: Topped with American cheese, ketchup, “smash sauce”, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, on an egg bun, this burger was standard fair and the taste that took the front row was the “smash sauce”. It seemed to be a tangier mustard sauce, and upon doing a little research, I found that its generally believed to be a mixture of mustard, relish, lemon juice and mayonnaise. It was a nice tangy sauce, but it seemed to overwhelm all other tastes of the burger. The burger also had a noticeable texture: soft. The egg bun was very soft and seemed buttered, and the patty was indeed very juicy- just not that flavorful. If it weren’t for the crisp lettuce this burger would have been as soft as a twinkie. The smash sauce was a nice flavor though, and it was plenty satisfying.
BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar Burger: This burger was topped with BBQ sauce, applewood-smoked bacon, cheddar cheese and haystack onions on an egg bun. I expected the BBQ sauce to have a kick, but instead it was thinly layered and tasted ketchup-y. The haystack onions were very, very thin fried onions and instead of contributing an onion flavor, they instead just added more of a fatty flavor to the burger (for the record, I’m not completely opposed to this).
The best part of this burger was the Applewood smoked bacon. I figured the bacon was going to be floppy bacon that you see on most restaurant burgers. This wasn’t the case. These strips of bacon were juuuuuust right. They were crispy and firm but still moist and full of flavor. Not only did it save this burger from being completely bland, but it saved the burger’s texture from again being too soft. Upon inquiring about the bacon I found out the reason why this bacon was so awesome. Apparently they cook fresh applewood smoked bacon every single morning on the griddle in preparation for the day.
Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger: As you might expect, the big flavor on this burger is truffle. It features truffle mayo, sautéed baby portabella mushrooms and aged swiss cheese on an egg bun. The truffle mayo is intense. If you don’t like truffles, or anything truffle flavored, then this may not be for you. I myself am a fan of the truffle flavor and this did not fail to deliver. The baby portabellas are strategically placed to make your mouth feel like those are in fact truffles and not portabellas. Unfortunately, that truffle flavor was so intense that the aged Swiss kind of got lost. While chewing the burger I had to stop and super activate my taste buds to find it.
It could’ve been that the truffle mayo was overwhelming all other flavors, or maybe that it was blending perfectly with them in what can only be described as a truffle house party. Either way the one thing that brought this burger down a notch for me was its texture. With nothing crispy or firm to give it a good mouth feel, the burger was super soft and genuinely embodied a “melt in your mouth” sensation, which was something I was not accustomed to having with a burger.
Green Chile Burger: Each SmashBurger builds “Regional Burgers” for their respective state, doing lots of research to find special flavors that will resonate with each state’s tastes. Well, Tom Ryan has got my number because he made a Green Chile burger for Colorado. This burger is topped with grilled green chiles, pepper jack cheddar, and mayonnaise all on a chipotle bun. This thing was awesome. It had bold flavor and it truly captured the essence of green chiles. It was spicy, gooey and cheesy and it was the first burger that made me not mind the fact that I couldn’t taste the beef patty. The chipotle bun had jalapenos baked in and the green chiles were well grilled, but still crisp and firm. The texture still suffered, and it was almost too gooey, but I didn’t mind because this burger actually succeeded in its flavor quest.
The Green Chile burger would be the last burger we would sample from the menu. From that point on we were served the lighter, healthier option from SmashBurger’s menu.
Spicy Veggie Black Bean Burger: This patty was topped with pepper jack cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onion, spicy chipotle mayo, and was served on a multi grain bun. I’m not much of a veggie burger person and I’d have to say that this one didn’t really change my mind. The patty tasted like refried beans, and it had the same texture. The slop of black beans oozed out of the side of the bun with every bite. This thing was impossible to keep together and it was better suited for a tortilla or taco shell. Unless you have no other options due to dietary restrictions, I strongly recommend staying away from this one.
On the brighter side, SmashBurger offers two healthy option chicken sandwiches that were actually pretty good. Each sandwich offered lean white chicken meat that was sliced as thin as the smashed burger patties. In the case of these chicken sandwiches, this really worked out well. The chicken breasts were juicy and had just enough seasoning grilled on each side to be quite flavorful.
Classic Chicken: This sandwich, topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onion and mayo on a multigrain bun, was filling, tasty, and truly healthy feeling. Almost every burger on the menu is going to get your hands greasy, like really really greasy. I think I went through a napkin per burger during my visit. Finally this was a sandwich that left my hands clean and it felt fresh while digesting. For a healthy alternative, I recommend this chicken sandwich. It truly has a great balance of taste and healthiness, and unlike all the burgers, it had really good texture.
Avocado Club Chicken: The second of the chicken sandwiches attempts to assassinate the health value of the Classic Chicken by adding a whole bunch of fat on top. The Avocado Club Chicken is topped with fresh avocado, applewood-smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, ranch dressing and mayo on a multi-grain bun. Honestly I thought this sandwich had great flavor that still tasted fresh and healthy, but they overdid it with its sauces. The combination of mayo and ranch was just too much. One or the other would make this a much more appealing sandwich.
To top off my Smashtastic adventure we were offered a couple of malted Haagen-Dazs milkshakes. The first shake we sampled was the Oreo Milkshake. It was pretty much what you expect, though maybe a little soupy. Many of the Oreo chunks were too big to be sucked up the straw and the rest just tasted like melted ice cream. The Salted Caramel milkshake was quite the opposite— it tasted like ice cold salted caramel in a cup. It was malty deliciousness that perfectly captured the flavor it was going for and I would visit SmashBurger solely for this.
Tom Ryan has pretty lofty aspirations of making SmashBurger a premium burger shop. I wouldn’t consider these to be premium burgers, but he did manage to make some unique and tasty burger flavors. The Truffle Mushroom Swiss and the Colorado Grilled Green Chile burgers are definitely worth going back for, and my gripes about the other burgers aren’t anything a little customization can fix. You can mix and match any of the toppings, including a fried egg, and come up with your own burger. Heck you can even make a salad topped with hamburger, chicken or that black bean junk. If you want a burger that isn’t quite premium, but isn’t quite fast food, then I think you’ll find SmashBurger a great stop.