Okay, I'll admit it. The first thing my middle-aged but still juvenile mind thought of when I heard about Smashburger was those old Batman cartoons with the sound effects written out.
However, I have come to respect the corporate vision and delicious offerings at Smashburger after a burger and tea tasting co-hosted by Smashburger and Honest Tea.
Comfort food and casual dining restaurants do great in recessions and Smashburger is no exception. Following in the footsteps of Five Guys and others, Smashburger now has 250 stores that cater to the correct assumption that there is a billion dollar market for people who want fast food-style food with better quality, better ingredients and some healthier offerings. Smashburger and Honest Tea created a corporate partnership to carry Honest Tea products in Smashburger stores nationwide. The two companies share a similar vision of better quality food that makes you feel good with a premium on organic and local providers and fair trade. For example, Smashburger uses only Grade A angus beef in its burgers. Honest tea, a division of coca cola, reached out to chains for distribution and made a connection with Smashburger. Several Honest Tea offerings are now fresh brewed in Smashburger stores.
What’s the angle?
Fresh ground meat is rolled into tennis ball-sized spheres each morning and stored in refrigerated drawers under the griddle. When needed, these weighty meatballs are lifted out with wax paper and placed on a 400 degree griddle and smashed using a specially-designed stainless steel mold to create just the right shape and size. The resulting flat hexagon (pictured) is then seasoned with Smashburger’s special blend of spices. When the juices begin to bubble through, the burger is flipped, allowed to cook to 155 degrees (medium to medium-well) and removed. The whole process takes less than 3 minutes.
Burger tasting and Honest Tea pairing.
Then the resulting naked burger is dressed for success by Smashburger’s designers. Here are some of the outfits I sampled.
1. The Original Classic Smashburger
A classic cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onion, cheddar cheese and Smashburger’s special sauce -- ketchup, lemon juice and mustard -- paired with Honest Tea original.
This is Smashburger’s most popular sandwich and really showcases the fresh meaty flavor of the burger along with its traditional toppings.
2. BBQ bacon cheddar burger -- paired with Honest Tea half-and-half
A classic cheeseburger, but topped with fried onions, barbeque sauce, applewood smoked bacon and cheddar cheese.
Interesting note: the barbeque sauce varies regionally, as do many of the offerings. Each major metropolitan market, for example, has its own signature burger. The Las Vegas Sin City burger, for instance, looks like this one but adds a fried egg on top. There is also an L.A. Burger that features Asian fusion ingredients, such as cilantro, a crispy won ton, and a fried egg on top. My hometown burger, the Brooklyn burger, has pastrami layered on top. There is even a Washington, DC burger, which was our next sampling.
3. The Capital Burger -- aged Swiss cheese, fresh arugula, tomato, applewood smoked bacon, brioche bun, grilled onions -- paired with partially sweetened green tea
These regional variations make for a unique experience. You can order your favorite local special even if it is not on the menu. Smashburger has a “secret menu” (like In-and-Out Burger) that allows you to order special items not listed. For example, you can get the fried egg or truffle mayo (see item 4 below) on top of any burger or mix and match menu items. You can also order specialty items like these tangy fried dill pickles with ranch dressing.
These pickles are among a bevy of sides that Smashburger offers. Not only will you find the de rigueur fries, but you will also find sweet potato fries, veggies frites that are unbuttered and flash fried to crisp and savory perfection.
4. Truffle mushroom Swiss burger -- baby grilled portobello, truffle mayo, Swiss cheese. This burger was rich, flavorful, complex, and decadent – paired with unsweetened lemon tea.
After all of this rich meatiness, Smashburger offered a slight reprieve and served us what, to me, was the most surprising offering of the night: a veggie burger.
5. Black bean burger -- chilula sauce, lettuce, tomato, red onion, chipotle spiced bun, pepper jack cheese, jalapeño, avocado, and chipotle mayo -- paired with honey green tea.
This burger I found to be the most interesting in that it exceeded my expectations more than any other item served. The black bean burger is made balled and smashed just like the angus beef offerings. It is built into a thoughtful, spicy and delicious sandwich that is complex and hearty. It does not taste like other veggie burgers I’ve tasted and held together better than any other. And, by the way, you may need one of these. This veggie burger packs a smashing kick.
In addition to the Honest Tea products, Smashburger carries Coca-Cola products and several beer offerings, including a selection of local craft beers with tasting profiles and pairing notes. I went for a Stella. Smashburger is also the only chain restaurant in the country to feature Haagen-Dazs shakes. I tried the PB and J and the salted caramel. Both were creamy and delicious.
6. Classic Chicken burger -- grilled breast sandwich pounded flat and layered with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle, and mayo on a multigrain wheat bun -- paired with pomegranate, blueberry and white grape juice.
The all-white meat chicken sandwiches are the only sandwiches that aren’t balled and smashed, but they are pounded flat and remain remarkably tender and juicy. The chicken sandwiches (and the veggie burgers) can be made in all varieties like the beef burgers, although there are some specialty offerings like the final sample of the night.
7. Chicken Avocado Club sandwich with avocado, lettuce, tomato, with ranch dressing and applewood smoked bacon on a multigrain bun --paired with “Heavenly Herbal Tulsi,” a lemon herbal tea infused with tulsi (basil leaf) and lightly sweetened with natural cane sugar. This tea was my favorite of the evening and had a great natural tea taste with nice depth and layers from the lemon, tulsi and other ingredients.
Smashburger is not just a burger joint. A number of salads are available too, showcasing the same fresh ingredients as their sandwiches. The chain reports that gluten-free buns will be available soon as well and that vegetarians can substitute a veggie burger for any burger on the menu . . . or invent their own.
All-in-all, I am writing this missive just after noon the day after my tasting and I am still full and happy. What can I say? These burgers are smashing!