Smashburger Ranks as the Newcomers’ Number 1

If you think a burger’s just a ground-beef patty slapped between bun halves, you probably don’t live in Minnesota. Here we take our burgers as seriously as Easterners do their pastrami and Southerners do their barbecue. We can probably blame this fixation on the brevity of our summers. When the weather turns warm enough to enjoy without extreme bundling, we do everything we possibly can outside, including eating and cooking. So as soon as the snow melts, and often before, we dust off our spatulas and fire up the grill.

Local burger connoisseurs have a collective understanding that each variable—meat type, grind, seasoning, and cooking method, for starters—clearly differentiates the beefy best from their ho-hum brethren. And many of us believe the greatest burger of all is the one you grill yourself. So if a restaurant plans to lure us from our backyards, parks, and patios, it had better be prepared to bring it.

And they have. Dining out around Minnesota, you’ll find burgers in nearly every possible variation: patties plain and fancy; made from ground chuck or steak, Angus or Kobe; grilled, griddled, or broiled. In some rural locales, they still serve the meat crumbled, like sauce-less Sloppy Joes. You’ll find burgers topped with peanut butter or miso/caramel-glazed bacon, and dozens of iterations on the burger’s single greatest innovation since its invention: the cheese-stuffed Jucy Lucy.

We may never know which Minneapolis eatery deserves credit—Matt’s Bar or the 5-8 Club both claim the honors—but the deliciously melty, protein-packed duo is a true Minnesota original. In fact, the gourmet Lucy from Vincent Restaurant, which is stuffed with braised short-rib meat and smoked Gouda, was chosen to represent Minnesota in Food Network Magazine‘s recent feature on the country’s 50 best burgers. Compared to Montana’s cheeseburger deluxe (snooze!) or Mississippi’s Slugburgers (stretched with pork and soybean fillers?), it seems the burger fairies have spoiled us rotten.

Despite the already competitive market, the Twin Cities have recently experienced a veritable burger boom, with three chains (Sonic, Five Guys, and Smashburger) and two independents (Burger Jones and American Burger Bar) attracting the most attention. And we’ve been judging them by a strict rubric: A great burger starts with never-frozen meat, preferably shaped by hand, not machine. The patty should have robust flavor, tender texture, and a touch of crispy char. And it’s always served on a fresh-baked bun—oh, and a side of excellent fries or a creamy milkshake doesn’t hurt, either. The newcomers had their work cut out for them.

1960 Suburban Ave., St. Paul (among others)

The 50-year-old, Oklahoma-based fast-food company Sonic opened its first Minnesota outpost last summer and quickly swelled its local ranks to five (a sixth franchise is scheduled to open in a few weeks). But while Sonic may be the country’s largest drive-in chain, its burgers really aren’t worth the bother. The basic Sonic Burger seems largely indistinguishable from those served at McDonald’s—even with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on top, the patty still tasted like soggy cardboard. I also tried a Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster, but even two slices of Texas toast couldn’t make up for the boring patty. Sure, it’s a novelty to have your food delivered by a guy on rollerblades, but I’ve never understood the appeal of eating in a stationary car. (First off, the spilling. Second, if you’re looking for privacy, take your food home.) Sonic’s real draw is its drinks—an amazing array of slushes, malts, and icy-creamy combos that marry the two, including the drinkable creamsicle, Orange CreamSlush. Now you know why Sonic trademarked the phrase “Your Ultimate Drink Stop,” not “Your Ultimate Burger Stop.”

3871 Gallagher Dr., Edina

This Virginia-based chain founded by Janie and Jerry Murrell and their four sons (hence the name, Five Guys) keeps things simple with its short, focused menu and no-frills ambiance. Its first Minnesota franchise feels a bit low-brow for its Edina commercial park digs, just off France Avenue near 72nd Street. Without its red-and-white light fixtures and tile walls, it might almost be mistaken for a warehouse. The ordering line is divided from the dining area by a wall of 50-pound potato sacks and big boxes of peanuts (diners are encouraged to help themselves and throw the shells on the floor). When I visited Five Guys, a Minnetonka youth baseball team took over several tables, and one of the dads tossed peanuts to a kid who caught them in his mouth, trained seal-style. Sure, the atmosphere was a bit circus-like, but I didn’t mind. I’d just overheard another customer say she thought the burgers were better than those at the West Coast burger champ, In-N-Out. Could Five Guys really top a Double-Double, Animal-Style?

At Five Guys, two patties come standard on a “regular” burger (“small” indicates just one, though nothing on the menu seems to suggest this). The cooks stand over the grill and flip the burgers, flattening them with a tool that looks like a finishing trowel. The meat stays moist and has a straightforward, beefy flavor, which is unfortunately overshadowed by a mediocre, smooshy bun. Another downside: Five Guys only offers American cheese, a pet peeve of mine. (To me, the salty, plastic stuff places a distant third even to its ultra-processed counterparts, Velveeta and Cheez Whiz.) But Five Guys’ skin-on fries are superb and abundant—a small order could easily satisfy four.

Accolades from various publications cover the walls, and I was a little surprised they didn’t have the Obamas’ endorsement, as the couple has been known to stop in for a cheeseburger. One of the signs touted the fact that Five Guys has swept the Washingtonian‘s Best Burger category every year since 1999. I suppose this was intended to impress me, but my reaction was the opposite: I pitied D.C.-dwellers for not having something better.

354 Wabasha St., Saint Paul

On the opposite end of the spectrum, American Burger Bar feels almost too classy a place in which to eat with your hands. Located in the longtime home of Gallivan’s in downtown St. Paul, which was most recently Matty B’s, American Burger Bar is decked out with wood paneling, fireplaces, wide retro couches, and black-and-white photos. It’s a more upscale sibling of the owners’ American Burger Emporium in Woodbury, and its Rat Pack vibe is marred only by all the televisions on the dining room walls.

American Burger Bar takes a chef-driven approach, and Rino Baglio, the former head of Pazzaluna’s kitchen, turns out burgers that sound as luxurious as their surrounds. One called the Experience, for example, consists of Kobe beef layered with foie gras and black truffle. The Surf and Turf is topped with grilled crab claws. But some of the ideas work better in theory than in practice. Surf and Turf is an awkward affair—the behemoth burger is crisscrossed with asparagus spears and stabbed with two crab pincers. (The burger also arrived topped with shrimp, which the menu didn’t mention, and without the baby corn it had promised.) The ingredients were interesting, but their flavors didn’t create as much synergy with the meat as I might have hoped. The Kobe burger matched better with its companions—Parmesan cheese, braised short-rib meat, fried onions, and a red-wine sauce. I couldn’t pick out individual foie gras or truffle flavors, as both seemed to have melded right into the patty, but its overall taste was rich and bold.

For the budget-conscious, American Burger Bar has burger-fry combos for less than $10, but a few of the gourmet selections cost nearly $20—a price approaching that of a fine-dining entrée. Honestly, it seemed a little too much for a place where our meal was interrupted by a staff member who started vacuuming and shutting off the lights at around 8:30 p.m., while we were still finishing up. But perhaps my opinion will improve once I get the chance to try Baglio’s brand-new coffee-crusted lamb burger.

3200 W. Lake St., Minneapolis

The new burger concept from Parasole—the restaurateurs behind Manny’s, Salut, and Chino Latino, among others—has been generating the most buzz of the bunch, luring curious diners to endure two-hour waits, as the place doesn’t take reservations. Burger Jones anchors the east end of the Calhoun Commons shopping mall and has made the former Applebee’s space more modern and appealing, with its black-and-orange color scheme and sleek-looking bar. Parasole has a reputation for brash, cheeky humor and bold decor, but except for a Chuck Close-style image of a burger-eating man on the wall—depicting a rather unappetizing thicket of arm hair—the restaurateur’s signature kitsch seems somewhat toned down.

The Burger Jones team visited the country’s best burger joints before deciding on their meat’s signature mix—a blend of chuck, brisket, and hanger steak that comes out a little chewy, with a robust, beefy flavor. The buns resemble a dense, eggy challah, sprinkled with sesame seeds on top. And while the menu lists all the usual suspects, such as bacon-cheddar and mushroom-Swiss, someone in your group will inevitably order the White Trash Burger. One of my friends insisted on requesting it without the lettuce and tomato, and I wondered aloud, “What kind of person asks the kitchen to hold the lettuce and tomato?” before realizing the obvious answer. The fried cheese-curd topping is a great idea (it’s also smothered with Velveeta, natch), but the cornmeal crust on the chicken-fried bacon masked the pork’s flavor and made it taste more like oily popcorn.

Burger Jones also offers a juicy bison burger, a turkey burger, and puck-shaped hot dogs that do a marginally better job of carrying their toppings than tube-shaped ones. (The kitchen won’t disclose where the burger dogs come from or how they got that way, which I find somewhat mysterious.) Jones’s veggie burger is first-rate: a house-made mixture of beans, carrots, cheese, and cashews with a nicely griddled crust. The skinny fries are good, but the poutine I still can’t rally behind—we loved the creamy cheese curds and bacon bits, but the beef gravy was intolerably salty.

While Chino’s singles crowd and Manny’s business types certainly cross over with the Burger Jones clientele, the new restaurant is Parasole’s first serious foray into the family-dining market. I realized this as I heard a noise that sounded like a clap of thunder followed by the churning of a rock-filled washing machine—turns out it was created by a neighboring toddler kicking his plastic booster chair. Compared even to Parasole’s easygoing Good Earth and Muffuletta restaurants, the Burger Jones concept seems tailor-made for parents still hip enough to follow trends but too budget-crunched to hire a sitter or blow a lot of cash on dinner.

While Burger Jones welcomes kids, there are also several intriguing alcoholic concoctions for adults. The best one I tried was the Hillbilly Hooch, made with sweet-tea vodka, lemonade, and a sprig of fresh mint. The drink is served in a mason jar so large that you almost need to grip it two-handed, and it tastes more like an Arnie Palmer than alcohol, so beware. Jones also offers a short list of specialty martinis, and we chose the more mature-sounding Sunburst in lieu of the Giggle Juice or the Wet Dream. The Sunburst was a pink-hued mix of Prairie Organic Vodka, Limoncello, pineapple juice, and bitters, jazzed up with raspberry “caviar,” which came out as solid as tapioca pearls instead of the liquid-filled gel-bubbles we’d expected. (The place is probably too high-volume to mess with molecular gastronomy. Upon opening, Parasole anticipated feeding 800 people on busy nights, and they’ve already been serving close to 1,300.) Jones makes hard milkshakes strong enough to get you schnockered—one with Maker’s Mark, Nilla wafers, peaches, and locally made Liberty Frozen Custard was a real boozy doozy. But my favorite sweet treat was the salty caramel malt, a sweet-savory, creamy, dulce-de-leche-drenched dream that might just be the best malt I’ve ever had.

Overall, the experience was good but not mind-blowing. The burgers aren’t outrageously priced (they top out at $9.99), but as soon as you throw in a few drinks and sides, it’s easy to run up a larger-than-expected tab. I’d wait 15 minutes to eat at Burger Jones, but definitely not two hours.

3900 Silver Lake Rd., St. Anthony

Not only does the name of this small, Colorado-based chain sound silly, it also seems off-base. Doesn’t smashing meat squish out its juices and dry the patty out? Perhaps because the squishing happens while the meat’s still raw—the cooks start with a ball of ground beef and smash it on the griddle on contact—that doesn’t seem to be a problem, and the flattening creates more surface area for a delicious Maillard-reaction crust.

Minnesota’s first Smashburger is in suburban St. Anthony, and a Golden Valley location is scheduled to open by the end of the month. The burger joint is clearly a fast-food chain, but one that strives to be just a notch nicer, analogous to McDonald’s in the same way Chipotle relates to Taco Bell. The walls have some cheesy signage—bold bursts proclaim “smash” and “sizzle”—but the overall look is slick and contemporary, with funky light fixtures and spacious booths covered with chic upholstery. (Watching kids mush French fries into the fabric, you realize why most fast-food places go with wipeable surfaces.)

My friends ordered their Smashburgers “Classic” and “Twin Cities”-style, while I channeled Dagwood and piled mine so high with add-ons that I had to eat it with a knife and fork. I requested the standard lettuce, tomato, pickles, and two types of onions, plus grilled mushrooms, applewood smoked bacon, sharp cheddar, a fried egg, and sliced jalapeños. “Are you sure you want all that?” the woman at the counter asked. I certainly did: The combination was a straight-up, wholesale burger blowout, but even with the toppings stripped, Smashburger had the basics covered. The meat was juicy and charred, and greasy in a good way. The eggy bun was delectable enough to stand on its own. I was so busy eating I hardly noticed the condiment glop that plopped onto the table before an enthusiastic server swooped in with additional napkins.

Smashburger’s extras keep pace with its burgers: The fries are sprinkled with rosemary and garlic, the malts are made with Haagen-Dazs, and there are even sides of fried green beans, carrots, and asparagus. Sure, the veggies were glistening with grease, but they tasted great and had the vague suggestion of healthfulness. Both in terms of flavor and bang for the buck, Smashburger ranks as the newcomers’ number one.

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