Counter Culture: Smashburger’s burgers really are a smash

by: Allen Pierleoni, The Sacramento Bee

After mostly demolishing four varieties of half-pound burgers, two kinds of fries and onion strings, I asked my lunch pal if Smashburger had earned his vote.

“Oh, yeah, I’d get off a plane (from Washington, D.C.) and come right here,” said Dan Lungren. Which is just what he’d done on that particular Saturday.

Lungren is the Republican congressman who represents the 3rd District, which includes most of suburban Sacramento, the foothills and part of the Sierra all the way to the Nevada border. He’s also a guy with a lot of burger and ice cream experience, even dubbing one room of his house “the Ice Cream Parlor.” It’s decorated with vintage signage and a jukebox loaded with “rock ‘n’ roll from the ’50s and ’60s.” There, he whips up milkshakes and banana splits for guests.

“People will tell you they remember the ice cream better than any dinners,” he said.

Smashburger maintains 66 stores in 14 states – and derives its name from a unique cooking method. We were invited into the kitchen for a firsthand look.

First, a “meatball” of fresh Angus ground beef is placed on a buttered grill. Then a cook centers the metal “smasher” on top of it and presses down really hard, getting his upper-body strength into the motion. The smasher (a metal template) flattens the meat into an irregularly shaped patty, which is seared for 10 seconds, then flipped and cooked through.

A few weeks earlier, I was on a conference call with Tom Ryan, founder of the chain. He holds a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry from Michigan State University.

“When you smash the meat, it sets up a crust on the bottom and makes the juices percolate up and not out,” he explained.

In the restaurant industry, Smashburger is categorized as “fast-casual,” which means you order at a counter, and your freshly cooked food is delivered to your table. Along with the Habit and Counter burger chains, Smashburger is scrambling to keep up with what the trade journal Nation’s Restaurant News calls “the premium-burger craze.”

“Our goal in Sacramento is to open five to 10 (units) in the next three to five years,” Ryan said. A Folsom store opened Wednesday, and a Roseville outlet is planned for the fall.

Dan and I liked the juicy burgers a lot ($3.99-$6.99).

“You can really taste the meat,” he said.

The butter-toasted artisanal egg rolls held up well to mounds of toppings that included cheeses, sauces, excellent pickle chips, fresh produce and bacon (in need of crisping). Dan gave a thumbs-up to the root beer float, but I found the Häagen-Dazs chocolate shake a bit runny.

Spooning the last of his float, Dan touched on “burger days” past: “Growing up in Long Beach, I cooked burgers at Woody’s Goodies (now the Kayak Shack). (In Sacramento) we used to go to Jim-Denny’s downtown, when the two women owned it. If you complained about something, they’d ask you to leave. And when I was attorney general (1991-99), we kept a list of all the In-N-Outs.”

Looking across busy Sunrise Boulevard at a Marie Callender’s restaurant, he recalled Long Beach in the late 1950s.

“Before Easter weekend, our mom would drop off one or two of us kids at Marie Callender’s pie shop, and we’d stand in line. Marie would be sitting near the front door. The caricature (used in the products’ logo) looks like her.”

On the way out, I asked Dan what his favorite burger had been.

“The All-American,” he said. “What else?”