Dining: Smashing Success

Things just got tasty at 123rd and L streets
By: Jim Delmont; Omaha City Weekly

123rd and L streets
(L Street Marketplace)
Open Seven Days

There is nothing like a good hamburger. Invariably, when a higher end restaurant has a hamburger on the menu, I celebrate it. Now we have a middling spot – higher than a Burger King but not quite a Red Robin – that specializes in hamburgers: the new Smashbuger, first here of a chain out of Denver, offers 80/20 Angus chuck burgers, plus salads, hot dogs, shakes, malts, root beer floats and even beer and wine.

The new Smashbuger is definitely a fast food outlet (the burger is smashed and seared in two and a half to three and a half minutes, depending on size), but the place doesn’t look like one. Roomy booths have fabric material, as do long banquettes that can seat larger parties. The interior is mod and clean – you put in your order, get a number, and your food is brought to your booth/table by a server – but no table tipping (though there is a tip bowl in the front of the restaurant). Smashburgers (there are 33 of them now, 45 by year’s end, with a goal of 500) are not quite cookie cutter in design – they seat 60-70 on average.

“We want Smashburger to be every city’s favorite burger place,” said Iowa native Scott Crane, president of the organization. “We have a unique process to get the meat texture we want. Only two vendors in the U.S. provide a bull chopper free fall grinder such as we use – which makes for a loose pillow pack of ground beef. When the pillow is opened, the beef is balled lightly, then laid down on a 450-degree flat grill. Irregularly shaped tools smash the burger in 10 seconds, which carmelizes the fat and sears it to the burger, making for a faster cooking time. This ‘flat sear’ is called ’meat candy.’”

Well, the results tell the tale: available in either a third of a pound or half a pound, the Smashburger is delicious – big, with a pink center, and offering a deep, beefy flavor – mushrooms add to the earthiness of the Husker version. The burgers come with American or Swiss cheese, but you can mix and match, adding blue cheese, cheddar or Pepper Jack. Large tomato slices, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, onions and pickles may be added, along with a spice mix in the meat and “smash sauce,” A-1 sauce, BBQ sauce or mayo, depending on order. There are six basic burgers, but you can mess around with ingredients (the Spicy Baja burger comes with guacamole, the BBQ burger with bacon). Every state has a burger of its own – the Husker Burger here has Swiss cheese, steak sauce and onions.

With the burgers come unique fries, a No. 1-selling item in Smashburger markets. The fries, trans-fat free, are tossed in rosemary, garlic and olive oil, which gives them an interesting extra dimension of flavor – they are thin and crisp and come with dipping sauces – ranch or “Texas petal,” a brightly flavored, orange-yellow sauce made with sour cream, cayenne, horseradish – spicy but not too hot. The same dipping sauces serve the “haystack onions,” thin, crisp, squiggly, deep-fried onion strings that are simultaneously sweet and salty. “Veggie fries” are another side-order treat – flash-fried, al dente asparagus spears, carrot sticks and green beans – really tasty.

Smashburger has 100 percent all beef- Hebrew national hot dogs, too, split-seared on the grill, and a 5-oz. smashed-thin chicken breast sandwich, plus three entrée salads and a thick, porridge-like chili that is mildly spicy.

The difference between the chocolate shake and the chocolate malt is palatable. A food chemist with a PhD in food flavor and fragrance chemistry helped develop the malt powder and syrups that make the difference (he also originated stuffed pizza, Crane said).

You can also get a root beer float in a frosted mug, bottled beer ($2.99) or wine by the glass ($3.99). The burgers, depending on size, are $5 to $7 and the chicken sandwich is $5.99. Sides are inexpensive and salads – big ones – are $6.99.The big hot dogs are $3.99 or $3.49. In other words, this is an ideal family spot in terms of price, value and quality.

Crane, from Denison, Iowa, began working in restaurants at age 12, was a manager by age 20 and by 23 was overseeing 90 spots and served as regional vice president. Two-thirds of the existing Smashburgers are corporate, but the owners of the one-third that are franchises have to meet very high standards in terms of investment funds and restaurant experience. In every state, Smashburger has tie-ins with local charities – in Nebraska with TeamMates, founded by Tom Osborne and his wife.

Omaha would seem an ideal location for such an enterprise.