Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY
8:08 a.m. EDT March 26, 2015
The scene: It’s hard to believe the first Smashburger only opened in Denver in 2007, given the brand’s explosive growth – there are now more than 300 locations in 32 states and five countries. Smashburger is part of the new wave of slightly elevated fast food burger places. It follows in the footsteps of Five Guys but is closer in practice to Bobby’s Burger Palace and BurgerFi, and a notch below Umami Burger’s full waiter service (all have been profiled in this column). While the exterior and logo lettering of the often strip mall- or mall-based stores looks remarkably like that of video retailer GameStop, the inside is a bit warmer, though still more fast food than fast casual. You order at the counter – from unerringly friendly staffers – and the cooked-to-order food is delivered to your table, attractively and usually in wire baskets. There are comfortable booths that are more substantial than McDonald’s-style seating, and salt, pepper, napkins and accoutrement on the table, like in an actual restaurant.
But it is not the building or interior that sets Smashburger apart: it is the ingredients, menu and an overall vibe that is more neighborhood and welcoming than the vast majority of chain competitors. At one location I watched a couple with a dog stand outside. After one came in and ordered to go, staffers delivered the food to them outside, then spent time petting their dog and talking to them. Each location has a regional specialty burger that’s not on the menu elsewhere, a nice touch that gives any particular Smashburger more of an independent feel.
The food: Made to order with quality ingredients is the hallmark here – that and the namesake “smashing.” The chain uses only 100% Certified Angus Beef, a registered beef brand which requires 10 extra tests beyond normal USDA grading and is consistently higher quality than USDA Choice – which in turn is better than the ground meat most fast food chains use. Additionally, frozen meat is verboten, so each burger starts with a ball of fresh ground beef that is put on a well-buttered griddle and then pressed (or smashed) with a metal plate until it begins to form a seared crust. According to SeriousEats.com, smashing is a long-established Midwestern burger cooking tradition still used at Steak ‘n Shake and Culver’s (and once used but abandoned by White Castle). The result is closer to home-cooked, uneven edges and all, than the frozen, perfectly round, cookie-cutter patties many fast food chains serve.
All that being said, I found the burgers good but not great. While you can taste the bit of crust and seasoning from the smashing, which is nice, it was a tad on the dry side, not as juicy as say, Five Guys. The egg bun is definitely better than average, and the veggie toppings fresher than most competitors, so the burgers get better the more stuff you put on them. The good news is that there is no shortage of toppings, with far more varied options than you’d find at any competitor in this niche. The Classic Smash has Smash Sauce, ketchup, lettuce, onion, tomatoes, pickles and American cheese, and it just takes off from there. Offerings include haystack onions, guacamole, Buffalo hot sauce, baby spinach, sautéed mushrooms, cheddar, bleu cheese, pepper jack and goat cheese, to name a few. One of the most popular additions is fresh sliced avocados, for burgers, salads and chicken sandwiches. And yes, they have entrée salads too.
Too many pseudo “burgers” are made with bland boneless white meat chicken, but at Smashburger, the grilled (there’s also a fried) chicken version excels. Cut very thin, the meat was juicy, tender and tasted like, well, chicken. It’s served on a more wholesome multi-grain bun and available in many similar varieties to the burgers, with avocado club and Buffalo versions. Shakes are simple, devoid of the over-complication that is becoming the norm in the upscale burger world, and very good. Made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream, they are better than pretty much any other chain in this category – including vaunted Shake Shack. The signature Smash Fries are supposed to be tossed in rosemary, olive oil and garlic, which sounds great, but I guess I was expecting to see actual rosemary needles or chopped garlic, but it is more of a seasoning, and not very seasoned at that. The sweet potato fries are much better, hot, fresh, crispy and just the winning choice here. As with the burgers, side options are also broad, and include veggie fries, fried pickles, haystack onions (sort of a cross between onion rings and strings) and Buffalo-style fries.
The menu is a bit uneven in terms of flavor, but the ingredients are appreciably better and less processed across the board. The great thing about Smashburger is that it has something for everyone, from burger junkies to vegetarians to kids, with tons of options and a sense that they care. It easily outperforms the big three national burger chains no matter what you are hankering for.