I was invited to a menu tasting at a new, soon-to-open Smashburger location. Although Smashburger has been around since 2007, it's new to the Bay Area and expanding rapidly. The new location, at Westgate in San Jose, will be number 241 in the chain. They claim to be the fastest growing food chain in history.
My Burger Bias
A word about me and hamburgers. One of the ways I keep my eating relatively healthy is that I have a rule: When it comes to splurge food like burgers, ice cream, and fries, I don't eat any that aren't great. I just don't want to waste the calories on mediocre food and frankly, there is nothing more mediocre than the average fast-food burger.
I bypass all the fast food chains except for an occasional In 'n Out. If I am going to have a burger, it will home made or from a local burger shop. My rule is generally that I won't have a burger at any place that's not allowed to cook it medium rare.
Would Smashburger pass muster?
It's a Smash
What's unique at Smashburger is now they prepare the burger. You know how you see amateur chefs smashing burgers on the grill? It always makes me cringe. Each pat squeezes the juices out, which is why we see the leap of flames. However, and this is important, there is one time you not only may smash, indeed you must: When the cold patty first touches a pan or griddle. Cold meat doesn't lose juices because it doesn't have any yet. And that initial smash maximizes griddle contact, giving the best possible sear. Searing is what brings flavor to a burger. And Smashburger gets it.
(They also said that the sear seals in juices. That's a common myth (Harold McGee proved that) but we'll let it pass since searing is beneficial even when you have the reason wrong.)
Smashburger's name comes from their smash, which they do using a special burger press.
Ten seconds on a 400 degree F griddle gives you — well, this:
And that's why I am willing to forgive the "seal in the juices" line.
The good news is that the patty has a strong, beefy flavor and their seasonings are well integrated. The bad news is that this is a thin patty and will never be medium rare. But it's juicy and the flavor is there. And the rest of the sandwich is well designed.
We sampled four burgers and three other sandwiches and several sides.
First up was the Classic Smash, with the usual accompaniments: lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, American cheese, and smash sauce on an egg button. It was a good, basic burger.
Next up was my favorite (and Christine told us, the one men most enjoy), the BBQ, bacon, cheddar, with bacon, cheddar, barbecue sauce, and haystack onions. This was an A+. What I most enjoyed about this burger is they didn't go overboard with anything. There were several strong flavors, none overdone. This is a meaty, delicious burger.
The chicken sandwiches also benefit from Smash technology. By using thin breast fillets, Smashburger achieves great flavor, because the seasoning is so well married to meat, and a good sear while keeping the meat moist. There are two: The classic was my second favorite sandwich. The avocado club is more popular because of the juicy ingredients: fresh, perfect avocado slices, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing.
There's a veggie burger. The burger patty tasted mainly of black beans but was good in the sandwich, made very juicy by all the ingredients. But be careful: This sandwich is spicy.
Every area has a regional sandwich and for us, it's the Bay Sandwich with portabella mushroom, arugula, and truffle mayo. I liked the gourmet flair but thought it a bit heavy with the truffle, which a lot of wanna-be gourmets tend to overdo. I would order this with a very light touch on the mayo.
Actually, I would order all the sandwiches "easy on the sauce" or ask for it on the side because I thought they were all overly juicy (if there can be such a thing).
The best is yet to come. First, let's talk sides.
Veggie fries: Carrots and green beans cooked perfectly. Bright, tender yet still crunchy. A bit too oily for me but otherwise perfect.
The fries are served with various dipping sauces but I'll skip those because the fries themseleves are so tasty. The truffle mayo, in particular, was too heavy on the truffle.
Who Orders Salad at a Burger Joint? Me, Next Time
Now, check out this salad. It's huge and the ingredients are fresh and gorgeous. I might show up here for this! Did I say it's huge?
Shake the Way it Used to Be
Finally, I left room for the shakes and am glad I did. They are soda-fountain quality. Made with Haagen Dasz ice cream, not too thick, and they come with the metal mixing cup, the old-fashioned way, so you have some more after you drain your glass. We tasted two: The PB&J, which was a subtle peanut (from ground Nutter Butter cookies) and strawberry jam; and the Oreo.
But I had a request: I asked for a malted. No one makes malteds anymore! What's up with that? Well, Smashburger does, and it was excellent. Chocolatey and rich, with just the right amount of malt.