Location reviewed: 15 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair NJ 07042 (near Maple Avenue, map); 973-433-7343; smashburger.com for locations
Cooking Method: Smashed
Short Order: This rapidly expanding fast casual chain offers excellent burgers using fresh smashed beef
Want Fries with That? Yes, decent in the fast-casual model.
Price: SmashBurger third-pound, $4.99; half-pound, $5.99
Notes: Open 10 a.m to 10 p.m. every day
Rapidly expanding chain SmashBurger, despite its trappings as a thoroughly modern fast-casual restaurant, is faithful to the origins of the hamburger. The smashing technique employed harks back to the original White Castle in the 1920s and to Steak 'n Shake in the 1930s.
Although White Castle has long abandoned the smashing method in favor of using frozen beef (it is obviously impossible to smash a frozen patty), and alternative cooking techniques—unsmashed griddle cooking and flame grilling—have gained wide acceptance with the rise of the fast food restaurant, smashing never went away. Smashing was geographically confined mostly to the Midwest (where chains like Steak 'n Shake and Culver's, not to mention legions of mom and pop shops, continue to use the technique) and to pockets of New Jersey, where the slider still lives on. But, with the ascension to the national stage of Five Guys, the smashing technique rose in the popular consciousness.
It is hard not draw parallels between Five Guys and SmashBurger. It's obvious that the former served as inspiration for the latter—both the cooking technique and the franchising model are identical. But there are differences: Five Guys is a fast food restaurant while SmashBurger is a fast-casual restaurant (where you order at a counter just as you would in a fast food joint but the food is delivered to your table by servers), and SmashBurger's menu is more expansive than your average fast food burger joint by offering salads, hot dogs, and chicken sandwiches in addition to burgers.
SmashBurger appears to looking to expand nationally just as Five Guys has done so successfully. While Five Guys' 450 locations in over 30 states dwarfs SmashBurger's presence in 12 states, SmashBurger claims to be the fastest growing franchise in history and plans on opening stores in four new states—California, South Dakota, Nevada, and Florida—in the next year.
I visited the most recently opened SmashBurger in Montclair, New Jersey, and came away with an admiration for both the ethos and execution of the franchise.
The Making of a SmashBurger
SmashBurger uses fresh, never frozen, pucks of 100% black Angus chuck, which are stored in a cooler underneath the griddle. The burgers come in two sizes—1/3-pound and 1/2-pound—and both use an 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio. To make a SmashBurger, a puck is deposited on the griddle surface that has been greased with a generous amount of butter. The patty is then smashed using a two handed press. The patty is held down for 10 seconds to start the searing process, then aggressively seasoned with a proprietary blend.
Two different sized presses are used for the 1/3 and 1/2 pound burgers. Despite the presses' irregular shape, the burgers come out almost perfectly round.
As the patty cooks, the fat melts and percolates through the small holes in the burger, sending wisps of smoke upwards. A spatula with an extremely sharp edge is used to literally scrape the smashed patty off the griddle's surface. Two hands are required to remove it. That is one smashed patty!
The resulting patty has an impressive sear.
A double thick slice of cheese is applied. Once the cheese melts, the patty is placed onto a toasted bun. The system is designed so that the bun and toppings reach the pass at the exact same time as the burger is whipped off the griddle.
The finished product is a highly laudable cheeseburger. The egg bun is a worthy substitution for a generic white bun. I may prefer the latter, but the egg bun has a texture and robustness that compliment the seared patty.
Did I say seared? That may be understating things a bit. The crust on the patty is truly impressive, adding a significant amount of crunch and snap to each bite. With such a thin patty and violent method of preparation the burgers couldn't come out anywhere close to the rare that I prefer, but, nevertheless, the beef is juicy and even betrayed a hint of pink on a couple of burgers I sampled. Although I generally prefer smaller burgers, I found the 1/2-pound burger to offer a better beef-to-bun ratio than the 1/3-pound patty since they use the same bun.
However, the beef—its juiciness and textural contributions aside—does not have the depth of flavor and overall beefiness to go it alone. I found a patty dressed with nothing but cheese to be rather bland and uninteresting. Dolled up Classic SmashBurger-style (lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup, onion, pickles, smash sauce) or All American SmashBurger style (ketchup, mustard, onion, pickle), the burger becomes far more compelling, reaching an unexpected level of synergy.
Variation on the Theme
Personally, I am a purist when it comes to burgers, finding the standard rabbit food exotic enough, but for those who want more there are a number of composed burgers on the menu in addition to the option of creating your own from a list of ingredients.
The mushroom Swiss burger topped with garlic sautéed mushrooms, Swiss cheese, and mayo.
The BBQ bacon and cheese topped with BBQ sauce, applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, and haystack fried onions.
The SmashBurger with bacon.
SmashBurger is smashingly good. The beef might not satisfy my purist beef-bun minimalism, but dressed up with cheese and toppings the burger achieves a level of synergy that escapes much of the competition. The freshness of product and the cooking technique are beyond reproach—the resulting burger is both comfortingly familiar and at the vanguard of the "fast casual" restaurant model.