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Smashburger's first Boston outpost is in the western burb of Natick, in the Sherwood Plaza shopping center across the street from the Natick Mall. It's named for the smashing technique that presses the thin burger patty against a very hot griddle to maximize both crusting and flavor.
This national chain started in 2007 in Denver, and has recently expanded to the east coast as rival burger corporations stake their claims in the fast casual turf. This recently carved niche is a step up from fast food, with more comfortable seating, more adult fare and inclusion of adult beverages, but you order over the counter and the bill tends to be fairly reasonable by sit-down restaurant standards.
You take a number sign to your table, and when the order is ready, a staff member will bring it to you. I like that they ask if there's anything you need at that time and follow up throughout the meal. As I was getting up from my seat to get some hot sauce, a staff member swooped in and offered to get it for me. If anything, the eager beavers are a little too eager, but it's still early and the staffing is unusually high during the training phase.
The menu features beef burgers, chicken and veggie burgers, shakes made with Häagen-Dazs, salads and a few different types of fried sides.
There are a few different choices, but the one offered as standard with the preconfigured burger creations is the egg bun that's more briochy than 90% of the buns out there billed as brioche. It's faintly sweet but not overpowering, and it has the airy consistency that neither interferes with the beef (the toppings kinda do, but more on that later) nor has you confusing it with whitebread. It gets a light grilling after a not-so-light buttering that's not so bad flavorwise. Overall, I like this bun—for size, taste and texture.
At Smashburger the certified Angus beef is fresh, not frozen, and they don't settle for mere grass fed. It's "pasture fed, corn finished" beef, according to founder, partner and Chief Concept Officer Tom Ryan, who discussed Smashburger via phone interview. I declined an invitation to the blogger dog and pony show (and free food bonanza) at the restaurant, but jumped at the chance to talk shop—but only after I had a chance to try the burgers a couple times on my own dime.
The beef is 100% chuck with an 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio. Patty sizes are 4.5 ounces for the standard "Smash" and 6.5 ounces for the larger "Big Smash." Curiously, there's no double patty option, where the smashing technique would offer more of the crusty surface area that's the hallmark of this burger.
Ryan explained that the grinding step does not use the typical extrusion method (think Play-Doh Fun Factory squeezing out meat noodles). Instead, perpendicular knives chop the meat into gentle chunks "with a soft texture that holds the fat better."
The burger starts as a round meatball plucked from a bag and placed on a hot flat top "painted with butter." With a special tool and the body weight of the cook it's seared into the griddle to form a shell—"allowing the juices to flow upward" and the patty to "baste in its own juices," according to Ryan.
The patty gets seasoned on both sides during cooking, which is no different from McDonald's, but there are some key distinctions: it's much heavier, much coarser and beyond the familiar salt and pepper, granulated garlic is included, adding a more adult flavor.
But enough of the technical (and marketing) mumbo jumbo; allow me to pontificate.
The smashing technique leaves the cooked patty with an attractive irregular shape with numerous bumps, nooks, crannies, varying degrees of crusting and a diameter that exceeds the bun diameter (so rare these days). The smashing and crusting over five visits has been uneven—a little disappointing on their worst days and very enjoyable on their best days. Much more reliable is the seasoning, which can be tasted in the beef and even seen additionally amidst the toppings. It's not overtly garlicky, but the inclusion of garlic makes the seasonings pop. Also reliable: the softness of the grind (or chop, if you prefer) that in 2014 may not be unique but that gentleness of the mouthfeel is still very noticeable and enjoyable. Juiciness has been there but not to any degree I'd call exceptional. Flavor is mostly there, relying more on the smashing and seasoning than anything inherent in the beef. The goal, according to Ryan, is to have "a great tasting burger you can taste in every bite." Substitute 'good' for 'great' and I think they're at least in the ballpark.
Of bun, patty and topping, it's this last category that's the weakest link, but it varies. Let's go burger by burger.
Classic Smash: For my first bite of Smashburger, I went with this one, a basic entry-level model. It arrived open faced on a paper-lined metal tray, outfitted with just-barely-melted American cheese, crisp greenleaf lettuce, reasonably fresh tomato, thin sliced raw onion and a "sauce" consisting of not-very-blended ketchup, mustard, relish and lemon juice. I found the totality a but much for the burger, especially since on this try I went with the smaller sized patty. The wet condiments alone were about twice as much as what was needed and a little juvenile (well, if McDonald's is juvenile) in flavor with the mustard and ketchup jockeying for attention. But the rest mostly got the job done, even if in unspectacular fashion.
Bacon Cheeseburger: Simpler is better. On this burger the bacon wasn't as plentiful as on subsequent tries, but it was very good. Though not incredibly thick, it was noticeably thicker than the usual fast food or fast casual add-on. But what set it apart was the intensely porky flavor with the cure racing through it. After doming and quickly photographing the sandwich, I wound up just eating the bacon on its own. Cheese was also thick and didn't quite get the melt it deserved.
Local: In the "New Englander," the toppings take on a distinct New England spin by riding the back of a familiar locally grown ingredient: cranberries. The full trio includes cranberry sauce, grilled onions and cranberry Stilton. The bumpy style cranberry sauce didn't get an even spread; neither did the just-as-bumpy crumbles of cheese that barely made themselves known. The grilled onions were generous of quantity but stingy of grill time—they barely got a sweat.
Create Your Own: This is the option I've been gravitating toward, as it lets me combine beef, bacon, cheddar and grilled onions. The onions are what they are—barely grilled—and the cheese is what it is—small compared to the patty and barely melted—but the porky bacon has continued to impress with its crispy-and-still-bendably-chewy quality. I also like the chipotle ranch sauce here instead of the usual condiments.
The Fries (and such)
Fries: Skins showed promise, but these wound up being a McDonald's-like thinnish version out of the freezer—starchier but with less potatoey taste and less seasoning. Below average for sure.
Smash Fries: This more sophisticated style of fry has rosemary that you can smell long before it arrives. The strong herbality and liberal (somewhat overdone) coating of olive oil distinguishes these from the regular fries in every possible way. Anachronistic but very good.
Haystack Onions: Tried twice, the onion rings and strings were crispy but also very greasy. Smaller, thinner and much less rigid than most onion rings, they were a little too fall-apart to dip into the chipotle ranch sauce with effectiveness.
Veggie Frites: For the healthy diner, think crudités (mostly carrot; green beans instead of celery) with a flash fry to add a hint of crunch while keeping them mostly raw. Okay, maybe a little too greasy for healthy dining.
At this location, proper draining techniques need to be demonstrated.
With minimal searching effort (especially if you just check the links below), you can view YouTube videos of Tom Ryan demonstrating the Smashburger cooking methodologies and tools. No matter which video you choose, there's a good chance you'll be listening in English to someone who's speaking in Marketing, but it's still interesting stuff.
Ryan's many gigs prior to Smashburger included similar positions at Pizza Hut (where he developed the stuffed crust concept) and McDonald's (McGriddles, among others). So although Smashburger's menu offerings are gimmick-free, don't rule out a few innovations down the road.
Staffing is high—to the point where there are more employees than customers at times. That's a good thing if training is taking place, customers are being addressed and order speed, accuracy and quality are all where they should be. It's not always a coordinated attack. Waiting in line for three minutes isn't the end of the world, but when you're #2 in line and there are more than a half dozen employees behind the counter and only one of them is waiting on people, it can get a little frustrating. But there's no slacking or ill intent; they're an enthusiastic, friendly bunch who swear by the product and hope you do too. I'll take that kind of attitude any day.
The Bottom Line
There's a lot to like at Smashburger and a lot that could use some improvement. As with many burger chains, Smashburger has its diehard fans who love it and its detractors who hate it. Me? I like it a little but really like what it can be if this one gets its rhythm.
YouTube: Tom Ryan Makes a Smashburger with George Motz
YouTube: Smashburger Interview with Tom Ryan
Maillard Reaction Explained
Yelp reviews of Smashburger
Urbanspoon reviews of Smashburger
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