To us, it sounds kinda like an old school Nintendo game predicated on makin’ and slingin’ some delicious ground-beef-based sandwiches.
Smashburger is actually a highly successful Denver-based chain that’s decided to play in the emerging “big leagues of burgers” that the DMV has become, opening their first venue in a small strip mall just off Route 50 in Fairfax. Owner Tom Ryan, who was kind enough to spend some time with us and some of the other burger-loving media around the DMV, has grand plans to open anywhere from 15 to 20 more branches in the area, with a Dupont Circle location due up very soon. If it were up to us, we’d rename Dupont Circle as “the burger district,” given the plethora of phenomenal burger venues already up and successfully running, but that’s a column for another day.
Smashburger does serve what looks to be a really tasty burger (much more on this in a second), but a quick look of the menu also reveals some chicken and salad options for those that may have taken a vow of bovine celibacy or are simply looking for a little non-beef variety.
Cooking the patties
How does this burger go from beef to smash to burger to mouth? Great question. We learned that the (not-yet-smashed) burger starts with fresh, certified angus beef being delivered in separate 10-pound packs daily to the venue.
Then, the beef is “bowl-chopped,” and made into meatballs to be used for the day. Ryan explained that in the bowl-chopped method, the meat is never squeezed through anything (as with the conventional method for producing ground beef), thus allowing for more juices to stay in the meat. Anything that creates a union of “beef” and “more juicy” is a friend to us, so far be it from us to question this methodology.
When a customer places an order, the bowl-chopped meat ball is placed on a 400-degree grill, along with a piece of paper is placed over top. Then, the custom-made metal “burger smasher” is used to fast-cook the meat, such that you see the patty cooking in its own juices just seconds after the burger smasher is removed from the equation.
Yes, we realize it seems weird, but when you ponder this further, it’s a rather ingenious method. The smashing technique not only creates a looser and more tender texture for the burger patty itself, but it helps “caramelize” the crust of the burger as the meat is left to cook in its own juices.
The smasher also helps form a “dome” that locks in the juices of the beef into the burger -- Ryan mentioned the smasher going "metal to metal" with the surface of the grill -- ensuring that the always-cooked-medium-well burgers remain extra juicy. Once this mystical smasher is removed, the newly-smashed patty is very generously seasoned (with a house blend of salt, pepper, garlic, and other secret ingredients) and allowed to cook just a little further until the juices start bubbling up.
When the burger is flipped, you can see the even sear on the bottom of the patty, which gives the smashburger a lot of its flavor. Ryan explained that with the smashing technique, a burger patty can be ready in 3 minutes where a traditional burger would take 8 minutes. With the thinner and loosely-packed patties, his logic was that the meat is cooked more evenly, preventing the often-present problem of a burger that’s fully cooked on the inside and badly overcooked on the outside.
There were seven types burgers one could order - we were lucky enough to sample three: a “classic” (a very well seasoned burger), the “Spicy Baja” (served with raw jalapenos that deliver a swift and legitimate kick to the face of spiciness), and the locally-themed “Capital Burger,” consisting of caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, baby arugula, apple wood smoked bacon, tomatoes and mayo, served on a brioche bun.
In our “exclusive preview”, we were lucky enough to enjoy the experience of getting the burgers literally right off the grill. Not only did we get to see how the burgers were made, but we got to taste them literally seconds after they were finished cooking.
Indeed, the smashing process cooked out burgers fast without drying them out whatsoever. Sure, you didn’t have the juices dripping down your arm in the manner of a ½ pound monster burger at a nice steakhouse, but this was also far from a vulcanized hockey-puck-esque offering. It was very juicy and very flavorful.
All the ingredients placed on the burgers -- lettuce, tomatoes, sweet red onions -- were fresh and of high quality too.
The Rest Of The Food
The smashing is not just reserved for the burger - there’s a slew of chicken sandwiches to choose from for the non-beefatarian. The buffalo chicken sandwich offers a chicken breast that’s pounded thin first before being breaded and fried, with breading that’s closer to a chicken-fried steak breading. It was light, devoid of the overwhelming grease associated with your typical buffalo chicken sandwich, coming together for a really good sandwich.
Like most fast casual burger places, you pay a bit extra for the fries: $1.99 for regular and $2.49 for it’s sweet potato “spud cousin.” The Smash Fries -- seasoned with rosemary, olive oil and garlic -- came out deliciously fragrant, thin-cut, and simply well-executed. The sweet potato ones, though, were even better. They were light, fluffy, potato-ey, and accentuated well by the rosemary. Hell, they even tasted great the next day, re-heated in the microwave.
Even the salads were huge for the $6.99 price tag associated with it (yes, we tried the free salad offered, strictly in the name of venue research), providing some really good value for those folks who (inexplicably) may not be in the mood for a burger.
The chili wasn’t bad; it had all the typical ingredients one comes to expect from your standard house chili, but we can’t say it did anything to where it was distinctly memorable or worth a repeat sampling.
We also got to sample the drool-worthy Butterfinger Milkshakes (made from Haagen Dazs ice cream) which were indeed tasty, although they didn’t really do anything where you’d want to give them the heavyweight belt of milkshakes from a burger place.
Oh, and lest we forget: you could also get a bucket of (four) beers for $9.99.
These guys, literally, aren’t in the same weight class or division of the burgers from the Bourbon Steak’s or Thunderburger’s of the world. Outside of the unique “butchering” and cooking methodology of this new Rocky Mountain visitor, we don’t believe it’s going to do anything to significantly alter the burger paradigm in the DMV. But what they will do is give some of the fast casual burger places popping up in the area a real run for their money.
Indeed, we’ll be back soon to give the Smashburger the full DMV Burger War treatmeat.