If you're like me, you've never heard of Smashburger. So when I was invited to yesterday's media opening for the franchise's latest location on Magazine Street, I was intrigued. Well, that and who turns down a free burger?
I'll point out that this by no means should be considered a straightforward restaurant review (I'll leave that to the pros). For one thing, I ate for free. For another, since this was open to media, I got to learn a bit about the company first-hand with company founder Tom Ryan and got to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes aspects of the restaurant that isn't usually available to customers and food critics.
Disclaimers out of the way, hit the jump for some history of Smashburger, quick takes on the food and service and photos and video of my experience including a cooking demonstration by Ryan and photos of fried pickles and a Barq's root beer float.
Many people at the opening talked about having never set foot in a Smashburger and it was surprising to find out that the chain has 172 locations in over 30 states. Based out of Denver, CO, Smashburger has grown rapidly and was named one of the "Top 10 Most Promising Franchises" in 2011 by Inc. Magazine.
Ryan said that, while individual franchise owners don't get to adjust their menus to local clientele, he personally makes sure that every city has a Smashburger that caters to the regional tastes. In New Orleans, that means the introduction of a NOLA burger with fried green tomatoes and an andouille sausage sandwich; the latter being a recipe of New Orleans' own Chef Paul Prudhomme, whom Ryan said he's known "for years."
I got a chance to sample the NOLA Burger, cajun fries (featuring a Prudhomme blend of seasoning), fried pickles, a nectar milkshake and a Barq's root beer float. Customers entering the restaurant order at a counter seen at most fast food chains but then get a numbered flag and are served their burgers at a table by restaurant staff. From order to sit-down, it took around five minutes for my first order of food to arrive.
My NOLA Burger, cajun fries and fried pickles came out piping hot (enough so that I had to wait a minute or two to let them cool before eating) and both tasted fresh from beginning to end. Though crispy and fresh, New Orleanians used to their seasoning taking hold and dominating their food may say the fries aren't seasoned enough. The burger, though, was just right and incredibly juicy. Maybe a little too juicy considering the patty started to break apart a bit near the end; the mess of napkins and bits of bread and lettuce was reminiscent of the aftermath of eating a roast beef poboy. The round out the meal, the fried pickles were crisp and saltier than a traditional pickle. The buttermilk ranch dipping sauce that comes with the pickles cut through the salitness, though, with a creamy sweetness that gave the pickles more balance.
To drink, I had the company's line of sweet tea that, while not as good as Popeye's or as sweet as McDonald's, was more than adequate for a fan of the drink like myself. At the end of the meal, I enjoyed a nectar-flavored milkshake inspired by ubiquitous snoball flavor from New Orleans. The shakes, made with Håagen-Dazs ice cream and coming in Oreo, Nutter Butter, Butterfinger and Nectar Cream flavors, comes served with whipped cream and colored sugar crystals that melt into the shake and create a tutti frutti color effect. I was also served a tin with the excess shake that didn't fit in my glass served on the side. Milkshake fans will love this place. I was also served a traditional root beer float that comes in a frosted mug and uses Barq's root beer from a bottle. There's a heaping scoop of Håagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream at the bottom and, like the shake, is served with the excess root beer that didn't fit in the mug in a Barq's bottle on the side.
The prices are moderate but your bill can climb depending on how much you order. The burger, sweet tea, fries and pickles (more than enough for the average customer) cost just over $9, placing Smashburger more expensive than McDonalds or Burger King but less than local burger king the Company Burger. If you feel like pigging out and a shake or root beer float ($3.99 before taxes), you bill will jump into double figures with a pair of people easily spending between $20 and $30 to eat.
Smashburger also caters to the non-red meat crowd with chicken sandwiches (naturally, the chicken is pounded before cooking) and massive entree salades. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to eat either as I was completely stuffed from the meal I had been served.
Niche burger chains from Five Guys to Whataburger have built their empires on cult followings and quality ingredients. Smashburger takes the same approach (growing local followings by catering to local markets with regional flavors and fresh ingredients) and adds a unique cooking style. While any decent grillmaster will tell you that you should never smash a burger, Ryan's method takes it to the other extreme. Large meatballs of ground meat are placed on the short-order grill and then smashed for a minute. Ryan says this sears the bottom of the meat and traps all the juices inside. The result is that the burger then cooks in its own juices and, eventually, the still-raw meat on the top will start to subtly bubble, almost like a pancake, to indicate it's ready to be flipped. In the end, you're left with a burger that's juicy, tender and cooked evenly even though it's completely well-done. Fans of rare- and medium-cooked meat, like myself, may be skeptical of how juicy and tender the burgers can be, but, hot off the grill, the meat was delicious.