Even the Incredible Hulk didn't have his own "signature smashing tool." Smashburger has one. Another contestant in the premium burger wars, this one debuted in Clearwater in December, with a Tampa location slated. What they preoccupy themselves with is this: the Maillard reaction. This is the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor.
In short, "Hulk smash," because it makes a delicious crust.
Started by Rick Schaden and Tom Ryan in 2007 in Denver, the chain has grown to 373 locations spread out over nine countries, from Saudi Arabia to Panama. Thing is, they didn't invent all the smashing. Midwestern burger places have honed the technique for decades, and the Dairy Cheer in Ashland, Ky., claims to have stumbled upon the effect when a worker smashed a glob of ground beef with a No. 10 bean can and magic was made.
Burgermeisters and other experts say the problem with rigorously pattying ground beef is that, when handled too much, the protein strands tighten up. Instead of a loosely packed, tender, juicy burger you get a tough, dry hockey puck. So don't make a patty at all — just squish a loose pile of seasoned ground beef with your smashing tool, the pressure causing full contact between the meat's surface and the flattop grill.
Smashburgers have a great caramelized crust and a surprisingly moist interior (flouting the old "don't press on a burger or you'll press out the juice" saw), the patties carefully peeled up with razor-sharp spatulas before being deposited on a classic, pillowy egg bun. (Other options include multigrain, spicy chipotle and gluten-free buns.) Of the prefab burger assemblages, the best I tried was a spicy jalapeno Baja version (regular $6.69, $7.69 for a big one, $7.39 for a chicken version and $6.99 for a very appealing black bean burger), which brings together guac, pepper jack, chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato and red onion on a chipotle bun, its layered flavors smoky and zingy without being hot. And the second best was the barbecue, bacon and cheddar burger ($6.69 to $7.69) piled high with battered onion strings on the egg bun.
You are also welcome to assemble your own dream burger with lots of topping options from cucumber to spinach or a fried egg. And there are six cheese options. (Goat cheese takes things fairly fancy for order-at-the-counter fast food.) But where Smashburger really won me over was in the "fries and sides" section of the short menu. Their skinny traditional fries are solid ($2.09, $2.99), but they shine in the "Smashfries" presentation ($2.19, $3.19), tossed with olive oil, rosemary and garlic. Same goes for the sweet potato fries and their "Smashfries" version (both $2.29, $3.49), but the coolest were the veggie frites ($2.99), a healthful alternative to spuds with quickly fried (not battered) green beans and carrots that I defy any kid to sniff at.
Smashburger isn't going to win any awards for design and decor. It's utilitarian and pleasant, and thus far the shakes and malts ($3.99 to $4.29) are lumpy and lack homogeneity (especially the one with Reese's peanut butter sauce, great clods creeping up the straw). Still, the burger style fills a novel niche in the crowded upscale burger market, a market that continues to have no end of devotees.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.