Carrie O'Connell 8 p.m., July 27
Smashburger Hillcrest (Or Anywhere, Really)
Smashburger franchises are springing up all over the place in different states across the country. Texas is currently winning the race to have the most Smashburgers in it (who knew Texans were into burgers), but San Diego has nine or ten within the bounds of the county. Hence, it's pretty much impossible to ignore this chain's presence in the local dining scene.
On one recent Reader blog, it came up that there's a little ambiguity over exactly where a place like Smashburger fits on the local food chain. The burgers start at about $5, so there's some immediate distance from Jack in the Box or In n Out; but what does that distance mean?
The $4.99 Classic Smashurger is 100% Angus beef served on a brioche-like egg bun. It's topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, ketchup, and "smash sauce." Judged solely on its own merits, it's pretty good. It falls apart if you so much as look at it wrong, and it makes a righteous mess in the eating, but it's not overcooked and the toothsome bread is about as far from sawdust-textured industrial baking as it could get and still be a burger bun.
As far as this "smashing" process goes, it flies in the face of the accumulated wisdom of generations of burger cooks who would affirm that smashing the burgers is a bad idea that makes for dried out patties.
Smashburger doesn't have a problem with drying out the patties because it seems the restaurant uses ground beef with a pretty high fat ratio. What that means is that the burgers are succulent but super greasy.
For sheer tastiness, they're not much better than In n Out, either. It's cool that the meat is of good quality, but the primary flavors are still "fatty" and "salty." Despite the apparent image that the marketing department at Smashburger would like to convey, there's not a lot of elegance in the burger.
To its credit, Smashburger does offer better variety than the drive through joints. There are lots of sauces, different breads, and plenty of toppings to choose from. The side dishes have some nice touches, too. Fried pickles ($2.29) have to be awesome. The veggie frites ($2.99) are a charming alternative to french fries. They're no less deep fried, but the culinary reality is that they wouldn't be any different if they were sauteed in a pan and then tossed with salt. At least there are vitamins there.
Also, Smashburger sells beer, which is a significant difference from the fast food places, at least the ones from which Smashburger seeks to distance itself.
Maybe this is an overzealous treatment of a fast-casual burger operation. But the reality of places like Smashburger is that they control a gargantuan segment of the market and identifying just what these types of places bring to the table can reveal a lot about where restaurant culture is right now, and where it's going in the near future.
3975 Fifth Avenue
Open daily 10-10