OHHHHH BURGERS IT HAS BEEN A LONG TIME. A long time, yes. Burger. Food. Tampa Bay.
Burgers are super hip now, you know that right? No longer are you forced to make a decision between Burger King or McDonalds when you need your sweaty beef fix – now there’s a plethora of available options, ranging from Jeffry’s Dump Burger to Trump Grill’s infamous $75 Vaynol Burger. From highly ethical lab-grown beef to horse-heavy meat blends. From simple meat cheese and buns to high concept burger-inspired dishes where the bun is a lobster and the beef is merely implied. Alllllll the colors of the rainbow.
One of the new and budding meat empires has put down stakes in our own backyard – Smashburger. With its original store opening back in 2007 in Denver Colorado, the chain has expanded to 377 location spanning across 8 countries, with one of its latest additions in Clearwater. And as luck would have it, I was generously invited to attend a media “sneak peek” of the new store.
Located amongst Chipotles and Chili’s and Wells Fargo Banks, Smashburger is a kind of halfway point between fast food burger places and slightly fancier burger joints, like Square One Burgers. They make a higher quality burger, but the cost per burger isn’t going to creep above the 10 dollar mark… I’d place it around the Five Guys tier. Founded on the dream of filling that gap between fast food and fancy schmancy, Smashburger places a sharp focus on flavor, which happily shares quite a bit of overlap with fresh ingredients while still giving you a fair amount of bang for your buck.
The interior is clean and cool, all red tan brown and wood grain, with suspended lighting and very little ceiling. Ordering takes place at a counter in front of the kitchen, boasting magic digital menus above a peek-through window to view all the kitchen staff hard at work grilling and smashing. The menu is packed with plenty of burger options to delight and confuse you, along with chicken burger variants, a handful of salads, milk shakes, and an impressive variety of sides. You place your order, they give you a number, and mere moments later you are greeted with your food.
The burgers come in a decent assortment of styles – bacon cheese, bbq bacon cheddar, mushroom swiss, avocado club, jalapeño baja, spinach & goat cheese, buffalo & blue cheese, a regional variant that changes per location, and of course the Classic Smash.
The best of the group, far and away, is the Classic Smash – a simple burger topped with lettuce onion tomato pickles, american cheese, ketchup, and their special Smash Sauce (a special sauce / thousand island type sauce consisting of lemon juice, mayo, garlic, mustard, and relish, with a fair amount of sweetness to it), all stacked atop their Smashburger beef patty and packed between an egg bun. The star here of course is the beef; Smashburger places quite a bit of emphasis on their smashed beef, fresh, never-frozen 75/25 certified Angus beef, ground into pea sized chunks and formed into balls that are slapped on a buttered nickel grill and smashed by a robotic beef press to crisp, crusted perfection. This isn’t the kind of place that you choose what temperature you want your meat cooked to – they smash it. It gets cooked. So the flavor is coming to you from that crisp buttery lightly seasoned crust on the beef, melding with warm american cheese. The toppings are fresh and crisp (onion and tomato standing out above the rest), but don’t overpower the meat, and the condiments blend in well, with the Smash Sauce providing a nice sweet accent. And the egg bun itself warrants mention as well, giving an enjoyable flavorful chew to play against the rest of the sandwich.
The BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar Burger was a solid second to the Classic Smash, featuring prominent bacon, a nicely sweet barbecue sauce (the recipe for which apparently varies by region), and some run-of-the-mill haystack onions. The Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger used very lightly sautéed crimini mushrooms and truffle mayo, all of which served to completely mask the swiss cheese flavor behind overpowering mushroom, which I did not personally care for (and I love mushrooms). The regional burger – the Medianoche – was a parody of a Cuban sandwich, with mustard, red onion, pickles, swiss cheese, and a slice of fried ham planted on top of the burger patty. The mustard and onions came across most, and the mediocre ham did little to improve upon the delicious beef it sat atop.
We also got to sample the Spicy Jalapeño Grilled Chicken sandwich, which featured guacamole, pepper jack cheese, chipotle mayo, and fresh jalapeños. The grilled chicken breast was very nicely seasoned and pounded down thin, giving it a nice texture and making it far more interesting and flavorful than any standard chicken sandwich usually is. The guacamole was nice and so were the fresh spicy notes from the jalapeños, and of special interest to me was a lightly spicy bun infused with chipotle peppers, giving it a nice red color. The Buffalo & Blue Cheese Crispy Chicken sandwich was intentionally served light on the sauce (Frank’s RedHot Buffalo Sauce), topped rather than drenched so as to not overpower the chicken, but I honestly would have preferred more (although it did balance the blue cheese well). The crispy fried chicken was served nice and hot, but, having been subjected to a similar pounding as the grilled chicken was, it was far more crispy than it was chickeny, and was left a bit dry without more sauce.
The Avocado Ranch Burger was served using a black bean burger patty, which was a unique blend of black beans, bread crumbs, tortilla chips, cheese, egg, and more, and tasted intensely of black bean. Its texture was almost that of a paste, and with its saltiness, it honestly reminded me of refried beans from Taco Bell.
Sides included the Smash Fries (crispy shoestring style french fries heavily seasoned with rosemary and garlic), Haystack Onions (same as found on the BBQ Bacon & Cheddar burger, served with sauce akin to that served with Outback’s Bloomin’ Onion), some sweet potato fries (refreshingly served comparatively thick and without any additional sweetening so as to really highlight the natural flavor of sweet potato), spicy buffalo fries (coated in Frank’s RedHot brand salty buffalo rub with the sliiiiightest burn, very reminiscent of buffalo flavored potato chips), veggie frites (carrots and green beans flash fried in beef tallow, and served super salty and underwhelming), and finally what very well may be the best fried pickles I’ve ever had. The fired pickles used nice, thick pickle chips expertly balanced with the perfect amount of salty fried batter, served hot and crispy and somehow not greasy in the least. I would recommend those fried pickles.
BUT. A few notes on things I noticed during the visit:
- The sandwiches (burgers and chicken sandwiches) almost always felt far too light on cheese; having sampled a fair variety of cheese during my visit, I cannot remember really tasting any of them aside from the american cheese on the Classic Smash.
- Almost every item was extremely salty. Sometimes saltiness makes sense (fried pickles, french fries), but with each new food item I sampled, the ever-looming presence of salt became less and less welcome.
- Everything seemed to be fried in beef tallow or cooked on the same grill as the meat. This would not have normally even caught my attention, except that the veggie frites having been fried in beef seems like it would be disappointing to a vegetarian. Similar situation for gluten, as, though they do offer gluten-free buns, there is no effort made to prevent cross-contamination (although their website says one fryer should typically remain gluten-free… just make sure to ask). They do offer salads that can come without meat / meat contact.
All in all though, it was an excellent experience, and you cannot go wrong with the Classic Smashburger. Fresh toppings paired with superb, exquisitely-prepared beef on a delightful bun – a beacon of light in this vast and terrifying new-world burger landscape.