Saturday, January 4, 2014

A “smashing” success?

As most of society moves towards becoming foodies, and eating more health consciously, what better idea than to open a competitor to “Five Guys Burgers and Fries”.  So, without much fanfare at all, no one really anxiously awaited the arrival of “Smashburger”, but if the crowds are any indication, all Five Guys better beware.

From their website, it seems that Smashburger has a strong number of franchises located nationwide.  The location in Natick, Massachusetts, is the first, but, no doubt, one of many, planned to open in Massachusetts.

Smashburger is entering the quick serve market currently dominated by places like Panera and Chipotle or Moe’s Southwest Grill.  While the menu leans towards “fast” food, it is not “fast food”.  Call it “quick serve” or “fast casual”, Smashburger is taking on Five Guys and all other comers with a competitive price point, a better menu, a dressed up environment and an experience that doesn’t leave you feeling dirty or guilty.

There’s a lot to like, depending on the perspective.  

The menu:  First and foremost, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is a burger joint; it might be the name that gives that away.  You can choose from two sizes (1/3 lb or ½ lb), and you can choose from a pre-formatted menu of burgers, or create your own.  They have a list of free sauces and toppings (lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions) and they have several “premium” toppings for a dollar each.  For a complete look at the choices, click here.

In addition to the burgers, you can get any sandwich made with a grilled chicken breast, you can get a salad, and they have four sides:  fries, sweet potato fries, onion rings or “smashed” fries (thin cut fries with olive oil, garlic and rosemary).  More on this later.

Another key focus of their menu is the shakes.  They make them from Haagen-Dazs ice cream (btw, H-D is manufactured for General Mills by Nestle subsidiary Dreyers).  I have heard comments on the shakes ranging from “awesome” to “mediocre”.  I don’t consume that kind of quantity of dairy, so I will leave it to you to decide.

Having worked in both a diner and McDonalds, I can personally attest to the residual “benefits” of working at a fast food restaurant-namely, the stink.  You all know exactly the smell I’m talking about-a mixture of meat and burning fat.  Working, it gets in your pores, in your nostrils, etc…you can scrub yourself in bleach and lye, cook a batch of meth without a hazmat suit on, but you cannot kill that smell.  So too as a consumer at Five Guys.  You cannot spend more than 30 seconds in Five Guys without absorbing THAT smell; you smell it before you even walk in the doors.  With that in mind, I am happy to report that Smashburger seems to be using a special air-handling/filtering system, because not only can you not smell it outside, but there is zero fast-food stench inside; you smell the same coming out as you did going in…for some of you, that’s a good thing.

Ketchup brilliance!
Sometimes, small things entertain small minds…and I am entertained, and impressed, by the Heinz ketchup packages offered at Smashburger.  While they have bottles on the tables, they also offer individual packets.  But these aren’t just any old packets, like the kind you find at any fast food or take-out restaurant…these are FANCY!  These are two-way packages that go both ways…you can squirt it out, or you can dip in it.  For squirting, you break the top off and squeeze…to dip, you just peel the foil off.  Some food scientist spent years dreaming this up, and I’d like to meet this evil genius!  This is quality, and I say “well-done Heinz, well done”.  And hats off to Smashburger for recognizing the need for such a ketchup packet!

One last observation before I further comment on the burger-they have ample staff, working the dining room constantly.  Though you order at a counter, the staff brings the food to you, in a decorative metal basket.  They roam the floor clearing tables, washing them down, and offering to refill your drink for you (even though it is self-service beverages at a fountain).  I find this refreshing and like that the dining area is simple, but comfortable and constantly being cleaned.

But all this would be irrelevant if the food was lousy.  I am happy to report that I like their burgers much better than Five Guys.  Five Guys is just a smidge higher on the food chain than Wendy’s, but Smashburger is a full step above Five Guys, in every meaty way.  The burgers come in two sizes, and with three roll choices and a wide range of toppings, being served to you in a nice basket, they have a more upscale feel than the paper sack, throw-it-at-you service of Five Guys.  I enjoyed the burger and look forward to more, but if I’m not in the mood for meat, I can get the same set-up with chicken-it is nice to have a choice.

Alas, though, not everything is perfect.  Though they offer three different kinds of fries, plus onion rings, I found the “haystack-style” fries (very, very thin), devoid of any potato flavor.  I tried the “smash fries” at their suggestion, which are cooked with olive oil, rosemary and garlic, three flavors I enjoy.  However, all I tasted was the fried coating and because the fries are so thin, the potato taste has seemingly been cooked out of them.  On this score, Five Guys comes out ahead for their dense and always crispy fries.

I like that there’s a new game in town, and if I ever felt like driving 20 minutes east, I could also have a few more choices (Shake Shack, UBurger, etc…).  I especially like someone coming in and basically saying to Five Guys “we’ll see your patty and raise you a chicken sandwich”, giving non-meat eaters (like Mrs. Palate) an option, unlike Five Guys, which sends the message “if you don’t eat meat, grilled cheese or peanuts, get out”. 

So people, get out there and eat.