Burgers are big business here in Cowtown. That’s a fortunate thing for this burger-lover. I felt even more fortunate when I received an invitation to attend the recent media opening of Smashburger. An American chain, Smashburger is, unbelievably, growing faster than Starbucks. From their start not quite five years ago, they have grown to over 150 locations in the U.S., with the Calgary location being their first foray into Canada.
Smashburger is named literally. In an attempt to get, as he put it, “a burger you taste with every bite” founder Tom Ryan devised a system where coarsely-chopped balls of beef are placed on the grill and then smashed with a metal form so that they flatten out evenly. Once the patties are seared on that side, they are then flipped to the other, to maintain maximum juiciness. A similar process is followed with the chicken, except that they use breasts rather than ground chicken. We were invited into the kitchen to witness the process, as well as a very well thought-out bun toaster, which ensures that whatever’s placed inside it does not soak through, preventing the bun from becoming a soggy mess.
The thoughtfulness behind Smashburger extends to its menu, in that they tailor the items to each location. So, there’s an exclusive “Calgary” burger on the menu here, Mackay's ice cream in the milkshakes, and Big Rock beer being poured. Also making its debut at this location is poutine! Since Wendy, Annemarie, my fellow Examiner columnist Linda Garson and I went together, we were able to try a good cross-section of what they have to offer. Between the four of us, we had the Calgary and spicy baja burgers, the avocado club Smashchicken sandwich, a Chicago dog, and the harvest salad. For sides we powered through Smashfries, haystack onions, fried pickles, chili, and the traditional poutine.
Of everything we tried, the Calgary burger was my favourite. The combo of grilled onions, pepper jack cheese, applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato and Dijon mayonnaise was tangy, and the whole thing was served on a Kaiser roll. Another thing that makes Smashburger stand apart is their buns – each of their feature burgers is paired on either a Kaiser, egg, multi-grain, or a spicy chipotle bun. Speaking of the spicy chipotle bun – it is! The baja burger served on it definitely had a kick too, with fresh jalapenos and chipotle mayo, and was Linda’s favourite. The salad was very fresh as well, and had more upscale ingredients than what you usually see in a fast-food salad, featuring blue cheese, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and raisins. It’s also significantly larger than you’d expect for $6.49.
When it came to sides, it was hard to pick a favourite. The original Smashfries are seasoned with rosemary, olive oil, and garlic. Think of all the crispy, salty goodness of a McDonald’s fry, but more flavourful. Also, Smashburger has the solution to a deep-fried pickle problem I’ve had for some time. Yes, I have longstanding deep-fried pickle problems – I’m a food writer. Everywhere I’ve ever had them they fry a pickle spear, and on the first bite, you wind up with the whole pickle hanging out of your mouth, and an empty tube of breading in your hand. Since the whole point of deep-frying things is the tasty fried goodness of the breading, this is always a disappointment. Not at Smashburger. Instead of spears, they deep-fry flat pickle slices. They’re bite-size, so you get breading and contents all together. Pickle problem solved. The haystack onions also avoid the whole pull-the-filling-out-on-the-first-bite issue because the onions are almost shredded, then breaded and served with a remoulade dipping sauce.
Smashburger fills a niche that’s been vacant in the Calgary market. Though their prices are comparable to those of fast-food chains (most regular burgers are either $5.99 or $6.99, and sides range from $2.49 to $3.99), there’s not a play structure in sight. The thoughtfulness is evident from the menu to the preparation. Perhaps most importantly, we were assured that while they are presently serving American beef at this first Canadian location (they wanted to launch with what they knew, which I can respect), they are already in the process of trying to find a supplier of Canadian beef for this location and the upcoming 10-12 more they have planned in and around Calgary.
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