A new restaurant chain can always count on a warm welcome from Anchorage diners. We'll stand in line for Dairy Queen ice cream, Olive Garden breadsticks and Krispy Kreme donuts. So I was not surprised to learn that business at the new Smashburger in South Anchorage has been brisk since its opening. Smaller and newer than some other, more venerable chains, Smashburger doesn't carry the same nostalgic weight as, say, an IHOP, but Alaskans love new things, and we dearly love a good burger.
Anchorage is already a great burger town. Tommie's Burger Stop, Lucky Wishbone, Arctic Roadrunner, Long Branch Saloon and Quickie Burger all have loyal fans that they well deserve. But, for me, when it comes to burgers, there's always room for one more.
Smashburger occupies that slightly weird space in restaurants called "fast casual" — meaning more upscale than a fast food joint but with some of its mechanisms. You order at a counter, for example, but the food is brought to you. Food is served on trays lined with wax paper, but the tables are bused for you at the end of your meal. The dining room is "seat yourself" but the fixtures are wood instead of Formica, and the decor is modern and muted instead of splashed with primary colors and logos.
"It's like the Starbucks of burgers," observed my husband, aptly.
The "smash" in Smashburger is, simply, a cooking technique. The ground beef is smashed, while still cold, against a 400-degree buttered griddle in order to create a crust on the patty and to seal in its juices, according to the company's website.
In the face of this claim, I turned to one of my favorite food research sources — J. Kenji Alt-Lopez, a food scientist from the website Serious Eats, to determine whether this is, in fact, a legitimately superior burger-cooking technique or, let's face it, a gimmick. Sure enough, Lopez has smashed his way through dozens of beef patties, analyzing their surface textures and weighing them for moisture loss, and his findings support the Smashburger claim. Smashing your burger increases the Maillard reaction — also known as the browning reaction — to create a deep brown crust as well as the savory flavors and appetizing aromas that come with it.
Thank you for indulging my inner food nerd. I'm guessing you just want to know how it tastes.
Ordering at Smashburger is a bit complicated. Everything comes in sizes and there are a wide variety of sides. You can build your own burgers from your bun (including a gluten-free option), to your protein (including chicken and a vegetarian black bean patty), to the myriad garnishes and condiments. The line was long but went fairly quickly. The staff at the registers were friendly, patient and efficient.
I opted for the Alaskan Kenai burger ($8.29). This comes with a scoop of Kenai cheese spread (shredded cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, jalapeno, cayenne, garlic powder and liquid smoke), fried onions, fresh jalapenos and bacon. I'm a sucker for the creamy, spicy, one-two punch of Kenai dip, and it's perfect on a burger. I also loved the fresh jalapenos that gave the burger extra kick. And yes, the pleasantly misshapen patty was nicely crusty on the outside and juicy on the inside.
For variety's sake, my husband ordered the barbecue, bacon and cheddar Smashchicken ($7.99), opting for the crispy chicken fillet (you can also choose grilled). The chicken is generously sized with good crunch, though I'm not sure I'd opt for it again over the burger.
We tried a variety of the chain's distinctive, super-skinny french fries ($3.49). These are true shoestring potatoes, with peels intact and maximum crispness. Our favorite were the Smashfries tossed in olive oil, rosemary and garlic. I found the spicy Buffalo fries, which are tossed with a dry Frank's Hot Sauce seasoning, to be much too salty (which, for someone with my personal salt addiction, is saying something). We also opted for a side of the fried pickles, which were delicious, but the kind of treat you can only enjoy a few of. I would love to have the option of ordering them as a garnish with just a few on the plate. I threw the majority out and regretted the waste.
My daughters ordered milkshakes (Oreo and chocolate, $5.99) made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream and they were — you'll never guess — very yummy. These are served in old-fashioned ice cream parlor-style parfait glasses and come with the metal blender cup on the side holding the "extra" shake. The girls found this to be delightful.
We went back the following week and this time ordered takeout. My husband opted for the truffle mushroom Swiss burger ($8.29), which boasts sauteed cremini mushrooms and a truffle mayo sauce. I was of two minds about this burger. On the one hand, it really delivered on flavor. The truffle mayo was really, really truffle-y. On the other hand, it was almost too rich. Buttery mushrooms, creamy truffle sauce, cheese and beef deliver an earthy, musty, heavy mouthful that really needed some freshness. Even a bit of lettuce could have balanced this bite.
We shared a Baja Cobb salad ($7.99) with bacon, jalapenos, cheddar cheese and guacamole, which was tasty, but so full of toppings that it is a salad in name only. It was slightly overchilled, which gave the bacon a rubbery, unpleasant texture. But I loved the zippy spicy chipotle dressing — a bit like Russian dressing on steroids.
I opted for the classic Smashburger ($5.99) and it was my hands-down favorite. It's an all-American combination of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, ketchup and a signature sauce. The "smashsauce" is a mayonnaise-based concoction brightened with mustard and pickle juice — and is one that I'll be trying to copycat in my own kitchen. This is a well-balanced burger, and it's the kind I crave when I crave a burger (read: twice a week).
Ultimately, I'm partial to a burger spot that boasts a little bit of local eccentricity: Vintage spots with old photos and news clippings on the wall, small joints with Spenardian funk, out-of-the-way food trucks that seem to run on gumption alone. History and atmosphere are terrific side dishes. But despite its corporate sheen, Smashburger has much to recommend it: a strong concept; a friendly, efficient staff; and quick high-quality burgers. I'll definitely be back. In the meantime, I might start smashing my own burgers at home.
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Location: 317 W. 104th Ave.
Contact: smashburger.com and 907-337-6274