I was lucky enough to be invited to the VIP Sneak Peek media event at Smashburger last week. Smashburger is a US-based gourmet burger chain that is making their Canadian debut in Calgary. The first of two Canadian locations has just opened on May 2 in northeast Calgary, just a couple blocks off Barlow Trail on 32nd Ave NE. The second location is slated to open next month in the northwest neighbourhood of Royal Oak.
I attended this complimentary event with my food blogger friend, Anna of Anna’s Appetite, and my foodie friend L. Shortly after we arrived at this event, we were greeted by the founder & Chief Concept Officer of Smashburger, Tom Ryan. He sat down with us and gave us a brief history of the company. Tom explained that of the 155 plus Smashburger locations, 70 of them are corporate owned while the remainder are franchises. This location in northeast Calgary is corporate-owned.
Smashburger is a hybrid between a fast-food restaurant and a full-service casual restaurant or the so-called fast-casual type of restaurant. Customers walk up to the counter to place their order but the food is delivered to the tables with real plates and silverware and tables are bussed when the meal is done. Smashburger is licensed and offers both beer and wine. Take-out service is available at Smashburger. Tom had mentioned that about 30 per cent of their business is take-out orders.
What is unique about Smashburger is that the beef that they use at all their locations arrives fresh and has never been frozen. The beef is individually portioned by weight and prepped as loosely packed meatballs that are ready to be smashed to order on a heated buttered grill. The signature smashburgers are made with 100% Certified Angus Beef Chuck from the US. The reason American beef is currently used instead of Canadian beef is because of the special technique that used to prepare the beef. The Smashburger beef is prepared using a technique called Bowl Chopping. Apparently, no one in the Calgary area or even in Canada offers the Bowl Chopping technique at the moment. The Bowl Chopping process basically involves mincing the meat in a rotating bowl by a multi-bladed revolving knife positioned at the rear of the bowl which revolves on the vertical plane. This helps the meat blend and emulsifies proteins so the beef is more tender. Apparently, this Bowl Chopping technique gives the ground beef a superior texture compared to the traditional grinder which causes the meat to be more grainy. Tom told us there have been local suppliers that are interested in bringing this Bowl Chopping technique to Calgary so eventually, Smashburger may switch over to use Canadian beef instead.
When we went up to the counter to place our order, I noticed that Smashburger has implemented a new system which I don’t recall seeing at other fast-food restaurants here. The credit card machine actually doubles as a screen which displays an itemized list of the menu items and customizations as the order is being placed. This gives the customer an opportunity to review and confirm the order before it is actually placed thereby reducing order mixups and mistakes. I personally think this is a brilliant idea as I can recall countless experiences at fast-food restaurants where my order was wrong because I never had the chance to double-check what was rung in. Like other fast-casual restaurants, after we placed our order, we were given a sign with our order number to take with us to our table to help facilitate the delivery of our order.
The menu at Smashburger is actually for the most part standardized across all their locations but each location will have with some regional menu items that are specific to that locale. The regionally-inspired menu items are designed to showcase local suppliers and flavours. For the Calgary locations, the unique menu items include the “Calgary Smashburger“, the “Calgary Smashchicken” sandwich, “Traditional Poutine“, “Mushroom Poutine“, classic milkshakes made with Cochrane’s famous MacKay’s ice cream, a Saskatoon berry premium milkshake as well as Big Rock beer. For ease of ordering, both the signature Smashburgers and signature Smashchicken sandwiches come with preselected buns and toppings. It is possible to make substitutions on the preselections or you can simply just create your own burger/sandwich by selecting the type of bun and toppings. For the Smashburgers, some interesting premium add-on toppings include Applewood smoked bacon, a fried egg, avocado, guacamole, haystack onions, and fried pickles. The Smashburgers came in three sizes – small, regular, and big with the small being a fifth pound of beef chuck, the regular being a third pound, and the big being a half pound. For the Smashchicken sandwiches, customers have a choice between grilled or crispy fried hand pounded all-white meat chicken. For those looking for lighter fare, Smashburger offers a variety of fresh salads with the option of adding chicken. Smashburger also has vegetarian and gluten-free menu options available as well as kid meals and hot dogs for the non-burger eaters. Take note that there is actually no gluten-free “burger” available on the menu as they were not able to source a good gluten-free bun. Hence, the actually gluten-free “burger” option would be to order one with no bun at all.
Since the obvious item to try at Smashburger is of course their burgers, we decided to try a few of their signature Smashburgers. Our first burger was the regular-sized Calgary ($6.99 for regular; $7.99 for big; $7.99 for double), which came topped with Canadian seasoned grilled onions, pepper jack cheese, applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and Dijon-mayonnaise. Normally, the Calgary burger is served on a kaiser roll but we asked to substitute it with a multi-grain bun.
For our second burger, we picked the Classic ($5.99 for regular; $6.99 for big; $6.99 for double), which came topped with processed cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, onion, pickles, the signature “smash sauce” on an egg bun. The smash sauce is a mixture of mayo, mustard, lemon juice, and chopped pickles.
Last, but not least, we tried a regular-sized BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar ($6.99 for regular; $7.99 for big; $7.99 for double). The toppings included BBQ sauce, applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, and haystack onions and was served on an egg bun. The tasty BBQ sauce that they use on the burger is the Forty Creek Whiskey BBQ Sauce, which is a Canadian product. Heinz partnered with Forty Creek Whiskey, which is based out of Grimsby, Ontario and is the only independent distillery in Ontario for Canadian Whiskey, to create this BBQ sauce.
We cut the burgers into quarters so each of us had the opportunity to taste all three burgers. We were really impressed with the perfect searing on the patty. That really helped to keep the moisture in and so the patties were really juicy and flavourful. I was pleasantly surprised how tender the patties were and that I could actually taste real beef flavour.
Of the three Smashburgers we tried, our favourite was the Classic. We really enjoyed the egg bun and the flavours of the smash sauce. Personally, what I really liked about the Classic was the clean, crisp flavours. I liked that I could really taste the beef in this burger. Our second favourite was the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar. Again, we loved the egg bun. I thought all the flavours really went well together in this burger and I really enjoyed the BBQ sauce. As for the Calgary burger, we thought it was just ok but not a standout like the other two. The multi-grain bun wasn’t a favourite even though it’s probably a healthier choice. I’d probably stick to the egg bun for all my future smashburgers and sandwiches.
We had the opportunity to try a number of the sides. We started off with an order the Veggie Frites ($3.99), which is basically just carrot sticks and green beans that have been flash-fried for 45 seconds and tossed with sea salt and black pepper. The frites were served with a side of ranch dressing. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first and it probably wouldn’t be something that I would have instinctively picked from the menu on my own. However, I’m really glad I got to try them as they turned out to be really tasty. We all agreed the fried green beans were the favourite as the carrot sticks were a tad crunchy. Having tasted them now, I would definitely order them again on future visits as a low carb option. One thing I should mention is that they don’t survive well with time/travel. They are delicious when consumed fresh and hot but seem to be really greasy once they got cold.
Next we tried the Sweet Potato Fries ($2.99), which were seasoned with sea salt and came with a side of chipotle mayonnaise. A variation on this side is the Sweet Potato Smashfries, which is basically the same thing except tossed with the signature Smash seasoning of rosemary, olive oil, and garlic. We decided to try the plain version of the sweet potato fries since we were already trying the regular Smashfries. These were awesome and a big hit amongst my dining companions. Out of all the sides we tried, I think this was the top pick. I liked that the sweet potato fries were perfectly crispy while still soft on the inside and did not seem greasy at all. They still tasted really good even after they got cold.
For our third side, we tried the Haystack Onions ($2.49), which were served with a horseradish dipping sauce. These were basically like onion rings except that the onions were lightly breaded. They tasted good but I’m not sure I’d want to have a whole order of it to myself. Personally, I’d much prefer having a just little bit of it as a topping on my burger, like we had on the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar burger.
Next up were the Fried Pickles ($2.99), which were served with a buttermilk ranch dressing. I was actually surprised that the Fried Pickles came in slices as all the fried pickles I’ve had to date have always been wedges. They are definitely a Southern favourite and not necessarily appreciated by everyone. They were tasty but a bit too salty for our liking. But I think they would be great for sharing. If I were with a large group, I’d probably order them so each of us could have a couple of slices but I definitely wouldn’t have a whole order of these to myself.
Our fifth side was the Smashfries ($2.49), which were tossed with Smashburger’s signature seasoning of rosemary, olive oil and garlic. I could really taste the rosemary and garlic in these fries. Personally, I thought they were really addictive and would definitely order them again on future visits. I was impressed that they were still pretty crispy after they got cold and did not seem greasy at all. For those who don’t care for the signature seasoning, Smashburger also offers plain French Fries, which are just shoe string cut russet potatoes seasoned with sea salt.
Lastly, we had to try the Traditional Poutine ($3.99) since this is one of the menu items that is unique to the Canadian locations. It consisted of Smashfries topped with cheese curds and gravy. The curds are actually Kingsey Cheese Curds, which is a Saputo product line that is sourced from Quebec. I would have preferred if they would use cheese curds that are more squeaky as I didn’t find these Kingsey Cheese Curds to be squeaky at all. Smashburger has tried to put their own unique twist to traditional poutine by using their signature Smashfries, which have the rosemary and garlic seasoning. Even though I usually love rosemary and garlic, I just didn’t think the flavours worked well together with the flavours in the gravy and the rest of my dining companions concurred. We couldn’t quite put our finger on it, but the rosemary and the gravy just didn’t seem to taste right together. We thought perhaps the Traditional Poutine would probably have tasted better with the plain fries instead of the Smashfries. On the other hand, the rosemary flavour in the Smashfries may work much better with the garlic sautéed mushrooms for the Mushroom Poutine. The Mushroom Poutine will definitely be on my list of items to try on my next visit.
In addition to the burgers and sides, we also tried one of the Fresh Market Salads. We tried the Classic Cobb with Chicken ($6.49 for salad; additional $2.50 for chicken). The classic cob consisted of a mix of hand chopped fresh greens such as romaine, spinach, and arugula along with a fried egg, crumbled applewood smoked bacon, chopped tomatoes, red onion, shredded cheddar and blue cheese chunks tossed in a buttermilk ranch dressing. They certainly didn’t skimp on the ingredients and I was actually surprised at how generous the portion was for the salad. Normally, a salad of this size and quality would easily cost $15 at a full-service casual restaurant. And yet, this is only $9 at a Smashburger. For a couple of bucks more than what one would normally pay at McD’s or Wendy’s for salads, these salads at Smashburger definitely have them beat on both quality and size. This is definitely a meal-sized salad and even then, I’m not sure I could finish one by myself as a meal. If you wanted some salad to go with your burger, I’d definitely recommend sharing the salad.
We also tried samples of the Mackay’s milkshakes. We got to try both the Vanilla and the Saskatoon Berry. My favourite by far was the Vanilla. It was definitely one of the best milkshakes I’ve tasted in a long time. I would say it’s worth the drive across town to get ones of these shakes. Though I’m actually a huge lover of Saskatoon berries, I was actually disappointed in the Saskatoon Berry shake as there wasn’t much of the berry flavour at all even though there were chunks of Saskatoon berries throughout the shake. All we could taste was vanilla in the Saskatoon Berry shake. According to Tom, they currently use frozen berries that have been thawed in the shake but are looking into other methods to enhance the flavour.
After our meal, we got invited to take a tour of the kitchen to see where all the magic happens. I was surprised at how tight the kitchen space was with the crew hard at work. On the one side is the flat top where all the smashing happens and on the other is where the crew preps and completes all the orders.
We also got a demo on how a smashburger is made. As Tom had described to us previously, it begins wish a fresh, loosely packed meatball of 100% Certified Angus Beef Chuck. The meatball is placed on a hot butter-painted grill with a piece of paper on top in preparation for the smashing.
Next the meatball is smashed with the “Smashing Tool” and it involves “metal to metal” contact with the grill for about 10 seconds. The “Smashing Tool” and paper are then removed and the beef is seasoned with their secret seasoning blend consisting of kosher salt, black pepper and garlic. The patty is then left on the grill for about another 45 seconds in order to caramelize and develop a sear to seal in the juices.
I was actually surprised that the “Smashing Tool” actually comes in different sizes to reflect the various size of burgers being offered. And they actually have a different seasoning blend for each type of burger. The red container is for the beef, the yellow for the chicken and the green for the veggie.
By this time, we noticed the burger had a beautiful dark sear which acts a shell to hold in the flavour and also helps to give the patty texture. The patty is then carefully flipped with the sear still in tact and the other side of the burger is allowed to cook on the grill for an additional 30 seconds. The result is a very juicy burger patty. We all got to taste the finished product and were impressed by how juicy and tender the burger patty was.
Overall, I was quite impressed with the quality of the food that we tasted at Smashburger especially considering the price points. For basically a couple bucks more than the usual fast-food chains, the quality of the food at Smashburger is so much better and more gourmet and is on par with some of the casual full-service restaurants. Though their price points are closer to fast-food, the food at Smashburger is actually made to order rather than premade in batches and sitting under heat lamps. Hence, there is a bit of a wait for the food to be ready. I definitely would choose to pay a couple bucks more and don’t mind waiting the 20 or so minutes for my food to be freshly made to order. I really like that they have regionalized some parts of the menu to feature local suppliers and flavours. If I were looking for an inexpensive, casual meal, Smashburger would definitely be one of my choices.
#4, 2770 32 Avenue NE