Brooklyn has a new burger.
Smashburger has entered the Manhattan-Brooklyn food scene fray, opening its first New York location today... in Downtown Brooklyn. The young chain, which started in Colorado, had first made its Northeast debut with six locations in New Jersey. It has landed on Dekalb Avenue just a block and a half from Junior's on Flatbush. And like other Smashburger locations across the country, there's a city-specific burger on the menu: the Brooklyn Burger.
For Smashburger neophytes, the chain is named for the process by which they prepare their burgers, smashing a ball of 100% grass-fed Certified Angus ground beef on a griddle. "We paint the grill with butter, smash them, and sear the bottom," said Smashburger's founder, Tom Ryan who was on hand for the preview. "It sets up the shell, juices percolate instead of cook out and so we get a pretty nicely cooked burger with all the juices still in it, big flavor."
Four years ago few had heard of the place. There are now about 100 stores, with plans to double that by 2012. Two hundred stores in five years — if it keeps up that rate of expansion it could be on a par with Five Guys, which has seen its stores go from six to 750 since 2002. And Smashburger is better. It should have a chance. Ryan, a restaurant insider with previous experience as Worldwide Chief Concept Officer for McDonald's Corporation seems to have taken a play out of the McDonald's-Chipotle playbook — refocusing a known concept with upscaled ingredients, and streamlining the image.
So what's the Brooklyn Burger and how did it originate?
"What are you going to pick? Everybody eats everything here," Ryan noted. "I had to go back to what my roots are with New York. And every time I'm here, I go to one of the delis — I love them. I know pastrami is very popular. So we said how can we take something that's always been there, like pastrami, and do something unique and different with it? So we're grilling it, we're buying it locally. It's pretty streaky, so it's got a lot of fat and it acts like bacon and we're grilling it pretty hard. So we're treating it like a bacon cheeseburger done Brooklyn-style. The pretzel bun, pickles, the condiment array, that's just to pull out the flavor."
Grilled pastrami, Swiss, pickles, onion, and yellow mustard on a pretzel bun — it's great — a loose, flat burger that's incredibly well-seasoned. Anyone who has had previous run-ins with inferior pretzel bread rolls needn't fear. Good bread is one of the first things you'll notice. While they're not the soft, sweet, backyard-picnic potato rolls you're used to at Shake Shack, they're soft — tasty and still pliable when toasted with butter. The other thing, at least at the preview, was the meticulous placement of condiments and toppings.
Other burgers include the BBQ, Bacon, and Cheese with thinly-sliced crispy onions, and the Spicy Baja, a burger with pepper jack, guacamole, lettuce, onion chipotle, mayo and jalapeños on a chipotle bun. Of course you can come up with your own combinations using their 26 different buns, toppings, sauces and cheeses. But the Classic Burger, served on an egg bun with just American cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, onion, pickles, and a side of Smash Sauce, sang without any bells and whistles.
Obama acolytes who agree with the Never-Put-Ketchup-on-a-Hot-Dog philosophy will be happy to know that at Smashburger, they can also approximate a decent Chicago dog. Fried pickles are super-vinegary. Fries were a crispier, better version of McDonald's with the option to be tossed with rosemary, olive oil, and garlic, or with what was perhaps the biggest surprise on the menu: the chili. Thick, with tender chunks of beef and covered with thinly-shredded Cheddar and fresh jalapeño, this was a full cup of chili that needed to be finished even on a 96 degree afternoon.
With Brooklyn Hospital Center and all the hungry students from nearby Long Island University and Public School 403, you'd think this Smashburger will get some good play. But now that they've cracked the market, New Yorkers shouldn't have to wait long to taste the burger at other locations. There are 20 new stores planned for Long Island alone.