By Jessica Lussenhop
By Joseph Hess
By Evan C. Jones
By Ian Froeb
By Mabel Suen
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Ian Froeb
By Tara Mahadevan
If you still doubt the impact of the so-called "better burger" boom, look no further than the recent marketing campaigns of the very fast-food goliaths that this new generation of burger joints wants to better. Burger King bowed its "California Whopper" with artsy, vaguely pornographic close-ups of ingredients being washed and prepared, while Wendy's introduced "Dave's Hot 'n Juicy," a burger whose every last component has been calibrated to be "better" via the sort of scientific precision that we used to associate with manned space missions.
14560 Manchester Road
Ballwin, MO 63011
Region: Manchester/ Ballwin
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4881 Mexico Road
St. Peters, MO 63376
Region: St. Peters
12766 Olive Blvd.
Creve Coeur, MO 63141
Region: Creve Coeur
1981 Zumbehl Road
St. Charles, MO 63303
Region: St. Charles County
Is there a Five Guys Burgers and Fries in your neighborhood yet? No? Wait five minutes. According to an August report from Technomic, the ten fastest-growing "limited-service" (to employ the industry's artless term) burger chains increased their total number of locations by nearly 50 percent from 2009 to 2010.
That figure includes Denver, Colorado-based Smashburger, which opened its first St. Louis-area location this past summer in a St. Charles strip mall. It is a very sleek operation, heavily branded: The words smash, savor and sizzle cover walls and windows. In total, the look is modern and a little cold, vaguely reminiscent of Chipotle Mexican Grill.
As its name suggests, the restaurant smashes its burgers, made from ground Angus beef, on a flattop grill. The result is a thin patty with lacy edges à la Steak 'n Shake. You can't cook such a burger to any temperature but well done, so the flavor is predominantly a product of the exterior char. The bun is soft, a touch sweet and sturdy.
Smashburger turns out a decent example of the genus Patty petilus. The flavor is recognizably beefy, the texture firm and — for a well-done burger, anyway — juicy. You can top your flat Angus as you like, choosing from a broad selection of cheeses, sauces and extras including bacon, fried pickles and a fried egg.
There are also a few trademark combos, such as the "Spicy Baja," which features pepper jack cheese, guacamole, raw jalapeño slices, lettuce, tomato, red onion and chipotle mayo. The toppings are very fresh (though the tomatoes are predictably flavorless), but with a burger of this size and doneness, the more you pile onto it, the less beefy it becomes.
Smashburger's French fries are thin and crisp and demand a dash or two of salt. Much better to opt for "Smashfries" — those same fries tossed with olive oil, rosemary and garlic.
Whether Smashburger will prove popular enough to rival Five Guys' explosive growth in the area remains to be seen. I suspect it will. (For the record, I give the edge to Five Guys. Their burgers seem a little more decadent, i.e., fattier.)
The "better burger" boom isn't confined to the major national chains. In addition to Smashburger, three much smaller "better burger" operations, two of them locally based, have opened in the area in the past few months.
When they opened the first Jim Hanifan's It's a Better Burger this past spring in St. Peters, the former football Cardinals head coach and his two partners made the concept part of their restaurant's very name. (A second location arrived in Chesterfield in September.) Photos of Hanifan from all phases of his long career — which included a stint as offensive-line coach for the Rams — adorn the dining room's red walls, and a lengthy bio, cribbed from Wikipedia and mounted on a Lucite stand, is placed on each table. Still, the space lacks personality.
The burgers are slabs of ground beef (one-third or one-half pound, take your pick) cooked well done. You can add cheese or bacon, and there is a fixings bar outfitted with the usual condiments, but the It's a Better Burger burger is all about the meat. And it's tedious work, actually, making your way through so much underseasoned ground beef, which retains just enough of its juices to avoid being mistaken for a sawdust puck.
The French fries are crinkle-cut and bland. The onion rings are better, if only relative to those fries.
Aside from the absence of Hanifanabilia, Christy's Hamburgers on Manchester Road in Winchester is essentially an It's a Better Burger by another name: no-frills dining room; bright-red walls; no-surprises fixings bar; thick patty cooked to within an inch of its structural integrity. The signature burger at this, the second area location (the first is in St. Peters) of a very small chain based in Starkville, Mississippi, is the half-pound "Big Christy." You can, if you prefer, opt for smaller (a quarter-pound), bigger (a full pound) or blood-vessel-bursting (a pound and a half). The "Big Christy" is juicier than its It's a Better Burger counterpart, but not particularly distinctive. The fixings bar sported pale tomatoes and some truly dire lettuce.
The French fries are crinkle-cut and bland — and there aren't any onion rings to substitute.
The burgers at Dave & Tony's Premium Burger Joint are neither the flattened patties of Smashburger nor the meat blocks of It's a Better Burger and Christy's. They are, for me at least, exactly the right thickness: substantial enough that the beef flavor stands out above the char, but not forbiddingly massive. Vitally, here you can order your burger at the temperature of your preference, from medium-rare to well-done.
I was able to try "A Better Burger" a few weeks ago. I thought it was great. No A-1 sauce though, which was a bummer . . . but not a meal-breaker.
I think it's not fair to compare thick burgers to thin. They're two different things. In the thick burger class, I'd always go with Bluberry Hill or Tuckers, but if we're talking fast food . . . I'm looking forward to having another "Better Burger", which means it must be good.
Do I like it better than "Smashburger"? Yes and no. Depends on what kind of burger I'm in the mood for.
The cat fighting over who actually has a "better burger" and whining over a newspaper review sounds really immature.
I spent the last two months in Omaha where I had my first Smashburger. Up there they have an option called "The Husker" with A1 sauce. Best fast food burger I've had in a long time. I was happy to hear that there was a location in St. Louis. Went there last week. No Husker, but they have a "St. Louis" burger with provel cheese. DIdn't get that one. I got the BBQ burger, which was . . . delicious. I'll miss the Husker in StL, but not so much that I won't go back to Smashburger. The meat seems to be spicier than any of the other smash patty places around, Five Guys included. Five Guys is very good, but I think I like the Smashburger better. The fries in Omaha (with the olive oil) were always fantastic. The one thing I did notice about the St. Charles location is that it was nowhere near as . . . polished as the Omaha restaurants. The fries were also a bit limp in comparison. Not sure why this is. Maybe they'll fix it if/when further locations open up. (This one occupies a former Quiznos . . . and you can still tell.)
Maybe we should write a review on Ian's skills to critique food.Here's a public site where the reviews aren't written by someone selling advertising.
Out of 80 reviews ITSABB food gets a 4.4 and an overall rating of 4.2.
Ian? Your review and pictures read like a paid advertisement for Dave and Tony's. Have they paid for any form of advertising with RFT?
I kind of have to wonder . . . what are you selling? I happen to like reading Ian's reviews. They are opinion pieces. No more, no less. I've noticed that he always tries to give the reader SOME reason to at least try the place he's reviewed . . . even if he can't give it his personal best recommendation.
Christy's was horrible. Filled order incorrectly, soda was completely flat and the "toppings bar" was disgusting (wilted lettuce, warm mayo and lots of flies).
Ian, Go into a Jim Hanifan's It's a Better Burger any day of the week and ask the customers what they think. We get rave reviews every day from the people that matter..... our customers. Come in and ask to see the hundreds of comment cards that have been left stating we have the best burger they have ever eaten. I'll bring them to you...I'd love to meet you face to face.RFT tried to sell us advertising...we said No...seems like you will pan us forever now. What a joke. Your burger was overcooked "for your tastes" the ONE day you came in. While you were eating you were asked multiple times if everything was to your liking. Instead of letting us fix it you chose to pan us assuming that every burger we produce is a "puck" as you call it.(I could throw out derogitory names back at you and at your "journalism", but I'll take the high road.)We get 4.3 out of 5 Stars from Diners Rewards Netwok which is an unbiased group of diners who have left 60 reviews. That's an outstanding rating from a GROUP of diners, no one individual, who have no hidden agenda. These are people who AREN'T trying to sell us advertising. Our sales volume and lunch crowds tell the real story.Dave
NIce piece, Ian, thanks for the overview.
Smashburger invaded Houston right before we left (in six months, two sprung up within two miles of my apartment). I ate a couple burgers there and though they were a solid fast food burger. I'm frequently in the mood for a thinner patty burger so I think it'll be nice to have them around again.
Some days, I think there is no greater sin than a big, thick, burger that's underseasoned.
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