Tucson's all about burgers.
And Walgreens, but this is the dining section, so let's stick to the burgers. ...
When it comes to food trends, one reigns supreme in our neck of the woods - the fast, casual burger joint.
Take a look at all that's popped up recently: Five Guys, Culver's, Freddy's and the latest, Smashburger, which opened in November in the former Buddy's Grill at Grant and Swan roads.
Pit them against each other and it's not so much a smackdown as a Smashdown - the newest of them all is the burger king.
Though it's a chain - based in Colorado - Smashburger localizes its menu. So, here in Tucson, we've got the Arizona ($5.99, $6.99), a spicy number that layers habañero cheese, kicky guacamole, smoky chipotle in the mayo and the bun, fresh jalapeños and onion along with lettuce and tomato to temper the burn. Now, if you were grabbing a burger in Smashburger's Costa Rica outpost, its regional specialty features chorizo, grilled Turrialba cheese, refried black beans, fried potato sticks and Lizano cilantro mayo.
The eatery also offers local brews - Nimbus and Oak Creek Nut Brown Ale from the Sedona area. We like that kind of attention to local detail.
So, let's take a closer look at what else sets Smashburger apart:
The patty. One burger chain we dined at, which shall remain nameless, had such a thin layer of beef that you couldn't even tell meat was in between the bun. Smashburger offers three sizes: small, about a 3-ounce portion ($3.99); regular, which weighs in at 5 ounces ($4.29); and big, 7 ounces ($5.29). No matter the size, Smashburger's patties are juicy with crisp, uneven edges.
Smashburger gets its name from the fact that the burgers start off as balls then are smashed and seared, which is contrary to everything beef lovers are taught (handle the ground meat very, very gently and pack loosely; never smoosh with a spatula). You can't tell me it's wrong when it tastes so right.
Lest you think Smashburger is all about red meat, it offers an equal number of chicken options, which you can get grilled or crispy. The chicken version of the Arizona ($6.99) features the same spicy trappings as the burger, but with a juicy, grilled chicken breast. We're not wimps when it comes to fiery food, but the sandwich had us reaching for Kleenex. This one packs some Scoville heat units, but it's worth the burn.
The bun. Don't you just hate it when you're eating a big, juicy burger dripping with toppings, and the bun starts to disintegrate well before the last bite? I do. Smashburger's buns, which are toasted and buttered, are hefty but still pillowy. They stand up to a hearty patty and the pilings, but don't overwhelm them. The spicy chipotle bun, with its smokiness and subtle heat, is a standout.
The poppy-seed bun cradling the Chili Cheese Dog ($4.99) shares the same soft-but-hearty blueprint as the burger buns, but the all-beef frank - split and slathered in mild, meaty chili and garnished with shredded Cheddar, fresh, diced onions and jalapeños - is still fork-and-knife food.
The toppings. Now, there's nothing wrong with the classic American cheese, lettuce and tomato, but sometimes you want to get a little wacky, like say, throw on a fried egg. Smashburger offers several free sauces and toppings as well as "premium" add-ons (70 cents to $1.50 each) to let your culinary creativity soar. Goat cheese? They've got it. Ribbons of lightly battered, fried onions, aka haystack onions, to add crunch? Check.
Smashburger also offers several specialty burgers to take the guesswork out of creating your meal. The BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar ($5.99, $6.99) is the perfect marriage of sweet barbecue sauce and smoky bacon. The mild Cheddar is unobtrusive, and the haystack onions add a lovely crispness.
The sides. Of course there are fries, regular Russet and sweet potato varieties, but what makes our taste buds happiest? The Smashfries ($1.99). Shoestring-skinny, the fries are tossed with rosemary, garlic and olive oil. You don't need to dunk them in anything, but the chain's Smash sauce, a fresh-made blend of mustard, relish and a spike of lemon, adds a tangy punch.
We give Smashburger props for its out-of-the-box sides like fried pickles ($2.29, very lightly breaded and crisp with a not-too-sharp dill pickle bite, among the best we've had), and veggie frites ($2.99), which are carrot sticks and green beans fried for less than a minute to take out some of the rawness but none of the bright, garden flavor.
To hit the sweet spot, Smashburger serves hand-dipped Häagen-Daz shakes and malts, which are served in tall glasses and come with the overflow in the metal shake container ($3.99, $4.29). Our only quibble was the runny consistency, but there was no arguing with the rich, creamy flavor.
Smashburger General Manager Bob Lanska says several more Smashburgers are on the way by 2014. We say, bring 'em on.
• 4821 E. Grant Road, Suite 115, at Swan Road; 624-0122, smashburger.com
• Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
• Prices: $3.99-$5.29 for the create-your-own-burger option; most burgers and chicken sandwiches are $5.99 or $6.99. Sides cost $1.99-$2.99. Kids meals: $4.99.
• Gluten-free: Lettuce is available instead of a bun.
• Vegetarian: There's a black bean burger on the menu as well as several entree salads.
• Alcohol: Local craft beers are part of the offerings, as well as mini-bottles of chardonnay and merlot. You can get wineglasses and frosty mugs for the beer.
• Seating: The eatery has tables and booths to seat around 80 inside and has nine patio tables outside.
Smashburger gets its name from the fact that the burgers start off as balls then are smashed and seared, which is contrary to everything beef lovers are taught.