Ever since Supersize Me came out, I've been loathe to dine at fast food restaurants. But with so many locals extolling the meaty virtues of the new pseudo-gourmet hamburger chains that have been popping up around the Valley, it was impossible to resist pitting two of these gut-busting gastronomic giants against each other.
Meet the next generation of burger kings...
In One Corner: Smashburger
777 S. College Ave. in Tempe
Cost: $5-6 for a basic cheeseburger, $8-10 for a combo (or $7 with ASU ID)
Gimmick: 100% Angus beef, cooked to order and smashed on the grill
Why it's better than BK: No creepy mascots
Denver-based Smashburger is a fast-casual chain with restaurants in 15 states and an expansion plan to rival Caesar's. Basically they're riding on In-N-Out Burger's coattails, claiming to offer a better burger experience than the longtime fast food giants.
Like with Internet dates, first impressions are everything at fast food places. There are no playgrounds or plastic crowns here. Smashburger is sleek and modern, with white walls and shiny red wall decals that entice guests to "savor" and "sizzle."
Silly, yes. But better than a pedo clown in a yellow jumpsuit.
Patrons can order a pre-designed burger or build their own from a menu of cheeses, veggies and miscellaneous toppings like fried eggs and bacon. Smashburger even offers salads and chicken sandwiches for the *cough* health conscious crowd. My companion and I ordered up a 1/3 lb. classic bacon cheeseburger with fries that couldn't possibly stick in my gullet as much as the combo's $10 price tag.
The burger arrived in a basket, split in half on a potato bun and topped with fresh lettuce and tomato. It had the greasy sheen of fast food meat and a smell reminiscent of a July 4 picnic. We bit in and were surprised by the juiciness of the beef. Clearly, Smashburger's trick of smashing a meat patty on a grill and quick-cooking for three minutes really does seal in the juices. Or at least, the greases.
Some of the bacon was slightly crisp, while other parts were limp and fatty. Sigh. For ten bucks, it should've been crisp enough to break apart when we breathed on it. The flavor was good, though -- smoky, with a hint of sweetness from the applewood. The sharp cheddar was tangy and smooth and the veggies fresh, even if the tomato was a little green.
The biggest disappointment was the beef.
"It's good, but a little greasy," said my friend. "I definitely use a leaner cut of meat than this to make burgers at home." The next ten minutes were spent taking bets on whether it was 80/20, 70/30 or the "Grade D, but edible" meat I once saw workers hauling into my college cafeteria. Shudder.
In the Other Corner: Culver's ButterBurgers and Frozen Custard
825 E. Camelback Road in Phoenix
Weighing in at: 1/4-3/4 lb.
Cost: $6 for a bacon cheeseburger combo
Gimmick: fresh, never-frozen beef cooked to order
Calories: Approx. 650 for a single bacon deluxe
Smashburger's modern design appeals to the hip college crowd, while the Wisconsin-based Culver's chain is clearly aimed at families. There's no disgusting piss-encrusted ball pit or "Crappy Meal" toys. But the neutral colors, DQ-like custard menu and Biblical proverbs on the wall would make any middle class suburban mom feel right at home.
Culver's menu is overwhelming for a fast food joint, with salads, soups, sandwiches, hot dogs, fried chicken and a dozen burger types available in single, double or triple sizes. We ordered a single Culver's Bacon Deluxe with crinkle-cut fries and a drink for just $6.
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The first thing I noticed was the starchy white bun, which had a glossy finish from the butter. The bun was soft and perfectly grilled, with a yeasty finish and a tinge of saltiness from the butter. Given the lumpy, mottled texture of the beef, I was surprised at how tasty it was. The patty was flavorful and juicy, with crisp edges and a decent grade beef.
"It's good quality meat," my friend agreed. "And I like that the lettuce is crisp; not cooked and wilted like at other burger places."
The veggies were crisp, though again the tomato was greener than I like. The processed cheese food tasted waxy and wouldn't melt no matter how warm the burger. Scary. Then there was the greasy, limp bacon that flapped like a middle-aged couch potato's arms in the breeze. Is Culver's afraid of cancer-causing chemicals released by overcooking meat? Hint: If we're eating a burger with enough mayo, faux cheese and ground beef to turn our arteries into rocks, we don't give a crap about carcinogens!
The Winner: Culver's, even if they do need to take Bacon Cooking 101