Las Vegas. Las fucking Vegas. What a ruddy delightful place. A ginormous sparkly seaside arcade in the middle of a huge desert where all-you-can-eat buffets are everywhere, alcoholic slushies in oversized containers are in almost every hand, and waitresses offer you free drinks while you throw dollar bills with joyful abandon attempting to guess where a tiny ball is going to land on a spinning wheel.
It is also the only city in the US where pretty much all of the big, hip burger chains have locations. The land of infinite neon and big screens has facilitated the tearing down of meaty walls as chains from the East and West co-exist: White Castle, In-N-Out, Shake Shack, Umami - they are all here. It is an oasis of seared beef with condiment waterfalls.
Not baller enough to get them delivered to the roulette table, and with a bit of time left before we had to return the hire car, we figured we’d get out into the sweaty nethers of Sin City to hit up some expert curators of the smashed patty. Plus, it is always advisable to provide some comestible cushioning before the onslaught of gallons of light beer.
STEAK ‘N SHAKE
The proclaimed originator of the ‘Steakburger’, the octogenarian chain from the Midwest has been slowly creeping further West and finally set up shop in Santa Monica late last year. Having crushed on the place so hard in New York a few years ago, it was top of the list to return to.
Their Vegas location sits in the South Point hotel and casino a few miles South of the Strip. It is positively breezy compared to the frenetic Strip locations, as families and the latter-yeared meander around serenely. The casino is airy, it has a 16 screen cinema, and a mental 64 lane bowling alley. Having had the senses pounded on by likes of the Mirage and Caesar’s, in comparison it is full-on Center Parcs relaxing.
Unlike New York’s ‘Signature’ counter-service and paired down menu format, the South Point location is a proper sit down family restaurant - a Hopper-esque beacon shining out into the low-lit casino floor. It’s a classic booths-in-the-window-tables-in-the-round diner peppered with their strong red and white motif. The grill line is open which means you can watch the dude squishing meat as you pay your bill. And the menu is hella long: there are all manner of decision-impairing specials to choose from.
In proper restaurant style the burgers arrive on plates accompanied by a dune of shoe-string fries, included in the delightfully cheap price. The patties on the Original Double with cheese are a visual rapture: Two dark, flat, crisp brown crusts sandwich some American cheese, giving a deep well-seasoned meaty flavour as crunch gives way to soft meat and dairy. As satisfying a combination as you imagine it to be.The classic accompaniments of crunchy onion, juicy tomato and lettuce with the condimetrinity (ketchup / mustard / mayo) all adding their creamy, sweet and tangy flavours subtly behind the beef while generous thick slabs of pickle level up the tang and crunch.
The discrepancy with the Big Apple location comes down to the way it is served: The signature store in New York wraps it’s burgers in the same way In-N-Out does, and with the majority or orders being take out the burger gets to intermingle in it’s own heat while you transit it for consumption – so the bun is soft and swirled with meshed flavours. The diner version comes fresh off the grill with a domed toasted bun placed on top so the presentation is dry and the sandwich is missing that satisfying oneness, the presence of the bun is almost off-putting.
The Cheesy Cheddar added to our slight disappointment. The 'loads' of Wisconsin cheddar seen oozing out on the menu ended up being small ball of barely melted orange plonked on the patties, and missing the pickles and some condiments made it a drier and not really enjoyable experience.
When scrutinising Vegas’s burgers (read: placing large fuck-you crosses by every Ramsey establishment) Freddy’s piqued our interest because it served not only Steakburgers, a la Steak ‘n Shake, but also the frozen custard that we are so familiar with at Shake Shack. It sounded like a solid mash up so we cranked our sweet Nissan into the only gear it had and headed a bit further out to Southfork.
The parallels are abound. It could be Shake Shack’s brother - the two came into existence around the same time - and it was founded in the Midwest like the grandpappy Steak ‘n Shake. And the place mixes the fast casual order-buzzer-collect service style of the Shack with the quaint retro diner ornamentation of the Steak down the road. It has a family diner feel: the booths are super booth-y, the colours are vibrant (classic red and whites merge with warm creams), it manages to feel homely and throwback-y whilst still having a modern nudge.
And their wares are awesome. The Original Double plays out much like Steak ‘n Shakes - the patties are expertly smash-crusted but with more crispy craggy edges and yet impossibly pink juicy insides. The rest is simplicity: the cheese is gooey-merged onto both patties and are topped with crazily mild and tender fresh sliced onions, Thick crinkle-cut pickles and mustard. Yup, that is it. The beefy salty crunch of the meat mixed with the tart bite of pickles, mustard and onion is perfect, as is it's juicy consistency soaking the bottom part of the bun just enough.
The California style adds Freddy's sauce - a nicely sweet, piquant and mayo-based burger sauce - some lettuce and tomato. Their Animal Style if you will. The sauce and tomato adds an extra sweetness to contrast the savoury hit of beef and makes it nicely sloppy. It is the whole slice of onions, which should be glaringly overbearing, but is so fucking mild with the perfect chomp that finishes it off. Both are fucking awesome burgers.
They are good and playful with their concretes too. The Oreo blended ice cream with gummy worms and cream on top was spot on
And so round the corner to another chain we lost a bit of our shit over whilst in New York. Smashburger is challenging Five Guys in the fastest expanding chain awards, and is now targeting US airports in their tireless quest. They are everyfuckingwhere, and planning at least one UK site by the end of this year. These guys are not fucking messing around, with a business model that unashamedly flogs salads along side burgers to cater to as many as possible. With a fast-casual method that merges counter ordering with table service, like the decor, it feels clunky but charming.
The Classic Smash always arrives open, with the cheese looking the kind of moist we do when we turn up somewhere ten minutes late having run most of the way. But put it together and it doesn't matter: The patty is smashed onto a buttered grill using a shaped press, so it isn't crispy-edged and irregular like the previous two, but still has a good solid crust aided (no doubt by that glorious butter) and a touch of pink inside. It doesn't punch you like the others, but the beefy knock is there.
Add the salty squish of American cheese, thick sharp pickle nuggets and red onion, with two tomato slices and a top-bottom sweet-creamy ketchup-Smash sauce combination and you get a nicely balanced burger. The egg bun in the one though. It is robust whilst delightfully chewy and still bouncing soft with a buttery yet savoury flavour.
The signature Vegas burger is typically next level: the haystack onions are deep fried strings, covered in crisp, well-seasoned batter, that inexplicably lack any grease at all. Grilled onions bring a sweet warm flavour release, and the smoked bacon is chewy and smokey and great. Even the fried egg, which we are generally against in burgers, cuts a buttery richness though the smokey crunch fest. Even after eating as much as we have it is a pleasure to consume.
Crusty smashed goodness satisfactorily consumed, we trundled the car back up the I-15 to its final resting place at the rental return lot and walked into the dimly-lit dinging casino distance to lose dollars instead of gaining pounds. Good times.
- Simon & Rob
P.S. Here is the video we made of our smash journey in case you missed it.