Smashburger tops Serious Eats scribe’s best fast-food list

Smashburger hamburger
Smashburger hamburger Smashburger

We’ve all been there, whether you’re on a road trip, have a specific craving or just want to eat something in a hurry. You wind up at a fast-food joint.

We all have our favorites, but to declare them publicly can inspire all kinds of controversy. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who is at once very knowledgeable and eminently opinionated, decided to compile his list. He’s the managing culinary director at Serious Eats, a well-regarded website that deals with with food from several angles but is best known for its detailed exploration of the science of cooking.

Lopez-Alt, a professional chef and a former editor at Cook’s Illustrated, has made several cross-country road trips and has made a point to sample fast food wherever he travels. An East Coast transplant, he lives in San Francisco. By the way, while it has an abundance of meat-based recipes, Serious Eats is also a great site for vegans.

Not every joint mentioned can be found in Sacramento, including second-place finisher Shake Shack, fine dining restaurateur Danny Meyer’s new-ish chain that is taking the East Coast by storm. But his No. 1 pick for best burger – Smashburger – and of course, In-N-Out (third place), have Sacramento locations.

Our own Allen Pierleoni was very impressed with Smashburger when he wrote about the burgers and fries in 2010:

First, a “meatball” of fresh Angus ground beef is placed on a buttered grill. Then a cook centers the metal “smasher” on top of it and presses down really hard, getting his upper-body strength into the motion. The smasher (a metal template) flattens the meat into an irregularly shaped patty, which is seared for 10 seconds, then flipped and cooked through.

A few weeks earlier, I was on a conference call with Tom Ryan, founder of the chain. He holds a Ph.D. in flavor and fragrance chemistry from Michigan State University.

“When you smash the meat, it sets up a crust on the bottom and makes the juices percolate up and not out,” he explained.

In a bit of a shocker, Lopez-Alt ranks Wendy’s fries the best. That will be controversial to those who consider McDonald’s the gold standard. For vegans, he declares the Sofritas burrito at Chipotle the best. I’ve heard from several vegan friends that it is, indeed, the real deal.

Click here for Lopez-Alt’s list, along with a detailed explanation in each category. And watch for his book, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” to be published in September.