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I Tried the Smash Burgers at 5 Popular Chains & the Best Was Pure Bliss

When you want seared meat with perfectly crisped edges and the right topping balance, here's where to go.

Burgers are iconic American fare—to say that we're hamburger-obsessed as a nation would be an understatement. After all, more than 50,000 burger joints exist nationwide, helping Americans consume close to 50 billion burgers every year. It's clear that the burger business is thriving.

America has come a long way since a man from Wisconsin dubbed Hamburger Charlie squished a meatball between two slices of bread in 1885, thus creating what he claimed to be the first-ever hamburger. This delicious combination of ground beef and carbs has been subject to many changes and trends over the years. One such trend that has recently taken hold is the smash burger craze.

This new-age hamburger technique involves taking a loosely packed hunk of meat and smashing it onto the grill with a spatula or similar tool until it forms an ultra-thin patty. Cooking it this way allows more meat to come in direct contact with the hot surface, giving the beef an unparalleled seared taste and lightly crisped texture.

Many popular chains use this method, from the obvious SmashBurger to legacy fast-food chains such as Steak 'n Shake. I went on a meaty mission to find out which one serves up a smash hit while others could use some recipe refining. Here's where they ranked, in descending order from my least favorite to the #1 best smash burger of the bunch.

Steak 'n Shake

a cheeseburger with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes on a paper.
Photo: Megan Hageman, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Single Steakburger w/Cheese):
Calories: 390
Fat: 20 g (Saturated Fat: 9 g)
Sodium: 1,160 mg
Carbs: 32 g (Fiber: 3 g, Sugar: 6 g)
Protein: 19 g

I've always appreciated that Steak 'n Shake is one of those what you see is what you get kind of establishments. Its name is crystal clear, its menu simplistic, and everything comes together in a 50s-like setting—a place where you would expect the cast of Grease to pop out at any moment and break into an animated song and dance.

Alongside thick milkshakes, steakburgers are the chain's claim to fame. Unlike a regular hamburger, these incorporate more premium steak cuts into their patties, and at Steak 'n Shake, they are cooked using the smash method. There are plenty of ways to dress your steakburger at the chain, but I went with the most elementary of options, a Single Steakburger with cheese. Pickles, lettuce, tomato, and a signature mustard relish became my garnishes of choice for $4.24.

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The look: Squished and flat, yet beaming with crisp toppings. At first, it looks like a vegetarian option until you zoom in closer and see the small sliver of beef coated with American cheese nearly hidden at the base. The surrounding bun appears objectively basic, much like your average, everyday grocery store bun.

The taste: Everything is put together well and appetizing, except for the most critical part: the beef. I know smash patties are supposed to be delicate and narrow, but this one is so wafer-thin I could hardly identify it under the lettuce, tomato, and juicy pickles. Its fringes also became crunchy and hard—matching the crackly bread—while the rest suffered from a serious case of blandness. The signature mustard relish does take everything up a notch, bringing some zest and flavor into the mix. But I would ask for a double if you want a full meat flavor.

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Shake Shack

a cheeseburger with lettuce and tomatoes in a takeout box.
Photo: Megan Hageman, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Single Shackburger):
Calories: 500
Fat: 30 g (Saturated Fat: 12 g)
Sodium: 1,250 mg
Carbs: 26 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 6 g)
Protein: 29 g

What started as a hot dog cart in New York City has become a fast-casual restaurant sensation with more than 400 locations worldwide. Like all other joints on this list, Shake Shake specializes in hamburgers and hand-spun milkshakes—and it's also got extras like cheese fries, chicken sandwiches, and veggie burgers. It differentiates itself by only offering never-frozen beef and poultry that was humanely raised and grazed and is free of any hormones and antibiotics.

The burgers on the menu range from straightforward options like the plain hamburger to more extravagant choices like the limited-time Korean BBQ Burger. I felt I had to go with the chain's classic ShackBurger, however. It's It's with one 100% Angus beef patty, a slice of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ShackSauce for $6.49.

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The look: The first word I thought of was "cute." It's relatively compact and certainly not a burger you'll need two hands to tackle. However, it is well-constructed, with each colorful layer visible from the sides. The beef also protrudes in a square-like shape—similar to what you would find at Wendy's.

The taste: Once again, the toppings knock it out of the park while the core of the burger comes up short. The lettuce and tomatoes are fresh, the cheese is gooey, and the orange sauce is a must. I'm convinced it's just a simple amalgamation of ketchup and mayonnaise, but it's divine. I also loved the moist and squishy yellow-washed potato bun. However, the Angus patty needs some work. I think it was maybe pressed on the grill just a minute too long, leaving it chewy and dry, ultimately diminishing the enjoyability of the sandwich.

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Five Guys

a cheeseburger with tomatoes and pickles on a crinkled sheet of tinfoil.
Photo: Megan Hageman, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Cheeseburger):
Calories: 980
Fat: 55 g (Saturated Fat: 23 g)
Sodium: 1,050 mg
Carbs: 40 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 2 g)
Protein: 43 g

I have some beef with Five Guys—not just one of them, the whole lot—and my reasoning is twofold. First, I was unaware that the chain's standard hamburgers and cheeseburgers are doubles. Meanwhile, the "Little" options on its menu are singles, not kiddie-sized, as I assumed. I learned this the hard way.

However, my second, more important, bone to pick with the joint is its menu prices. And I'm not the only one. A Little Cheeseburger costs around $9.39—the most expensive single in our taste test. And, if you thought that must come with fries to offset the cost, you'd be mistaken. All you'll get is a free whiff of the spuds as you walk in to pick up your order. I paid even more for my accidental double cheeseburger—a whopping $11.79, to be exact. I did have leeway to select an unlimited amount of toppings, though, as part of the restaurant's DIY style. I went with a simple combo of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and pickles, later regretting not going all in and getting my money's worth.

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The look: Jumbo and beefy, thanks to my ordering flub. It's It'se saliva-inducing with its plentiful yet haphazard ingredients. All are stacked on a sesame seed bun, and I noticed Five Guys keeps things modest, neglecting to add branding to its to-go bags or wrappers.

The taste: The patties are quintessential smash patties: flat with no pink and a crisped perimeter. They are a bit greasy but not bad, and they delight with an almost homemade taste. I elected for no sauce here, which was a solid choice since it didn't need it. The ripe tomato and thick-cut pickles add enough flavor diversity, plus the creamy cheese held its own, binding the sandwich together. I have no qualms with the taste of this savory and filling burger, but other joints do it just as well—if not better—and at a fraction of the price.

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a burger with cheese and pickles on paper.
Photo: Megan Hageman, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Single Butterburger w/ Cheese):
Calories: 700
Fat: 42 g (Saturated Fat: 19 g)
Sodium: 830 mg
Carbs: 40 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 8 g)
Protein: 40 g

With a name like ButterBurger, it has to be good, right? This is what the nationwide fast-food chain Culver's calls its specialty smash burgers. Unlike what the name implies, they aren't called ButterBurgers due to the fresh, never-frozen patties being coated with a generous layer of golden butter. No, it's the toasted bun that gets all buttered up.

This is the sandwich I asked for as I zipped through the joint's drive-thru line. More specifically, I requested a single ButterBurger Cheese, made with a real American slice from Wisconsin and topped with the works—a tried-and-true combination of pickles, ketchup, mustard, and raw onions. I proudly resisted tacking on a scoop of fresh frozen custard or a Concrete Mixer and paid my $4.39.

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The look: On the smaller side and not overly impressive. The meat leaks over the buttery bun's edges, though, so its presence is clear. What I found strange is that all the toppings are burrowed underneath the patty instead of on top—even the melty cheese hunkers below. Gauging by the chain's online menu, this appears to be standard practice, but it threw me off.

The taste: Shabby looks aside, Culver's flips a quality burger. Garlicky with a smooth, pressed-together demeanor, the meat almost melts in your mouth. Accompanied by the gently buttered, marginally sweet bun, the entire sandwich is nearly unstoppable—keyword, nearly. I was happy with my topping selection. The crunchy pickles and onion slices elevate the beef without overpowering it—like what I experienced at Steak 'n Shake. And the ketchup and mustard are a condiment match made in heaven—the perfect sweet, bold, and tangy duo. There is a reason why this burger is the chain's bread and butter.

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a cheeseburger with pickles, onions and tomatoes on a paper.
Photo: Megan Hageman, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Classic Smashburger):
Calories: 630
Fat: 37 g (Saturated Fat: 15 g)
Sodium: 1,630 mg
Carbs: 41 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 9 g)
Protein: 30 g

This chain has been smashin' patties since 2007, giving rise to one of the hottest burger trends we've seen since cheese slices. Smashburger is said to be the king of its craft, and it steps things up a notch by using ​custom-forged burger smashers at each of its 240-plus restaurants throughout the country and beyond. Signature burgers are its calling, and this is where I found the menu option for me: the Classic Smashburger. For $6.99, it's loaded with a certified Angus beef patty, American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, pickles, SmashSauce, and ketchup on a toasted bun.

The chain is also known for being quite experimental, adding unorthodox toppings to its creations, such as brisket, smashed avocado, and Anaheim chiles. Don't forget about its range of chicken sandwiches, wings, salads, milkshakes, and mouthwatering Smashfries smacked with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil.

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The look: The first thing I noticed is the puffy and proud artisan-style bun. From there, the rest is vibrant in shades of purple, green, and red on top of an orange cheese-covered patty, which lands right above thin. All is dripping with a pale yellow substance—what I assume to be the Smashsauce.

The taste: Aside from Five Guys, this is the meatiest burger I encountered. But the kicker is that there's only one patty here. Despite its smash burger nature, it displays body and depth while still maintaining that quintessential charred exterior and plenty of peppery, seasoned flavor. I was ready to hand Smashburger the victory based on this information alone. The chain didn't stop there. Each topping adds its unique flair, from the juicy pickles to the pungent onions to the Smashsauce that covers everything with a taste similar to that of deviled egg filling. Lastly, the piece de resistance is the buttery bun. Buoyant yet chewy, it rounds out the sandwich, creating pure burger bliss.

Megan Hageman
Megan is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. Read more about Megan