You Need To Try This is a running archive of all the awesome drinks and delicious dishes we’ve come across over the course of our professional and private lives.
I didn’t take this picture. I’ve had to borrow it from GTO Burger’s Instagram account because I’d watched the same double cheeseburger being made and – once finished and presented to me – essentially inhaled it before I thought to take a photo. This was at an outdoor pop-up last week. The chef and co-owner of the roving stand, Mark Perrier (formerly the opening chef at Savio Volpe), was bent over a portable flat top, smashing two-at-a-time balls of ground beef (I think it was 100% chuck) into super thin, almost fully latticed, salted and ‘Maillard’ reacted patties, topping one with American cheese at the flip and capping it with the other when finished. It’s a three and a half minute song that is followed by a waiting sesame seed bun (untoasted), the heel (bottom) of which is liberally smeared with a Big Mac meets Thousand Islands sauce to which are affixed coins of Polish pickles under a fat-catching carpet of shredded iceburg lettuce (aka ‘shredduce’).
So what’s the big deal? It’s just a double cheeseburger, right? Technically, yes. But a ‘smashburger’ is a different style than Vancouverites are used to. None of our most well-known and celebrated burgers are of this type. Not Wally’s, not White Spot, not Vera’s. And definitely not the chef signature ‘stunt-burgers’ mounted with blue cheese, duxelle, truffle, and foie gras. That isn’t to put them down. It’s just to say there is a big difference between a smashburger and, say, Hawksworth’s exquisite onion ring bacon burger. I love both, but they might as well be different species.
What makes a smashburger so unique is the cooking method. The patties are not preformed, mixed with egg or parsley or breadcrumbs, and they are never frozen. They begin as small balls of freshly ground beef with good fat content (80/20), which are flattened on an extra hot cooking surface (I use cast iron at home) by pressing down hard and really spreading the discs out with a flat, broad spatula until they are about than a half-inch thick. This guarantees full contact, which means more browning, more flavour. The patties are small by necessity, because you don’t want them to exceed the circumference of the bun. (With bigger buns, the cook must recalculate when balling the beef.) And you can’t really call a colour (eg. medium rare) on them due to the quickness of the cooking, which keeps them juicy. It’s the essence of fast food.
The style is popular and trending up across the United States, with regional iterations abounding from Wisconsin to New Mexico. Right now, aside from GTO, it has made two other notable appearances in Vancouver: in a delicious new establishment in Chinatown that I highly recommend called Between 2 Buns (in the old ‘Bestie’ address), and via a cultish, four-wheeled ghost known as Golden Era, which roams around town seemingly at random (thankfully with regular stops a block from my house). Though a big fan of both, in my subjective estimation GTO is of a higher calibre, not only in ingredient selection but also in construction. If Golden Era is inspired by the classic In-N-Out chain (especially their famous mustard-fried ‘animal-style’ burgers) and Between 2 Buns is more idiosyncratic with its over-affection for jalapenos and lack of presentation care (they look like they were put together by someone wearing baseball gloves), GTO recalls McDonald’s. I don’t mean the sad and guilt-ridden McDee’s of adulthood’s occasional drunken desperation, but rather the original temple of childhood wonderment, when your still forming brain was bewitched by the function of consuming a dazzling, broadly advertised product so laced with salt and sugar and totally approachable to you in shape and size that it made you almost hysterical whenever the prospect of another visit arose. Now imagine having that same reaction today as an adult. It’s like that.
What makes GTO even more attractive – in the often frustrating and unrequited sense of that word – is that it isn’t always readily available. I can’t just have it whenever I want it (which, really…come to think of it, is probably a good thing). They launched with a handful of pop-ups last summer, skipped all winter and have only just begun their new season, with (hopefully) weekly times and locations announced a few days out on their Instagram. Thankfully, they’re looking for a brick and mortar location as we speak, but that could be a year or two away. Obviously, I don’t suggest you wait. Rather follow them, track them down and make a plan with friends to see and taste exactly what I’m talking about.