tokyo burger blog

burgers in tokyo and beyond

an obsessive journey through Tokyo to find the best Japanese hamburger

Burger Mania - Hiro-o

Japan has so many wonderful traditional approaches to cuisine from all over the world. More Michelin starred restaurants than Paris. Better Italian food than most of Italy. Yet somehow it still has a reputation for culinary weirdness.

Burger Mania's Cherry Cream Cheese Burger won't do anything to change that reputation.

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There are two Burger Mania shops in Tokyo, but only the Hiro-o branch serves the unusual Cherry Cream Cheese Burger. The Japanese have a longstanding love affair with special editions, limited time offers, etc. I just wrote up a review of one of McDonald's Japan's limited time offerings for the fine folks at Serious Eats.

As for Burger Mania, I had visited once before and they served a perfectly respectable cheeseburger. I'd say even beyond respectable. Possibly a bit unremarkable, though. The kind of burger you'd bring home to mom and dad, but simultaneously downplay the future possibilities to avoid raising their expectations.

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I usually get the standard cheeseburger for comparison purposes, being a big believer in fundamentals. Lately I've ordered a lot of avocado burgers just 'cause the Japanese do such a phenomenal job with them. I justify it by believing that avocado is a subtle enough flavor and fat source that it's similar to a mild cheese. Also it instantly turns a hamburger into health food.

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Anyways, I returned to Burger Mania with a friend one chilly winter's day and decided to try something different. Living on the edge! So I tried the Cherry Cream Cheese Burger - highly recommended by the staff. It starts with their usual 100% beef patty. If I understood the staff member, their meat is sourced from different parts of Japan depending on which cut they think is best from which place, and then it's combined into their own special blend.

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Then comes the interesting part. Some cherry jam-like substance sits on top of some softening squares of cream cheese. Under the burger are some of the more usual suspects like onion, tomato and lettuce.

How could this work? Cherry jam. Cream cheese. Beef patties. This is just crazy talk. And this is where food writing gets tough. I can show you pictures, but how do I describe the taste? Actually quite easily.

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It tastes exactly like simultaneously eating toast and jam, along with a bagel and cream cheese, plus a hamburger. The strange this is that somehow all these tastes exist separately yet harmoniously while you're eating. It's easy to identify all the flavors, but it actually pulls together into one very satisfying meal.

So if you're in Hiro-o, go try the Cherry Cream Cheese burger at Burger Mania. Then tell all your friends how weird Japan can be. Maybe also mention that there was a conservative cheeseburger on the menu, but you're the weird one who decided cherry jam and cream cheese should be on your burger.

Ambience 7.5/10, Burger 8/10, Fries 7/10

Reg-On Diner

Like many Japanese signs written in English, I'm sure Reg-On means something. It's probably clever. Like many Japanese signs written in English, it's also incomprehensible. I can spell it phonetically in Japanese katakana, but I have no clue what it means.

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Luckily, my lack of clues didn't stop me from tracking down the rather hidden Reg-On Diner in the back streets between Shibuya and Ebisu. It's not really close to any train station. Most train stations are about 20 minutes apart by foot, and Reg-On is about 10 minutes from the closest station.

Despite these terrible obstacles, I managed to overcome and with the aid of my trusty phone I found Reg-On Diner on a cold winter's night.

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This is probably the Japanese mental image of what a small American diner looks like. They got a few things wrong. First of all, nowadays it's tough to get a liquor license so possibly those bottles of Coors, Budweiser, Corona, Tecate and Brooklyn Lager wouldn't be there. Also, the immaculate bathroom wouldn't exist in an American diner (I'm not sure what to make of the July 2000 Mademoiselle cover featuring TLC hanging on the bathroom wall? Again, no clue.)

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Still, American diners sometimes make a pretty damn good burger, and so does Reg-On. The avocado burger I ordered might be a bit fancier than diner fare, but I'm okay with that. The avocado was perfectly ripe, like most Japanese burger joints. I don't know how they do it since I can spend 3.5 hours in an American Whole Foods trying to find one avocado with no brown spots. The tomato was nicely ripe as well, an almost mythical thing in American produce.

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The patty had a nice charbroiled flavor and good texture. There was even a hint of spice; just enough to give the aftertaste a bit of a kick but not change the flavor of the burger. The super springy buns that crushed down made for a good burger to bun ratio and the flavors all pulled together nicely.

I wouldn't have minded some more onions and I tend to like thinner fries as it's almost impossible to cook large wedges perfectly. These were quite crispy for the most part, with only a few undercooked stragglers. Some more seasoning on the fries would've been nice, too. Some tasty gherkin pickles rounded out the approximately $11 meal.

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I don't know what Reg-On means, I'm not sure why TLC had a place of honor in the bathroom, but I'm positive I will be back for another burger if I'm ever in the neighborhood. If it were 5 minutes closer to Shibuya station I'd be there all the time.

Reg-On, dudes.

Ambience 8/10, Burger 8/10, Fries 7/10

Bay Burger

If you live in New York and you have money to burn (and who doesn't!), then the Hamptons are a great summer weekend getaway. If you're a bored billionaire sitting in your Central Park West apartment and you're looking to rent an obscenely expensive house for the summer that feels shockingly modest considering the monthly bill, then I would highly recommend the Hamptons.

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Of course when you tire of your personal chef and can't bare the thought of another lobster, the Hamptons does have some fine dining establishments that serve cuisine a la burger.

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Sag Harbor is home to the roadside hut that is Bay Burger. After ordering at the counter, you can sit down inside the bright and airy shop, or make your way outside to the green metal tables if the weather is nice (and what self-respecting billionaire would be in the Hamptons when the weather was anything less than perfect).

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Most important is the burger. Saving you an expensive helicopter ride back to the city, Bay Burger serves up an excellent burger.

After a series of Japanese burgers, I have to admit that the best American burger joints just get the texture…well, perfect. The seasoning here is very mild - mostly you just taste the meat of the burger and that's a fine thing. Ketchup, mustard, tomato, onion and lettuce - the five food groups are all represented. The mustard is dijon, though, and it's a bit overpowering. Despite signs proclaiming that their buns are fresh made, they leave a bit to be desired. It's a bit mealy and dense for my taste. I like the more airy brioche style buns where the ratio leans toward meat, not bread.

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Overall this is a high quality burger, although I would say the flavors don't pull together quite as well as a Shake Shack burger or something truly superlative. That said, I could happily eat this on a regular basis when summering with my billionaire friends and unicorns (I'm assuming my fictional billionaire friends own unicorns - because why wouldn't they?).

The fries were decent, but a bit under-seasoned or under-salted. They do serve some tater tots that have a great breakfast style hash seasoning - go for those. You can get fries every day. (Which of course you don't do because you're eating salads and heart healthy cold water fish. Or warm water fish. Or whichever are the fishy things you're supposed to eat, and not the ones that the articles posted on Facebook tell you will kill you in 8-10 minutes because of mercury poisoning and radiation).

Ummm, oh right - the burger place. If you do find yourself in the Hamptons and you're tired of fancy dinners and unicorn polo, go hang out with the more common folk (in the Hamptons, I'm assuming they're struggling millionaires) and grab a burger at Bay Burger.

Clearly I need to get back to Tokyo.

Ambience 7/10, Burger 8/10, Fries 6.5/10 (Tots 7.5/10)

AS CLASSICS Diner

Up until recently I had spent pretty close to zero time in Roppongi.

Sometimes you feel a bit homesick, and Roppongi can fix that. Getting overly comfortable with the safety of Japan? Roppongi is one of the only areas where you have to keep your eye on your wallet. Missing being hassled on the street by people trying to separate you from your cash? Roppongi has an impressive contingent of West African hustlers aggressively promoting strip clubs and brothels. And in the unusually homogenous society of Japan, Roppongi is foreigners as far as the eye can see.

Then again, recently I've started to appreciate a bit of Roppongi after being more formally introduced by some foreign friends. I think that's why I avoided it before; it felt like a waste being in Japan and hanging out in the foreigner area. 

The huge Roppongi Hills complex sits in the middle of Roppongi and, according to my Japanese friends, is the coolest place to be. Assuming that you've time traveled to 2004, because apparently now it's quite passé and Roppongi Midtown is the new hot spot.  When I mentioned to a Japanese friend that Google's offices were located in one of the Roppongi Hills towers, they sniffed with disdain that it wasn't in Midtown.

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Be that as it may, for some reason I found myself walking by Roppongi Hills one day and noticed that a pretty highly rated burger joint called AS CLASSICS Diner was nestled inside the Hollywood Plaza mall, part of the Hills complex.

Inside, as usual, the Japanese have managed to design a quite beautiful space, complete with faux weathered surfaces. (It has been around for 9 whole years, so maybe that's 90 in Japanese shopping years). 

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The menu claimed they served American hand chopped beef, which sounded awfully good after suffering through all the poorly textured Japanese burgers. Maybe American beef is just more suited to the art of the burger. 

My very neat and simple cheeseburger came with some super crunchy wedge fries. I don't mind a good wedge fry as long as it's fried to within an inch of its life - mushy wedge fries are one of the scourges of Western society. 

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The burger itself sat on a sesame seed bun - a bit bready, but it balanced out their shop sauce, a combo of BBQ and mayo. The texture was good, but not as American as I was hoping; it missed a bit of the crumbly goodness. The flavor and seasoning of the patty was okay, but a bit bland. 

Overall, this is a solid effort by a solid shop. Unfortunately, neither the burger nor the ambience are enough of a standout to lure me into the depths of Roppongi.

Ambience 7/10, Burger 7.5/10, Fries 8/10

http://goo.gl/maps/y5Ood

Golden Brown

Located halfway between the Nakameguro and Ikejiri Ohashi train stations, finding Golden Brown was a lesson in Tokyo geography for me. While it's not too far from either station, it still feels like it's in the middle of nowhere. 

So after a 15 minute walk from Nakameguro, I finally found the weathered storefront for Golden Brown - which looked so perfectly weathered that I'm guessing it was done by a Japanese craftsmen about 3 months ago. 

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Inside is a very American feeling burger shop. Squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard, a diner style water glass and the full bar that an American burger shop might've had before liquor licenses became unobtainable. The only non-American thing on the table is the wonderful plastic sealed hand wipe. Ah yes, we can learn a lot from the Japanese.

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This is a simple burger shop serving very unpretentious fare. In that spirit, I ordered a simple cheeseburger and some unpretentious fries. The fries are decent and so is the burger. Like many Japanese burgers, though, the texture is a bit too soft and is missing the crumbly goodness of a burger from Paul's in the East Village (sigh). The flavor of the patty and condiments are pretty good, it's just the texture that brings it down.

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Imperfect texture in relatively perfectly assembled burgers is a running theme in Tokyo. My guess is that the Japanese are so concerned with forming the perfect patty that they overhandle the burgers, thus changing the texture.  A slightly less "perfect" patty would probably yield a better textured burger.

If I lived in this area, I'm sure I would frequent Golden Brown. But as it's not terribly convenient for me, it's not good enough to take me this far out of my way. I believe there is another location of Golden Brown nestled somewhere within the Omotesando Hills complex, so maybe I'll try that one some day to compare.

Ambience 8/10, Burger 6.5/10, Fries 7/10

http://goo.gl/maps/Xj74O