tokyo burger blog

burgers in tokyo and beyond

an obsessive journey through Tokyo, Japan to find the best Japanese hamburger

Stout Burgers & Beer

Sometimes people who drink beer miss out on the finer things in life.

When you order a beer, generally you say, "I'll have a Stella." Or a Heineken. Or a Budweiser. Or maybe a draft micro-brew if you're trying to be pretentious. But when it comes to pretentious affectation, beer guzzlers can't compete with wine connoisseurs.

"I'd like something dry but not too earthy. I'm ordering escargot, so I want tannins that will just barely cut through the butter."

Beer drinkers miss out. Partially because beer just doesn't pair well with your pheasant (I'm assuming - I really have no clue) and fancy restaurants generally have wine cellars, not kegs. This is because they want you to enjoy all the flavors that a delicate wine will bring out in their cuisine, and also because there is a much higher markup and profit margin on wine. Mostly the latter.

Stout Burgers & Beer, on the other hand, offers the Los Angeles burger and beer set more access to such pretension. Each burger is described in loving detail, along with suggestions on what ale might pair well to bring out the terroir of your ego.

Now, I'm not really a beer drinker - but I do love me some pretension. I only eat real dark chocolate (no, your 56% dark chocolate barely qualifies as chocolate, let alone dark chocolate). Those artisan chocolate producers are cute, but they can't get the particle size small enough with their equipment, so the chocolate mouthfeel is gritty and doesn't melt the same way as a large Swiss or Belgian producer's bar.

Damn. Now that I've used the word 'mouthfeel', I have to take a quick shower.

Ok, I think I've established my pretension bona fides. (Fides should be pronounced as two syllables to get maximum pretension). Stout should really be up my alley. They also have some very nice wines by the glass for quite reasonable prices. They offer french fries with an off-the-menu preparation (melted cheese all over it - of course we agreed to this modification, unable to resist even a semi-secret menu).

The delicious fries were a nice way to ease into the meal. Unfortunately the burger that followed it didn't live up to my expectations. The server warned me that the Six Weeker was sweet. Apparently the Six Weeker's fig jam and brie laden burger pairs well with belgian ales, white porters and lagers. I generally lean toward simple orders, but Stout didn't really have a 'simple' burger. Their signature Stout Burger comes with bacon (I generally avoid bacon on burgers), roasted tomatoes, horseradish, etc. You can ask them to leave something off a burger, but no substitutions.

So yes, although quite pretty, the burger was overly sweet. Even after I wiped off most of the fig jam, it was still rather sweet - but more importantly, the texture and flavor of the beef was underwhelming. The condiments tried to make up for a lack of seasoning. For a burger joint that proudly advertises they grind their own meat daily in-house, I expected more. It wasn't a bad burger, but I didn't finish it.

I don't mind some fanciness. I'm fine with bougie. Whatever you call it. Yet it all starts with the core ingredients. A great chunk of beef cooked well is gonna taste pretty good. This is why steakhouses often can create a pretty decent burger. So while I'm generally a purist at heart (plain dark chocolate, no secret sauce on my burger, etc), I don't mind some flair. Unless the flair is covering up what's underneath.

Ambience 8/10, Burger 6.5/10, Fries 7.5/10

Martini Burger

New York City is known for many things around the world. Rude cab drivers. Street hustlers. The people who sank the world economy. And all those are deserved parts of the city's reputation, but so is a particular talent for that simple creation - the hamburger.

Like many great things (the Mona Lisa, sex), hamburgers are deceptively simple at first glance, yet become exponentially complicated and wonderful with each successive look. Ground beef sandwiched between two pieces of bread - what could be simpler?

Japan's economy may have collapsed and the country may have lost most of its mojo to a 20+ year long depression, but hey - on the upside it now has a lot of good hamburger shops. These hamburger shops have a tinge of the East in them; they are wonderful, but they are Japanese. This isn't a bad thing. Reg-On in Shibuya makes a wonderful burger, but it's the Japanese interpretation of what an American 50's diner burger should be.

If you venture to the Kagurazaka area in Tokyo, known for French cuisine and French expats, you may find a hamburger shop called Martini Burger a short walk from the station. In an unlikely spot, this is a real New York hamburger shop. Inside it's not a run down joint like the amazingly grungy Paul's in the East Village, but instead has more in common with the hotel bar at the W or the Aloft (yes, I'm a Starwood guy).

The proprietor Eliot Bergman is as authentic as the burgers - a soft-spoken but blunt New Yorker who speaks fluent Japanese and somehow manages to keep these diametrically opposed cultures from imploding. Ah, a cynical Tokyo-ite, that rare breed.

The interior feels expensive, as does the burger. As opposed to a typically small $10 Tokyo burger, their creations start at around $15 and comes with a bit fancier sides as opposed to a traditional pile of carb-loaded fries. On my first visit I tried some roasted rosemary potatoes - delicious but a Japanese sized portion. The burger is the opposite - an American sized slab of beef, cooked medium rare unless otherwise requested. A great char and adequate salt and pepper seasoning - something that almost everyone gets wrong (except for his lordship Danny Meyer - hallowed be thy name). The mustard aioli nicely complements the rest of the expensive ingredients. The bun is light and chewy, although it could be a little more airy so it doesn't dominate the burger. Again, very few shops get the burger to bun ratio perfect (all hail Meyer).

This is one of the very few genuinely American high quality burgers in Tokyo. The texture is perfect, the seasoning is familiar and the English is flawless. The interior feels a bit more date-like than an everyday burger shop, but that's typical for Japan as burgers appeal to a very different demographic than in the USA. I feel like the interior could be a bit more comfy for dates, but the design is impressive with its modern feel. (Modern and comfy rarely coexist without friction).

I'm originally from New York, and despite being a devout In N Out convert, overall New York might win the burger war with quantity. Shake Shack, Minetta Tavern, Spotted Pig, Burger Joint, Paul's, etc. LA has In N Out, Plan Check, an overrated Father's Office, a very overrated Umami Burger, etc.

So, we're sorry we crashed the world economy, but you're welcome for the burgers. Goldman Sachs and Shake Shacks. Let's call it even.

Ambience 7/10, Burger 8.5/10, Fries N/A

Mo Better Burgers

A long time ago, there was a burger joint in Los Angeles called Mo Better Meatty Meat Burgers. Besides being an enjoyable mouthful to say (try it now - I'll wait), they also produced a pretty fantastic burger in a slightly run down looking structure at Fairfax and Pico. An even longer time ago, that same burger joint was located on Melrose back when Melrose actually felt kinda cool. (Yes, this was the mid 90's).

Alas, Mo Better Meatty Meat Burgers closed down. There were complaints - it was slow, it wasn't in the nicest location, it was kinda expensive, etc. Still, I missed it.

So I was excited to see that Mo Better Meatty Meat Burgers had reopened on LaBrea, although now it had been truncated to Mo Better Burgers. I had been burger hunting in Asia for months and had been unable to visit, but recently I met up with photographer (and Instagrammer extraordinaire) Pete Halvorsen for lunch at their new location.

Let's get a few things out of the way. It's in a weird mini-mall. I've lived in this general area for years and it's always been a weird mini-mall. The patron saint of mini-malls must have cursed it. Still, the interior of the shop is pretty comfy, so I can't deduct too much for the location. At least on the day I went the parking lot seemed pretty open, which slightly improved my disposition as I was truly feeling nostalgic for the wonderful train system in Tokyo.

Similar to the old incarnation, this is not fast food. It's gonna take you 15-20 minutes to get your burger on a quick day. I think it might've taken us longer, but it wasn't uncomfortably long as we knew what to expect (and they warned us).

Now the important part. It's very similar (in a good way) to the old Mo Better Meatty Meat Burger, with a perfect char on the 5oz patty and simple tasty toppings atop a nicely squishy bun. Shredded lettuce, raw or grilled onions, tomato, mayo, etc. I haven't been to the old shop in about ten years, but I  remember the beef seasoning to be stronger. Maybe when they removed the Meatty Meat from the name, they removed a bit of the heavy handed seasoning. I actually preferred the old seasoning, but this was still a really good burger; I'm quibbling based on a ten year old comparison to a cult favorite. Of course my memory is always reliable, so I'm sure I remember it perfectly.

Compared to Japanese burgers, there's a common difference. Good American shops get the beef cuts and grind absolutely perfect. The meat texture here couldn't be any better. Yet I feel that the Japanese shops actually do a better job with condiments, toppings, sauces and sometimes seasonings (although I'd say seasoning is a tie - except for Shake Shack which kills it with their seasoning - all hail the king). The fries were similar to the old shop, although I wouldn't mind them a bit crunchier (I had the same complaint ten years ago).

The menu is quite simple (offering a beef burger, steak burger and turkey burger). It does not have tacos on it. Why is this notable? Because they secretly serve tacos as well, although I haven't tried them. When Pete and I were standing in the parking lot afterwards, the shopkeeper (maybe the owner?) came out to give us coupons for free tacos on our next visit, so I will eventually report back. Any self respecting Los Angeles establishment has to have a secret menu, secret entrance, secret cult affiliation. Just something secret.

This is a good burger on a stretch of LaBrea without too many good burgers (Umami Burger closed this location - but I always think they're overly heavy anyways). If you want a taste of the old Mo Better Meatty Meat Burger, this satisfies the urge pretty nicely.

Ambience 7.5/10, Burger 8.5/10, Fries 7.5/10

All Orders

Photography is a peculiar job.

Thus I found myself on a Monday afternoon accompanying a photographer friend to the Nishi-Azabu area of Tokyo. He was shooting for a Chinese newspaper on strange places to visit in Tokyo. Unfortunately I had missed the Owl Cafe part of the shoot, so I joined him on his Japanese S&M Club visit. We had an hour to kill before the shoot and decided to further my cultural research at a nearby burger shop.

On the Japanese review sites, the All Orders burger shop had a decent rating. Not great, but not bad. Decent marks for food, but a low rating for ambience. The reasons for that soon became apparent.

As we took in the strange furnishings of All Orders, we really couldn't categorize it. Looking more like something you would expect to find in India, it felt like a cross between's someone's house, a bar and maybe a burger shop.

The front window was dirty, the furniture didn't match (and not in that most Japanese curated mismatched style), and they served curry, burgers, draft beer, Moet and Chandon champagne, diner steaks, etc. Even the vinyl exterior sign was all mixed up - advertising hamburgers, steak, antipasto and beer. Pretty much the definition of scattered.

With pretty low expectations, I ordered my usual avocado burger and my photographer friend decided on the diner-style steak.

The plating matched my low expectations. Although perfectly satisfactory and actually somewhat appetizing, I've gotten used to Japanese burgers looking like small little art installations. This just looked like…a burger.

And it tasted…like a burger. A surprisingly good burger. Nicely seared on the outside and well seasoned. A well matched squishy bun with fresh avocado. I don't understand how 100% of Japanese avocado is perfectly ripe and unblemished. Maybe the fries could have been crispier, but they were still tastier than I expected.

In short, I'd eat here again. Is the texture perfect? Nope. Are the fries among the best I've had in Tokyo? Definitely not. But it was very satisfying and I wouldn't hesitate to pop in again for the burger if I found myself in the area again.

The Japanese S&M club, on the other hand, wasn't worth a return trip. Quite bland and overpriced, unlike my peculiar friend All Orders.

(My friend's diner steak was reported to be quite satisfying, as was the Owl Cafe - two things to put on my to-do list).

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