tokyo burger blog

burgers in tokyo and beyond

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

Burger's Base

If Burger's Base were described in real estate English, it would say "convenient location for train access." Or in regular English, "oh my god, the train is coming right at us!"

P1320865.jpg

Burger's Base is located right outside the semi-hidden East Exit of Yoyogi's JR Station. A small, two level cafe with seating for about 12 people, this is probably the closest gourmet burger cafe to my apartment in Tokyo and serves up a perfectly respectable burger that you would never regret in the morning.

P1320868.jpg

The standard Base Burger (ah, the Japanese love their wordplay) comes with a side of fries for ¥880 - a bit lower than the "average" gourmet burger shop in Tokyo. And these fries are half waffle fries, half shoestring. (In Japanese portion size, that means two waffles and about six shoestrings).

Again, the burger itself is the star. Although it tastes a bit "porky", it is actually 100% beef. Maybe it's cooked on the same grill where they cook their bacon and the flavor combines. Still, that's not necessarily a bad thing (and possibly the holy grail to some people). The texture of the patty isn't perfect, but the flavors all combine into one perfectly juicy mess. The bun is great - light and springy without overwhelming the burger. While the patty is maybe a 7-ish, the spices and condiments rate an easy 8.

P1320870.jpg

So if you're looking for a burger within 2 feet of the train tracks in Yoyogi, I'd highly recommend Burger's Base. 

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

http://goo.gl/maps/7xVWl 

3 Square

Abbot Kinney in Venice isn't just cute clothing boutiques, art galleries and vintage furniture shops. That's only 90% of Abbot Kinney. The other 10% is made up of casual fine dining establishments and precious cafes. 

If you were shooting a movie set in Venice, California (which means you'd probably be filming in Vancouver) and had to create a quintessential Abbot Kinney cafe from scratch (for the scene where the 30-something year old male lead - played by Tom Hanks - woos the 30-something year old female lead - played by Kristen Stewart), you would end up with something like 3 Square. There would be outdoor seating, an oh-so-casual feel to the space and the hostess would be beautiful but indie enough so she wasn't intimidating (let's go with Ellen Page - requisite Canadian). 

P1320624.jpg

Check, check, check. 3 Square is the kind of cafe that a Venice-living celebrity photographer like Randall Slavin would walk over to, park his dog at the curb and have a leisurely weekend brunch (let's call it…Wednesday).

With all that, you might think the food would be an afterthought. I can't say I believed my friend Randall's high burger praise, but we went to check it out one fine California afternoon. I was willing to take that risk (yes, I like extreme sports like burger hunting).

3 Square was my second burger on this LA trip (after The Apple Pan), and it was fantastic. Pretzel bun, gooey melted cheese, and what's this - a fried egg on top? Okay, I'm sold. Throw in some fries, and I'm reminded of the one burger area that I feel the Japanese could use some additional practice. Let's just say it like this - when it comes to fried foods, don't fuck with America. The french fries at 3 Square were amazing - possibly better than the burger, and better than any fries I've had in Japan (crispy duck fat fries at the Park Hyatt are decent, but 3 Square is better and the fries were not $14 plus a $22 cover charge).

P1320619.jpg

Days like this and I could almost imagine living in Venice again. Almost. 

Ambience 7/10, Burger 9/10, Fries 9/10

http://goo.gl/maps/OrA3I 

The Apple Pan

When I occasionally watch silly programs on the Food Network with titles like The Top 10 Places to Get Your Shoes Shined While Eating Soft Serve Ice Cream, it makes me wonder if those places are really worth the hype. They make all of them look fantastic, but when you have personal experience, sometimes the hype falls flat. I saw a glowing review (might have been on the Travel Channel, to be fair) of The Stinking Rose in Los Angeles. This is not a bad restaurant. This is a terrible restaurant. If you love garlic, which I do, it seems like a slam dunk. To give them credit, they manage to do very difficult things - like making garlic taste and smell unappetizing.

Anyways, the Top 10 Burger lists often include a small shack in Los Angeles called The Apple Pan.  I used to go there when I was at UCLA. It was run (and I believe owned) by a big, somewhat ruddy man who would interrupt you halfway through your order. "Hi, I'd like a Hicko-" and he'd cut you off with a brusque, "Ok, what else?" I believe he sold it, but now it is run by a smaller, somewhat darker complected man who is slightly less brusque. Besides that, I don't think it's changed in 60 years.

P1320604.jpg

And that's a good thing. The Apple Pan is a benchmark. It's heavy and the taste is rich, and they practically throw the burger at you (although I feel like the old owner had perfected the art of throwing the burger - now it just feels like it's slapped down quickly as opposed to being an actual projectile). The Hickory Burger - great. It's one mass of taste. The Steakburger - great. The fries - well, I'll stick with very good. I'll leave the pie to others - suffice to say I like the pie. Pie is the answer - not sure what the question was.  But the burger is the star. The taste, texture and sauce are all perfect and distinctive.

My one criticism is that somehow the whole things pulls together with a bit of a heaviness that I don't like.  Hard to describe, but Umami Burger has a similar feeling; it sits in your stomach and takes about two months to digest. Meanwhile, I feel like In-N-Out is light and fluffy like a cloud. Well, maybe not exactly like a cloud - maybe like a rainbow. Ahem. Anyways.

P1320614-1.jpg

After coming back from Japan recently, I went to The Apple Pan for my first meal. The burger is great; it easily matches anything in Tokyo. However, it's jarring to compare the perfect plating of Tokyo establishments to the workman-like atmosphere in an American joint. The Tokyo restaurants attempt to carefully replicate the "perfectly" sloppy plating of American burger joints; you'll learn more about Japanese culture comparing burgers than majoring in college (I've tried both).

P1320616.jpg
P1320617.jpg

The interior is the same. It works. You sit at a diner style counter with people standing behind you waiting for their turn. They probably throw a new coat of paint on the walls every 20 years. Yet it has the raw authenticity that the Japanese try to copy (and often succeed). Which is better? Try both and let me know. I'm on the fence. I like authenticity, but I don't mind "new and improved" authenticity.

Ambience 8/10, Burger 8.5/10, Fries 7.5/10

http://goo.gl/maps/cS1Us

Blacows

I don't know Ebisu very well. I don't know why I don't know Ebisu very well. It's a super cool neighborhood, chock full of restaurants and izakayas and boutiques and other fun stuff, but for some reason I still find myself wandering aimlessly with no sense of landmarks there.

P1320546.jpg

Having a slightly twisted ankle, I limped through Ebisu toward Daikanyama hunting down Blacows. Finding it at the off hour of 3pm on a rainy day meant I didn't have to queue. I'm not a big fan of waiting for things. Instant gratification is one of my favorite kinds of gratification. My 100% wagyu beef cheeseburger came out smothered in melted cheese, tartar sauce and some kind of bbq sauce. I've mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of mayo, but I make exceptions *sometimes* when it's used sparingly or incorporated into the sauce - a la Apple Pan type hickory sauce.

P1320542.jpg

Blacows serves a perfectly good burger that you'd never kick out of bed. Good seasoning, high quality beef, a springy bun, etc. Yet the flavors don't pull together in perfect harmony. I could taste the tartar sauce, bbq sauce and beef - all separately. Also, the texture of the beef was good, but it fell a bit short of places like Sasa or Shanks.

P1320538.jpg

If you find yourself wandering aimlessly in Ebisu (or limping aimlessly, as in my case), Blacows offers a satisfying burger for about $12, and the Hokkaido French Fries were good, but not as tasty as the detailed description made them sound (I'm a sucker for delicate and pretentious culinary prose). But is it worth going to Ebisu just to try Blacows? Possibly not.

Their website also has some beautiful burger prose if you're into such things, although like most culinary spatter, it tends to sound better than it tastes.

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

http://goo.gl/maps/KRIuK 

Shanks

Shanks is not a bar you you would just stumble upon. If you did  manage to stumble into the second floor of a generic building across from Sangubashi Station, you still wouldn't think of ordering a burger. The bar serves all kinds of whiskey, along with a pleasantly varied list of high end beers and some nice wines by the glass. 

P1320520.jpg

In fact, I was wondering if I'd come to the right place. The two small tables and five seat bar didn't leave a lot of room for eating, and the menu only had drinks.  Yet when I asked the bartender, she pointed out there was another page to the menu, and here I finally found the two burgers they offer.

I had struck up a conversation with the guy next to me at the bar and he turned out to be a local who assured me both of the burger options were great. The bartender warned me the burger takes at least 23 hours to make (okay, maybe it was 30 minutes).

P1320517.jpg

Although 30 minutes of commitment is a bit much for me, it turned out to be well worth it. The Smoky Cheeseburger lived up to its name. A rich taste, somewhat toasted bun, and some very smoky tasting cheese all combine for a completely satisfying burger experience. For $10 with no fries, it's a bit more expensive, but the quality is fantastic (aside from some very peculiar bitter pickles on the side that are best avoided - and this is coming from someone who loves kimchi, tsukemono, umeboshi, or almost anything pickled). 

P1320510.jpg

Friendly people, good service and a phenomenal burger. The only thing I don't like about Shanks is the typically Japanese ¥500 yen table charge that you get whether you order one drink or a whole meal. That just bugs me. I came to Japan to escape the land of vague tipping (oh, and maybe some culture stuff, too).

Ambience 8.5/10, Burger 8/10, Fries N/A

http://goo.gl/maps/XjsTJ