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Konnichiwa, Burgers!

I’ve eaten a lot of burgers in the past few years. While most of them have been in Philadelphia, I’ve also taken my burger adventures to Seattle, Vegas, Portland, NYC, Nashville and Louisville. That’s some pretty good domestic coverage! Well, I figured it was time to take my skills (aka my burger loving palate) overseas on a vacation – to Japan!

Now I know when you think Japan, burgers aren’t the first thing to come to mind, but the Japanese have a pretty big obsession with burgers, too. Remember Burger King Japan‘s Windows 7 promotion of 7 burger patties on one bun?

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Or their all-black burger (which, once it made it stateside gave everyone green poop!)?

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A Tokyo boutique burger shop, J.S. Burgers Cafe, is even doing Ghostbusters themed burgers as a promotion for the upcoming film:

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I traveled all over Japan while I was there, so I’ll be showcasing three burgers from three different regions. The first burger is from Ishigaki, an island located in Okinawa Prefecture that is part of the Yaeyama island chain. The island is famous for it’s free range cows that provide excellent quality beef. Located near the downtown ferry terminal is Kitauchi Farm Hamburger Shop, a small, unassuming food stand in front of a large souvenir store. I ordered the Kiwami Burger (instead of going for the nearly $25 filet steak burger), topped with lettuce, red onion,”ratatouille” (which was really just pickle & onion relish), dauphinoise and possible some kind of mayo or cream sauce, on a brioche bun. The burger was very juicy (although cooked completely through for Japanese food safety reasons) and the meat was like nothing I’d ever had before. It didn’t leave me feeling heavy like certain ground chuck or beef blends can be in America.  It was cooked smashed-style and was very fresh and delicious. It paired nicely with a can of Orion, a local Okinawan beer!

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The next place I traveled to was Hakodate, located on the north most island of Japan known as Hokkaido. It is home to a local burger chain known as Lucky Pierrot, which has a very unfortunate & creepy clown mascot. Also: Their most popular burger isn’t even an actual hamburger! It’s a fried chicken sandwich known as the “Chinese Chicken Burger”, which comes topped with lettuce and Japanese mayo. They love it so much, there’s a giant replica of one inside of of the shops.

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It’s also the only “burger” you can order as a meal set, which includes an iced tea & a mug of french fries topped with a cheese sauce & has chili underneath them (which was a pleasant surprise when I was eating them). The chicken was juicy and had a crispy breading on the outside; the glaze on them was also not too sweet or sticky. Hakodate was very cold & rainy, so this was the perfect meal for that weather. It warmed me right up!

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Finally at the end of my trip, I arrived in Tokyo where I dined at Blacows. All the burgers here are made with 100% Japanese black wagyu beef. I opted for the Avocado Cheeseburger, which was roughly $15; kind of on the high end price-wise for burgers in America, yet considering what this type of beef would cost in the U.S., it was practically a steal!

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The burger came topped with tartar sauce, marinated onion, Colby Jack cheese & slices of fresh avocado on a seeded, shiny brioche bun. There were also a few potato wedges & cornichons on the side. It took a long time for the burger to come out since they cook them all the way through, but it was still surprisingly juicy and delicious. Wagyu beef is so moist and tender; it truly is better than every other beef patty I’ve ever had. I’ll be sad to have to return to 80/20 blends and ground chuck or shortrib, but don’t worry, Japan – I’ll be back to eat more of your delicious burgers again soon!

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Like A Phoenix

Hawthornes Cafe is a Philly brunch & beer mainstay. Unfortunately about a year and a half ago, a devastating fire put them out of commission and left the Bella Vista neighborhood without one of their favorite bottle shops for almost a year. But like a phoenix, Hawthornes rose from the ashes and reopened better then ever this past spring – even becoming one of the first places in town to launch beer delivery! I stopped in on an unseasonably cold fall evening to warm up with a dark beer and one of their burgers. They have two options: the House burger, which is just your standard Angus beef patty topped with three-year aged Gouda and LTO, and the Hawthornes burger, topped with crumbled danish blue cheese, over easy egg, avocado & chipotle aioli. A fried egg AND avocado? Um yeah, I wanted that one!

The burger came out topped with a jiggly egg yolk just waiting to be cracked open. I smeared a little ketchup on the top of my brioche bun, pressed down and POP! Out oozed all that delicious yellow yolk. The patty was cooked perfectly to medium, the avocado was bright green and fresh, the chipotle aioli creamy with a kick, and the blue cheese crumbles gave the burger a nice, salty flavor without being overpowering like some blue cheese topped burgers I’ve had in the past. I used the bulk of the burger to sop up all the delicious yolk with every bite. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a burger that was so good I wanted to eat it again immediately afterwards. Everything about this burger was just perfection; a great treat on a chilly evening.

I’m glad to see that Hawthornes is back and thriving. You should check it out for yourself on Saturday, November 7th when they host their annual Fall Block Party. It’s a free event with fire pits, hay bales and of course – Beer! But make sure you hit the ATM beforehand as the event is cash only! Hope to see you guys there!

Burger rating: “A+”

Zin-fully Delicious

While making a weekend trip to South Jersey – for Wegman’s, obviously – we decided to pop into Zinburger, which happened to be in the same shopping center as the Wegman’s in Cherry Hill. Zinburger is a casual wine & burger bar, specializing in novelty burgers made of 100% certified Angus beef and American Kobe beef, which they grind in house three times a day. I didn’t want to go too crazy, so I ordered the Samburger – topped with Nueske’s Applewood smoked bacon, American cheese and 1000 island dressing.

Then I checked out photos on Yelp and immediately changed my order to the Breakfast Burger: topped with a Fried egg, smoked bacon, American cheese, avocado & mayo (I know, I know. That burger should have been my first choice since those are all my favorite things). Just like at Bobby’s Burger Palace, when your server asks how you would like your burger cooked, they confirm back to you with the color & temperature of your order; in my case, Medium, warm pink center and warm throughout.

The burger came out and looked amazing. The house grind meat had a great flavor and the patty was perfectly proportional to the bun. I made sure to keep the giant toothpick thing in the bun to hold everything together for a while so that the toppings didn’t spill out everywhere. The burger was slightly more on the medium-well side – I would have liked to see more pink inside – but it was very juicy. Normally I would ask for ketchup, but I didn’t even need any! I also wish the fried egg had been slightly runny instead of being cooked all the way. I was surprised how delicious it was for a “suburban chain”, considering my last South Jersey burger experience wasn’t so great. I’m definitely glad that I changed my order at the last minute. I would totally have regretted not getting this! The one downside would probably be that the burger doesn’t come with fries, but they have an assortment of onion rings & various fries that are the perfect size to split with another person – if you’re into that kind of thing.

Let’s face it – no one likes food shopping on an empty stomach – so fuel up beforehand at Zinburger. They also have an all day Happy Hour on Sundays where you can get their simple burger for only five bucks!

Burger rating: “B+”

 

When Life Gives You Lemons…

I had originally tried to go to Lemon Hill a few weeks ago, only to show up to locked doors and then sadly remembered it was Monday, a day when many restaurants in Philly are closed. Instead of being discouraged, I told myself I would come back after my vacation, as I had been dying to get in to try the burger there for over a year now (I know that seems ridiculous, but Fairmount is just one of those neighborhoods that I just never find myself in regularly)! After ordering a cup of Rival Bros Coffee – which the bartender said they just got in & she’d already had numerous cups of – I also ordered the burger and added avocado on top ($2 extra).

The burger comes topped with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (one of my favorite cheeses!), bibb lettuce, red onion, and malt vinegar-shallot aioli on a toasted ciabatta roll. I was surprised and excited to find the onions were slightly caramelized since normally if an onion is listed as one of the toppings, it’s usually raw. This added a little extra sweetness to the burger that I really enjoyed since the flavor of the aioli was kind of lost (a small smear of it was coated on the top bun). The cheese was gooey and almost curd-like, which was great because I could take a bite, slap on a little bit of cheese and repeat. The burger itself was nice and juicy, although cooked a little more on the medium-well side. My bartender suggested eating the burger over the fries so that they would soak up all the fat and be extra delicious. I already had a lot of drippings on my plate, so I just pushed the fries into them; still a good suggestion! I love adding avocado to a burger – especially on a warm day – as it gives everything a little bit of freshness and adds to the summery vibe.

When Lemon Hill first opened a few years ago, there was a patty melt on the menu that I found rather disappointing, so I was really excited to come back and try an actual burger when they updated their menu. It was definitely worth the wait for a return visit and a well-rounded burger. [Editor’s Note: Sadly, Lemon Hill announced yesterday that they have closed their doors for good, but I’m glad I was able to get in a final visit.]

Burger Rating: “B+”

Sinful Burgers

I’ve just touched back down in Philly from my trip to Vegas. If this blog post is any indication, clearly I didn’t win big on the penny slots – but I did hit the jackpot when it comes to eating some pretty awesome burgers!

First up: KGB – Kerry’s Gourmet Burgers – located in Harrah’s Casino. I’d never heard of Kerry Simon before, but apparently he was a contestant on Iron Chef and won, what else but a Burger Battle against Cat Cora. I checked out the Southwest Burger: An all natural beef patty, topped with avocado, cilantro, lime-marinated peppers and onions, pico de gallo, pepper jack cheese, avocado crème fraîche, all on a jalapeño-Cheddar bun. I was really impressed by the presentation and flavor of the burger. I love Tex-Mex flavors, so putting any of those ingredients on a burger gets me every time. However, all those awesome Tex-Mex ingredients quickly overwhelmed my burger once I removed the stick from the bun & it became a flaccid mess. I tried to remove some of the peppers & onions, but eventually had to concede defeats because I just couldn’t physically hold the burger anymore. My burger was cooked a little past medium into medium-well territory, but was still very juicy and tasty. [Burger Rating: C-]

Next, over at neighboring casino/hotel, The Palazzo, you’ll find I ❤ Burgers. Sounds perfect, right? I ordered their Standard burger, which is a ground Angus patty topped with lettuce, tomato & red onions. I also added cheddar & avocado for an additional $2 a piece, but my burger came out without the avocado on top. The menu states that all burgers are cooked to medium, pink throughout, unless otherwise requested, but again ended up being more on the medium-well side. The bun comes out toasted & branded with the I ❤ Burgers logo. I thought the flavor of the patty itself was tasty with a nice little bit of char, but otherwise very basic – and extremely overpriced – but hey, that’s Vegas, right?. (They also sold “I ❤ Burgers” t-shirts at their merchandise counter, so had to I got one, even if I didn’t love their burgers!) [Burger Rating: D+]

I feel like East Coasters are obsessed sometimes when it comes to all the awesome fast food chains that don’t exist on this side of the U.S., which is why I made sure to hit up a few of the most popular West Coast burger joints: Carl’s Jr and In ‘n’ Out.

At Carl’s Jr, I opted for the “Big Carl”, which is kind of a mash-up between a Big Mac & a Whopper. You’ve got your two all beef patties, special sauce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun (without the awkward middle bun you get on the Big Mac) PLUS you get the flame, charbroiled exterior on some monster sized patties. For a fast food joint, this was a pretty solid burger. [Burger Rating: B]

Lastly, what some consider to be the epitome of fast food burger greatness: I ordered a Double Double, Animal Style from In n Out, along with Animal Style fries. If you’re not familiar with In n Out’s “secret menu”, Animal Style is basically just a bunch of grilled, diced onions, cheese & Thousand Island sauce. It was fresh, delicious & absolutely amazing! (Can’t we start one of those White House petitions to get In n Out on the East Coast?) [Burger Rating: A+]

The day we arrived also just happened to be the opening of Bobby Flay’s first West Coast location of his burger joint, Bobby’s Burger Palace. Since I love BBP & have already been a bunch of times here on the East Coast, I didn’t really feel the need to eat there (although, they did introduce 2 new burgers – themed for Las Vegas & New Mexico – as well as added their Brunch Burger to their menu full time). However, we did stop buy and grab some of BBP’s famous Frozen Pear margaritas in their new BBP To Go Margarita Bar – and I’m glad we did, because Bobby Flay was there hanging out & filming promo stuff. He walked right past us when we were sitting down. I was so starstruck! Here’s a creep shot I took of B.Flay from my seat:

Nearly every hotel on the strip has it’s own gourmet burger bistro, so there’s no limit to all the burger deliciousness you could be having in Sin City. The only problem you’ll find yourself having is that there aren’t enough hours in a day – or room in your stomach – to eat them all!

The Devil in Me

Since it’s Halloween time (and tonight just so happens to be Mischief night), I decided to stay on theme and check out two “devilish” burgers at two aptly named bars: Devil’s Alley and Devil’s Den.

First up: Devil’s Alley – Instead of opting for their namesake Devil Burger which is topped with onion rings AND french fries, I kept it a little more low key with the guacamole, bacon & cheddar burger (editor’s note: and by ‘low key” I mean really hungover). The guacamole however, looked like it’d been sitting out for a while and was kind of brown and unappealing on top of my burger. The cheese was practically non-existent & the bun was super shiny. However, the burger itself was cooked perfectly pink on the inside and nice and charred on the outside; signs of a great bar burger. It was also a huge patty and completely proportional to the bun. Not once did I fear running out of bun or meat first and it held up with each bite.

Was it mind-blowingly amazing? For someone with a hangover, definitely. But otherwise, it was pretty basic. I’m definitely interested in going back and trying the Devil Burger on a regular/sober day to see how it compares.

Burger Rating: “C+”

Next, Devil’s Den’s House Burger: A brisket & short rib blend topped with lettuce, tomato & caramelized onions on a shiny, brioche bun. I opted to add cheddar and avocado for $1 more each to make it similar to the Devil’s Alley burger that I tried.

When the burger came out, I could already see the bottom bun sogging under all the juice of the meat. There was a ton of lettuce underneath the patty, probably trying to act as a “burger diaper”, but failing (WAY too much lettuce – I had to pluck some of it off because it was all hanging out the back of the bun). The burger was super succulent and cooked perfectly medium, but was otherwise forgettable; the brisket & short rib blend was practically flavorless. The avocado was fresh though, unlike the oxidized guac at Devil’s Alley. And I really liked the caramelized onion/cheddar topping combo. The fries came with a chipotle fry dipping sauce. I spread a little bit of that on the top bun but it was pretty bland and mayo-y; I didn’t get a kick from it at all.

Overall, the Devils’ Den burger was pretty much on par with Devil’s Alley: a decent bar burger, but nothing spectacular.

Burger rating: “C+”

National Cheeseburger Day

Since it seems like every food gets its own holiday nowadays, September 18th just so happens to be National Cheeseburger Day! So in honor of this magical day, I’m going to describe my dream cheeseburger:

First off, we start with a nice, fresh, soft Challah roll.

Next, the patty: Pat LaFrieda is the #1 name in burgers, so obviously, their 8oz shortrib blend – a delicious mix of flavorful meats – would make the perfect burger base.

Cooked to a perfectly pink-centered medium, of course.

Lettuce (preferably bibb or green leaf) and Tomato (a big, crisp beefsteak slice), obviously.

A few slices of fresh avocado

Some thick cut Applewood smoked bacon (Because, Bacon)

A fried egg

And finally, the most important part of all. The thing that really makes a cheeseburger a cheeseburger – THE CHEESE!

I’d go with a Cabot clothbound cheddar: a little bit sharp, a little bit sweet – kind of like me!

Smear a little mayo on the bun top, squirt a little ketchup happy face on top of the cheese and VOILA! Dream burger activated!

Hmm, that sounds kind of familiar, you might be saying to yourself. Indeed, the Betty Burger at Smoking Betty’s had a lot of my “dream” burger elements and so I thought it would be my burger soul mate, but it turned out we just weren’t right for each other. Now if a restaurant could make me a combination of everything I mentioned above, I might just be willing to put a (onion) ring on it.

What would YOUR dream cheeseburger be? Mention it in the comments below. It could be a Frankenstein of your own creation or something simple; it could even be your favorite pub or fast food burger! I’d love to hear from other passionate burger lovers.

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