Simple in concept, infinite in variety, the burger may be a perfect food.
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Kua Aina Sandwich Shop
Ward Center, 1116 Auahi St. // 591-9133 // Daily 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday until 8 p.m. // Free parking, cash only
The romance of Kua Aina faded for me when I no longer had to drive to the North Shore for its burgers. When I could have one simply by dropping by Ward, I somehow didn’t get there very often.
Mistake. Kua Aina simply has nothing to fear from the newer, hipper burger joints. Its hamburger is that good. The half-pound burger with cheese is only $7.90. It comes on a grill-warmed fresh kaiser roll that would be worth eating on its own, with a generous supply of tomato, lettuce and onion slices marked from the grill. You can get avocado, when they have it, which is not always, and $1 will buy you a generous three slices of bacon.
However, it’s the tang of the grill that makes the juicy patty come alive. Kua Aina’s two six-foot gas-fired grills looked pretty normal when I stuck my head in the kitchen. “So how do you get that flavor?” I asked the cook.
“Juices drip into the lava rock under the grill and flare that goodness right back up into the burger,” he said. There’s nothing mysterious or unique about that, but till I get a better explanation, it will have to do.
Kua Aina holds its own in a world of ever better burgers. But about those fries. The shoestring fries look authentic because they still have flecks of potato skin on them. I just don’t understand how they could cut them so thin and still send them out so soggy. All the magic must have been reserved for the grill.
Burgers on the Edge
888 Kapahulu Ave. // 737-8866 // Daily 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.burgersontheedge.com
The deal at Burgers on the Edge—the small, stylish burger joint across the parking lot from the Kapahulu Safeway—is pretty much the same as at The Counter.
You pick a size of burger—and here you have your choice between ground chuck or Wagyu (the kind of cattle that Kobe beef comes from)—then add one of eight cheeses, one of 12 sauces and up to four of 20 toppings, meaning there are a kazillion possible unique combinations.
You might think that The Counter copied Burgers on the Edge, but since there have been Counter franchises on the Mainland since 2003, it’s more likely the influence worked the other way.
Burgers on the Edge is small, no bar, a few cramped tables inside, a l-anai. It’s a pure burger joint. Its ground chuck, one-third-of-a-pound burgers start at $6.99, Kobe at $7.99 and add-ons like bacon don’t cost extra.
I took a young friend who eats as if every meal is his last. “I’ve gotta go for the Kobe beef with blue cheese, cabernet sauce, roasted red peppers, portabello mushrooms, bacon and, yes, yes, a fried egg,” he said.
I held firm: cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles, grilled onion. That way I could taste the chuck, which once again proved superior to the Wagyu for sheer beefiness. My classic was perfect, except the grilled onions were unnecessarily sweet.
My friend’s looked messy, but it certainly tasted great. (The burgers here are cut in half, so we switched halves mid-meal.) The fried egg, more hard- than easy-over, added richness. The sweet, powerfully concentrated flavor of roasted red peppers added depth, underscoring the beef.
The burgers were a full meal. As we were desultorily finishing up the onion rings—real rings of onion, lightly battered—I perused the “Faves” list on the menu, burgers in premade combos.
“Hmm,” I asked my young friend. “Can you split one more burger?”
“Kinda full, but I never turn down food when you’re buying,” he said. “What are we having?”
The “Parisian” burger. It came topped with a slice of foie gras, slightly undercooked, but that’s better than over. The foie gras added a luxurious halo of flavor and shimmering wings of texture, turning the normally dry Wagyu patty into an angel among burgers. Oooh, and add apples simmered in port wine for a touch of tart, a touch of sweet and just enough crunch.
I know, I know, I set out to eat good old, honest American cheeseburgers, and here I was licking my lips from a foie gras burger that cost $16.88. But at least I ordered it at a counter, and it came in a plastic basket on wax paper.
John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.