Simple in concept, infinite in variety, the burger may be a perfect food.
There’s something sublime about a hamburger. It’s a food everyone knows, and it’s not terribly expensive. You don’t have to dress up or go out of your way to eat one.
You certainly don’t need to take it too seriously, yet a burger is serious satisfaction—quick, hot and filling.
Simple in concept—beef patty, a bun—a burger is capable of almost infinite variety. The bun rises to accommodate a smear of secret or not-so-secret sauce, then lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions and cheese, always cheese. After that, you can go crazy with bacon, avocado, roasted peppers, sautéed mushrooms, kim chee, whatever you want, maybe even foie gras.
Still, it’s no trouble. Just pick it up and eat it, no knife, no fork, no plate even. It looks tidy, like a sandwich, yet it’s satisfyingly messy. The toppings escape, and a good burger is likely to drip down your wrist.
I love burgers. The fanfare that sounded when The Counter opened in Kahala Mall reminded me that Honolulu was replete with burger joints. Fire up the grill, I thought, that’s where I’m eating this month.
Some caveats: I did not go to restaurants with a hamburger on the menu, however good. I skipped Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room burger, the Formaggio Kobe beef burger and Murphy’s Guinness burger, although there are people who swear by these.
Nor did I eat fast-food burgers. I figured you either knew what a Big Mac was like—or would never eat one anyway.
I wanted places that focused on burgers, preferably serving them in plastic baskets on waxed paper the way God intended.
With a few duds, the news was pretty good.
Kahala Mall, 4211 Waialae Ave. // 739-5100 // Open daily 11 a.m., Monday through Thursday until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.thecounterburger.com
The Counter generated excitement far beyond the opening of a new franchise restaurant. There was the star power of its owners—high-profile restaurateur DK Kodama (Sansei, Vino, Hiroshi Eurosion Tapas, DK’s) and even higher profile Lost star Daniel Dae Kim. (For more, see sidebar “Breakfast With DK and DDK.")
I should mention the owners also include Ed Robles and Pablo Buckingham, both of whom are hands-on at the restaurant—and it’s their performance that’s likely to matter in the long run.
The Counter is not quite a burger joint. It’s a casual restaurant with an extremely limited menu. It has sit-down service, plates and silverware, and a full bar, which made it a perfect place to sit down with an old friend, have a couple of cocktails and a bite to eat. A burger, since that’s pretty much the only choice.
What are the burgers like? Big. The smallest is a third of a pound, cooked weight, which means it started somewhere near 7 ounces of handmade Angus beef patty. You can eat the patty just by itself, it’s got the texture down, the right seasonings, wonderful beefiness. It’s a foundation on which you can build a reliable burger.
Breakfast with DK and DKK
As part of the media blitz for the opening of The Counter, I had a morning interview with restaurateur DK Kodama and Lost actor Daniel Dae Kim.
DDK is the most down-to-earth and outgoing TV star I’ve ever met. (Well, with the possible exception of the late William Conrad, of Cannon and Jake and the Fatman fame, who got me thoroughly buzzed on screwdrivers one memorable Sunday morning.)
As DDK and I sat and talked, DK, who is incapable of sitting in one place for very long, hopped up to make us breakfast—a great loco moco, with a thick patty and far-better-than-usual gravy, kim chee on the side.
“I can’t tell you how great it is to live in a place where everybody knows what kim chee is,” said Kim, whose investment in the restaurant, the first of three planned for Hawaii, is a way of setting down roots here, where he wants to stay after Lost wraps up in another season and a half.
“My wife and children are Korean, Korean-American, but in Hawaii, the American is assumed,” he says. “You can grow up here without a chip on your shoulder because you’re never made to feel foreign. I want that for my kids, so I am planning to make a life here and this is the first step.” —J.H.
I’d resolved to eat only classic garnishes—cheese, lettuce, onion, pickle, tomato slice and mayo—but one look at The Counter’s menu and I capitulated.
The fun here is the profusion of choices, so many that The Counter’s national Web site asserts there are 312,120 possible different burger combos—though the way I do the math, there are actually millions by the time you run through all the permutations of toppings.
You can have cheese, all right, but why not Danish blue cheese? Lettuce, but why not mixed baby greens? Mayo, but why not roasted garlic aioli? Onions, but why not grilled onions? (Onions should be grilled. Cooking kills the enzymes that create propanethiol S-oxide, the nasty chemical that makes you cry.)
While you’re at it, why not add the excellent honey-cured bacon? I loaded up my burger, let the toppings perhaps dominate the flavors, but it sure was a pleasant ride.
The Counter was not perfect. My friend ordered well-done, got medium rare. I ordered medium-rare, got well-done. The kitchen mixed up the buns too, so he got the whole wheat. But it was still in the early days, so it will straighten out.
We went crazy ordering sides, which can run up to $4 each: sweet-potato fries, some crunchy, fried onion strings and heavily battered, deep-fried pickle chips. My friend took one look at the pickle chips and said, “For a moment I thought we were in North Carolina, where if it ain’t fried, it ain’t food.”
The Counter is slightly expensive for burgers—the cheapest is $8.95 and you can build up easily from there. But as dinner out, it’s a great deal—and, more important, a stellar burger.
Here are some things John Heckathorn had to say in past months. Visit our Dining page to read more reviews!
• St. Louis Drive In
3145 Waialae Ave.
• Umeke Market and Deli
1001 Bishop St., Suite 110
In an area dense with lunchtime takeout eateries, the downtown Umeke Market and Deli is ambitious, offering everything from hot dishes and made-to-order sandwiches to organic snacks and dietary supplements, says Heckathorn. He recommends the free-range turkey meatloaf, “stuffed with vegetables … [and] nowhere near as dry as it sounds.” Wash it down with Blue Sky organic sodas or freshly blended smoothies. Reviewed in our November 2008 issue.
Teddy’s Bigger Burgers
Koko Marina Shopping Center, 7192 Kalanianaole Highway // 394-9100 // Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. // Free parking, cash only // www.teddysbiggerburgers.com
You have to admire Teddy’s for taking the whole 1950s burgers thing seriously. It serves burgers in plastic baskets with red-checked waxed paper, and the décor is a riot of red ceilings, and red, yellow and blue booths.
The burgers are reasonably priced, starting at $4.65 for 5-ounce patty, although everything, including the cheese, is an add-on. The ground-chuck patty comes off the gas grill with a nice charred taste (Teddy’s automatically cooks them well-done).
The pleasant potato bun is slathered with an orange sauce that’s disturbingly sweet. The onions aren’t grilled.
Teddy’s puts out a solid, but not thrilling, burger at a decent price. The one big plus here: the milk shakes are chock-full of real ice cream. Teddy’s pricing is so complicated I’ve never quite figured it out, but a milkshake is only $2.75 if you “upgrade” from a $7.25 combo meal.
Oh, and fries. I made the mistake of ordering the spicy version, which was not so much spicy as oversalted, with just enough burn from red pepper to make things seem even saltier.
Island Fine Burgers and Drinks
Ala Moana Shopping Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd. // 943-6670 // Open daily 11 a.m., Monday through Thursday until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards // www.islandrestaurants.com
Unlike The Counter, Island Burgers is not a franchise. It’s a privately held chain of 50 restaurants that started in Los Angeles, but was apparently inspired by founder Tony DeGrazier’s memories of 1960s Oahu.
The Ala Moana version is large, reasonably comfortable, with almost chirpy waitstaff and aggressively cute menu names. I ordered the Big Wave with cheese, which is a standard lettuce-tomato-onion-pickles cheeseburger. The onion was raw, the burger was just OK. Not bad, just extremely dull, the beef alone almost devoid of flavor. Not much for $10.95.
Ironically, my friend’s was better. She’d proclaimed her willingness to eat a burger for lunch, but as she read the menu, she kept complaining that red meat would undermine her fitness regimen and long-term health. “Oh,” chirped the waitress. “All our burgers now come with turkey patties. At! no! extra! cost!”
OK, have turkey, I said, realizing this was compromising the whole project. Her Hula burger was gloppy with sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss, but I cut off a bite. What was that great spicy, herby flavor? I cut off another big bite, tasted the mushrooms alone, fairly dull. Tasted the cheese alone, just Swiss. Licked off the mayo, just mayo.
“Here, just take the rest,” said my friend. Finally, I isolated the flavor. The turkey patty had flecks of green herbs and black pepper. It was good, maybe not for $11.95, but better than the straight burger.
The price, it should be noted, includes “endless” fries. The burger comes with a relatively small portion of fries, but, OK, you could have more if you wanted. However, someone had done a brilliant piece of calculation about how many fries anyone normally ate, because once I’d finished my own and, admittedly, most of my health-conscious friend’s, we refused the offer of more.
Islands has a full bar, but since it was a weekday lunch, we were forced to forego its pleasures.
Kiawe Grill BBQ and Burgers
2334 S. King St. // 955-5500 // Daily 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday until 8 p.m. // Free parking, major credit cards
I love the hole-in-the-wall feel of the Kiawe Grill, the wonderful scent of a kiawe fire, the willingness to offer ostrich and venison as well as beef burgers.
This time, I brought along a pro-red-meat friend. The two of us ordered three burgers—Kobe beef ($8.65), the Prime Chuckburger ($9.35) and a venison ($8.65).
Kiawe Grill does burgers unadorned—some iceberg lettuce, an onion slice that would have been much better for a visit to the kiawe grill, a slice of tomato and a commercial grade, not particularly inspiring bun.
The meat has to carry it. The Kobe beef turned out drier and less flavorful than we expected, just a burger patty. The venison had, inevitably, its sharp, minerally edge, but it tasted mainly of the black pepper mixed into the patty.
The Prime Chuckburger was 10 ounces, and the big boy was the star here—juicy, with a fantastic charbroiled edge to the rich swirl of beef on the tongue. It was one of the better burgers I’d tasted all month.
Kiawe Grill serves thick-cut steak fries, not my favorite because they often stay damp and baked-potatoey inside. These, however, were crispy, not greasy, a fine complement to the burger.
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.