Forget everything you know or thought you knew about food in Tokyo. Forget about raw fish and ramen, soba and soybeans. Forget, too, that the Japanese capital has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris and New York combined. The truth about Tokyo, the place considered the "world capital of gastronomy," is that it's crazy for burgers. Not McDonald's or Burger King - although they're competitors - but souped-up, pimped-out, fully loaded, over-the-top gourmet burgers.
You name it and Tokyo's burger restaurants are using it. Make room, tomatoes and onions: Here come avocado, foie gras, prosciutto, egg, blue cheese, eggplant, asparagus, baby corn, mango. Sometimes, the toppings are distinctly Japanese - grated wasabi, fried seafood and even rice patties substituting for hamburger buns. Once in a while, they're soaked in different vinegars, letting the mouth know that this is a whole new burger experience.
Some of Tokyo's burgers look like sea creatures; others are dressed up for special occasions, like the cherry and cream cheeseburger at Burger Mania during cherry blossom season. A few spots encourage diners to break with tradition and squish their side of crispy onion rings right on top of their burgers, often adding to an already growing pile of extras.
If you're a vegetarian and you're feeling left out, don't. Veggie burgers are also on the menu - juicy slabs of tofu or mushroom that look every inch as appealing, and menacing, as the real thing.
"Burgers have become a very casual food in Japan, just like rice balls, and [they're]a very popular choice for lunch," says Ken Saito, a blogger and expert on this city's bun-and-patty predilection.
In Saito's world, burgers are a blank canvas. He maintains that the taste depends on how restaurants cook each ingredient - and how they stack them. "The taste changes if you eat the hamburger upside down," he says.
Saito's love of burgers bloomed after a stint in the U.S. as a boy. These days, he writes reviews and posts photos of some of Tokyo's best burgers, from the most expensive to the most unusual. It's a mouth-watering tribute to this city's burger culture, which has changed significantly since McDonald's opened its first restaurant here in 1971 and the homegrown MOS Burger got in the game a year later.
"The first burgers were a treat, a foreign thing, like pizza," Robbie Swinnerton, a restaurant critic for The Japan Times, told me between bites at Burger Mania in Tokyo's Shirokane neighbourhood. "All the same, it was still a burger chain, a franchise as cheap as they can make it."
That changed in the 1990s, Swinnerton explains, as Japan's economy took a decade-long slumber. A movement sprang up for foods with better-quality ingredients at more reasonable prices. Gourmet burger restaurants were born. Fast-forward to 2010 and you'll find no shortage of these places in Tokyo, catering to every taste.
"Like everything in Japan, there's an alchemy process," Swinnerton says. He was midway through a Burger Mania platinum burger, which uses strips of beef in place of the ground-beef patty.
"People are working, working, working on an idea, until they come up with something. It's still very much a burger. But it becomes a Japanese burger."
With one eye on the grill, Burger Mania owner Shunsuke Moriguchi gives his take. Burgers allow for a certain type of creativity, he says. He points his spatula at a stack of tomato, onion and lettuce, waiting to be united with a bun and patty. There's a certain foundation a burger must have, he says, and from there, anything goes.
"The result is a more visually satisfying burger," Saito says. "Because Japanese people like colourful food, the gourmet burgers have become very popular."
But it's more than just a visual thing.
"There's a certain exoticism. Burger equals America," Swinnerton says. "In a sense, you eat a burger because you want a little vicarious trip to America."
While imitation is a form of flattery, in Japan it's a form of ownership, a chance to take something foreign and make it Japanese. And, in some respects, to make it better.
Special to The Globe and Mail