Some days, sushi just isn’t what the belly wants. You’ve had your fill of washoku, and you’re not up for yet another bowl of noodles. The heart cries out, “give me a burger,” and, lucky you, these days there are gourmet burger shops all over Tokyo.
Sadly, style over substance often takes priority, and many shops put more effort into their toppings than their burgers, with a veritable salad of lettuce and too-thick slices of tomato and onion dwarfing the patty.
Based on recommendations from burgerheads and chefs alike, I tried over 20 of the best burger restaurants around town, and the five shops below more than sate the hunger for a proper burger. For the purposes of a controlled experiment, I tried to stick to each shop’s bacon cheeseburger to judge them as fairly as I could. And although more foreign chains open up in Tokyo every year, I stuck to the locals for this list.
A word of warning: Many of Tokyo’s gourmet burger options are not cheap. Expect to spend around ¥1,400 for most burgers, and ¥2,500 (or more) if you add a shake and that side of onion rings.
This Ikebukuro shop was recently featured on TV Tokyo’s “Japan Women’s Gourmet Burger Club,” so be prepared for a line, even if you arrive before its 11 a.m. open.
But the burger is worth the wait. No. 18’s burgers are made from a hand-chopped beef chuck mixed with a little mince to hold the patty together, resulting in a meatier texture than a burger made only from minced meat. Its buns (from renowned bakery Mineya) are gently toasted in the oven, giving them a pleasant all over crispiness that stands out from most shops. My burger (¥1,350) comes heaped with bacon, its smoky flavor adding to, not distracting from, the beef patty, which is one of the best I’ve ever had. A mountain of shredded cheese (mozzarella or cheddar) is piled on top, then finished off with a propane torch for a little caramelization and texture.
The homemade onion rings are hugely popular, and the smoky, spicy homemade ketchup is ¥50 extra, but a must try. Get there early, as No. 18 closes when it sells out, sometimes as early as 2:30 p.m.
Higashi-Ikebukuro 2-57-2, Toshima-ku 170-0013; 03-6914-3718; bit.ly/no18hamburger; takeout available
Cruz Burgers & Craft Beers
Set back a couple blocks from the busy Koshu Kaido, between Yotsuya and Yotsuya San-chome, Cruz serves up one of my favorite bacon cheeseburgers (¥1,350) of all time.
Cruz is one of several burger restaurants started by people who’ve worked at Fire House Burgers, a longtime burger shop in Bunkyo Ward, and their experience shines through. Cruz serves hand-chopped burgers grilled over charcoal; sources buns specially formulated to stand up to its juicy patties; and smokes its own bacon. The burgers come topped with three sauces — house barbecue, mayonnaise and Thousand Island — and they work well together.
With several taps of craft beer and a soundtrack of punk and ska, Cruz is a great place to spend a couple hours. If you’re not feeling something alcoholic, the coffee shake hits the spot on a hot day.
Yotsuya Saneicho 15-6, Shinjuku-ku 160-0008; 03-6457-7706; bit.ly/cruzburgers; takeout and delivery available
Blacows, a restaurant run by specialty butcher Yazawa Meat, serves 100 percent wagyu burgers. They come served on original buns provided by Maison Kayser bakery, with bacon made from Chiba Prefecture Nadeshiko pork.
Everything about this Ebisu burger restaurant screams “high end,” including the prices. A bacon cheeseburger and fries runs ¥1,900 (before tax), easily the priciest burger on this list. A rarity, Blacow’s bacon cheeseburger is just that — no lettuce or tomato getting in the way of a solid, charcoal-grilled burger and top-notch bacon. The buns are grilled to perfection, the bottom attaining a texture close to crunchy garlic bread, adding to the already superb mouthfeel. Topped with a rich homemade barbecue sauce and house tartar sauce, it’s an excellent, juicy burger. Definitely worth trying for a special occasion.
Ebisu 2-11-9, Shibuya-ku 150-0021; 03-3477-2914; bit.ly/blacows-en; takeout and delivery (for orders over ¥5,000) available
Folk Burgers & Beers
Hidden among low office buildings a couple of streets away from the bookshops of Jinbocho, Folk serves up a memorable burger. Like Cruz, Folk was started by a chef with experience working at Fire House, and it shows in the quality of the juicy, hand-chopped patty and house bacon.
I couldn’t resist its Folky Smoky Bacon Cheese (¥1,650), a charcoal-grilled burger topped with a pile of tender barbecue brisket. The combination of burger, delicious bacon and tender, fall-apart brisket was a revelation I can’t recommend enough. Folk also serves a nice range of craft beer, both on tap and in bottles.
Kanda Jinbocho 2-8-1, Chiyoda-ku 101-0051; 03-3511-3188; bit.ly/folkburgers; takeout available
McLean Old Fashioned Diner
Located in the quietly booming Kuramae neighborhood of eastern Tokyo, McLean Old Fashioned Diner, the second McLean shop in the area, just opened its doors on July 17 and is already making some fantastic burgers.
While McLean’s burger patty is a little thinner than I prefer, texture-wise it more than holds its own with a solid, meaty bite and flavorful seasoning. The bacon is rich and smoky, and it comes with a layer of pickle relish, all served between Mineya buns (¥1,300). Everything on McLean’s menu is delicious, filling and, unlike a lot of the towering burgers served around Tokyo, remarkably easy to eat. The milkshakes, especially the peanut butter one, are even more amazing.
Kuramae 2-5-4, Taito-ku 111-0051; 03-5823-4890; bit.ly/mcleandiner; takeout available
Originally, I anticipated Bunkyo Ward’s venerable Fire House Burgers would top this list. Operating since 1996, it really set the bar for a lot of burger restaurants in Tokyo. While Fire House still serves a great burger, there are just so many places — some run by former employees — that have built on Fire House’s example and pushed burgers to new places.
Case in point, Jack 37 Burger, near Bakurocho, is run by another Fire House alum. Definitely try one of its Balinese Burgers, which comes topped with homemade sambal sauce, a spicy, garlicky Indonesian staple. This sauce has a noticeable heat, and complements Jack 37’s burger perfectly.
Burger Mania in Ebisu, part of a growing burger and sandwich empire, serves up a stellar burger and wonderful shake; I look forward to going back and trying its Cherry Burger (only available at its Hiroo and Ebisu branches). On the shake front, Burger & Milkshake Crane, near Akihabara, is of particular note.
Bashi Burger Chance in Ikebukuro serves the best onion rings I’ve had in years, with a thick, crunchy homemade batter. And Eight Burger’s, tucked in a Shimokitazawa side street, has a laid-back atmosphere and a well-made burger that’s a nice change of pace. And make sure to check out Great Lakes Tokyo for one of Tokyo’s best vegan burger options.