Top three burger joints on Okinawa
By David Higgins
Hamburgers are as synonymous with North America as Oktoberfest sausages are with Germany, yet one can be assured that a burger joint will usually not be too far from any point on the planet where one may find him/herself experiencing a terrible craving for an all-beef patty nestled within a toasted sesame seed bun (or at least a close substitute).
When living and working in a distant country and culture such as Japan, daily life can often be confusing and at times, overwhelming. These are the days when a plate of hearty comfort food can ease your mind and stomach. This is a task that can be tackled and satisfied with a good ol’ hamburger.
I have a long-standing love affair with hamburgers that has yet to wane. This is why I feel the need to clarify the misnomer that hamburgers are ‘fast food.’ True, the fast food restaurants in North America and elsewhere have cornered the market on a quick cheap burger, but those are not the burgers that have stolen a place in my heart or my stomach. Anyone who has eaten a burger beyond the grill of the golden arches knows that they can be as diverse and satisfying as any well-sourced and well-prepared food item.
The fast food burger sits in an individual ‘genre’ of burgers. We crave a good home-style, gourmet or fast food burger the way that we often crave to see a good comedy, horror or classic film. Sometimes you know it’s going to be bad but you still feel the need to prove it to yourself once again. The taste of flash-frozen meat patty, stripped of all freshness through excessive processing shoved into a mass-manufactured bun that has been sucked of all moisture for the sake of extended preservation, topped with rationed portions of GMO-packed, non-local produce and carcinogenic salty MSG packed sauces invokes an involuntary reaction of disgust whenever the golden arches or glowing logo of any type of fast food burger joint comes into sight.
As a personal reminder to myself, and all hamburger lovers living here, we do have options other than the mass-produced corporate empire burgers. To follow are three top picks for excellent independently owned and operated burger restaurants here on Okinawa.
First and foremost, my favorite burger joint is Gordie’s Hamburger. Gordie’s started out as a 4-seater in an old house/bar but as its popularity has grown, its expansion was made possible by actually removing a wall to accommodate the need for more seating.
The entrepreneurship of this Okinawan family-run business is pure genius in itself. The building actually sits on land in Sunabe that was once a part of the nearby U.S. Military base. Coincidence? I think not. The owners of Gordie’s knew that the American expats’ need for a good burger was a niche that needed to be filled in a location that was both easily accessible and full of vintage American memorabilia to provide the nostalgic comfort of home.
Beyond the location and decor, this place is always bustling for good reason. Their buns are homemade and baked fresh daily which results in ultimate freshness. Although the cows for the burgers are not raised by the owners themselves, the patties are also fresh prepared and topped with fresh local ingredients.
The ‘Chili Cheeseburger’ is incredible and my wife orders it every time. She cannot be swayed by anything else on the menu. Again, with the convenience of the location and the fact that it caters to expats and locals, its popularity is steadily growing. I have often heard even Chinese spoken by Hong Kong tourists visiting Okinawa.
My second favorite burger restaurant is really my first for taste but because of its less convenient location, it cannot take the top spot. Cafe Captain Kangaroo’s Hamburger Island is aptly named as it is located in Nago, and to be honest when I get hungry for a burger I don’t feel like driving one hour north to get it. Whenever I do get an opportunity to take a place in one of their assortment of comfy eclectic chairs, Captain Kangaroo’s never fails to impress my taste buds.
The menu is diverse but when it’s a juicy backyard grill-styled burger you crave, the Captain is packed with flavor and comes out ahead of Gordie’s Burger in this category. The Sparky Burger is my go-to burger here and is reasonably priced. On our most recent visit, we waited in a huge line to get in, and then waited for about 30 minutes to get our food, but when it arrived, it was well worth it. Mostly, I am impressed with a restaurant that has embraced the true spirit of the burger and completely fallen in love with preparing and perfecting it.
My final choice is relatively local and not independently owned or operated but it is the best option when fast food burgers are in order. MOS Burger is a burger franchise started by a Japanese businessman named Satoshi Sakurada who lived in LA for a time in the 1960’s. While there, he frequented a hamburger restaurant named Tommy’s and inspired by the ‘cook to order’ concept, returned to Tokyo to open his own American-inspired Japanese fusion burger restaurant in 1972. Since, MOS Burger has grown to become the largest hamburger chain in Japan and for good reason. It is much better than American fast food burger joints.
Although I never encourage anyone to eat at any fast food burger places under most circumstances, MOS Burger is the best option when you find yourself confined to a lonely food court where the only burger restaurants are large American franchises. What sets MOS Burger apart from the competition is that your burger has not been waiting for you under a heat lamp for an indeterminable amount of time. As Sakurada intended, all burgers are prepared fresh upon order. They also provide you with a substantial amount of produce inside the burger instead of the paper-thin slice of tomato we have come to expect from American fast food burgers.
My wife has had first hand experience working at MOS Burger, and she continues to commend their style of cooking as high quality food with high quality ingredients, although much time has come between her time as an employee at MOS and the present. After reading the highly-acclaimed book ‘Fast Food Nation’ by American author, Eric Schlosser, and then watching the documentary ‘Super Size Me’ by Morgan Spurlock, I have no interest in ever eating a Big Mac again.
It is not my expectation that you will immediately trust me when I recommend these burger joints, but I do believe that you will trust your own taste buds. Whether the taste of a ‘real burger’ is a new experience or a walk down memory lane, the first two places will knock your socks off. If you are at the airport or a soulless food court and your choices are limited, do yourself a favor and find a MOS Burger.
As you head out on your Okinawa burger adventure, be sure to ‘relish’ in the juicy diversity of flavors as you ‘ketchup’ with friends over who ‘mayo’ or may not have the best secret recipe for their own backyard BBQ burger creation (Sorry, couldn’t resist the condiment puns).