Ramen Burgers: What’s the Beef?

“Want ground beef and cheese with your ramen?”

This question you don’t ever expect to hear at a ramen restaurant. At least, for now anyway. But can it be that far behind when the latest craze of Japanifying popular American food is the ramen burger? Yep, that’s right, a ground beef patty sandwiched between two ramen “buns.” But, before I get to that, let’s consider what has gone on before, what blazed the trail to this brain child of enterprising Manhattan Japanese chef, Keizo Shimamoto.

When pizza became an international food, Japan was quick to adapt it to its tastes. While some toppings may be familiar to Americans, others such as octopus, squid, scallops, clams, crab, tuna, mayonnaise (Kewpie brand, no doubt), shimeji mushrooms, bamboo shoots, nori (seaweed), shiso (perilla), among others, are about as alien as making pork & beans with natto. Personally, a lot of those toppings don’t sound half bad. But, the pizzas are made for Japanese consumption and what people eat on their own shores is, to put it mildly, none of my business.

Pizza topped with clams, shrimp and nori (from japanesesnackreviews.blogspot.com)

Then, in Vancouver, B.C., some ambitious businesspeople launched Japadog. The concept is simple: offer traditional Japanese condiments to accessorize a standard hot dog. To some die-hards, the idea might be sacrilege. Substitute teriyaki mayonnaise for catsup, grated horseradish (daikon oroshi) for sauerkraut, wasabi for mustard? You get the idea. But, at least, the foundations remain the same: sausage and bun. With the right combinations, could this work? Happily, it does at Japadog. Along the same lines, Seattle has its Gourmet Dog Japon.

Oroshi dog

Oroshi dog (Japadog)

And now, live from New York, we have the ramen burger. If the concept were similar to the Japanese hot dog, namely replacing traditional condiments with Japanese ones, okay. For someone like me who’d rather have an unadorned burger, maybe the addition of grilled shishito peppers, Japanese green onions (negi), a dash of shichimi might be worth a try. But Shimamoto’s idea was to replace the burger bun entirely with coiled ramen noodles shaped like buns and fried. Granted, like bread, ramen noodles are taste-neutral, but viscerally the thought of biting through a bunch of chewy and crusted pasta and a beef patty at the same time just doesn’t do it for me. How about adding a slice of cheese with that, which is actually an option? The bun is supposed to play second fiddle, a supporter of the patty, not an equal partner. You don’t normally pay much mind to the bread, unless it’s dry or otherwise indisposed. But ramen? It competes for your attention. And therein lies its lack of appeal for me. While the adaptations described above have some draw (to me, anyway), the ramen burger doesn’t, not even remotely.

The next thing you know, someone’s going to want to pair musubi with Spam.

Ramen burger (image from i1-news.softpedia-static.com)

Hot Dog Fusion: Gourmet Dog Japon

Hot on the heels of the hot dog concept started by Japadog in Vancouver, BC, Seattle saw the opening of Gourmet Dog Japon in 2010 that offered up riffs on the American hot dog with Japanese condiments. Could this work here? The reviews have been positive. As with any adventurous food fusion project, no matter how “way out” it appears, success still boils down to whether unlikely combinations of ingredients taste good together in fresh ways. Japadog has been doing very well with its offerings. The oroshi dog I had there was delicious.

Could we say the same thing for the Samurai Dog here, which Andrew Zimmern had the hots over? Well, yes, to a large degree. Rather than the apple chicken sausage that comes standard (c’mon, really? Apple chicken?), I substituted a beef dog. Sandwiched between a lightly toasted Kirkland (i.e., Costco) bun—that glutinous wunderkind of bread—the sausage also comes with sliced Japanese green onions (negi), grated horseradish (daikon oroshi) and wasabi mayo. There was also a special soy sauce that complemented the oroshi. This was a very fine dog (☆☆☆½), substantial, savory and pungent. My wife asked for a modification to her Matsuri Dog (☆☆½), substitution of daikon oroshi for grated carrots. Otherwise, there were also slivered seaweed (nori), teriyaki glazed onions and Japanese mayo (Kewpie) dressing a kielbasa sausage. Her complaints were that the teriyaki onions made the dog too sweet and daikon oroshi was insipid from not having been freshly grated. Otherwise, the nori provided excellent toasty, briny notes. I discovered after getting home that the Kabuki Dog features red ginger, cabbage, bonito flakes (katsuobushi) and Japanese mayo, which I would really like to have tried. It wasn’t on the menu, so I wonder if it’s no longer offered. Or could it be a combination that just didn’t sell?

Some of the dogs on the menu were not what I’d expect from a business trying to promote Japanese flavors, making one wonder if they’re trying to appeal to American tastes. A Pizza Dog is topped with mozzarella and pepperoni. Chili Maru & Cheese has bacon, chili and cabbage.

For now, Japadog is still king but Gourmet Dog Japon is a good substitute.

Gourmet Dog Japon
Corner of 2nd Ave and Pike
Seattle, WA