You won't often catch me enjoying sweet potato and mayo on my pizza, but I do get excited when skewed foreign incarnations of American fast foods slingshot back to the States—as they have at the purveyor of the aforementioned delicacy, the chain Cheogajip/Pizza and Chicken Love Letter, whose wild success in South Korea prompted it to stake out a toehold in a Niles strip mall in early 2008. But even more than straight versions of ethnic cuisine, these hybrids seem to have a hard time attracting customers outside the target immigrant community.
Four and a half months ago, when 37-year-old graphic designer Masaru Wachi opened Gabutto Burger, his Japanese-style burger stand in the Mitsuwa Marketplace food court, he was banking on an audience wider than Japanese expats to develop a yen for a very particular style of burger.
Wachi had no previous restaurant experience. But as a native of Chiba Prefecture, just southeast of Tokyo, he'd eaten his share of teriyaki burgers. Mos Burger and McDonald's, the chains he modeled Gabutto on, have thousands of franchises across Japan, so he knew what he was going for. He planned and executed Gabutto Burger—named for the onomatopoeic Japanese word for munching—over the course of about a year, studying trade magazines and Japanese recipe Web sites. His pitch to Mitsuwa's management, featuring the recipes he developed, was enthusiastically accepted.
Yet after a third of a year, in the midst of a collapsed-economy burger craze, the Gabutto burger hasn't found its way onto any of the recent top burger lists generated by local food writers. And that's not surprising. Wachi's patty formula incorporates an odd collection of ingredients—beef, pork (for extra fat), fresh panko bread crumbs for binding and, as Washi describes it, juice retention, plus milk to "kill the pork taste, kinda." Not strange at all in Japan. But maybe a bit hard to swallow here.
Wachi's patties come doused with one of two sweet sauces: teriyaki or, for the standard Gabutto burger, a proprietary demi-glace "prepared slowly over a small flame," according to the menu.
Sweetness is important to the Japanese burger palate. "A lot of Japanese burgers use a lot of sugars and stuff," says Wachi. This extends to the buns he commissioned from the nearby Japanese Bakery Crescent in Arlington Heights. The soft pillows—upon which he brands the Gabutto Burger logo with a special tool akin to a soldering gun—aren't dissimilar to brioche. "You can eat it as a breakfast bread," Wachi says.
While the quarter-pound patties themselves are densely formed—I've heard them aptly described more than once as meatloaflike—the finished constructions are fragile. Top them with cheese and a fried egg and you have a potential disaster on your hands, the diaphanous bun disintegrating in the sauce, sending patties and tomatoes squirting into paper-lined baskets.
Wachi also offers tofu and chicken burgers and a barbecued pork burger sandwiched by two toasted patties formed from a mixture of regular and sweet rice. Completing the experience are thin shoestring fries meant to be dusted with one or more of five powdered flavorings, some that wouldn't taste out of place in a potato chip bag—wasabi, garlic and butter, ranch, sour cream, and a salty "original spice" flavor. For the kids he's installed a number of coin-operated vending machines filled with the tiny plastic collectible toys called gashapon. Order a kids' combo and the token's an extra buck.
Wachi suspects his burgers have been slow to catch on with non-Japanese because he's done no advertising. But he has something else up his sleeve to supplement business until they catch on. He's recently added another, more purely Japanese item to the menu: obanyaki, pancakes stuffed with sweet red bean paste or custard cream. And if those take off he'll be adding chocolate cream and green tea flavors.