What happens when nightclub owners no longer love the nightlife? In the case of Ken Takahashi, they make burgers. Really good ones. I just got back from his Honolulu Burger Co. which opened six days ago, and I can comfortably say it’s the best burger in town.
For 12 years, Takahashi was the proprietor of Shooters Nightclub in Hilo. How did he come to be a burgermeister? “I got too old for the nightclub scene,” he laughs. “But the burger market is starting to get tight, so to make myself different, I decided to go with local products as much as possible.” And what a difference it makes. Takahashi uses local meat from Hawaii Island’s Kulana Foods, a processer of local, grassfed, hormone-free livestock (they source their beef from multiple ranches). It’s the same beef Town uses. The patties are loosely handshaped, not packed tight as they are at a popular local burger spot I won’t mention (which makes for a brickburger), then charred over flames. The result: Wonderfully irregularly shaped burgers with a crispy-bits exterior and a juicy interior. It drips when you take the first bite—and not from a bunch of stuff slathered on top of it. It’s all in the patty handling, I tell you.
I’m going to give Honolulu Burger Co.’s classic cheeseburger (with cheddar) my highest burger accolade—it doesn’t need ketchup. To put things in ketchup-junkie perspective, I couldn’t even eat a Corner Bistro burger without ketchup. But between the beefy-tasting beef, onions and bit of Secret Sauce, this meat-and-bun are complete.
Almost everything is locally grown or produced, from the buns to the chopped lettuce. The shakes are made with Bubbie’s ice cream. That’s premium. Yet the prices aren’t. “Local products are more expensive!” says Takahashi. “But I can keep the prices reasonable because I’ve got a nice landlord who is giving me a break on rent.” A classic cheeseburger is $7.79, compared to The Counter‘s equivalent $8.95 Old School burger.
“Now if I could just find a local cheddar cheese maker, that would be cool,” says Takahashi. He’s mulling over the idea of creating a burger that uses Naked Cow Dairy’s feta cheese. Greek burger!
The fries are handcut, medium-thickness logs, browned, spuddy and flecked with sea salt and parsley. If you like yours super crisp you’re out of luck. “We’re experimenting in handcutting sweet potato fries,” says Takahashi laughing. “The last batch was a failure—it was like chewing sticks!” You can also order blue cheese fries and fries tossed with truffle oil.
Like Henry Adaniya and his Hank’s Haute Dogs, Takahashi has done things right. Budget design—corrugated steel-lined counter, cute wood-and-metal cafe chairs—makes the little storefront (formerly Mekong) a cheery place to hang out, and the logo designed by Upspring Media gives the outfit a polished identity. And like Takahashi, the staff is super friendly and helpful. “It feels like a place on a neighbor island,” said my lunch partner. That’s a compliment. There’s even parking—the stalls marked “Beretania Florist” are for burger eaters.
“You don’t realize what’s behind walls,” Takahashi said about taking over the space. “We did a month of serious scrubbing.” He’s put everything he has into the joint. “I hope people spread the word—I don’t have any more money!”
There’s also a lot more to the menu—the Korean Big Bang (braised short ribs with kim chee slaw), Philly sandwich (beef, horseradish cream, cheese, sauteed onions and jus on a French roll), and the Chicago-style “Hot Rod” sandwich (Hilo-made Portuguese-style sausage with the works) are just a few of the things I want to try. Bordering on the obscene: the buta kau kau—layers of black forest ham, housemade kalua pig and bacon on a bun. Holy brood sow.
Honolulu Burger Co., 1295 S Beretania St, between Ke‘eaumoku and Pi‘ikoi streets, on makai side. 808-626-5202; http://www.honoluluburgerco.com