A battle to find tastiest burger in Korea
Editor's note: Living in Korea is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to soak in its amazing culture and enjoy Korean cuisine. But it's natural to occasionally have a craving for something all American. If you have hamburgers on your mind, this article is just what you've been looking for . . .
Any night of the week, Jacoby’s Burger in Haebangchon will be packed. Jacoby’s is famous. People drive expensive sports cars from distant parts to try the tall, messy burgers. So we didn’t go there for our nine-restaurant burger-tasting mission. Instead, we tried lesser-known places in Itaewon, Gyeongnidan and Haebangchon. Our goal: to find the gems, and test the reputations of established places. Chris Holland – a Canadian home chef – and Read Urban and Paloma Julian – our regular food columnists – served as judges for the mission. We tried a cheeseburger at each restaurant, along with one of each of the restaurant’s specialties. We did discover a few gems, and a few less-than-gems.
Maloney’s won the competition with its rollicking atmosphere and supremely tasty burgers (the gorgonzola really tipped the scales). Dillinger’s was close behind with its juicy, spicy and inexpensive cheeseburger and positive vibe. M Burger and Two Hands Burger both impressed with unique burgers, and Phillies and Prost won out on atmosphere. Two Broz makes some tasty burgers despite a lackluster atmosphere.
Smokey Saloon and Thunder Burger have some work to do.
1. Maloney’s – 48.5/60
2. Dillinger’s – 45/60
3. M Burger – 42/60
4. Two Hands Burger – 41/60
5. Phillies – 39/60
6. Prost – 38/60
7. Two Broz – 37/60
8. Smokey Saloon – 28/60
9. Thunder Burger – 20.5/60
When we visited it was still called Le Vert; it’s Two Hands Burger now, but the ownership and menu remain the same. With mood lighting, abstract oil paintings on the wall, and jazz music playing softly in the background, it’s the kind of place you might go to contemplate something. Not the most traditional atmosphere for a burger joint, but hey, it’s relaxing. The entire front wall of the place retracts in nice weather, and this afternoon it was open to the world. Two Hands Burger’s menu has 10 burgers, including the “Dubble Burger” and a chili burger. What got our attention, though, was the “Le Vert Burger,” which the menu describes as “of senseless magnitude.” The thing is like a normal burger, but has bacon and a fried egg on top. The Le Vert burger turned out to be a hit, getting a score of five out of five on taste from Holland and four out of five from Urban. The egg on top was cooked well; the yolk oozed out when we cut into it. Julian, traditionally a tough critic, was harder to please. She said the butter on the bun was overkill with the general fattiness of the burger. The atmosphere, too, was a little dull. “The burger is a little overdone and lonely in the middle of the plate – as lonely as us, the only ones in here for an hour and a half.”
The Verdict: Go for a chicken burger, stay for a party.
Well known to HBC residents, Phillies has a couple burgers on its menu. More importantly, it has the burger-eating atmosphere – high tables, big-screen TVs, boisterous patrons and plenty of beer on tap. When we visited, their front wall was also open to the street. One of the regulars was out there drinking and shouting at a woman walking by: “Where you been? You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t send smoke symbols – damn.”
We tried the cheeseburger and the locally famous (or “already famous,” as the menu describes it) chicken burger. It came with spicy mayonnaise, red onions and dill pickles. The French fries we ordered were hand-cut and cooked to a deep brown.
The burgers were a hit with Julian and Holland, who gave them four out of five. “Fantastic sauce, great seasoning,” Holland wrote. Urban took points for overcooked chicken and soggy fries, but gave high marks for atmosphere. “Burger + beer = good.” Holland, too, was a fan of the atmosphere. “It’s not just a burger, it’s an evening,” he wrote.
The Verdict: Maloney’s is all-around good.
One of the truly unknown spots of the taste test, Maloney’s turned out to be a major gem. The second-floor joint, located on the right up the Gyeongnidan main street, had a rowdy vibe when we visited. Rock played on the stereo, and tattooed men and women yelled around the foosball table. Julian wasn’t initially a fan. “It takes forever to be served,” she wrote. “I entertain myself trying to figure out how much money in tattoos and hydrogen peroxide the customers have spent in their lives.”
When the burgers arrived, though, everyone was a fan. We tried a gorgonzola burger and the regular cheeseburger. The gorgonzola burger came topped with caramelized onions and a lot of that funky, melted cheese. “Finally the gorgonzola burger comes and it’s like getting heaven,” Julian wrote. “Juicy meat with awesome cheese – it makes me wonder if I’m a good judge, knowing I’m going to die every time a European cheese comes into the competition.” Urban said the burgers had “classic burger flavor – good mouthfeel.” Maloney’s was one of the few places that included fries with the burger. We stayed for a while and even ordered a few dozen wings. It was hard to leave, Holland wrote.
Seoul residents who’ve been here for a few years will remember Thunder Burger from way back when. The stylized, fast-food-type burger joint operated on Noksapyeong-daero for years before shuttering more than a year ago. They’re back, dishing out burgers from their bright yellow, red and white restaurant. Our hopes were high after reading the messages painted on the walls: “Trust us. You may become addicted to our Thunder Burger.” After trying them, however, I don’t think there’s any danger of that. Thunder Burger tries for a classic fast-food style, from their small, paper-wrapped hamburgers to their colorful look.
The burgers, though, fail at achieving even that certain fast-food delectability. Our patty was meager; the entire burger was small. “It cannot compete with the other places,” Julian wrote. Comments were sparse; the numbers spoke for themselves: Julian was most generous, with a three out of five for taste.
That’s the only category in which the restaurant scored above two. “It is an overpriced fast food joint,” Holland wrote. “Wouldn’t suggest it to anyone,” Urban wrote.
The Verdict: Unique menu items like the Juicy Lucy and sweet potato fries help M Burger stand out.
Straddling Gyeongnidan and Itaewon, M Burger is more a restaurant than a bar, and has a feel all its own. It’s interestingly lit and decorated with bits of Americana. It reminded Julian of a theme park. Most of the seating in the small dining room is at high tables, and there’s a terrace with seating out front.
M Burger had one menu item we didn’t see anywhere else: the Juicy Lucy. The inside of the Juicy Lucy is filled with cheese, which gushes out when you bite into it. Elizabeth Papile, the photographer for our mission, described it this way: “It’s like a volcano – like cheese lava.” Our Juicy Lucy did indeed gush, but it was covered with caramelized onions that were a little too caramelized.
Not for Julian, apparently, who loved the place and gave it nearly perfect scores in every category. Urban and Holland gave it mediocre scores. Urban called the Juicy Lucy satisfying and the regular cheeseburger ordinary.
Holland said the meat was dry and lacked flavor, but complimented the sweet potato fries, another unique menu item.
Prost tries for baroque and cabana at once, and somehow it works. You might think the shiny black ceiling, marble tabletops and intricately tiled floor of the place would clash with it being open-air on two sides, but those two aspects actually work together. The breeziness and chic décor of the place, located in the alley behind Hamilton Hotel, make it relaxed and fashionable; customers walk through wearing sunglasses for no damn reason. It is a place in which to see and be seen.
It was packed when we arrived at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. The staff was curt; when we asked for a table for six, our server simply said they didn’t have one. We ended up standing near the bar. We ordered a bleu cheese burger and a cheeseburger. When they arrived at our table, the judges noticed they were suspiciously round. We tasted them, and it became apparent Prost is more about style than substance. “A failed attempt at dressing up a hamburger,” Urban said. Holland wrote that the burger tasted freezer-burned and soggy. “They should take more pride in the quality of beef,” Urban wrote.
The place did score a perfect five out of five from all judges in the “atmosphere” category, though.
Smokey Saloon is one of the oldest and most storied burger joints in Seoul. More than 50 press clippings hang on the walls of the tiny joint, located in the same alley as Prost. So much for finding hidden gems. Curiously, though, Smokey Saloon remains somewhat unknown among expats. Holland had heard of the place for years, but had never eaten there or even talked to anyone who had. The lines were long here, and the inside so packed that we had to order takeout and eat on some stairs nearby. We ordered a cheeseburger and a teriyaki burger. They came out quickly, and we dug in.
Sadly, the legend turned out to be bigger than reality. “We cannot believe what we see,” Julian wrote. “It is just like a McDonald’s burger, but bigger.” “Not attractive,” Urban wrote. “A case of the ‘popular Korean restaurant.’” The burgers were very McDonald’s-ish. The cheeseburger consisted of meat between two white buns, dressed with ketchup, mustard and diced onions, with a slice of processed cheese on top. The teriyaki burger was almost identical, but had sauce. The price of the burgers added insult to injury. Sadly, myth busted.
Two Broz turned out to be what Thunder Burger is going for: a diner-style burger joint with a fun vibe and some tasty burgers. Two Broz has the checkered floor, strange lighting and sparse decorations of a greasy spoon in Gary, Indiana. When we showed up, two Korean men were working furiously in the kitchen. We had to get their attention to have our orders taken. What the place lacked in service, they made up for in food. Our burgers came out tall and well dressed, with fries and… beer? Yes, Two Broz serves draft beer with their burger sets, which made Urban happy. “The best out of the Itaewon group,” he wrote. The fries were obviously frozen, but the judges didn’t mind. “Frozen fries?” Urban wrote. “I don’t care – they were good.”
Julian wasn’t crazy about the place, but found something nice to say: “For the first time tonight I find something genuine in the burger: the mushrooms are good!” Holland took points for a lack of quality ingredients. “Processed cheese on a $10 burger? Getthefuckouttahere!”
The Verdict: Dillinger’s has a good atmosphere, a terrace with a great view and a tasty, inexpensive burger.
A favorite among the expat bar-going crowd, Dillinger’s is also known for its tasty burgers. We arrived Tuesday night, which happens to be the night of their half-priced burger special.
Their small wood terrace overlooks central Itaewon, and we found a spot there. We ordered a bacon cheeseburger and a regular cheeseburger and drank beer outside while we waited. The breeze was cool, and we reflected on our city.
Dillinger’s is beloved by many expats in Seoul, and it showed while we waited. The terrace and inside were packed, and people milled around while “Sweet Emotion” played in the background. The vibe was festive, if a little cramped.
The bacon cheeseburger came slightly charred with crisp bacon and fries on the side. Holland was impressed. “Juicy, spicy,” he wrote. “Perfect fries.” Julian liked the burger, too, but didn’t appreciate the cramped surroundings. “I think they need to invest a little more in furniture,” she wrote. Urban thought the burger was underdone, but gave the place a five out of five on atmosphere.
Photos by Elizabeth Papile