Burgers in Taiwan: A Comedy of Errors

Note: When Serious Eats reader Lee Anne Shaffer recently took a trip to Taipei, Taiwan, to visit family, she did a bit of burger scouting in hopes of finding something worth reporting on AHT. Alas, while Taipei is known for being a gastronomic wonderland, it's probably best to avoid the burgers. Today, Lee Anne recaps her "Tragic Taiwanese Hamburger Tour."

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[Photographs: Lee Anne Shaffer]

Leave them on the plane—your dissertation on the integrity of the unadorned burger; your valiant, passionately-spun argument in support of the smashed patty; those blueprints which painstakingly depict the quintessential slider; that lyrical ballad in three parts extolling the glorious golden chuck proportion: 87/13. They have no place here, where natives escort their hottest dates to McDonald's and any grain conglomerate can pass for a bun.

Taiwan is similar to the rest of Asia in that it isn't known for its burgers. Pick up any decent guidebook to Taipei and you'll be directed instead to try Taiwanese street food: flaky scallion pancakes fresh off the griddle, oil-flecked bowls of beef broth ramen, vermicelli studded plumply with deliquescent oysters, pork-filled soup dumplings encased in exquisitely tender skin. In fact, several weeks ago I was in the process of reacquainting myself with these particular pleasures when, amid the human swarm of Taipei's Shiling Night Market, I stumbled upon a graphically colorful, sesame-flecked three-foot hamburger.

The three-foot hamburger was actually advertising the availability of a 3-inch "mini-burger." Curiosity reared its familiar head, and thus commenced the following Brief, Tragic Taiwanese Hamburger Tour.

3-Inch Mini-Burgers

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Initially the 3-inch Mini-Burger seemed promising: requisite line of hyped marketgoers that identifies the more popular food stands; sparkling display case in which mini-burgers bask under spotlights; Einstein's hearty approval. He's saying: "tasty research seems like eating hamberger [sic], some people like to eat big one, I like to eat 3 inches." And indeed, what's not to like when 3 inches of "Bun + mayo + fresh chicken + lettuce + magical seasoning" come to only 136 calories?

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Out of several flavors, which included Japanese Mustard, Xinjiang Cumin, and Greek Spice, I chose what was apparently the most popular: Mexican Pepper. Perhaps I should've known better; snazzy marketing gimmicks, after all, do not a burger make. And the mini-burger was only offered with chicken; nobody would confuse this with a real American hamburger except Asian schoolchildren whose burger exposure is limited to "I'm Lovin' It" commercials.

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As it was, the mini-burger was an utter disappointment. At least 85% of its composition was the unnaturally yellow sponge bun, unremarkable in texture, and the diminutive chunk of processed chicken was accompanied by one doll-sized sliver of lettuce. Mayo and "magical seasoning" (MSG) made the three bites palatable, but the overall experience was less than satisfying. Luckily for the burger stand, Shiling's ever-shifting consumer masses are suckers for novelty, and the winning combination of weird, Western, and white-guy-endorsement should attract enough fresh meat to keep them in business for a while yet.

MOS Burger

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Previously, I had noticed a MOS Burger in the neighborhood but took little interest. After getting my feet wet with one failed burger reinterpretation, however, it seemed right to give the Asian burger another try at a more reputable establishment. MOS Burger is a Japanese chain which has done considerably well for itself: it is presently the largest fast-food franchise in Japan after McDonald's and has served as a trailblazer in catering to Asian palates. In 1987 MOS introduced the Rice Burger, which substitutes structurally questionable rice and millet patties for the usual wheat bun; teriyaki, wasabi, and octopus options soon followed. A recent partnership with another Asian fast-food mogul, Mister Donut, gave rise to the "Donut Burger," which wasn't available at this particular branch.

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I settled for the regular MOS Hamburger, looking for a taste of the familiar and expecting something akin to the unembellished McDonald's standby. Alas, the patty was thin and tasted not dissimilar to a frozen meat byproduct I once sampled at Costco. Accompaniments were a thick tomato-mayonnaise goop involving minced sautéed onion, some kind of lettuce slaw and an enormous slice of raw tomato. None did much to liven things up; the burger was too sweet and tomato-heavy for my taste. I would probably have done better to try one of the wackier MOS burger derivatives.

Mary's Hamburger

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Disheartened, I decided to visit a local landmark called Mary's Hamburger, which I recalled visiting once as a child. As proudly stated on its exterior, Mary's opened shop in 1979: a boast less impressive in the eighties but nowadays enough to merit street cred. Back in that day, as the story goes, American G.I.s shared their burger-making knowledge with the restaurant's founder. Since then several dozen classic American diner options have been added to the menu, and thanks to its proximity to Taipei American School, Mary's attracts a steady stream of expats and edgy Taiwanese youth eager to renounce tradition. I had high hopes for this burger.

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The bun, to be fair, was surprisingly pleasurable—obviously toasted on the grill with a generous amount of butter, soft and yielding like a potato roll. The beef patty, unfortunately, was overdone and flattened to the point where no significant amount of juice could be retained. A handful of pale iceberg and several rounds of raw onion served as garnish. Verdict: acceptable for an overseas mess hall, but unlikely to transport a homesick G.I. into blissful reverie.

There are apparently several halfway-decent hamburger joints in Taipei, which have received mixed reviews online from A Hungry Girl's Guide to Taipei and Taiwanfun.com. If you're an American eater in Taiwan and desperate for something that tastes like home, Evan's Burger, California Grill, or The Diner could be worth a try. Or maybe not. Admit stooping to visit a McDonald's while abroad and you might attract the derision of certain seasoned travelers, but in Taipei, those reliable golden arches may be your best bet.

Related

One of the Best Burgers I've Had in Asia at Hanoi's My Burger Mỹ
Dear AHT: Octopus Burger from Mos Burger in Taiwan
Snapshots from South Korea: Burgers from Lotteria
Rounding Up the 'Goddamn Awful Burgers' of Taipei

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