800 South Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90017 (map); 213-488-4994; roysrestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: This Hawaiian fusion restaurant's downtown LA location is working the kinks out its burger
Want Fries with That? Yes; these twice fried spuds get a a mild Japanese seasoning that is surprisingly tasty
Prices: Gouda Burger (w/fries and rings), $15.95
It was 1988 when James Beard Award-winner Roy Yamaguchi opened the first Roy's in Honolulu. Roy staked his restaurant's success on the idea that Americans would thrill to his fusion of Hawaiian, Asian, and European cuisines that mostly riffed on seafood. Oh, and they'd also be willing to pay a premium for it. It's not a bet I would have made almost 25 years ago, but to Roy's credit he gambled on himself and won. Since then his restaurant empire has expanded to 31 locations around the world.
When you dig into a meal of a the Hawaiian-style misoyaki black cod at the downtown Los Angeles location, the success can seem as though it was preordained, but it wasn't very long ago that fresh fish and Japanese fusion was rather avant garde cuisine for most Americans. I found it a fun twist, then, that after all these years the venerable, high-end chain was finally taking on the more familiar American dishes for its customers. I got wind of a new cheeseburger experiment that chef Blaine Villasin has been working up and decided to head over to see how it's coming along.
You won't find a burger at every location of Roy's, which is why I avoided calling this one a Chain Reaction. While this band of restaurants qualifies as a chain, the burger is currently only available in Los Angeles at the downtown location. This is, in some manner, the way things work at Roy's. Chefs are often "partners" and given some free reign at their respective locations. In this case, Villasin decided to work up a version of a cheeseburger that hewed to the Roy's fusion aesthetic.
His Wagyu Beef Smoked Gouda Cheeseburger ($15.95) is nothing if not a fusion. The eight ounces of wagyu (sourced from Standard Meat) is the kind of high-end starting point you'd guess from Roy's. To it, Villasin adds a slice of the eponymous smoked Gouda—a bold choice in its own right—but this is just the beginning. The fried onions are paired with some Lomi tomatoes, which are like a Hawaiian salsa, and the iceberg gets some company from sweet and sour pickles. The sweet, Hawaiian-style bun (think King's Hawaiian) is slathered with some katsu sauce.
The patty was griddled nicely on the flattop, which gave it a nice crust, though mine came out a good bit more done than I prefer. The wagyu stands up to the extra few degrees, though—there was plenty of juice from all the extra fat. While the grind was finer than I'd choose, my major gripe was the addition of garlic and onion powder. They aren't altogether unwelcome, but here their flavors were too strong for the beef.
The toppings were all good. The onions added a nice crunch, the lettuce some freshness, and the pickles were salty and sweet, which is a fundamental flavor balance on any great burger. The problem was there seemed to be a bit too much going on, especially considering the smoked Gouda and katsu sauce being thrown in. I felt there could be at lease two fewer major flavor components on this burger. The sweet Hawaiian bun, I'm told, is still not their final choice, but it actually worked really well on this burger. It had the pliable sponginess you'd expect, along with a balanced sweetness.
You can order a combination side of fries and rings, which always pleases me. In this case, the addition of the fusion aesthetic hit the mark for me. The tempura rings were straightforward and nicely executed, but the real surprise were the wacky and tasty fries. In addition to some salt, the twice-fried spuds get a toss of furikake (the salty, Japanese condiment generally used on rice) and togarashi (a Japanese chili). The salty, spicy flavor was initially a shock, but once I had a few fries I found myself really enjoying them.
On balance, the Roy's burger still needs some work, but I'd say it's just a matter of paring down the toppings. So many of the components are spot-on and Villasin is using the best of ingredients. This is a burger that is coming together nicely. I expect to be hearing more from Roy's and it won't be about the fish.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at email@example.com.