Japanese Fast Food at Gabutto Burger in Arlington Heights, IL
100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights, IL 60005 (map); 312-266-2277; gabuttoburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Go for the messy Gabutto with Egg.
Price: Gabutto Burger, $4.50; Gabutto Burger w/Egg, $4.95; BBQ Pork Rice Burger, $4.95; fries; $3.50, yogurt shake, $3.27
Mitsuwa Marketplace is the biggest Japanese grocery store in the United States, and Chicagoland has its very own outpost in Arlington Heights. I can see you natives rolling your eyes at me already. Yes, Arlington Heights is not technically Chicago, and it's a half-hour drive away, but the suburbs need some sweet Asian lovin' too, right? They're definitely getting that love from Mitsuwa. The grocery store stocks imported Japanese goods you just can't get here in the city. You can get interesting ingredients like monkfish liver, fresh wasabi, and sea urchin roe, among other fun things to shove in that cool face of yours.
Located in the back corner of the store is a busy food court with half a dozen food stands, one of them being a little burger stand, Gabutto Burger. This isn't your typical burger stand—it's fast food burgers with a Japanese twist. The patties are a combination of pork and beef, and most of them come dipped in a demiglace or teriyaki sauce before they hit the bun. The namesake Gabutto Burger ($4.50) is dunked in a savory brown demi-glace that tastes like a sweeter version of Salisbury steak gravy. It's topped with lettuce, tomato, and Japanese mayo, which is sweeter and thinner than the American version. Sure, it looks like a typical hamburger, but there's a slight floral flavor alongside the savoriness of the sauce that makes it unique.
You have an option to get a fried egg (+45¢) on the trademark Gabutto Burger. You want the egg. The entire burger falls apart within a matter of moments because of it, but that's okay, because when the egg yolk mixes into the demi-glace, the entire thing turns into a saucy silky addictive mess. I added the cheese to this one, but it was mild and hard to detect.
Something you'll want to take note of is the patty—it's one of those patties that comes off more as a meatloaf than simple ground beef. My friend described it as having a texture like the vegan delight (I say that loosely) seitan, which was off-putting to him. I don't mind the texture nearly as much. Since it's an American burger translated into Japanese food, it's just jumping the cuisine gap in its own way. The bun, despite being flimsy and falling apart almost immediately, is airy and puffy (I suspect it's Japanese milk bread) and absolutely delicious.
One of the most intriguing items on the menu, however, is the BBQ Pork Rice Burger ($4.95). It's not really a burger, but I'm not a huge stickler for names anyway. I mean, look at my Twitter handle. This sandwich is sort of crazy. Instead of a wheat bun, you've got two discs of sticky glutinous rice. Tucked inside are tender thin slices of pork in a Japanese style barbecue sauce, along with some cabbage for crunch and mayo for fat.
If you guessed that this thing is insanely difficult to eat, ding ding ding, you're correct! It comes wrapped in styrofoam for some reason along with the paper diaper. Please don't eat the styrofoam, because I love you too much, and I ate a little and it made me sad. This sandwich really isn't my thing, but my friend loved the hell out of it. The rice is very chewy and dense and almost overwhelms the meat in the middle, and since it breaks apart to the touch, pure mayhem ensues almost immediately.
The fries ($3.50), unfortunately, aren't very good. They look like the golden standard McDonald's fries, but looks are deceiving, just like I look like an exceedingly handsome gentleman, but am actually as charming as a ham sandwich covered in hair. They're undercooked, pale, and mealy. What's interesting, though, is that there are eight different flavored powders you can sprinkle on your fries, like wasabi, ranch, and nacho cheese, to name a few. I picked the original spice flavor (I still don't know what it is, aside from salt, pepper, and...stuff), as well as the curry cheese powder. It's more a gimmick than anything else, because the processed powder can't save those fries.
Gabutto Burger advertises a no-guilt yogurt shake ($3.27), presumably no-guilt because it's 100 percent fat free. It's not a thick shake, and is like a sweet watery lassi. But they do have a Calpico flavor, which makes me happy—Calpico is a sweet, tart, yogurt-based soft drink that's really popular in Asia. I love the stuff, so slurping down this foamy white shake isn't a problem for me. Have any of you guys had Calpico before? Also, according to the Wikipedia page, they apparently changed the name to Calpico from Calpis for a very interesting reason.
If you're ever at Mitsuwa and you want to try something different than your usual fast-food hamburger, Gabutto Burger is kind of a fun choice, just as long as you understand that it's not what you're probably used to. But if you're not in the mood for a burger, there's a ramen stand that sells one of the best bowls in the Chicago area (psst, it's called the special pork bowl).
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.