Editor's note: Please welcome our newest AHT contributor and fellow burger blogger, Jeremy Goldberg! As a professional photographer he splits his time between Los Angeles, New York City, and Tokyo. Check out Tokyo's burgers through his eyes over at Tokyo Burger Blog.
It's hard to tell if quotes from Den Fujita, the first CEO of McDonald's Japan, represented real beliefs or just showmanship. Even in the non-PC era of 1971 when he opened the first McDonald's in Asia in Tokyo's ritzy Ginza Mitsukoshi department store, his claim that the Japanese would all grow tall and have blonde hair if they ate a steady diet of hamburgers must have seemed a bit peculiar. (I'm still waiting to grow taller, but I'm eating a lot of burgers, so any day now!)
That first Ginza McDonald's seems to have disappeared, likely replaced by 23 Louis Vuitton boutiques and a high end melon store* (for all your $100 melon needs), but according to a plaque above the door, the second Japanese McDonald's still exists in Yoyogi, a nice quiet strip of Tokyo between the flashing lights of Shinjuku and Shibuya. And out of the over 3,000 McDonalds in Japan (their second biggest market after the US), the oldest remaining one happens to be five minutes from my apartment.
*I wrote that in jest, but a quick internet search netted Mitsukoshi actually does have a $100 melon boutique. Ah, the Japanese.
Living in close proximity to a piece of Japan's burger history hasn't changed my burger snobbiness. Until today, I'd eaten at McDonald's twice in the last 10+ years: once after a drunken night in South Korea, and once after a late Tokyo karaoke session with the mostly original lineup of the Smashing Pumpkins. However, I did spend my college years alternating between the fine cuisine of Taco Bell and McDonald's, so I feel I can still have a viewpoint on the relative merits of the two cheeseburger meal versus the individual Big Mac. Now that I'm more sophisticated (i.e., feel old around college kids), I frequent more fine dining establishments like In-N-Out.
The Japan-specific McDonald's American Vintage '50s Campaign ended at the end of January, followed up with the American Vintage '70s Campaign. I got in just before the '50s gave way to the '70s. Rounding out the American Vintage will be an '80s Campaign. Apparently the Japanese feel that the 1960s were a fast food wasteland not worthy of a vintage revival.
Japan idolizes certain aspects and time periods of American history—like James Dean and Levi's. In their effort to pay homage, they often do it better, but they rarely do it accurately despite their insane attention to detail. For instance, Denny's in Japan is (luckily) a far cry from the American Denny's.
In this case, the American Vintage '50s Diner Double Beef burger is, if my weak Japanese skills can be trusted, their image of a 1950s diner steak plate (which I recall reading about in exactly zero books), but in hamburger form: double 100 percent beef patties with a fried egg, a slice of cheese, onions, Chicago-style steak sauce, and a mashed potato sauce on a classic whole wheat bun. There's some more culinary prose waxing poetic about wine-infused sauce, coarse ground black pepper, and roasted garlic, but you get the idea.
There was a decent line, but I waited patiently and chatted with my friend who loved the excuse to eat at McDonald's "for science" instead of "for drunkenness." The jukebox was playing oldies, although to be fair a lot of those "oldies" were from the 1960s instead of the 1950s. A rather careless move. (Yes, when you live in Japan you start to notice all the details—it's hard to tell where OCD stops and sarcasm begins).
Like most everything in Japan, the service at McDonald's is polite, fast, and thorough. I ordered the #22 combo for ¥790 (approximately $7) that included the Diner Double Beef burger, cheese fries, and a drink (I went with oolong tea, that most American of vintage drinks). It seemed to take about 30-40 milliseconds to get my order.
I have to say I was impressed with the looks of the burger. It looked surprisingly similar to the glossy advertising displays. The almost perfectly formed fluffy egg looked like it was a real egg poured into a mold and not an "egg product" poured out of a jug. The peppered mashed potato sauce, which looked a bit like extra gooey mayonnaise seeping out from underneath the patties, tasted like a peppercorn sauce and added a nice kick to the burger. The patties themselves were pretty natural tasting, and the small amount of supposedly Chicago-style steak sauce and some lonely onions pulled together nicely, although I would've liked a bit more of both. The supposedly whole wheat bun was a bit disappointing; it seemed unnaturally fluffy where a wheatier (that really should be a word) bun would've worked better.
Still, this is unmistakably a McDonald's burger that leaves you with that heavy fast food feeling. It's quite a bit better than I expected, but I can't say it will change my usual burger snobbiness. And if I had any question that I was eating in a McDonald's, the french fries removed all doubt.
In the ads, the Cheese Fries look like chili cheese fries. In real life, I'm not sure what it looks like. There's some bacon "flavor" bits from a small packet, and a cheese product squeezed from a salad dressing-style container. The "cheese" tastes slightly less like cheese than Cheez Wiz, and the "bacon" tastes slightly less like bacon than congealed motor oil.
I finished the 610 calorie burger but consigned the rest of the 544 calorie fries to the garbage. In Japan, they usually separate the Burnables and the Non-Burnables for recycling. I honestly didn't know into which bin to put the cheese and bacon.