Tokyo burger time: Lotteria vs. MOS vs. Freshness vs. First Kitchen
With annual sales of over ¥400 billion, McDonald’s is Japan’s number one food provider. But beneath the Golden Arches -- and aside from growing ranks of Wendy’s and Burger King franchises -- there are also a number of native Japanese chains to tempt local fast food junkies and globetrotting burger connoisseurs.
Some like Lotteria and First Kitchen creep into McClone territory with familiar looking orange and yellow color schemes. Other contenders like Freshness Burger and MOS Burger have mixed things up with new flavors and substantial upgrades to the quality of Japanese fast food.
In a single afternoon, we travelled to all four chains -- in a single square mile of Shinjuku -- to put their signature burgers to the grill.
1. Lotteria: Zetsumyo ("exquisite") Hamburger, ¥360
Back story: Debuting way back in 1972, Lotteria is the oldest native chain to challenge Ronald and Co. on Japanese soil that still exists at a nationwide level. (The now slightly obscure Dom Dom Burger wins the oldest prize.)
Decor: Imagine a McDonald’s crossbred with a manga café. Miniature individual cubicles make it possible to pig out with the luxury of privacy.
Clientele: Teenagers entranced by their cell phones, unconscious sleeping bodies, chain smokers.
How fast is "fast": 1 min.
Taste: Lots of mayo and strong hints of pepper work overtime to draw your attention away from a lackluster burger patty.
Verdict: Lotteria’s heavily marketed Zetsumyo Hamburger debuted earlier this year with a publicity garnering money-back guarantee. If customers didn’t like the taste, they could trade in the half-eaten remains for another burger on the menu or get their money back. But it’s hard to imagine this middle-of-the-road item inspiring much of a strong opinion either way.
2. MOS Burger: The MOS Burger, ¥320
Back story: Japan’s largest native fast food chain is a popular favorite with locals and tourists alike. MOS is an acronym for "Mountains Ocean Sun." Now doesn’t that make your mouth water?
Decor: Aside from some chairs and tables, conditions are spartan at best. But take note of a small sink by the door. You’ll probably need it to wash up after.
Clientele: College students, old people.
How fast is "fast": 5 min.
Taste: A thick coat of Sloppy Joe-like meat sauce slathered on the patty dominates and all but defines the MOS Burger experience. The results are messy … but darn tasty too.
Verdict: Despite the name, which sounds like a nightmarish fungal infection, the MOS Burger absolutely hits the spot and can induce serious cravings later on.
3. Freshness Burger: The Freshness Burger, ¥320
Back Story: With buns baked on-site and no frozen ingredients allowed, Freshness Burger is perfect for people who want their fast food fix on "slow food" terms.
Clientele: Young couples.
Decor: Faux Bohemian coffee shop with chipped white paint and Warhol prints on the walls (company PR refers to this as "Early American decor"). A condiment stand offering big bottles of ketchup, mustard and Tabasco is a sight for sore eyes.
How fast is "fast": 10 min.
Taste: A rich tasting treat served up pipin' hot on a soft, and yes, fresh bun. They’ve shamelessly cribbed notes from MOS Burger’s meat sauce but have managed to surpass it.
Verdict: Orders take a while, the prices are relatively high (¥100 entry-level burgers are exempt from the menu) and the "burger café" ambiance is cloying at times, but the food at Freshness wins the battle.
4. First Kitchen: Wafu ("Japanese style") Bacon Egg Burger, ¥300
Back story: The locals often abbreviated the chain's name to "Fakkin," which even sounds dirty in Japanese.
Clientele: Very tired office ladies.
Decor: Awash in uncomfortable tiny chairs and tables, this is the fast food equivalent of flying coach.
How fast is "fast": No wait whatsoever. The server just reaches over and grabs your ready-made order and plops it on the tray. Bon Appétit!
Taste: Flavorless bacon and egg pile atop a lukewarm patty of curious texture and consistency. The presence of tiny grilled onions gives rise to the suspicion that someone at the home office has tried to reverse-engineer a McDonald’s hamburger and failed miserably.
Verdict: I wouldn’t eat here again if this were the Last Kitchen in Tokyo.