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The quest for Yangon’s best burger

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This collaborative effort between myself and three other writers was originally published in the June 3-9 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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Ten years ago The Myanmar Times embarked the most quixotic of quests: to compile the first-ever-ever list of decent burger joints in Yangon.

This proved to be far more challenging than more recent arrivals to Myanmar might imagine: As our plucky reporter wrote at the time, “Seems like every time I order a hamburger here, there’s something a little weird about it.”

This proved to be the understatement of the five-decade junta era, as our expert investigative journalist encountered such oddities as cheeseburgers with cheese but no meat, burgers whose patties were so small that “the meat seem[ed] to be a condiment to accompany mayonnaise and tomato sauce”, and even one abomination with no bun at all, requiring the use of a knife and fork.

Oh, how things have changed. In the past five years, Yangon has seen an influx of restaurants offering proper American-style burgers boasting elements previously scarce in Yangon, such as thick, juicy patties made from freshly ground imported beef; high-quality cheese; grilled or toasted buns; and toppings carefully chosen to complement, rather than antagonize, one another.

In the midst of this burgeoning cornucopia of classic burgerdom, we at Weekend reckoned it was high time to resurvey the beef-patty-between-two-buns landscape in Yangon. The following is not intended as a definitive list of the nine greatest hamburgers in Yangon, but rather as a starting point: a guide to some of the better places in town to get your burger fix.

50th Street

50th Street Café Restaurant & Bar

Times have changed since we last rated Yangon’s best burgers – the country has gone through two changes in government and one in name, SIM cards can be procured for $1, and 50th Street is no longer the only oasis for wandering expats seeking a reminder of home. That said, the downtown institution’s burger (K11,500) is still one of the best and most reliable in town, and there’s good reason it’s stood the test of time.

One of the bigger burgers we sampled, 50th Street’s meat is satisfyingly rich and smoky, with a proper charred crust. It’s stacked with lettuce, tomato, a thick if not terribly melty slice of real cheddar, and streaky bacon slices – always a good sign. The real kicker, though, is the tomato barbecue sauce and Thousand Island dressing, which bind all of the flavors together for the perfect bar-burger bite. Perhaps the burger’s only weakness is structural: The meat, while juicy, is a bit prone to crumbling, and the bun is far too much bread for the rest, making handling a bit unwieldy. It is well toasted, though, which is a huge plus, saving the burger from a soppier fate. Also be sure to try the dal burger (K7500), perhaps a sacrilege to committed carnivores, but a favorite of many vegetarian Yangonites. –Eli Meixler

50th Street Café Restaurant & Bar
9/13 50th Street (between Strand and Merchant), Botahtaung township
Price: K11,500
Rating: 3.5

 Blind Tiger

Blind Tiger

I’m no fan of vacant marketing terminology: “pop-up” restaurants that never disappear, or places that promote themselves under the unpalatable term “gastropub”. The same goes for post-Prohibition “speakeasies”. That’s not to say I avoid such establishments altogether, especially when a so-called speakeasy like Blind Tiger has a reputation for serving up one of the better burgers in the city.

The 8-ounce BT Burger (K14,000) comes with a choice between five cheeses, five toppings and seven sauces. I like this approach: Rather than slogging through a menu of half-a-dozen fancy burgers, diners here can decide exactly which ingredients they want between the buns. I went with the cheddar cheese, five toppings (bacon, roast peppers, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomatoes) and the Blind Tiger barbecue sauce.

The caramelized-onion-and-barbecue-sauce combo was dangerously delicious, to the point of slightly overwhelming the taste of the burger, which came out closer to well-done than the medium I had requested. Still, the top-sirloin patty maintained a desirable degree of juiciness that was easily sponged up by the supple yet stalwart bun. The main casualty of this deluge of delectability was the disappointingly spare portion of bacon, which was all but undetectable on the tongue.

As a bonus, the BT burger taste explosion was significantly enhanced by the toothsome fresh-cut garlic-and-sea-salt fries served on the side, a treat so addictive they should be prohibited by law. – Douglas Long

Blind Tiger
93/95 Seikkantha Road (lower block), Kyauktada township
Price: K14,000
Rating: 4

 AJs

AJs Bar & Grill

The red neon sign hanging over the sidewalk caught my eye. Intrigued, I entered the Queen’s Park Hotel and headed upstairs to see what AJs was all about. After a little less than an hour in the near empty bar, I emerged deeply satiated and convinced that the burger scene in Yangon had a new star in town. With a perfect 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio and a handful of perfectly seasoned fries, I could have believed I was in Texas for a moment. Get in while this place is still relatively unknown, but be warned – if you’re not used to full and fatty beef, as I was after almost a year in-country, you may feel a little queasy the next day. The AJ’s signature burger is not for dilettantes. – RJ Vogt

AJs Bar & Grill
132 Bo Myat Htun Street (at Anawratha Road), Botatahtaung township
Price: K10,925
Rating: 3.5 

 John Dee's

John Dee’s

I half-suspect this place is a loss leader to lure people into living in the attached hotel. How else to explain well-made Western dishes at such incredible prices?

On the burger front, John Dee’s offers 10 options – all with choice of fries, onion rings, salad, or coleslaw – from your basic quarter-pounder beef’n’bun (just K2000!) to fancier constructions like Cajun, “Route 66” (double beef), Blue Cheese, even sliders. The priciest tops out at just K4500 (!!). Plus the menu boasts meat that’s ground daily, sauces and buns made in-house, and no additives or MSG in anything.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, the proof is in the patty: My “Butterfly” (bacon, cheese, onion, mushrooms; K3500) came dressed with lettuce, tomato, mayo and, on the side, a slice of dill pickle long enough to measure things with. The ingredients tasted farm-fresh, it’s cheaper than fast food, and it’s two to three times as big. I’m not quite prepared to crown it Yangon’s best – I’m going to eat two or three more first, just to make sure – but there’s no question it’s our best-value winner. – Wade Guyitt

John Dee’s
Golden Butterfly Hotel
12 Ko Min Ko Chin Road, Bahan township
Price: K3500
Rating: 4 

 Port Autonomy

Port Autonomy

Port Autonomy’s verdant hilltop location just off Kabar Aye Pagoda Road is one of the finest locations in Yangon for whiling away an edenic Sunday afternoon enjoying the weather, eating great food and being tempted by bottomless devil’s-water cocktails.

As you peruse the menu, might I suggest that the committed meatarians among you skip the fish tacos and buffalo chicken, and go straight for the PA Burger (K16,000). Elegant in its simplicity, the PA is the closest thing to a classic hamburger available in Yangon.

They say there are seven levels to heaven, and they can all be found in layers on the PA Burger: the toasted bun; the melted cheddar cheese; the fresh lettuce, tomato and onion; the abundant pickles; and of course the star of the show, the house-ground Australian beef brisket patty. With these basic ingredients striking just the right balance of flavours, you can savour the essence of the high-quality beef while still parsing the individual components.

For an extra K2000 you can take one step beyond heaven and add bacon. I strongly suggest springing for the bacon: There’s lots of it, and it’s sizzled to perfection. One bite and you’ve found your way to paradise. – Douglas Long

Port Autonomy
22 Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, Bahan township
Price: K16,000
Rating: 5 

 Cafe Thiripyitsaya

Cafe Thiripyitsaya

Before Sakura Residence started advertising its Thingyan sale (don’t get excited, you missed it), its billboard hyped Cafe Thiripyitsaya with a picture of a hamburger so big it was practically spherical. This, I thought, is a place that stands behind its burgers – literally. I can’t prove now that the sign claimed the “best burger in Yangon”, but the Facebook page still does. Them’s fightin’ words: Let’s eat.

First off, if you like everything about burgers except the burger, you’re in luck: Options (K4500-8000) include fish, chicken, red bean and mushroom, and tonkatsu (Japanese breaded pork cutlet). I mulled the double cheeseburger and the “Mega Beef Burger” (with fried egg, always welcome), but for testing purposes opted for a classic Smoked Bacon and Cheeseburger (K7000). Sheltered courtyard air, monsoon spattering the pool while monsoon is still novel – what could be better?

Well, the burger could have been. Coming with fries and a small salad – I hereby dub these “edge salads”; they aren’t “sides” until they merit their own plate – the burger would admittedly fill one of those “man I could go for a burger” cravings. My first impression was saltiness, which boosted flavor but then made everything taste the same; and while the patty was thick and generous, the cheese was a processed slice, which is a no-go. By the end, I had enjoyed myself, but didn’t feel good about it.

I’d recommend the burger here if, well, you’re already here, or else if you’re passing by with a hankering. It tasted like a lunch burger, not a dinner burger – for Yangon’s best the quest leads ever onward. – Wade Guyitt

Cafe Thiripyitsaya
Sakura Residence, 9 Inya Road, Kamaryut township
Price: K7000
Rating: 2.5

 Savoy

Savoy Hotel

Savoy’s burgers get high praise so it was with mounting concern that I scanned their menu without finding one listed. “Abort! abort!” I thought (proving, if there were ever doubt, how unfit I am for undercover journalism). That’s when my server brought over the other menu, the all-burger menu. This listed a full seven offerings, and was less a menu than a plaque, as if it were an honor just to be reading the descriptions.

Prices range from US$15 for a veggie version to $19 for the “Oceans Three” (salmon, scallops, prawns). In between are those with 180 grams of Angus dressed up for various costume parties: “The Greek” (feta, tatziki, olives), “The Mexican” (chilli con carne, jalapenos, salsa), “The New Yorker” (crispy mac and cheese, plus bacon), etc. All come with fries, wedges or salad. The menu also alleged 1 free bottle of Tuborg, though it was neither mentioned nor brought out with my lunchtime order.

On first bite, Savoy lives up to its reputation as a title-contender. The patty was nicely cooked to my specification, the generous slab of melted cheddar was the real deal, and even my NYer’s mac and cheese, while not strictly necessary, proved a fun diversion without becoming a distraction. However, structural issues emerged. MT’s 2004 burger round-up says, “In-depth analysis points to the abundance of mayo and its lubricating properties as the main culprit in the cosmetic degeneration of the burger,” and the same happened here: Putting mayo on the very bottom a very absorbent bun led to a soon-soppy mess that not even eating it upside down could save. – Wade Guyitt

Savoy Hotel
129 Dhammazedi Road (at Inya), Kamaryut township
Price: $17
Rating: 4 

 Sharky's

Sharky’s

Sharky’s is an institution, I get it. They have it all: great quality cheese and meats, delicious coffee and ice cream so milky it’s hard to imagine eating anything out of the City Express freezer. It was surprising, then, to find the Sharky’s burger left plenty to be desired. It arrived on a handsome wooden platter adorned with potato wedges, but I was alarmed to find the burger had been pre-quartered. What am I, a child who can’t handle a burger in my own two hands? Never trust a pre-cut burger, that’s what my grandma used to say.

The meat patty – gamey and thin – was far below the quality of the Sharky’s brand, and the bread – dense and chewy – featured too prominently for the accoutrements in between. The atmosphere is ideal for an old-fashioned, American burger chowdown, but the price and taste miss the mark. Get a better, cheaper burger around the corner at Harley’s, and save your Sharky’s savings jar for the gelato and espresso. – RJ Vogt

Sharky’s
81 Pansodan Road (lower middle block), Kyauktada township
Price: K18,000
Rating: 2 

 Union

Union Bar & Grill

In addition to sleek décor and playful cocktails, the newly revamped Union Bar on Strand Road is also dishing up a range of new burgers, and they’re well worth a stop. The “Union Burger” boasts one of the seasoned and flavorful patties in town: Beef is ground in-house with onion, herbs, and plenty of fat, while at 5oz, it’s perfectly in the “just-too-big-to-wedge-into-my-mouth” range. It’s piled with crisp, thick slices of tomato, lettuce, onion, and cheese – no sad limpid vegetables here – and served with a small scoop of pulled pork and superbly crisp fries (pro tip: pair it with the steak sauce). It’ll set you back K16,000, which is no pocket change for a lunch, but you won’t find a better-executed classic burger. Alternatively, up your budget for one of their 12 other burgers, including variations made with brisket and Wagyu beef from Australia, but be prepared – the latter will set you back K24,500. – Eli Meixler

Union Bar & Grill
42 Strand Road (at 42nd Street), Botahtaung township
Price: K16,000
Rating: 4.5