TOKYO — Pass the neighborhood shrine, pass the smell of charcoal-roasted fish, pass the sushi shop, pass a noodle spot. Then comes a surprise: The unmistakable aroma of grilled burgers and fries from a restaurant a few doors down.
In Tokyo, anything culinary is a possibility. Yes, there is American fast food here — McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken are both a presence. But well-made hamburgers and a side of crisp potato wedges is another story.
Daimon Yoshida, 32, was born in Japan but spent eight years in California and Oregon, beginning when he was an impressionable teenager. When he returned home and had a hankering for burgers, he couldn’t find any that thrilled him. With a loan from his mother, this handsome entrepreneur opened Fire House seven years ago, and the place is a hit. The restaurant is tuckedamong more than two dozen Japanese eateries along a 150-yard stretch. And while sushi and soba shops on the street have plenty of empty seats at their counters, the hamburger joint boasts lines out the door. Every day, Yoshida and his staff send more than 500 burgers out of the busy kitchen.
Fire House is a step down from the street, where a deck and the outer walls of the shop are laid with wide planks of 150-year-old American wood. With old tools, board games, and lithographs part of the decor, thanks to Yoshida’s mother, who dealt in American antiques here, the 30-seat spot feels like a real American establishment. Country music plays and customers linger over lunch — a rarity in Japan, where the midday meal is often inhaled, while standing, in 15 minutes.
Yoshida’s burgers, one-quarter pound each before being cooked on a flat griddle, are hardly lean. ”Perfect ingredients create great food,” says the restaurateur, who adds fat from the famous and highly prized Japanese Matsuzaka beef to Australian ground meat because Japanese diners prefer their beef well marbled. Several years ago, Yoshida had to stop using American beef when imports were banned after an instance of mad cow disease was discovered. He won’t use Japanese beef, he says, because ”it’s too good.”
To find the perfect bun, Yoshida taste-tested hundreds until he found the right bakery. Sesame seed buns, something like brioche, are placed on the griddle just before cradling the burgers. The patties are liberally sprinkled with a salt and pepper seasoning mixture that Yoshida made up. Then burgers are constructed: mustard on the bottom bun, lettuce, a slice of tomato, chopped onion, sweet pickle relish, the patty, and finally, mayonnaise.
The stacked burger is tucked into a paper wrapper covering half the bun. On the plate are wedges of deep-fried potato with the skins intact, the outsides crisp, the flesh soft. Some customers use a knife and fork on the burgers, others eat them holding the paper wrapper to catch the drips.
A burger with fries and a pickle starts at around $9, cheap for Tokyo but not as inexpensive as McDonald’s, where a Quarter Pounder with fries and a drink costs just over $5. Fire House offers bacon cheeseburgers, chili burgers, and a few Japanese twists: burgers with fried eggs and the hamburgo, served with stewed apples.
Yoshida doesn’t want customers to think all Americans eat enormous quantities of food, so he offers a bit more than regular Japanese portions, but doesn’t overdo it.
The cooks and the wait staff are in constant motion. So is Yoshida, who has muscular forearms from scraping the griddle with gusto after each order. In addition to the 350 burgers he serves daily on the premises, the shop delivers another 200-plus to neighborhood homes and businesses.
The restaurateur does everything — both work and play — with zeal. Now that the shop is running smoothly — it’s open daily — the chief cook has finally been able to take time off. He spends three months a year in the Caribbean while his staff carries on.
And oddly enough, he doesn’t miss the griddle.
Fire House, 4-5-10 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 03-3815-6044, or go to http://www.firehouse.co.jp/