It's almost ironic that, in a time where traditional Korean fare like Kimchi, Bulgogi, and Bibimbap are becoming more and more familiar within the American culinary lexicon, one of Korea's newest offerings to the United States market is the good old hamburger.
Yes, it’s bit stereotypical, if not ethnocentric, to look at it this way, but in all honesty, a “burger joint” isn't exactly one of the first types of successful Korean chain restaurants that one would think to open up in the United States. After all, this country is the birthplace of McDonald's, the most ubiquitous burger joint -- if not restaurant -- on the entire planet.
Nevertheless, Kraze (pronounced exactly the same as “crazy”) Burger -- which is actually headquartered right in the good ol’ DMV itself (Fairfax, Virginia) -- is the latest venture to throw its hat in the rapidly-growing and ever-popular fast-casual burger joint category.
Standing on the fact that they have over 100 different branches already open all over Eastern Asia, including Korea, Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore, the company opened up its first restaurant in the United States right here in Bethesda, with plans to open up five more in the DC area throughout 2012. Eventually, they also plan to move into Canada and Japan.
The actual restaurant was inspired by the restaurant chain Johnny Rockets, which is currently owned by Red Zone Capital, the private equity firm of DMV native and Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder (please withhold your booing for the time being). When moving into the American market, they capitalized on the belief that Americans demand choices, individualization and customization in everything they purchase as consumers.
Kraze Burgers takes great pride in the quality of their inputs, which is key if they’re going to compete in the hyper-competitive fast-casual burger joint scene. The basis for their burgers -- i.e. the meat and buns -- consist of made-to-order, hand-formed burger patties made from fresh ground, all-natural, hormone-free beef. The beef is locally sourced from humanely raised cattle, which are fed a well-balanced, pesticide-free, 100% vegetarian diet. The buns are made from scratch and, depending on location, either made on-site or delivered fresh daily. The produce used is also delivered fresh daily and comes from locally-grown vegetables when possible.
I descended upon Kraze Burger with fellow members of the DMV Burger Wars cabal, plus the wives, just three days after the first local venue -- in Bethesda -- opened for business, eager to sample its burgerrific offerings. Even if it was past 8:30 by the time we got there, it was still a Friday evening, so I was shocked to see that our crew were the only people in the entire joint.
Whatever; more space for us to enjoy our beefy-and-bunny-goodness, as loudly as we’d like.
If you take the customized "My Burger" route, you can order your burger -- with either the aforementioned all-natural beef, turkey grilled tofu or a veggie patty -- on three different types of buns, with six different types of cheese, plus your standard burger toppings, and a few other "extra specials" including everything from grilled onions to a fried egg to grilled pineapple to turkey bacon.
Now, for us, the customization and 64 different permutations of things you can order from the “My Burger” menu was well and good, but we were here for the house cheeseburger. The gang and I ordered the “KB Original”, described as “Kraze's original burger featuring a natural beef patty, American cheese, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, mayo, Kraze sauce and pickles on our freshly baked bun.” We went with an original bun, cheddar cheese and politely informed them that mayo shouldn’t even be within the same time zone as, let alone placed upon, our burgers.
After the buzzer thing rang, I fetched my burger, brought it back to our table, and took a moment to admire it from afar. The presentation for this burger was top shelf. It was neatly constructed and all-around well put together, to the point where it's almost picturesque. It was kind of like taking one of your standard fast-casual burgers, putting a really spiffy, custom-tailored Italian silk suit on it and then serving it. It was just neat, clean and sleek.
When I took a bite of the burger, my palate got a solid hit of everything.
When I took a bite of the burger, my palate got a solid hit of everything: the fresh beef (cooked a touch closer to medium-well instead of the medium that I ordered), the bun (so good -- more on that in a second), the fresh and crisp vegetables and the Kraze sauce (really just a fancy/glorified ketchup).
The seasoning on the burger wasn't exactly anything noteworthy, but it didn't really matter considering how fresh and flavorful all the accoutrements with the meat were. The cheese was the same way: it was certainly there -- placed on the bottom of the burger, which was an interesting touch -- but when eating the burger, I didn't really get much from it.
Now, let’s take a moment and talk about the bun. If we changed our name to “DMV Bun Wars,” we probably could’ve just stopped the competition after eating here. That’s how good the bun on this burger was; it’s one of the best buns we’ve tasted among the seven-to-eight-dozen or so burgers we’ve each consumed in the past year. It's fluffy, toasty, buttery, light, airy, tasty and several other adjectives synonymous with “nom” and Homer Simpson drool.
But here’s the flipside for this burger, especially for the burger purists: while the quality and the freshness of the meat was definitely noticeable, the five-ounce meat patty that came standard with the KB Original seemed too small to really hold its own among the great bun, fresh produce and Kraze sauce.
It’s like all the other ingredients are so good, in addition to the meat, that they almost take away from the element of the burger that’s supposed to be the headliner. If they doubled up the meat as a standard offering, they could have a freaking sweet burger. But with only one small patty, it was more like getting a sandwich that had some beef in it, instead of a hamburger, where the beef should be the star attraction.
Here’s the best way to put it: this burger is satisfying, such that if you ordered it for lunch on a weekday, you wouldn’t have to go back to your desk and find a way to sneak in a two hour nap afterward. If you’re ravenously hungry at lunchtime, you might consume the standard burger and still be a bit hungry, even after finishing the burger and an order of fries with it.
If you want a monstrous, hot and juicy mess, double up the meat on this burger (you might have to custom ask for that). Personally, if they offered a double-patty option as the standard here, like Five Guys does, and maybe raise the price a buck or two -- with the addition of the bun, produce, and sauces on the burger -- we think it’d be a real contender in the fast-casual group.
But for the non-burger-gluttons, fans of the organic and local-sourcing movements, or anyone who enjoys a wide variety of burger types and toppings, Kraze Burger is a highly enjoyable choice at a very reasonable price.
The KB Original at Kraze Burgers