By Johanna Yueh
The California Burger comes piled high with trimmings and smothered in homemade guacamole.
The American Café is, well, just that. Except for the all-Chinese staff, the restaurant doesn't miss an American beat—a good sign for my colleague and I as we checked out the next stop in our quest to find the best American hamburger in Beijing.
Before I get too ahead of myself, let me clarify: it's an American café, which is different from its more pretentious European counterparts that usually serve coffee, tea and pastries. The American café is a simple mom-and-pop operation, modestly decorated and with a homey feel. It's slightly different from a diner in that it's less tinny, greasy and retro. And we found one near the heart of Beijing.
"It's a place where you can get breakfast all day, soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza," said Taal Martin, the executive chef and co-owner of The American Café. "It's a much better version of an American diner, where there's something for everybody. It's just a reminder of home."
If your home is the United States, that is. I can't emphasize this enough: this place is American. On the sparse white walls hang posters recalling all things American: New York City, Jackie Robinson, James Dean, Toy Story, the Muppets, Martin Luther King, Jr. There are ketchup bottles, Tabasco bottles and salt and pepper shakers on the tables. The joint is even buried in the back of a gym. How American is it to have a work out and then immediately eat back the Calories you just lost with a big juicy hamburger? Perhaps the most American part about the restaurant, though, is the mix of the clientele. Martin says it's about fifty-fifty between expats and Chinese locals.
One of the hallmarks of American cafés is their emphasis on localism and community. Martin and his wife, Antoinette, have carried this tradition from New York across the Pacific. Unlike the other restaurants we went to, The American Café is surrounded mostly by apartment buildings, not trendy outdoor shopping malls. They have created a place where neighbors can come dine several times a week, which makes their location on the first floor of an apartment complex a sensible choice.
"We want people to come here four or five times a week," Martin said. "In a community where you have…customers from the same area, our philosophy is that we want you to come to eat."
Martin said they buy most of their ingredients—the meat, vegetables, bread—locally, which help keep prices low. Their most expensive burger, the California Burger, comes with cheddar cheese, bacon and homemade guacamole and, at 58 yuan (US$8.49), is still less expensive than a standard burger at the other places we tried. (The classic burger, the American All Star, is 45 yuan (US$6.59), with bacon and cheddar an extra 5 kuai each.) For those who are slightly suspicious of Chinese products, the use of local ingredients had little impact on the taste. Ironically, The American Café's California Burger, with all its Chinese-made ingredients—tasted exactly like the kind of hamburger you would eat at a great backyard cookout in the States.
But there is another bonus to using local ingredients. Chinese people are almost infamous for their stubborn partiality to Chinese food, but Martin and his wife have used their restaurant as a way to bridge the gap between their Chinese staff's conception of China and the foreign West. "It's important to say with our staff, 'The ingredients we get here, these are your ingredients that you cook your Chinese food with—you can also cook American food with them,'" Martin said.
The result is five burgers (among many other kinds of American dishes) with an array of different toppings. In addition to the American All Star and California burgers, there is the Texan Smoke House, which has barbecue sauce, grilled onions and cole slaw, and the Mushroom 'n' Fromage with sautéed mushrooms, blue cheese and garlic aioli. They also serve a Honey Chicken Croissant, which (as its name implies) replaces the usual beef patty with a chicken breast.
The burgers are not gourmet creations by any stretch. They are not exactly pretty, either. They are slightly smaller (though perhaps a little thicker) than burgers other restaurants. The top bun of my California Burger was burnt and smaller than the bottom bun, and neither was the same size as the patty. The guacamole, which seldom looks nice anyway, could have been a little less sickly green.
But who cares how it looks if it's just going to end up in my stomach? The bacon was more chewy than crispy, and the cheese got to be a little overwhelming toward the end. The meat, though tender and juicy, lacked any real flavor and sometimes got lost underneath all the toppings. I really enjoyed the guacamole, though. But somehow, taken altogether, the burger was delicious. Its imperfections made it authentic and unpretentious, which makes for a very comforting meal. Better yet, it came at a fraction of the cost of other burger places and offered a satisfaction no other place can.
Visit: The American Café. Blue Castle International Apartment (inside Ozone Fitness Center). 3 Xidawang Lu (on Langjiayuan Donglu side), Chaoyang District, Beijing 100026. +8601085997428.