Battle of the Big Isle Burger Joints
Nate Gaddis is a former food industry veteran from Hilo.
“If you can make a good burger, you’ll make money.”
That’s an oft-repeated phrase in the restaurant industry, and one that’s being put to the test across the nation as an increasing number of boutique burger joints open up, occasionally tagged with the name of an easily recognizable celebrity chef.
While Bobby Flay has yet to park his buns here (“Bobby’s Burger Palace” is trying quite ever-so-hard to become a thing on the mainland), the Big Island does happen to now be home to a surprising number of establishments specializing in the timeless combination of ground meat and wheat.
Here at Big Island Now, we take our lunch seriously. In the interest of helping you pick your next beefy rendezvous, here are our thoughts on four different destinations.
Note: Though each of the below establishments offer a wide variety of “novelty” burgers, all of the sandwiches we ordered for this article were served in absolute simplicity: beef cooked to “medium,” served with tomatoes, onions, and (if applicable) basic dressing. We also chose to compare the fries on offer. Because we care.
Hilo Burger Joint: Bigger Isn’t Always Better
That was out first reaction to the massive, easily half-pound patty that arrived with our order.
Hilo Burger Joint’s no-frills edition sandwich had a meatloaf-like texture, and came topped with so-so tomatoes and the fries of our choice: crinkle, sweet potatoes, wedges or hand-cut shoestring (We went with the last option).
Our girthy patty was perfectly cooked, but sadly gave us that “not so fresh” feeling. Compared to the others we tried, this bovine had seen better days, even in death.
The shoestring fries also left a bad taste, with a flavor that could best be described as slightly rancid. We appreciate the effort that was put into hand-cutting these beauties, but yikes… time to change that frying oil.
It’s worth noting that on our last trip to “HBJ” a few months ago, our burgers were a little more petite, and a LOT more pleasing in the bouquet department.
Our recent experience could have been a case of “bad luck,” but time (and repeat trips) will tell.
Village Burger (Waimea): All About the Beef
If what you’re after is a high-quality treatment of bovine, then the slightly pricey “Village Burger” in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center is the place for you.
Both trips made to this tiny but bustling establishment yielded the exact same experience. And that’s a good thing.
The Big Island beef used in the burgers was as fresh as you’ll find without hearing a “moo,” and cooked to a perfect medium. The beef was nicely formed (not too tight) with good fat content, properly seasoned, and a perfect selection of grinding: fine, but with enough texture to sink your teeth into.
The brioche bun was serviceable, though we would have loved a little more crust via the grill. The tomatoes were juicy and sweet. Ditto the onions.
Their fries were hot, crisp and oh-so-clean tasting (thanks for changing that filter, guys).
Though we’re not fans of the bizzare “pagers” you’re expected to tote around while waiting on your order (they’re bulky and … how many people touch these things?), there’s something to be said for being able to window shop until the coaster-like devices start vibrating violently to draw you back to burgerdom.
Kohala Burger and Taco (Kawaihae): Great Burger, Great Value
If you’re on your way to or from Kona or Kohala and need a quick and satisfying bite, then Kohala Burger and Taco represents one of wisest, cheapest choices you could possibly make.
Fired off of a tiny, screamingly hot flat-top grill, these $7.99 beauties feature grass fed Big Island beef cooked-to-order, served up on an oh-so-lovely old school burger bun with a nice crunch on the interior.
Though the beef in these burgers is packed a little tightly for our tastes, and the “doneness” a tad inconsistent, they are seasoned to perfection and (in our experience) always hot and fresh. What else could you ask for for under eight bucks?
The fries are a bit “pre-fab,” and we suspect straight out of a freezer pack, but the onion rings are (reportedly) made on site and solid. Meaning good.
Ultimate Burger (Kona): Everything You Want it To Be
Talk about a ballsy name. Thankfully, this strip-mall burger joint doesn’t disappoint.
Fresh grass-fed beef is cooked up the way you like (consistently, in our two trips there), with top-quality condiments, an old school (toasted) bun, and by far the best fries among its peers.
The beef is juicy (though a wee bit under-seasoned), the service fast, and the fries — Oh yes, the fries.
Almost worth a trip on their own, Ultimate Burger’s hand-cut shoestrings are light and crisp, manage to taste like a potato (a feat these days), and are served alongside their own dipping sauce. Though not stellar on its own, the slightly spicy dip is a nice change of pace from the usual bath of Heinz.
The food is also good value. A burger and fries combo can be had for under 12 bucks.
By the way, give a “shaka” to their highway sign-wavers out front on your way out. Life ain’t easy on that hot Kona asphalt, and whether or not they had the energy to spin that board when you drove by, they probably helped you find the place.
Hilo Burger Joint is located at 776 Kilauea Ave, Hilo, HI 96720. Phone: (808) 935-8880.
Village Burger is located at 67-1185 Hawaii Belt Rd, Waimea, HI 96743. Phone: (808) 885-7319.
Kohala Burger and Taco is located at 613665 Akoni Pule Hwy, Waimea, HI 96743. Phone: (808) 880-1923.
Ultimate Burger is located at 74-5450 Makala Blvd E112, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740. Phone: (808) 329-2326.