Between the buns: A brief history of Karachi's love affair with burgers
Armed with a hundred bucks and an appetite to match, a bunch of school kids still in uniform converge on their favourite burger joint on Karachi’s Boat Basin. Even before walking in, a distinct aroma fills their nostrils; the perfect way to kick off the weekend on a hot Thursday afternoon.
After placing their order, they wait on remarkably uncomfortable chairs and pass time by discussing the classroom cutie. Soon, food arrives. Drenched wrappers are torn off and the first bite sends them on a short trip to burger heaven.
As long as Karachiites from my generation can remember, there have been burgers — not the dwellers on the supposed ‘right’ side of the bridge, but the more traditional beef patty between two buns. Chicken in similar form can be called a sandwich at best so let’s not even bother.
Back in the early 90s, three of the best burgers in town could be found adjacently—Mr Burger, Chips and Amin’s Little American restaurant. Two of those establishments, though struggling, are still running while the lure of the United States was too much for the ‘Little American’ in Amin to resist. At least that’s what rumours suggested at the time when the charming little place closed its doors forever. Lesser known (and hugely underrated) was Mr Big Mac in Mohammad Ali Society. At the risk of committing blasphemy, a few dared to tell their friends it was a juicier, fresher and tastier Mr Burger — which it actually was.
However, there was nothing quite like sinking one’s teeth into a Mr Big with cheese or a roast beef burger from Chips. The former would send a burst of flavours and juices shooting into all corners of one’s palate, while the latter’s succulent diced beef was unique to Karachi—and will remain for all time to come.
Fast forward a couple of decades, the burgerscape of Karachi is littered with numerous establishments, all claiming to be king. And then there’s Burger King itself which is one of the latest foreign chains to hit the city’s fast food scene. When McDonalds opened its doors to Karachi in the late 90s, foreign franchises were a novelty and hundreds stood in endless queues to get their first bite of a Big Mac—and it did not disappoint.
It seemed the writing was on the wall. The likes of Mr Burger and Chips would find it difficult to compete with huge corporations and their even bigger ambitions. For a time, that was exactly the case. The quarter pounders of McDonalds and zingers of KFC popped up in every nook and cranny of the city. A new generation was raised on chicken nuggets as Mr Burger just didn’t cut it for their parents.
However, holding its own during the foreign invasion was Copper Kettle’s Son of a Botch; a juicy powerhouse of a burger served with the best batter-coated French fries Karachi had ever tasted. CK kicked off a mid-tier restaurant phenomenon that would dominate Karachi’s food scene over the coming decades. However, since this is an article about burgers, that story is best told on another day.
But then something happened. The new generation grew up with a hatred for processed food.
Once again, Karachiites developed a love for freshly cut meat and vegetables between their buns. A niche was formed and entrepreneurial food lovers, some of whom were possibly among the students at Boat Basin two decades ago, jumped on the bandwagon. Quality became the name of the game and some of the new establishments provided just that.
Although it was on the pricier side, Gun Smoke gave foodies something they had craved for decades—an upscale burger. With its different takes on the same jumbo beef patty, their product soon had Karachiites turning up their noses on international chains and local small fry alike. The flatbread-savvy cafes followed suit some time later, but Gunsmoke’s product at its prime was a sight to behold and a taste to savour.
Getting into the mix with their takeout kiosks or delivery services were the more affordable Burger Inc, Burger Shack, GBC, Burger Lab, OMG and OPTP. Of these, Burger Inc, OMG and GBC delivered on their slogans of top-notch ingredients, while Burger Shack’s innovativeness created its own cult following and spawned plenty of pepperoni-laden full houses and big bangs.
The other quick pickups which half-heartedly tried to emulate the same success fell, unsurprisingly, by the wayside. After all, the city was now teeming with connoisseurs. Karachi now knew whether it wanted its burgers charbroiled, chargrilled, rare, medium, with jalapenos or without. Waiting along the sidelines and taking meticulous notes were the owners of The Chosen Bun and The Sauce. Both the establishments incorporated the best of all their peers had to offer—prime beef, fresh veggies and super sauces—and rolled them into the complete package.
However, all of this came at a cost. With newly-developed taste buds, the burgeratti set off on their journey to find the ultimate beef between their buns without as much as affording a glance to the heroes of yore.
On Sunday, May 24, 2015, Chips will close its doors; probably forever. As word spread, Karachi’s love for this brave—not to mention legendary—establishment oozed from all corners. Facebook was abuzz with statuses aplenty; all professing their undying love for the roast beef burger and Chips’ one-of-a-kind pizza. It was the only equivalent Karachi had to a friendly neighbourhood diner; the one joint you could sit on your own and never feel awkward.
If Karachi was Batman’s Gotham, he would say a Mr Burger with cheese or Chips’ roast beef may not be the burger that Karachi wants, but the one it needs. How much longer can we afford to turn our noses up where it all began? The people rushing to Chips to get a final taste may not know where they are going, but they sure know where they have been.
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