Here’s the low-down on Karachi’s burgers. No, not the ones with spiked hair or Jersey accents. These burgers are a foodie’s fantasy - juicy, seasoned patties dressed up in crunchy condiments. Some of the city’s older residents will fondly remember the times when the go-to place for a mouthwatering burger used to be Jan’s Broast in Saddar or Spinzer in Muhammad Ali Housing Society. But then, the foreigners invaded.
Though they are now seamlessly woven into the cityscape, time has debunked the fear that once international chains swept the city, mom-and-pop fast food joints would drown in their tide. Here, The Express Tribune explores some of the best local joints in search of the tastiest burger in the land. We’ve also added a Lahore and Islamabad recommendation just in case you are in town.
Do anda shaami, ek chicken cheese! Mohammad Usman doesn’t miss a single order and just nods behind the sizzling griddle, effortlessly adding each new order to his tantalizing assembly line of burgers. Nageena Burger has been comfort food to Islooites for nearly two decades, retaining its simple charm, consistent succulence and bite-sized price. The set-up is bare bones with a grill on a stand, a narrow shelf for supplies and fluorescent bulb lighting up a simple hand-painted menu – all of this sits in a cramped spot in Islamabad’s F-10 Markaz, where brothers Usman and Irfan have given other vendors and restaurants in the area a run for their money.
The burger is basic: a soft hot-dog bun, the quintessential shaami kebab, ahandful of cabbage and onions, a big squirt of ketchup, a generous dollop of mayonnaise, a secret pinch of chaat masala and a fluffy white-yellow omelet to sit on top of it all. The oomph of the burger lies in the final act: the pressing of the bun so that all the ingredients melt into each other. The burgers are quickly slid into a brown bag, passed on to the customer in a shopping bag, and 80 rupees are tucked into a pocket. Indeed, the anda-shaami beckons to foodies across the city, burgers and bun kebabs alike, to partake of its simple pleasure - the burger for the unpretentious palate. Myra Iqbal
GBC is one of the older establishments in Karachi. Even though there are over 40 items on the menu, it should come as no surprise that the Classic Gourmet Burger is its star. It consists of char-grilled prime ground beef patty topped with cheddar cheese, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, onions and a splash of mayo and mustard. The bun is, however, pretty standard (similar to a Dawn bread bun) and nothing spectacular. The portion of fries is adequate and cooked to crispiness. The burger patty is prepared well and the condiments are spread evenly, with nothing dripping or falling apart.
The Gourmet Burger Company (later changed to GBC), is the brainchild of co-owner Adeel Lakhani and his business partner Zahid Usman. It opened for delivery in November 2010 and by August 2011 was able to offer the dine-in option. It is a small place and a majority of the establishment’s revenue is still generated from home delivery.
All the meat, cheese, pasta and sauces are bought locally and everything is marinated and prepared in-house. The nachos and fries are imported. Lakhani added that they have been approached by a company in Lahore but want to retain control over the business for as long as possible. Secret recipe?
Big Thick Burger
Big Thick Burgerz (BTB) is a relatively new player in Karachi’s perpetually vibrant fast food scene - it served up its first meal in January this year. The delivery and takeaway place was opened by Saad and Ali Amanullah, two brothers who left the Silicon Valley to go from focusing on microchips to potato chips. Saad has a passion for cooking and often invited friends to backyard barbecues where he perpetually tweaked the recipe for over two decades. The rave reviews followed him back to Pakistan and that is when the idea for the restaurant began to germinate. BTB’s popularity has spiraled over eight months.
“We want to provide the backyard barbecue experience to our customers,” said Ali. “That is why we burn a ton of coal in our grill every month. This is expensive, but I believe it is what differentiates our product.” The burgers are char-grilled which makes them less oily. Almost all ingredients are imported, except for the meat, which is procured fresh from a local supplier and then marinated daily under his wife’s supervision.
There are five burgers on the menu, including the ‘Most Wanted’ burger which lives up to its name as it forms 40% of the sales. If you aren’t feeling particularly hungry or are watching your weight, you can ask BTB to scale down your burger to the ‘medium’ size. Though the brothers plan to open a new dine-in restaurant on Commercial Avenue in DHA Phase 6, there are currently no plans to expand the menu.
The Most Wanted burger is delivered in a Styrofoam box and aluminum foil keeps the fries fresh. Move aside the pickles, onions and tomatoes and you come across the extremely thick patty with black crisscross marks from the grill. At first the lack of special sauce is disconcerting but the first bite reveals why. The patty is extremely juicy and unique because of the strong smoky barbecue flavour. The pickles provide tangy balance. The fries are cut thicker, though they could have a tad bit more salt.
This Karachi classic is known more for its hunter beef burger. But be warned, the massive Double Decker Hunter Beef Burger with cheese is heavy on the stomach. Fortunately it is light on the pocket at only Rs230 a pop and fries for Rs80. The burger consists of hunter beef packed between three sets of slightly toasted bread, smothered in ketchup and mayonnaise. Hanifia didn’t get fancy with the condiments though - just a single slice of tomato and cucumber.
The cured beef is considerably spicy which makes its burgers well-suited to the desi palate. It was perhaps the hottest burger reviewed and what earned it a shout-out here was its loud flavour. The saltiness of the beef is well complimented by the sweetness of the mayonnaise and ketchup.
But we gave a thumbs down to the mozzarella cheese that neither adds flavour nor texture. The fries were quite similar to the ones offered up by roadside vendors, minus the chaat masala. This means they were oilier and a bit soggy, but salted just the right amount. The bun - which had no sesame seeds - was also flaky.
“When we opened shop, the concept was relatively alien to the city’s residents,” said operations manager Arshad Jawad. People would ask for plates and knives and forks. Others pestered them to add biryani to the menu and introduce chutneys for burger dipping. Thankfully, they didn’t give in. Today, they have nine outlets across Karachi and the one in Boat Basin has the most foot traffic.
All ingredients are homegrown, except for the iceberg lettuce from China. The succulent patties come from cows reared Sohrab Goth farm and the meat is ground daily. The hottest item on the menu, the Mr Big with cheese meal, comes with fries and a soft drink. It’s a no-nonsense burger that keeps things simple between both halves of the bun: two beef patties covered in special sauce and cheese. Half the experience is unwrapping the burger because of the powerful aroma. The two patties, however, are thinner than what other newer places are serving up. Copious amounts of black pepper lend most of the flavour. The slightly sweet secret sauce is, however, its unique selling point. The bun is forgettable but fortunately it is light and airy and does not get soggy and disintegrate. The fries are crisp and sufficiently salted, but their texture and flavour are nothing to write home about. Though the patties are on the slightly drier side, the cheese and special sauce compensate for this.
Like BTB, Burger Inc. is one of the newbies that has taken the city’s fast food market by storm. In just six months, it has tongues wagging about its scrumptious potato bun and lashings of mustard sauce.
This is owner Syed Ali Raza’s first foray into the world of fast food and he is inspired by the US chain Shake Shack. “It’s not rocket science. Keeping the process simple and fresh allows us to stay true to the product.” Raza hopes to open another branch by February in Bahadurabad or MAH Society.
He claims that there is no added seasoning to the meat, which goes straight from the freezer on to a sizzling hot griddle. Raza buys the beef himself from markets in the city.
In their Grand Tribeca burger, the large patty was bursting out of the bun. There were plenty of crunchy condiments to go with it – tomatoes, a thin slice of lettuce and onions had been packed in. The crown and heel of the bun were smothered in mustard sauce. The patty was grilled just right amount and was so delicate that it crumbled as the burger was handled. The potato bread was dense and rich, but it did not hold up too well against the copious amounts of mustard sauce and fell apart. And so while eating this burger was messy it was an extremely satisfying experience. The fries, however, were not much different than the fare at other outlets.
Salt ’n Pepper
When it comes to the best burger in Lahore, we would have to say that Salt ’n Pepper takes the cake. For decades now the Liberty Market joint has catered to millions of clients but what is remarkable is that over time Salt ’n Pepper has maintained the quality of its food and especially its burger. Its chicken cheese and beef cheese burgers are by far the simplest burgers in town but they hit the spot.
The soft sesame-kissed bun envelops a chicken patty ground with black pepper and a mix of orthodox and some unconventional seasonings. What makes this burger special and what has made it popular perhaps is the delicious mayo-based sauce. This secret ingredient does the trick – as it hits the palate there is an explosion of flavour. Momina Sibtain
Published in The Express Tribune, December 27th, 2012.