Hamburger, Hambagu, Hanbagu… Who Cares? It’s Smothered In Sauce and Delicious.

Denny’s in Japan is not the home of the grand-slam breakfast, chicken fried steak, early bird specials and caloric overload. It is a place to go when you’re in the mood for yoshoku or Japanized Western food. Favorites such as “American” club sandwiches, crab spaghetti, grilled winter vegetable curry and hamburger steaks are served to diners in the mood for something “Western”.

Slide into one of their booths in the morning and you won’t be offered stacks of chocolate chip pancakes, skillets of hash and burritos the size of a serving platter. But perhaps you’d like to order the Choose a Salad Morning. Your choice of a salad accompanied by a stack of small pancakes, toast or rice. For the Japanese breakfast lover, there is Denny’s Balanced Japanese Breakfast: rice, miso soup, an egg and a tofu salad. Unfortunately the Grand Slamwich—egg, cheese, ham, bacon AND sausage busting out from between two slices of bread and served with hash browns—is nowhere to be found. However, you can try to satisfy that craving with the vegetable and egg sandwich to be enjoyed with a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit.

If you’re an expat desperately needing a greasy American breakfast to dilute the alcohol in your system, your best bet is the Denny’s Morningone slice of toast, two eggs, one slice of bacon, a small sausage and a salad. You may have to order two or three of these to obtain the desired results.

As a kid in Japan I often ordered the Japanese version of a hamburger patty. Served with rice, pasta or French fries but never between sesame seed sprinkled buns. Other than the shape, they are pretty different from what Americans think of when they hear the word “hamburger”. If you order off the kid’s menu your patty comes adorned with toothpick flags. I don’t know why there are flags or what sort of marketing tests recommended them, the idea probably originated in a posh Japanese office filled with old men. Over the last 20+ years the flags have migrated from the hamburger to a the nearby rice but they are still present.

The Japanized hamburger or “hanbagu” is enormously popular. Variations make up an entire section of Denny’s Japanese menu. Below is my version of this yoshoku classic. Try to buy ground beef containing at least 20% fat (health freaks, it’s the fat that keeps the patty moist).

Feel free to celebrate successfully conquering this dish by stabbing a flag of your choice into the succulent mound of meat.

Hamburger Patties:
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup milk
¼ onion, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 egg
salt and pepper

Mushroom Sauce:
½ onion, diced
10 shiitakes, stems removed and caps sliced
½ tsp. of salt
2 tsp. flour
1 cup mushroom stock*
1 cup beef stock
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. ketchup
1 Tbs. tonkatsu sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar

  • Preheat the oven to 375°
  • Pour the milk over the bread crumbs. While that softens, mince ¼ onion.
  • Place the bread crumbs, onion, ground beef, and egg into a large mixing bowl. Season generously with salt and ground pepper. Mix with your hands until just combined. Shape mixture into four hamburger patties.
  • Heat a skillet over high heat, add oil and sear the patties on both sides. Transfer to a plate. Add the onions, mushrooms and ½ tsp. of salt to the hot beef grease. Sweat for three minutes over medium heat. Sprinkle in two teaspoons of flour. Cook altogether for another minute.
  • Add the beef and mushroom stock. Stir. Add soy sauce, ketchup, tonkotsu sauce, mustard and sugar. Let it come to a boil while you continue to stir. Turn the heat down and let the sauce reduce by 1/3.
  • Place the hamburger patties in a deep baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
  • These hamburger patties can be served with rice, potatoes or pasta so long as they’re plated up with a generous spoonful of the mushroom steak sauce.

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*Mushroom stock: when you bring shiitakes home from the market remove the woody stems and put them in a pot with 3-4 cups of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and put in a container. You now have mushroom stock for stews, sauces, and anything else that calls for vegetable stock.

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