Though it probably started out in Germany minus the bun, the hamburger as we know it is an American invention — at its simplest, just a ground-beef patty on a dedicated roll garnished with pickles, onions, and ketchup or mustard.
It eventually became an international sensation, too, though no other country adopting it has been willing to let well enough alone. Every country must remake the burger in its own image. For example, the McDonald’s in Florence, Italy makes burgers out of pork. Founded in 1972 in Japan, MOS Burger (stands for Mountain Ocean Sea) originated a hamburger with a bun composed of compressed rice, reflecting the preference of local consumers for rice over wheat products. Instead of a Big Mac at McDonald’s India, a vegetarian MacAloo Tikki is served, deploying a ketchup-laced potato patty sprinkled with masala.
With a glimmer of irony, many of these foreign burgers have come back to the United States in the suitcases of immigrants, figuratively speaking. And these innovative imitations have immeasurably enriched the hamburger landscape here. Following are a choice selection of foreign burgers to be savored in New York City, in alphabetical order by country of origin.
Brazilian – Scattered around Astoria and Newark’s Ironbound are a half dozen small cafes specializing in Brazilian burgers. Cariocans like their hamburgers complicated, with a host of crazy ingredients, consisting mainly of things you might throw in a salad. Shown here is the X Calabresa from Astoria’s Pao de Queijo, which features such random additions as potato sticks, corn kernels, an egg, two kinds of cheese, and a thick salami patty that threatens to outshine the beef. 31-90 30th Street, Queens, (718) 204-1979
Chinese – The phenomenon began at the original Xi’an Famous Foods in Flushing’s Golden Mall, where a baked bao shaped like a hamburger bun but pale as a ghost was split open and a lamb saute reeking of cumin inserted. It was delicious, and a hand-lettered sign on the wall proclaimed it a lamb burger, whatever it might have been called back home. Soon offshoot Biang was producing several variations involving various meats. 41-10 Main St, Queens, (718) 888-7713
Chinese – Probably inspired by Xi’an Famous Foods (or perhaps by David Chang, who started doing something similar with pork belly at Momofuku Noodle), Chinese burger chains have started popping up. One rather hilarious example is Chinger (CHINese-burGer) in Elmhurst, where you can get beef, pork, or cumin beef, or take a walk on the wild side with a kelp-and-tempeh veggie burger (shown). 83-02 Broadway, Queens, (718) 502-6668
German – Neglecting the obvious fact that the country could triumphantly claim to have invented the hamburger, our transplanted German biergarten Paulaner Brauhaus chooses instead a rear-guard action by offering something called a bratwurst burger, which turns out to be just a pair of split sausages with kraut on a pretzel-style hamburger bun. Satisfying, but can it really be considered a burger? 265 Bowery, 212-780-0300
Greek – Plop a couple of charcoal-grilled ground beef keftedes inside a pita, roll it up with tomatoes, onions, and garlic tzatziki, and add a few french fries inside rather than out, and you’ve got an excellent burger and fries, all in one hand-held package. This variation on the hamburger can be found at the Lower East Side’s Souvlaki GR, which is decorated all in blue and white like a sun-kissed Greek fishing village. 116 Stanton St, (212) 777-0116
Indian – At the late lamented Bhojan, a Gujarati restaurant in Murray Hill, a spice-laced potato patty was placed on a sesame-seeded burger bun in an Indian answer to a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, and served with a tamarind ketchup. While this seemed largely aimed at immigrant kids — who wanted to eat American food instead of their parents’ food — it ranked among the better veggie burgers, profoundly superior to those you pull from the freezer compartment at the supermarket.
Italian – The jokers at Bensonhurst’s Villabate Alba Bakery — the city’s foremost molders of marzipan — have invented a pastry that looks just like a hamburger, nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. The patty is devil’s food topped with thick pastry cream, the bun made of shortcake, and the seeds on the bun… are real sesame seeds! It would be fun to eat one of these after downing an actual hamburger as a main course. 7001 18th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 331-8430
Japanese – As mentioned above, rice burgers with a "bun" composed of compressed rice have been made in Tokyo since at least 1972, but it took them a while to catch on here. Your most convenient source is at Little Tokyo street food stall Yonekichi, where such fillings as eel, miso salmon, and chicken patties with shishito peppers (shown) are available. 238A E 9th St, (646) 669-9785
Japanese/Philippine – The city’s first ramen burger was debuted by Keizo Shimamoto in 2013 at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, a beef patty with greenery on a bun made of compressed noodles. Eventually, a free-standing store appeared replicating the same ramen burger, but meanwhile Lumpia Shack in Greenwich Village started serving a Shimamoto-sanctioned version made with pork belly adobo, for a little Philippine-Japanese hamburger fusion. 50 Greenwich Ave, (917) 475-1621
Korean – Like Americans, Koreans most admire beef among meats, and their signature cow-based dish is bulgogi, which falls within the Korean BBQ canon. What could be more apropos than putting it in in a hamburger bun with sauteed onions, as they do it at UFC (stands for "Unidentified Flying Chickens")? Served with sweet potato fries. 60 3rd Ave, (212) 254-0888; 71-22 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, (718) 205-6662
Mexican – It seems that every taqueria in town is now serving up burgers, some with real south-of-the-border flair. One such is found at Tortaria in the Village, where the compact burger comes with melted mozzarella, fresh Piloncillo tomatoes, avocados, pickled red onions, jalapeños, and chipotle mayo. 94 University Pl, (212) 776-1830
Middle Eastern – An unnamed halal cart at the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue offers a so-called falafel burger, which consists of an outsize wad of falafel shaped like a hamburger patty placed on a bun with lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce, and hot sauce in addition to — and here’s the magic ingredient — something called avocado hummus, which sends the thing for a home run.
Peruvian – Sure, many burgers have eggs on them the French call it "au cheval" (on horseback). But leave it to the Peruvian cart Morocho, often parked on the west side of Union Square, to serve an egged burger with an exceedingly runny yolk, in addition to including fried sweet plantains and cilantro, making one of the city’s most delicious burgers. Just try to eat it without making a mess.
Philippine – The Filipino burger chain Jollibee (founded 1975) has a branch in Woodside, and the range of burgers it serves is impressive. Most recent addition to the menu is the Amazing Aloha Champ, which features an onion-scented ground beef patty piled with lettuce, bacon, honey mustard dressing, and a slice of pineapple that comes embedded in American cheese — for a strange yellow-on-yellow color scheme. 62-29 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, (718) 426-4445
Serbian – The Serbs and other Balkans are fond of the pljeskavicas — outsize lamb patties laced with onion on an a roll of stunning circumference. Typically, they’re heaped with lettuce, tomato, and chopped raw onions, and smeared with kimek (clabbered milk) and ajvar (a red pepper paste that can be hot or not). It’s one of the world’s most wonderful burgers, and you can find it at the Bosna Express, which lurks beneath the M train tracks at the Forest Avenue stop in Ridgewood. 791 Fairview Ave, Queens, (718) 497-7577
Slovakian – One of the strangest burgers the city has yet seen comes from Korzo Haus, which used to have a branch on the south end of Tompkins Square. Now you have to go to Greenwood Heights’ Korzo Burger to get their big juicy burger cooked rare and deposited in a bun-shaped ball of dough, then deep fried until the bread is done. Brilliant! 667 5th Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 499-1199
Venezuelan – Almost as large in circumference as the Balkan pljeskavica, the Venezuelan patacon burger easily fills its smashed and fried plantain bun. At Lower East Sider Patacon Pisao, this bun provides an interesting crunch while remaining intact and not falling apart. The generous burger comes slathered with nata, a sort of mild sour cream, and other fillings run to strips of bacon, lettuce, tomato, and queso blanco. 139 Essex St, 646-678-5913