As we detail in our Dining Guide to Kyoto, Japan, the city is renowned for its Michelin-star restaurants and traditional Japanese cuisine. However, sometimes you just want a delicious burger. In this post, we review the best burger joint in Kyoto, and share our experience devouring their biggest burger.
Some of you might be cringing at the idea of visiting Kyoto, with its vast array of delicious Japanese restaurants, and eating a burger. I can understand that, and I’ve felt that way. However, after spending a week or more eating ramen, sushi, udon, etc., sometimes something familiar and comforting is in order.
I’ve been in that exact situation several times, especially during our month-long stays in Japan. Prior to that, I would’ve said I could eat ramen for every meal and never gotten sick of it. That is, until I found myself making a midnight run to McDonald’s because I was really craving a burger, any burger. Towards the tail-end of our two-month stay in Japan, I was especially craving a burger, which is how we ended up at Smile Burger…
I should preface this by saying that American sensibilities about and expectations of burgers are totally different from those of Asians and Europeans. In the past when I’ve given subpar reviews to burgers in places outside of the United States, I’ve had readers vehemently disagree, saying the best burger they’ve had was outside of the United States. Most of these people, I’m assuming, are not Americans.
America’s slogan is literally, “Land of the Free, Home of the Best Damn Burgers on the Planet.” We may quibble amongst ourselves as to which restaurant serves the best burgers, but our burgers reign supreme. I don’t make the rules, that’s just how it is. I’m also not some illogical ‘patriot’ who assumes all things ‘Murica are better than all things foreign.
The United States can’t touch the culinary scenes of many other countries, which do nuance and a variety of cuisines much better than us. So many other places do so many things food-wise better than the United States. I will readily concede this. However, nobody does burgers like America.
In Japan, we’ve found that hamburgers often have a different consistency than is typical of burgers in the United States, with some tasting like hybrids of hamburg steak and meatloaf. Normally, this can be attributed to a binding agent like egg or blended patties with some pork also being used. Nothing against this type of burger, it’s just different.
One thing that has always impressed me about Japan is the dedication at some restaurant to reproducing authentic international cuisine. Superlative French restaurants abound. We’ve written separately about Pizzeria Napoletana da Yuki, which has amazing pizza thanks to an owner who trained for years in Napoli, Italy and uses a wood fire Napoli pizza oven. In the same vein, enter Smile Burger…
As soon as I saw that Smile Burger Q on the menu, I knew I had to have it. It looked huge and probably enough to serve 4 people, but my stomach and taste buds were imploring me. Mind you, I hadn’t eaten a burger in around 2 months at this point.
It turns out that we chose wisely, because ours was the 100th Smile Burger ever ordered. The owners of the restaurant made a big deal out of this, giving us free drinks, taking photos with us, and featuring us on their Facebook page.
I’d by lying if I said that this wasn’t one of the proudest moments of my life. I don’t know why, but this felt like an incredible honor and I was perhaps a bit too hyped about being the 100th person to order the Smile Burger Q. Now I know what it (probably) feels like to win The Price is Right.
Sarah later remarked that I was smiling ear to ear the entire time we were at Smile Burger, and she hadn’t seen me that excited for anything in a while. I’m pretty much in a perpetual state of excitement when we’re in Japan, so this was basically dialing things up to 11.
Smile Burger’s patties taste like something you’d find in the United States, albeit slightly fattier and more tender thanks to the blend of Australian and Japanese beef used for the burgers.
The rest of the burger is fantastic, with a thousand island-esque sauce, fresh lettuce and tomatoes, and an impossibly airy and soft bun. I could’ve done without the ketchup, but it’s otherwise a fantastic burger.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I ate a little over three-quarters of the burger, and would’ve eaten the entire thing by myself if Sarah wasn’t there. It was just what I needed after subsisting on a diet of (mostly) ramen and sushi for the previous two months, and my senses felt heightened after conquering this behemoth burger.
Smile Burger is within walking distance of the popular Kiyomizudera Temple, and is a convenient stop halfway between Kiyomizu-Gojo Station and the temple. Prices at Smile Burger range from around 1050 yen (~$10) for the classic burger to 2800 yen for the 4-patty Smile Burger Q.
As the title of the post suggests, Smile Burger is by far my favorite burger joint in Kyoto. I’ve tried a handful of other options, and have yet to find anything that meets my American burger tastes and expectations as well as this. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of them, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s all have locations in Kyoto. If you want something predictable and safe, those are suitable alternatives. My quest to find the best burgers in Kyoto will continue, but for now, Smile Burger is the unequivocal champion.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit!
Have you had a burger in Japan? Did you find it to be good, or was the taste a bit off? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment that America generally does burgers better than anywhere else? Have a favorite burger place in Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this burger joint in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!