Burger or sushi? The question becomes muddled when you're at Inatome's HibachiBachi, a takeout Japanese restaurant from one of the grandfathers of New York Japanese food.
When you walk in, a chef stands behind the glass tossing his spatula and performing teppanyaki theatrics while he's grilling up your hamburger. Old school meat patties sizzle on the flat-top next to a pile of caramelized onions. Instead of buns, the chef takes out two specially molded cylinders of white rice, frying them up in hibachi butter until they're as crunchy as a Las Vegas roll. The rice sandwiches the ground beef, and whatever additional toppings you're into that day: avocado, butter lettuce, teriyaki sauce, a fried egg. Order the burger "meltdown style" and trained sushi chef Walter Hwang will throw some yellow cheese onto the flat-top until it crisps up like a quesabirria taco.
With all of today's gluten free diets, rice burgers seem like a novel idea. But they're actually not so new in Tokyo. The hybrid food is said to have been created in the late 1980s by MOS Burger, a Tokyo-based fast food chain that's nearly as prevalent as the golden arches. It was only a matter of time until McDonald's Japan introduced its Gohan burger, a beef or chicken patty with soy sauce rice that's been become a limited addition item on its late-night menu.
Even so, I still think Keiji Inatome is onto something. The Long Islander has a lot of experience with another style of hybrid cooking, teppanyaki. He grew up among the tables at his parents' Valley Stream restaurant Inatome, which opened in 1975 and has ties to the original Benihana in Manhattan, he said. This showmanlike style of Japanese steakhouse (commonly referred to as hibachi in the United States) was developed for American World War II soldiers abroad and popularized by Benihana in 1960s New York. Many of the same Benihana employees worked at the sprawling sushi bar and grill Inatome, which has been modernized over the years and now touts a full omakase chef's table experience.
When Inatome noticed that the Lynbrook building along his drive to work was sitting empty, he jumped at the chance to open a restaurant there and pursue his own Japanese American invention. He opened Inatome's HibachiBachi in November, bringing in trained sushi chef Hwang to execute the menu of funky fast food items.
In addition to the rice burgers, the touch screen menu has Asian chicken wings, hibachi rice bowls and waffle fries that you can get with an oversized medical syringe of spicy mayo, a "spicy mayo shot." Serving sauces like mayo and soy in a syringe has been a mini trend of late, but Hwang said it's handy because the syringe technique allows you to use up every last centimeter of the mayo, rather than wasting it. (Nifty, I do the same with my cat's insulin every month.)
No doubt, the rice burger is still the highlight of the menu. You can order one with a fried chicken or a panko crusted shrimp katsu patty, but beef reigned supreme. This isn't your juicy smashburger or fat artisanal grass-fed blend though. The meat itself is 100% old school hamburger joint, sourced from the nearly 100-year old Janowski's in Rockville Centre.
From my experience, less is actually more. The burger has better flow when it's not bogged up with extra layers of avocado and a fried egg. You don't even need the cheese. When you get it with the ginger sauce and the spicy mayo, the whole thing tastes like a creamy fried shrimp tempura roll stuffed together with a Waffle House patty melt. There was no Cherry Coke, but instead, a green tea matcha milkshake with a squidge of whipped cream, and a cherry on top.
Even without the bread, the burger itself was pretty sturdy. Much of that has to do with the unique wrapper, which Inatome spotted at a convention years back. A white piece of paper is folded over itself like a delicate origami fan. After placing your food on top, you unfurl the package and wrap it around the item like a delicate little diaper. There's a separate flap that you just pull out when you're ready to eat, almost like a packaged onigiri rice ball you'd buy at a train station. Food on the go.
Inatome's HibachiBachi, 350 Sunrise Highway, Lynbrook, open 4-8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 516-612-4078, hibachibachi.com.