In the states, the name “Doni Burger” might be met with a shrug of the shoulders or a quizzical, “What is that?”
But in Korea, Doni Burger enjoys a reputation as one of the country’s best burger joints.
To put it a different way: Doni Burger is to Koreans as In-N-Out is to Californians.
Founded, owned and run by popular South Korean comedian and entertainer Jung Hyung Don (who goes by the nickname “Doni”), the fast food chain is known abroad for erring on the more expensive side but offering high quality, fresh ingredients, handmade patties and fresh baked buns.
So how does the chain hold up at its first-ever Los Angeles location, which opened two weeks ago in the heart of Koreatown?
Doni Burger sits on the edge of the third floor of Madang Plaza, a modern mini mall built in 2010 and lined with knick knack megastores and Korean versions of Starbucks and Sephora. The vibe is relaxed and friendly, with young people sitting and chatting around the courtyard and small children running up the escalator.
And then there’s Doni Burger. With modern wood-paneled seating, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and flat-screen TVs to display menu options, the setting is much more upscale than your typical burger joint.
Notably, there are no to-go boxes or bags in sight. Doni clearly wants patrons to sit down and enjoy their feasts, which is probably why prices are a bit steeper than some of the joint’s fast food rivals, with a “combo meal” (burger, drink and fries) coming in at just under $10.
Production is streamlined. Employees work in assembly line-like fashion, from the men behind the giant glass windows forming patties to the cashier sliding over your meal instantly after processing the order.
But it’s upon unwrapping the premade burger from its yellow paper packaging that it all starts to fizzle.
Take the “Doniburger,” for example. Topped with lettuce, tomato, mushrooms, American cheese and slathered with steak sauce and pickle relish, this meat-lover’s combination of regular hamburger patty and “Bulgogi” — thin, grilled, marinated slices of beef — is the restaurant’s trademark dish.
It’s your basic burger, but with a bun that’s soft but not toasted, and lettuce that’s not limp but not crunchy, either. All of the ingredients — while concocting an interesting flavor — sort of mix together and ooze out of the burger, especially with the bulgogi, which is stringy and looks none too appetizing.
The rest of the menu is more of the same: heavy on the meat, especially in items such as the Bulgogi burger, which does away with the formality of a regular patty, instead piling on more of the Korean barbecue favorite.
Though Doni does provide a few options for non-meat eaters, such as the assorted nut salad or coleslaw, he fairly assumes that no one would come to his restaurant if they didn’t crave the cow.
The “Pork Katsu Burger” is one of the few items that stands out from the rest, with “katsu” referring to a panko-breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. The breading is generous and the meat feels warm, crunchy and salty on the tongue, especially with complements of onion and their special mix of sauces.
One might argue, however, that anything tastes good when it’s deep fried. And it’s tough to disagree with that argument.
But as all fast food junkies know, there is only one question left that may just change the game: What about the fries?
The French fries at Doni Burger are lukewarm — probably from sitting on the counter all day waiting for someone to order them — doughy and all one texture, not crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They aren’t particularly skinny or thick, just sort of the nondescript fries that you eat but don’t really taste.
As for other add-ons such as drinks, Doni provides a basic soda selection (except for, shockingly, water?), and the traditional “cup bingsoo,” a milky, icy blend with red bean that comes in one sweet flavor and might repel customers who aren’t accustomed to the strange contradiction of ingredients. The cup is a play on a traditional Korean dessert of red bean shaved ice made for those on the go.
All in all, Doni Burger is a notch up from the average fast food chain. In the process of fusing Korean and American cuisine, its makers combine savory meats and sauces, and definitely don’t skimp on either of those elements.
At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to place them in the same bracket as traditional “fast food.” Sure, it’s fast, but the prices aren’t cheap, and it’s not too convenient to take something to go. There’s no drive-thru — it’s just a sit-down restaurant — and when placed in that category of dining, Doni Burger has much stiffer competition, and a long way to go until it meets California standards.
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