Review #2 – Jef Burger, Okinawa:
For some reason whenever I visit Okinawa I find myself expecting to land in a mini-America and see American signs, restaurants, customs, etc all over the place. Then I arrive and remember that the locals have done a pretty good job since 1972 of reversing the American influence gained (if any) during the 27 years of occupation. Naha isn’t really that different from most other marginalized regional cities in Japan. I personally don’t find the beaches there to be all that attractive, so besides visiting the Aquarium, there is only one thing left to do: eat! And If there was one part of American culture that must still be alive and well, I figured it had to be the hamburger.
As soon as I had a spare moment, I rushed to the front desk and asked the concierge where the best hamburger in town was. Without any hesitation she recommended that I tried out a hamburger from “Jef”, Okinawa’s only local, home-grown chain of burger restaurants. This had to be good. Going back to our rent-a-car, I consulted my guidebook and noticed that it was indeed Jef that I’d subconsciously circled when I was doing my pre-visit research before I left home. With a Goya Hamburger and Goya Rings on the menu, how could I miss it?
I am (and have been for quite a while) quite a big fan of Goya (ゴーヤ、苦瓜). Apparently it is called Bitter Gourd in English but I’d never seen it before arriving in Japan (or in Okinawa for that fact). Although it’s meant to be pretty healthy because it is filled with vitamin C and a bunch of other vitamins, I like it for the strong taste. (If that’s not enough, would you believe me if I told you that it is apparently thought to treat alcohol intoxication!??) So I rolled up to Jef with high expectations. What more could a Goya loving man ask for than a hamburger filled with the stuff?
Disappointment Number One. The Goya burger (ゴーヤーバーガー, 282 yen) wasn’t a real hamburger (click on photo at top of article). It was more of a Goya Champuru burger (Goya Champuru, ゴーヤーチャンプルー a famous Okinawa stir-fry dish that includes egg, Goya and spam amongst other things). In fact the Nuuraru burger (ぬーやるバーガー, 314 yen) was closer to a “Goya burger” as it had a slice of spam included in it. I just got the Goya Champuru burger as I’m not a plain spam straight out of the can fan so my burger was more like a Goya omelet slapped between a bun. The buns were plain and there wasn’t anything else in the burger besides the (lukewarm) omelet so I must honestly say I was quite disappointed.Disappointment Number Two. So I figured, even if the burger is a little ordinary, perhaps they can make up for it with their Goya rings (ゴーヤリング , 252 yen). If you’re not a huge fan of Goya and just ordering them for the novelty value then they are probably fine. But if you do like the taste of Goya, they’re really too thin. To rub salt into the wounds there was only one serving of Goya rings available when we arrived. Given that it was lunch time and there was not a single other customer in the shop (Photo: Jef-inside) when we arrived you beg to ask: Do these guys ever have any customers?
Disappointment Number Three. Run by a local entrepreneur, Jef prides itself on being local and procures 100% of its produce from within Okinawa. Then again, I doubt they could afford to keep their prices so low if they had to import everything from the main land. Because the Goya is procured locally, they also offer 100% freshly squeezed Goya juice (300 yen). I don’t know about you but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that anywhere else before. But… And you guessed it… The juice is only available through the summer months and so I wasn’t able to quench my curiosity. While I’m picking at nits with their Goya menu, I have a sincere question to float about it. How exactly do you spell Goya? I’ve heard before that the last vowel of Okinawan words (like the dash at the end of Champuruu チャンプルー) are often shorted when they are (mis)used in Honshu but this restaurant manages to spell Goya in two different ways on its menu! While the burger is called a ゴーヤー burger and the drink is called ゴーヤー juice, for some reason the rings are called ゴーヤ rings. Any ideas?I’m not quite sure why jef is so popular or how they managed to expand their chain to five stores. Perhaps the permanent flow of tourists from the mainland who visit once and then never come back again is enough to keep it going? Perhaps the low salaries in Okinawa force the locals into compromising on food quality if its cheap? Perhaps the 25,000 troops from the US bases stationed nearby get so hungry for real hamburgers that they settle for Goya instead? (You can see the security camera behind the cash register in this photo if you click and enlarge it, so they’re clearly prepared for them!) Who knows. Whatever the secret is, Jef wasn’t good enough to earn any Stippies at all.
The verdict: 0 Stippies
How to get there: We visited the Sunrise Naha Branch because it was closest to the main strip in Naha. If you are walking away from the airport down Kokusai Rd (国際通り), take a right at the market and walk straight through to the other side. You’ll hit Heiwa Rd (平和通り) and its on your right.
Hours: 8:30AM~9PM (the Yonabaru (与那原) and Tomigusuku (豊見城) stores are open 24 hours a day.)
Map: Click here
Website (Japanese): http://www.yonabaru.jp/kigyo/jef.htm
If this review wasn’t enough to turn you away from Jef then I’d recommend that you jump in your rent-a-car and try one of the other branches as this one doesn’t have a real car park and is shoved in the back of a cramped strip shopping center (商店街). Apparently at the other branches they operate the store as a “drive in” hamburger restaurant. You know the old fashioned kind that you would expect to see in Back to the Future (or the Flintstones) where the waitresses whiz out of the shop on roller skates to serve you at your car window. I’m not sure if they really have roller skates but it might add just that little bit extra piece of novelty value to your visit to make it worthwhile. (And while you’re at it print out this JTB coupon for a 10% discount).
By the way, the other hamburger restaurant that my concierge recommended (as a backup) was A&W. A&W is supposed to be famous for their root beer but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between it and the root beer that I drank at Jef. Because A&W doesn’t even have the goya novelty value of Jef’s menu, I’ve decided not to include it in the Stippy.com quest for Japan’s finest Hamburger. You’ll see why by clicking on this link to the AW burger that I ate (the Mozza burger).
Have you found a more authentic burger in Okinawa? They must exist somewhere! Let us know about it in the comments section below?