Knife and fork poised, and drooling only ever so slightly, Adam White kicks off a new regular food review, perusing the FCC’s most existentially draining, life-affirming menu item.
There is a certain genre of food that demands a little more from the consumer than the average meal. A bit of buy-in, some of the sweat from their brow. Before you eat, you will work for your meal.
Exhibit A is cook-it-yourself cuisine: meals in which the ingredients are brought to you in some degree of disarray, and it is for some reason your job to carry out the alchemy required to transform them all into something delicious. Prime examples are fondue, hot pot, yakiniku, Korean barbecue. In each there is a single difference between, say, tender tofu and disintegrating mush. Between perfectly tender wagyu beef and an expensive piece of charcoal. That difference is you.
Many go out to eat to avoid these troubles. You order beef in a restaurant and expect, reasonably, to be served a well-cooked steak, not a well-done one. You are happy to have left the cooking to the professionals. But when I’m searing short ribs at a Korean barbecue joint, or dunking bone marrow into a hotpot broth for just long enough – for a shining bite-sized moment, I can pretend I’m a professional too. The difference is me.
There is, of course, the other form of food which demands a little more work. Exhibit B: the build-it-yourself meal. In which you are presented with a galaxy of options, and asked to choose wisely. The hotel buffet, the Pizza Hut salad bar of Hong Kong legend, the cart noodle stand. It’s dealer’s choice: now craft something delicious. This is perhaps much harder than the cook-it-yourself meal. Dunking balls at a hotpot – that’s easy. Choosing the flavours which merge into something greater: well, that takes a little more skill.
Enter, then, the FCC’s Build Your Own Burger: a HK$148 checkboxed crash course in the tyranny of choice.
You are handed the menu and a pen, and you make your selection from the ground up. Choose one of four bases – sesame or brioche bun, ciabatta or English muffin. Choose your patty, one of seven: ranging from wagyu beef (an extra HK$30) to chicken burger, soft-shell crab to the vegan Beyond patty. Choose your potato iteration of choice: chunky steak fries, skinny French fries or potato wedges. (Get the potato wedges: they’re excellent.)
And now the options open up like a burger van hitting an open highway. Pick from one, two, three or more of 12 toppings – onion marmalade to applewood smoked bacon, Emmenthal to gherkins, a fried egg to half an avocado. Any of four condiments to sit on the side. Or, perhaps all of the above. Who’s to stop you but yourself?
We order three burgers, trying to make the wisest choices we can.
1) A fairly straightforward bacon cheeseburger. Onion marmalade, Emmental, lettuce, tomato, gherkins, on a sesame bun. The McDonald’s glow-up. The burger is very good, medium-rare as it should be (there’s no guarantee of that in this town). Enough char for flavour, pink enough to stay tender. The cheese needs to be more melted. A stiff square sitting on a toasted bun is a sad thing to behold.
2) Teriyaki Philly steak slices on ciabatta with red cheddar, jalapeño. Bafflingly, the steak arrives in a small bowl, with the ciabatta containing everything else beside it. The reason is soon clear: the teriyaki sauce is plentiful. Constructing and eating this burger is a sloppy affair, though the sauce is excellent with the fries.
3) Falafel in a brioche, with lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and half an avocado. Peri peri sauce for a bit of zing. The falafel patty is large, dense and well-cooked though it’s a struggle to see it through to the end. This might have been because we ordered three burgers for two people. The peri peri sauce tastes like a black bean sauce from a cha chaan teng, which is confusing.
The service is, as ever, impeccable. Michael, Andrew and Allan swing by with plentiful drinks (HK$50 draft beer when you order the burger menu). I mull the results of my choices, sitting before me on mostly empty plates.
I’ve done the maths because it seemed like an amusing thing to do. Do take my word for it when I say that there are eleven million, ten thousand and forty-eight possible unique combinations to order on the FCC’s Build Your Own Burger menu.
I think I’ve chosen fairly well, on the whole. But the question becomes: how many of these 11,010,048 choices would have been a disaster? Most of us can get on board with a bacon cheeseburger. But does Cajun soft shell crab topped with jalapeños and mustard engender quite the same enthusiasm?
In terms of sheer numbers, what’s the difference between the two? Nothing. It’s just another possible combination in a list of 11 million and more. The only difference was me.
We make more than 11,010,048 choices in a lifetime, and not every one of them can be a success. For every bacon and cheese, there’s chalk and cheese out there instead. Ordering a burger is just another choice. An opportunity to maybe get it wrong.
Yet we learn from our mistakes: if you order a burger poorly, then you have learned, and you have grown. You have learned that your choices in life lie open before you like a burger menu, 11 million and many more. You learn to lick your wounds and the grease from your fingers, and to choose better the next time. That’s why you owe it to yourself to try the Build Your Own Burger Menu. You need to discover that the difference is you. n
Build Your Own Burger throughout the club from 4-31 July.
Hong Kong born and raised, Adam White is group editor at Cedar Communications, where he is in charge of content for Cathay. He is a former FCC board member of slightly too many years’ standing and previously worked at the SCMP’s Inkstone and ran city-living bible HK Magazine.