There is a town situated amongst two massive volcanoes, lush mountains, rolling fields of prairie grass, extensive ranch lands, and the Pacific Ocean. When described like that Waimea may sound imaginary, but it’s not. I’ve been there, and I’ve come back to tell the tale of one of its greatest treasures. This is the legend of Village Burger told to you, so that one day you too can pass it on.
To understand Village Burger, you must first understand the Big Island. The island of Hawaii seems to receive the least amount of acclaim of the four major islands, but in my opinion, there is no place like it on earth. The island is a conglomeration of five volcanoes that rose from the ocean, so there are jagged, black lava flows and pale prairie grasses all over the Kona side (west side) of the island. But the Hilo side of the island actually resembles Kauai, especially the Hamakua coast, where you’ll find rainforest vegetation and deep canyons.
Waimea exists in a transitional space between these radically different climates. The lush, green Kohala Mountains on the northern tip of the island stand tall above town, giving way to the long, open pastures that proved ideal for expanding Hawaii’s cattle ranching industry since it’s inception in the early 1800s. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that there’s a great burger joint in the heart of Hawaii’s cattle country.
Shoehorned into the food court of the shopping center in the heart of town, the ordinary surroundings belie Village Burger’s sophisticated approach to burgers. And “sophisticated” does not mean these burgers are pansies. Edwin Goto, the Executive Chef, emphasizes the use of local and sustainable products, but he still makes big, sloppy burgers.
There will always be people who grumble about hippies when they hear “locally grown” or “sustainable,” but those people just aren’t getting it. Fresh, local food tastes better than products with preservatives or hormones, and it supports and sustains the local economy, which is imperative for small towns like Waimea. Waimea is rife with local farms, ranches, and dairies, so it wasn’t difficult to see that all the right fixings for burgers were within easy reach. For Goto, making fresh, sustainable food just made sense.
Village Burger uses beef from nearby Kahua and Daleico Ranches, where the cows are pasture-raised, and hormone and antibiotic-free. The produce is locally grown at several farms in the area, including the strawberries used for milkshakes. The goat cheese (definitely worth adding to your burger) is from Hawaii Island Goat Dairy. Even the buns, which are some of the best burger buns I’ve ever tasted (the secret is the egg wash each bun receives before baking), are from Holy’s Bakery just twenty miles north of Waimea.
When all of these fresh ingredients come together, you’ll taste the difference. The meat is juicy and tender, and this is one of the few places that will actually cook it to perfect “medium,” rather than playing it safe with “medium well.” Choose between traditional beef, seasoned Wagyu beef, or red veal, and add anything from smoked bacon, to local avocados, to broken egg. And if you’re not a red meat eater, sink your teeth into a delicious ahi burger with miso mayo, a taro burger, or a Hamakua mushroom burger. They do offer a salad, but the half-hearted way in which it was mentioned to me confirmed my suspicion that the salad is really only a peace offering to those who probably should be eating somewhere else.
But the burgers are only part of the tale of Village Burger. The French fries are freshly cut and served with any of three sauces on the side: sweet chili sauce, Wasabi mayo (my favorite of the three), or sun-dried tomato and caper mayo. Or, for a little extra, get your fries crusted in Parmesan “goop.” Don’t be afraid to mix and match either; I dipped my Parmesan goop fries in Wasabi mayo and lived to tell the tale.
Finally, what legend would be complete without an epic potion of some kind. And for a burger meal, it should definitely be a shake. The “Epic Shakes” are a little pricey, but they’re big and made with the best local ice cream, Tropical Dreams (and fresh berries for the strawberry shake). If for some reason, you’re not convinced of their “epic” nature, check the bottom of your cup when you’re done. You’ll find a couple Whoppers in your vanilla shake or a Hershey’s Kiss in your chocolate one.
At the end of this quest, I found I had fallen in love with this location, the taste of the food, the philosophy of its preparation, and most of all the hospitality of its owner, Edwin Goto. Even though he’s a celebrated chef with 35 years of experience in upscale kitchens like the famous Lodge of Koele and Manele Bay Hotel, he works everyday with his employees in the comparatively small Village Burger kitchen, doing what he loves, making quality food and happy customers.
When asked what made him leave his resort chef positions on Lanai for a small town gig like Village Burger, he just smiled and shook his head, “This place is perfect. I have time to take my daughter to school in the morning now. And who wouldn’t like the view of the sun coming up over the volcano.” I had to agree: this was paradise.
As I was leaving I noticed a Hawaiian saying printed on the menu: “Holo I’a ka papa, kau i’a e ka manu,” which means, “When there is food … people gather.” That seems as fitting a conclusion to the legend of Village Burger as any because Edwin Goto will see to the food, and you and I will see to the gathering.