Nineteen hours in Ulaanbaatar and my need for a burger was burning. Normally when I travel I do my best to avoid Western food and eat as many indigenous delicacies as possible, but the coming day was Tsagaan Sar (the Mongolian lunar new year celebration) and I would be up to my nose in buuz and airag. The time for a burger was now.
Skimming the English language materials where I was staying, I found a few burger purveyors, all of which were located in the central part of the city: Big Burger (a chain that offers “the American standard” of burgers and appears to be modeled after McDonald’s), American Burgers & Fries (but I’m looking for something not American!), and Berlin Burger (well, at least it’s not American). I kept looking and found a mention of a burger joint far from the tourist trail without an address but near a landmark – the only Volkswagen showroom in UB.
I jumped on a bus from Sukhbaatar Square and made my way to the dealership. Once at UBVW, I walked along the commercial stretch of Chinggis Avenue for 300 meters in one direction and then 600 meters in the other. Unable to find Joe’s Corner, I returned to UBVW and went inside ¬– cops and car dealers always know where to find a good burger. Except this time. No one at the dealership had heard of Joe’s, but someone was able to come up with a phone number. Five minutes later I was standing in front of an apartment building without any commercial signage, and another 60 seconds after that I was standing in front of a menu with Joe himself by my side.
Joe walked me through each item on the menu and I requested the most popular burger as ordered by his regular customers: the JC Royal (4000T, about $3.20). But who exactly are his customers? Located off the beaten track in a residential building without any signage proclaiming his presence, Joe is clearly not targeting the tourist dollar, but with a menu of hamburgers and hot dogs he’s not exactly aiming for the local tögrög either. Joe settled into the seat across from me and told me his story.
Joe relocated from his home country of South Korea to Ulaanbaatar in 2007 with his company. By the time his contract expired two years later, he had met a lovely local lady and decided not to return to Seoul. There were only a handful of things he missed from home, one of which was burgers. He was tired of the Mongolian interpretation of the hamburger and longed for what he had known in Seoul and his visits to California. He went into the kitchen and began to tinker. For a year. When he came out he had created a number of recipes – enough for a menu – and decided to put them to the test. Joe opened the aptly named Joe’s Corner in the corner of a building located in the development and mining district, an area with many foreign workers but not much foreign food.
Joe’s wife poked her head through the curtain from the kitchen and Joe jumped up. He returned a minute later with a basket containing a half-dozen potato wedges and the JC Royal burger.
The aroma of the burger had my head spinning. The combined scents of the patty, cheese, fried egg, bacon, and barbeque sauce made it difficult to take photos – all I wanted to do was put down the camera and pick up the burger. And so I did. The first bite was incredible. (Keep in mind that it wasn’t like I had been wandering the Gobi Desert for weeks and that this was my first burger; I had eaten one in Seoul just a few days before.) The taste of the beef held up to the other ingredients, all of which contributed happiness to the flavor of the burger. The patty was flavorful and juicy thanks to a higher fat percentage, and was delectably seasoned. The fried egg and bacon slab could have been a meal by themselves and added a pleasing savoriness. The lettuce was green and crisp, the onion was sweet, and the pickles were perfect. The homemade barbeque sauce was tangy and tasty, although the volume of it was a tad too much for me. And the cheese, I almost shed tears of joy over the simple fact that it was not yellow.
Joe’s experiment in burgerdom has been successful. The feedback and encouragement he has received from the expatriate community has inspired him to consider a change of venue to a more commercially friendly location – hopefully with signage. Until then, you can find Joe by taking the number 11 bus (300T, about 25¢) from Sukhbaatar Square in the direction of the airport and get off at the Volkswagen dealership. Walk north from the bus stop (perpendicularly to the main road you just arrived by) toward some large green pipes that cross over the road…
On your left as you arrive at the pipes you will see a three-storey building set back from the road with the upper two floors painted yellow…
Enter the building and find door number seven. What’s behind it is worth the effort.
150m from Chinggis Avenue
Khan Uul District
+976 (0) 9908 8007
Hours: Monday – Saturday 12:00PM – 7:00PM