• Jari

Great Lakes (now) 100% Vegan Burger and Beer Bar

When I first saw the photo's of 'the latest hype' in the Japanese Vegan community group, "Great Lakes" could still be classified as "an American burger bar, with a -seemingly- impressive vegan option". Then COVID-19 and the Tokyo lockdown happend, and next thing I know, owner John Penny announces their overnight change to a 100% vegan cafe!

From American Road trip to Tokyo

Located in Tokyo, near Takadanobaba station, Great Lakes opened its doors in December 2019, after years of planning to find the best possible space in a city as crowded and complex as Tokyo. Only months into business, COVID-19 could not have hit at a worse time; However, the amazing reviews and mouthwatering photos posted by the quickly growing (and mostly vegan) fan base resulted in high reviews, online presence and a dedicated customer base -excited to visit again once the lock down ended. Many of the English reviews from travelers and Japan-based vegans proclaim the "Superior Burger" - the first vegan burger on their menu, although the others were 'veganizable' on request- as THE best burger they ever had; even by some who emphasize they are not vegetarian or vegan themselves.

With the name and the menu based on the series of fresh water lakes connecting Canada and the USA, the current burgers on the menu are called "Superior", "Michigan" and "Ontario", respectively. The names are a tribute to owner John's mother, whom together with his father was responsible for his skills and passion for cooking, and who's family is from a small town near lake Michigan. The ingredients and menu are influenced by the options you find on a typical American road trip.

With Great Lakes, John hopes to create a place of honesty, inclusiveness and community - "through good food, good drinks, good music and fun events".

Realizing the risks of opening a fully vegan business in the highly competitive Tokyo food business industry, Great Lakes started out with non-vegan options, but was scheduled to change to an all-vegan cafe from the get go - a process sped up by the virus and the reason for its spread.

What sets Great Lakes apart from other businesses is that the prices for their vegan- and non-vegan menu were the same and that they never charged extra for veganizing. A welcome change in a world where Starbucks still rips you off ¥50 for a shot of soy milk..

The Menu

The menu currently exists of the three burger variations:

Superior - Cheese sauce, homemade tomato jam, onion marinade, baby leaf and mayo. The signature- and best-seller, often ordered as a "double", which picture can be found on any Tokyo based vegan influencer.

Michigan - Caramelized onions, pickles. Pure junkfood and exactly the type of burger you find roadside all throughout the US.

Ontario - Homemade burger sauce, lettuce, onion. California-native john's take on the In-N-Out Burger, that comes with an addictive burger sauce - in which you're supposedly to dip your fries...

All of which are served on custom made buns and a vegan patty. The vegan burger itself is, wait for it!...., NOT yet another simple soybean burger, but a unique mix of brown rice, shiitake, onion, wheat gluten and a decent amount of spices and herbs. "A real pain in the ass to make! Not something anyone can do at home" laughs the Japanese staff member, when being asked how they make such a tasteful burger with natural ingredients, no eggs, and without it falling apart. That is not to say you won't get your hands dirty with this bad boy. Delivering on all expectations you'll have from a real American burger, it is large and VERY JUICY! And that is exactly what John's goal was all along - "Not being praised for making a great VEGAN burger, but for making a great BURGER!".

The remainder of the one-page food menu exists of hand-cut and home-made fries, extra toppings, and homemade ice cream (a no-nasties mix of soy milk, refined coconut oil, agave syrup, cashews, and vanilla) and milkshakes - the latter of which gets the same raving reviews as the burgers, if not better! *Off-menu tip: order the "animal style fries" for the ultimate junk food experience!

The toppings menu as well as the staff's flexibility allow you to also further customize your burger and fries - whether it is with more cheese or more veg! (or hey, both.)

>> Read my interview with owner John Penny for some more insider customization tips!" <<

Vegan Burger GREAT LAKES Tokyo ヴィーガン東京

I had the double Superior burger, without fries - an unforgivable mistake I will regret till the day I... visit again. As a bread enthusiast even the first glance and grip already excited me, knowing this was going to be just the right texture; not instantly falling apart, nor rock hard and sponging up all the other flavors. Biting through the beautiful layers of bread, you find some fresh greens, some flavorful onions, a delicious and unique sweet-spicy-ish? tomato mixture, followed by the double vegan patties that round it off.

I was quite blown away. Pre-vegan I was not a big fan of beef and I've not had many meat burgers in my life. This burger tasted so much like what I remember beef burgers to taste like, my senses were all over the place.

The other day a friend posted a comment on MOS BURGER's vegan friendly "Green Burger" on SNS saying it was nice, but lacked impact. I would take them to try this burger without a doubt!

I did have the vegan milkshake - a decision I will celebrate till the day... the gym opens back up (*sigh*). Here too, "impact" is definitely a key word. I don't think I ever had such a thick, creamy milkshake in Japan; vegan or otherwise.

After going all-vegan, Great Lakes is working hard on updating their menu (the pictures are still of the original beef burgers) and thinking of new options, including .... Although they promise they will stick with what they do best: burgers and shakes, they seem to have a lot more in stock for us. With such a great business concept, an already loyal fan base, central location and potential for events and parties, I am sure we will be hearing about Great Lakes again soon.

I for one need to go back to try those animal fries...

Address: 3-27-4 Nishiwaseda (1st floor), Shinjuku

Access: 7 min. from Omokagebashi station / 13 min. from Takadanobaba st.

Food: Playful, authentic American junk food - mostly homemade and customizable on request. Great food > Great Vegan Food.

Price: Normal Tokyo prices (¥1300 for the double Superior burger), completely justified by the homemade components and clean ingredients.

Service: Service with a smile - staff is knowledgeable, passionate and excited to interact.

Location: Central Tokyo, close to several stations and easy to find with Google Maps and pictures. The setting is clean, modern designed with an artistic wall painting by a local artist and room for events and - social distancing. Website

Overall: With the majority of their items, including the patties, pickles, sauces and ice cream, made on site, and the drinks and music carefully selected by the staff, the passion and dedication behind this young business is without a doubt part of the reason of their success and huge potential for the future.

>> Read more about Great Lakes and John Penny's inspiration behind the business here <<



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