The Last Great Hamburger Stand can be found on the west side of Beijing, along a financial strip with tinted glass towers, deep in the basement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, next to a cafeteria that sells dumplings and pickled vegetables.
Every afternoon, Fatburger — the 65-year-old fast-food chain that began on Western Avenue with three stools and scrap metal siding — offers Chinese bankers a slice of Los Angeles.
It’s a small slice, 34 seats to be exact. The restaurant opened in June and blares half-remembered pop songs from the ’80s and ’90s as meat sizzles on an open grill. This Fatburger is one of four in China, although the company plans to add at least 17 more — bringing Gloria Estefan and vanilla milkshakes to the world’s largest population.
Its presence here reflects not just one company’s ambitions, but changing Chinese tastes. Or at least a willingness to mix Chinese and Western culture on a plate.
Mr. Fang, a trim banker with oval glasses, comes three times a week and follows the same routine: He sips a pot of tea under neon red lights, next to images of a crouching skateboarder and the Hollywood sign. Fang waits for the server to bring his tray. Then he gently pulls away the bun and eats his three-patty XXXL burger with a knife and fork.
“Meat with tea gives me energy,” he explained. Fang provided only his surname, perhaps aware of his violation of the sanctity of the burger-soda combo.
Fatburger entered mainland China nearly a decade ago with a big-windowed store near the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist and dissident, made regular visits.
A few other shops came and went in high-end malls. But parent company FAT Brands — “Fresh, Authentic, Tasty,” as Chief Executive Andy Wiederhorn quickly notes — is now going public and sees expansion in China as key to a franchise empire.
The burgers look smaller here, a little neater and more compact, less oozy and glistening.
“The Chinese diner wants a smaller burger,” Wiederhorn said. “But more Coke than Diet Coke gets sold in China.”
Single burgers weigh a quarter pound, versus a third of a pound in the U.S. It’s not only a smaller cut. The American brand’s meat here comes from Australia, the legacy of a trade dispute that lasted nearly 15 years. China agreed to lift the ban on U.S. beef this year.
Company officials have learned not everything that sells in Burbank sells in Beijing.
Many Chinese find turkey too dry, so the turkey burger got scrapped. And in a land where meat reigns, who wants to eat a patty made out of vegetables?
“We didn’t get any traction on the veggie burger,” Wiederhorn said.
Some things are entrenched. A Sriracha bottle sits on the counter, alongside the ketchup and mustard.
Other American chains have tried to adapt to Chinese tastes. KFC offers rice with its fried chicken. Subway sells Sichuan spicy chicken strip sandwiches. Dunkin’ Donuts markets a savory doughnut topped with shaved pork.
FAT Brands is betting on the basic appeal of fresh burgers and milkshakes, sold with a dash of Hollywood. Every one of its 160 or so stores, from Dubai to Jakarta, features a reminder of Southern California, even if customers don’t recognize it.
“I thought it was from Vegas,” said Wang Shen, a 25-year-old trader, who was serenaded by the Backstreet Boys as he waited for a single burger.
Manager Liu Cheng oversaw the preparation of Wang’s lunch and helped move along the line. Liu, a 28-year-old with a gold chain around his neck and bangs swept across his face, said to call him Taylor. Employees wear tags on their uniforms with selected names: David, Christina, Lisa. Only the store’s name is in Chinese: te fu ke hanbao, Special Rich Guest Hamburger.
The words hang under Fatburger’s English sign, absent its official motto, “The Last Great Hamburger Stand.”
China is an especially tough market. People eat out constantly, but they are increasingly health conscious and selective. A XXXL burger costs about $12; a strawberry milkshake runs $7. A plate of steamed pork dumplings typically goes for $1.50.
Middle-class Chinese diners are willing to pay more, though, for a comfortable environment and decent service. Pizza Hut uses tablecloths and sells wine. Starbucks looks like a Danish design catalog. McDonald’s markets a burger originated by a Michelin star chef. People meet for dates at KFC.
Fatburger hosted a fashion show this summer at its location in Shanghai Tower, the tallest building in China. It offered a “full course” set meal.
“Chinese customers are very demanding now,” said Ben Cavender, principal at China Market Research Group in Shanghai. “They travel a lot, have exposure to a lot of different cuisines, and their needs are a moving target. If you can’t show something interesting to friends and family, you’re not going to succeed.”
That hasn’t stopped American chains from swooping into the market. McDonald’s plans to add 2,000 stores in the next five years, nearly doubling its presence in China. Starbucks aims for 5,000 China shops by 2021.
At Fatburger’s other Beijing store, three female bankers recently waited for an order of sweet potato fries. Instead of ’80s pop, a TV attached to the ceiling played a CNN update on Hurricane Irma. An English sign behind the counter requested “warm fuzzy feelings,” which has no Chinese translation.
None had ordered a burger.
“The beef burger they do here is not like the ones in the U.S.,” said Jiu Ling, 27, who studied in Missouri. “It’s really cooked.”
Customer verdicts on the burgers’ taste varied — artificial, bland, delicious, addictive. Most everyone agreed it beat McDonald’s.
Song Guang sat near an image of a cardinal USC football helmet. A salmon burger and onion rings steamed on his tray.
“You can taste the freshness,” said Song, a 32-year-old designer, careful to keep the burger in its wrapper as he ate. He stops by three times a week around 1 p.m. when the lunchtime crowd suddenly disappears, vacuumed back to work.
Every third visit, Song swaps salmon for beef. He leaves the onion rings for last, then heads off to the gym.
Nicole Liu and Gaochao Zhang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
Meyers is a special correspondent.