PALMER-Burger Jim pairs classic burgers with Chinese food that the Tzou family grew up around. After success in Anchorage, Jason Yim and Ronald Tzou moved their business to the Valley and found the opportunity to fuse family and food.
In 2012, Ronald Tzou was preparing to move back to San Francisco to open a small restaurant. Thinking that real world experience could offer education that an institution couldn’t, Richard and Ae Sook Tzou purchased Burger Jim’s inside the transit station in Anchorage and commissioned Ronald and Jason to run it, despite having no prior burger experience. Their friend Isaac Bae helped cooking in Anchorage after their friendship developed in San Francisco. The spot quickly grew popular and moved to the Valley in 2014. Ronald and Jason honed their craft on the flattop grill and their work relationship, which Tzou describes as yin and yang.
“As long as i get to take Jason with me I’m cool. In the beginning it was just me, Jason and a delivery guy. We watched and we learned. When you’re young you think that you know everything, you know. Your head is so big, you really have no idea what’s ahead, you’re just full of confidence,” said Ronald Tzou.
The popular spot for burgers moved the Valley in 2015 and quickly gained popularity. Burger Jim won the 2017 Frontiersman Best of the Valley award for Best Takeout. The menu largely remained in tact with the move to the Valley, only switching a few ingredients and renaming classics with the ‘Warrior Burger’ the ‘Knight Burger’ and the ‘P-Town Bleu Burger.’ Ronald’s father Richard pushed them to open their new location as soon as possible, and were pleased with sales immediately.
Ronald grew up working in his parents Peking restaurant in Wasilla. He returned for one year after college, but ultimately knew he wanted to put his own twist on the food he’d been helping serve since childhood. Jason is Ronald’s cousin, but Ronald describes him as more of a brother. Meanwhile, Bernard Tzou, six years Ronald’s junior and also his cousin, was growing up in Peking Garden restaurant in Palmer run by Jack and Tracy Tzou. After graduating from UAA, Bernard joined the team. With serving and delivery experience from his parent’s restaurant, Bernard fit right in at Burger Jim. He has quickly grown into a cook and as Ronald looks to open a new restaurant in Anchorage, has become increasingly vital to the Burger Jim family. The move to the Valley has also brought the cousins closer together. When they were young, they would see each other only a handful of times a year on Chinese New Year’s, Christmas and Thanksgiving when they did not have to work in their parents restaurants.
“My team is the most important thing. It’s pretty much like a family too, it’s a mom and pops establishment,” said Tzou.
The food served in Burger Jim’s is typical of any Chinese food restaurant you might see in the U.S.A., but mixtures of both styles of cuisine have popped up on the menu. The Mongolian Beef Burger gained brief popularity. Philly cheese steak egg rolls have been a staple on the menu. Ronald says that his father told him he had plans to retire after more than 30 years and leave Ronald the restaurant in 2011, but he laughs when he mentions that his father still runs the restaurant. Peking Garden now sublets the building to a Pho and Thai restaurant. The Tzou children now carry on the legacy started by their parents of serving some of the finest Chinese food in the Valley.
“I’ll never forget how I got here. There was a lot of bumps along theway but that's what was so important to me. Back in 2012, my dad was saying, “In life you don’t just go on an easy path to go accomplish your goal. Nobody’s journey is like that. Nobody’s path is like that.” You’ve got to go around a few things and you will hit a few speed bumps,” said Tzou.
Just as Jason and Ronald have matured in running a grill and a business, they have seen their employees blossom as well. Dan Brink started out as a junior in high school and now runs the burger side of the grill. Jason or Ronald has to be there to cook the Chinese food, but the growth of the team over time has made their food a favorite.
“I’m really into hole in the wall joints and this kind of reminds me of a hole in the wall. The food is loud enough man, that’s how I feel… I feel like our burgers are even getting better because while we’re still cooking we’re gaining knowledge about it too and we’re gaining more and more experience” said Tzou.
Due to the hurried opening, the dining room remains minimalist. Tables and chairs along the wall will seat four or five, but Ronald believes the kitchen is the main attraction, not the dining room. A small, unfinished side table was constructed one day due to boredom, says Ronald. Plans to renovate the dining room this spring are in the works.
“On there, your hands have to be super fast,” said Tzou of the single-wok Chinese cooking.
Burger Jim’s will soon introduce milkshakes to go along with their burgers. They use fresh daily buns from North Star Bakery, who concocted a special recipe just to be used for Burger Jim’s buns. The sriracha/mayo sauce on the new Halo Burger came from a suggestion from Hailey Poteet. Ronald enjoys the wide open kitchen, and says he thinks customers like to see employees forming fresh patties by hand and making as many dishes as possible in house, only using premade barbecue sauce and mayo.
“We try to use better quality with everything since it’s going to be over here in the Valley and there’s not a lot of food joints,” said Tzou.
As far as the fusion of Chinese food and burgers, Ronald has heard a lot of suggestions, but says that the Mongolian Beef Burger is as far as he will go.
“Now I have a strong foundation here. Burger Jim gave us so much so we’ve got to keep this solid, keep it strong,” said Tzou. “We’ve got to keep more and more people coming”