Umami Burger: Love U Long Time
The timing couldn't have been better/worse. Just as I was finishing my odyssean quest to find the Best Burgers In Las Vegas three different friends enjoined me to check out the new burger joint in LA--well, new-ish--Los Feliz's Umami Burger. Of course I couldn't say no. I was curious, at the very least, to see how it would compare to Vegas' heavy hitters.
Set in the moderately updated raw space that previously housed a second location of Steven Arroyo's Cobras Y Matadors, Umami Burger (this is actually a second location too--the first is in Hollywood proper) is appreciably no-nonsense. Usually LA boites spend more effort on the atmosphere than the menu, so the fact that this looks more like a spot in Williamsburg or Wicker Park got my notice right away. That's not to say I necessarily liked the post-mod pseudo-Jap decor, or the raw lighting, just that it gave an air that owner Adam Fleischman (hmm, that doesnt sound Japanese) is more focused on the food.
The menu is barely more complex than that of In-N-Out. The Umami burger is a beef patty (what cuts and grade isn't specified) studded with a proprietary natural rub that emphasizes the elusive fifth flavor (I thought they used to call that MSG, but what do I know?): it comes in six a la carte varieties ($9-11) and three "kombu" meals.
My dining companion, by the way, was one of my oldest friends, recently reaquainted on facebook. I mention it only to remark the resonance: Though he probably doesn't remember, Dave was the first person with whom I ate sushi, and buffalo wings, and probably made a few other street-level food discoveries. He was with me the first time I wrote a (probably regrettable, surely forgettable) food review, on a mediocre Italian place.
We decided ordering two burgers just wouldn't be enough to get an idea, so we ordered three to split--a signature Umami, the Hatch, and the Manly--along with the Hand Cut Fries and Malt Liquour Tempura Onion Rings.
The Umami was, as promised, a straight-up patty on a soft sweet eggy bun. Cooked medium-rare (bien sur) it delivered good beef flavor within a crispy but not overly smoky char. The softness of the bun loses the battle against the burger's juice, making it a sloppy eat. The Hatch burger adds a crispy cheese fritter and four fried green chiles to the formula, giving the burger a nice sneaky slow burn that balances the meat's fatty flavor well. The Manly adds bear-cheddar cheese, smoked salt onion strings and bacon lardons (basically, fat-heavy bacon curls) to the patty, overpowering any taste of beef. There are people who like that kind of thing...but they're not the kind of people I care to associate with.
The sides had looked impressive on the other tables as we sat down. To be honest, they disappointed. Potato fries make a big deal about being hand cut (they are more than a 1/2" thick square) and "triple-cooked." You would expect them to be Belgian-style crispy, but they were in fact only mildly crunchy, a bit mealy and fairly flavorless. The big sexy onion rings were all puffy batter, again no crunch, and barely any flavor.
Luckily the condiments--particularly the Umami ketchup, which had a bit of plummy sweetness, and roasted garlic aioli mayo--helped them down (too bad Umami Burger's food costs are so high they have to charge you for more than one sauce per burger. Wow, guys, you can't give away 2 extra oz? That's a tough business you're running).
They do have a nice selection of beers, widely ranging in price.
The ice cream sandwiches looked fun, but hell, I was full already.
There are also lamb, turkey, veggie and pork burgers, sweet potato fries and house pickles I'd be curious to try. If I do, I'll blog again.
P.S. On the Vegas scale, Umami Burger would have come in at about 5-6. Not quite as excellent as the best, but still a very fine burger--and almost half the price of the fancy Sin City versions.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2009
DAVE CLARK, R.I.P.