Umami Burger on La Brea

The date was April 7, 2009. The event was my first trip to the famed Umami Burger in LA. “Umami” is the fifth taste in Japanese and is supposed to be that “extra something” that heightens the flavor of a dish. As a sidenote, the dictionary on my Mac tells me that fifth taste is supposed to correspond to glutamates, specifically MSG. Nice. Also, it tells me “umami” literally means “deliciousness” in Japanese. That really is nice. Anyway, my friend Katrina and I went. When we arrived, it all came off as very “L.A.” The host outside monitoring seating, the valet, the people coming in with shopping bags, all the trendy outfits mixed with the uber casual, and the setting sun against a bustling Los Angeles, the air faintly warm.

It was a surprisingly small location on La Brea. (There are at least four locations total: La Brea, Los Feliz, Hollywood, and Santa Monica.) We were told there would be about a 20 to 30 minute wait unless we wanted to sit at the bar. Knowing how hungry we were we agreed to sit at the bar. And there weren’t even any distracting pictures on the wall to entertain us. Thus we made our way back to the small group of people waiting outside the restaurant. Yes, the restaurant is so small there is no room to wait inside. At least the host waited and mingled outside as well.

Finally it was our turn to be seated – at a rather small table next to kitchen entrance. I’m actually not complaining – just observing. When it was time to order I had to ask our server what he recommended as it was my first time at Umami. Given this was my inaugural trip he suggested I try the classic Umami Burger – I would have future trips to be more adventurous. Their namesake burger comes with roasted tomatoes and mushrooms, a Parmigiano frico (basically a little “cracker” of just grated cheese), and some of their house-made ketchup. Katrina got the Port & Stilton Burger with blue cheese and port-caramelized onions. Her side was a salad, mine was the side of fries. This was done to encourage bite-trading.

Overall, I thought the burgers were good. I may have liked hers more, but I was satisfied with my choice. I thought the signature burger was good, however, I didn’t feel I could taste all of the individual flavors as well – maybe it needed to be seasoned better? The meat was good; didn’t taste overly charbroiled, but had a little of that going on, and maybe medium beefiness. As time went on, I thought it tasted more and more like a pizza burger with the roasted tomato and shitake mushrooms and the ketchup. I really liked the ketchup. The ketchup was a major win for me. The pink of the meat seemed almost like pepperoni red-orange. A couple bites of my burger in the middle left me wondering if fennel was in the meat; the first bites did have a slight sweetness or warmth to them – like from spice. Maybe allspice-ish. Bread was good – slightly sweet and a little greasy, but not too fatty.

I liked Katrina’s burger, although she said she wished for more blue cheese. I agreed. The onions were super yummy though and overall I think her burger was better. She described some of her last bites as buttery. (Sorry for the super bad photo.)

Our fries were grossly undercooked; you could tell just by looking at them. It was kind of an abomination. They had decent flavor, but we had a really rough time getting over their undercooked state. Her salad was good – it reminded me of a certain candy that I can’t remember. A little grainy flavor not texture, fruity, and sweet. My first bite left me tasting a little honey. She thought it was good at first, but then started to taste more like potpourri toward the end. The service was good overall and the décor was nothing to write home about.

If memory serves me right, I’ve been equally or more impressed with other L.A. burgers. I think Henry’s Hat may be beefier. I think I like 25 Degrees better as a whole – it’s actually probably my favorite burger in L.A. right now, although I’ll be sure to conduct further research. Father’s Office and The Library Bar burgers aren’t slacking off either.

I know a return trip to Umami is in my future. How do I know this you ask? The Manly Burger. I have been told it is absolutely delicious. Beer-cheddar cheese, smoked salt onion strings, and bacon lardons. That sounds like pure manly deliciousness. Aaaand I’m hoping I can get a better batch of fries. Sheesh! And , of course, I’m still dreaming about the ketchup… Until next time, Umami…

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