5933 York Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90042 (map); 323-257-8705; Facebook page
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A family of former Umami cooks opens a knock-off burger spot that serves up high quality burgers
Want Fries with That? Yes; solid fries if you need them, but go for homemade cheesy tots for a better fried spud
Prices: House Burger, $9, The Very Cheese and Bacon Burger, $10
It was only a matter of time. The meteoric rise of the Umami Burger empire meant imitators would pop up around Los Angeles. Sure, one could make the argument that we wouldn't have seen the likes of Stout or even Rounds without Umami, but those riffed on the idea of a high-end, burger-themed restaurant. What we have with Fusion Burgers is a full tilt knock off.
The folks behind this small burger bistro in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles do little to secrete the origins of their menu. The owners, Miguel Munoz, Sr. and Jr., are a father-son team who honed their burger cookery at the Santa Monica Umami location. Apparently there was something hinky in how these guys parted ways with Umami, but I'm not going to delve into whatever that might be about. What I will get into is their burgers. Not everyone thinks Fleischman is a burger Jedi, but I'd say he taught them well. I stopped by this (very new) restaurant for lunch and found a lot that was very familiar and very good.
The Munoz Family (daughter Betty is a server) has taken over a space that used to house Tacos El Michuacano and done little to change the feel of the dining room (think: taco joint) and a lot to change menu (think: burger!). This burger-centric menu is rather large and, well, rather familiar. They list thirteen different burger creations that are reminiscent of the the Umami menu. In fact, the menus and graphics in general ape their former employer's. As it turns out, so does their burger technique.
I started with the House Burger, which puts a seven(ish)-ounce patty on a Portuguese bun. The Munozes slather on some homemade Thousand Island, green leaf lettuce, oven-dried tomato, lardons, and beer cheddar cheese. The beef is a blend of of skirt steak and short rib from Lanza. The bun is from Artisan Crust, which, like Umami's, is a Portuguese bun (though Miguel, Jr. claims his is less sweet).
The burger is both visually and in flavor reminiscent of Umami. The Fusion version gets two things just about exactly right: the beef and the bun. The former is a beautifully coarse grind that is given a gentle touch when formed into a patty. It's griddled in a cast iron skillet at high heat, creating a truly great crust that gives way to a very juicy center. It seems they've foresworn the Asian kick in this patty as there was little beyond the rich beefiness in evidence when I tried it on its own. The bun was a spongy and held together beautifully. The proverbial (Portuguese) cat is out of the bag; Artisan Crust makes a fantastic bun.
The toppings were a bit overdone. The Thousand Island had good flavor, but the portioning was a little heavy handed. The lettuce was fine, but the oven-roasted tomato—a technique that ups the umami (small "u")—was a mushy and unwelcome. The cheese was flavorful and melts like a dream, but again, was a bit much. The lardons were a salty distraction.
Second up was The Very Cheese and Bacon Burger. For this the Fusion Burger's standard patty and bun get a heaping pile of lardons and fried onion, beer cheddar cheese, homemade ketchup, and Dijon mustard.
This one was a big miss for me. The basics of the burger were, once again, excellent. Beef was flavorful and crumbly; bun spongy and delightful. But all of that goodness gets lost under the mess of the toppings.
The fries were basic slim-cut, skin-on spuds that don't make much an argument on their own. They were sort of crispy and not terribly flavorful. That said, cover them in the very good homemade chili (worthy of a bowl unto itself) and some gooey cheese and they make much more sense.
I also tried the homemade Cheesy Tots and I'm so very glad I did. The exteriors were wonderfully crispy and the rough cut potato on the inside was turned smooth from the cooking. The cheese was almost unnecessary, but still, these are some of the best tots I've tried.
The Munoz Family clearly has the talent and training to make a very good burger restaurant. So many things about how they've put together this family project are great. Everyone there is unfailingly polite and pleasant. The food is high quality and in most phases well-executed. The big failing here is that they chose to so closely ape Umami. If they had taken inspiration from Fleischman rather than going with straight imitation there would be so much more to like about the place. Not only would it lose the knock-off vibe, but one imagines that simplifying the food would play to their strengths. When I was leaving Betty told me that they'd opened quickly for financial reasons and they'd be making changes in their first few months. I hold out hope.