It's amazing to think that it was only four short years ago when I first profiled restaurateur Adam Fleischman and his small, high-end burger spot on La Brea Boulevard. Now his Umami empire has expanded to 14 locations and there are more on the way.
From the beginning Fleischman had a vision of applying unique burger aesthetic to the fast food model. I can remember him telling me about the ins and outs of his version of, well, In-N-Out, and thinking that his dreams were bold—bold and a decade away. Fleischman's idea of a reasonable timeline for starting a fast food chain is much shorter than mine.
Two weeks ago he opened the first outpost of his fast food operation in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. This one is called U-Mini, but there is talk that the chain will expand under the Umami name. Recently, Fleischman gave me a tour of the new operation. It's unquestionably forward thinking in its design and ordering technology, but what impressed me most were the burgers themselves.
The ordering process at U-Mini is designed for maximum efficiency. I put my order through on the in-store iPad system, but Fleischman has designed the operation so that you place your order and pay all through a custom smartphone app. Place your order, pay up, and they'll let you know when your food is ready. It's a straightforward idea that will make the lunch rush about as rational as it can be.
Here's a photo walk-through of my putting a lunch order in. (Full disclosure: I used one of the U-Mini cashiers as a hand model.)
The first burger I tried was the Vintage Burger ($5.85). Fleischman explained that he wanted to evoke the memory of the classic McDonald's cheeseburger, but use his techniques and quality ingredients to bring it to the next level. That's just what he's done.
The basics are as you'd guess: a five-ounce Umami blend patty, topped with bread and butter pickles, minced onion, mustard, Umami Ketchup, and cheddar on the classic Umami bun (a Portuguese roll that is among the best in the business). Fleischman insists on all of his ingredients being made by his team and all of the Umami restuarants (including U-Mini) grind their meat fresh, in-house every day.
The patty itself is cooked on a beautiful cast iron plancha with the smashing technique that Fleischman developed for the Umami truck. This means that your patty will get a prodigious crust with its medium to medium well center.
Fleischman had mine cooked a bit less than they'll be serving to the public, so that's the reason for rich pink center in the cross-section shot. The word is, you can't request a medium rare through the automated ordering process, but you can make a special request in person.
The flavor profile of the burger is immediately familiar. There's no mistaking that classic McDonald's cheeseburger germline is clear, but the U-Mini version is so much more. The patty is juicy and full of flavor and the pickles and onions add a balance of sweetness and bite. The cheese and bun are exemplary. But the flavor that will send you down memory lane is, in this burger reviewer's humble opinion, the mustard. It adds that little extra acidity that I feel is the key to what we know to be the McDonald's cheeseburger difference.
I also tried the veggie burger ($5.85) on Fleischman's recommendation and, despite my cultivated prejudice to the genre, I found myself beguiled by his earthy, full flavored version. Certainly this isn't a burger for those of you not given to the mushroom, but I found myself halfway through the thing before I took a breath. It's no beef substitute, but I don't think it should be thought of as such. It's a sandwich of its own design that will please the vegetarians that you'll want to bring along to your burger lunch.
The fries ($2.50) are fresh-cut Kennebec potatoes that are instantly the best fresh-cut fast food fry around.
The Umami fries ($2.50) get a dusting of "Umami" seasoning and are earthy and tasty, but I found the standard fries to be a distinguished version of the classic.
I also sampled the shakes ($3.50/$5, small/large) at U-Mini. Recently Umami acquired L.A. Creamery and is richer for it. U-Mini serves nearly perfect shakes in two flavors, Salted Caramel and Milk Chocolate. Treat yourself to a sample of one if you're hesitant. If, like me, you're working on your self-discipline, order both and try mixing them yourself. It's a magical pairing.
I'm so pleased to say I knew Adam when. "When" in this case was over four years ago when he was just building Umami. He reached out to me as a reader of AHT. He asked me to come try out the burger at his new restaurant called Umami Burger. He was, you see, a Serious Eater who had a dream of a different kind of burger served in a different kind of burger restaurant. Now another piece of that dream is a reality—a very tasty reality.