Discovering the Fifth Taste at Umami Burger in Los Angeles
850 South La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90036 (map); 323-931-3000; umamiburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A gourmet burger that is both true to the form and deliciously original
Want Fries with That? They are more visually striking than tasty, but are a meticulous rendering of boil, fry, fry technique
Prices: Umami burger, $8
Notes: Mon. to Sat., 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Important note: There is enough ambiance and complexity of taste to make burger night feel like date night. A reasonable $5 corkage fee means dinner out doesn't have to be fiscally irresponsible.
As I've encountered on more than one occasion, the training and technical accomplishment of a fine dining chef or the savvy and business acumen of a restaurateur doesn't mean that she or he will make anything resembling a burger that I'll crave. Perhaps that's not so surprising, as the burger is an eating experience tied to our personal histories. During our childhoods, burgers conveniently and comfortably fulfilled the basic necessity of eating, but more than that they were the locus of our youthful awakening to the joys of food. They taught us just how much want we can tease out of our needs. They represent those moments in our childhood that played out as simple desire and grew into adult memories of youthful pleasure and the comfort of food.
So when I heard a Serious Eats reader decided to open a burger restaurant I got excited. Perhaps a passionate eater's take on the burger is just what it needs. Someone who will obsess over the balance and complexity of this simple sandwich in a manner that manages to stay faithful to the form.
After my first trip to Umami Burger on La Brea Boulevard, I was so pleased with their tasty and complex burger that I determined to get a look at what goes on behind the scenes. Thankfully, Umami's owner, Adam Fleischman, cheerfully agreed to show me the Umami process.
Umami Burger sits at the corner of a nondescript, almost-strip-mall space on La Brea Boulevard just a little south of Wilshire. This little piece of La Brea is one of those stretches in Los Angeles that you can feel telling itself, "I think I can." A cool bar here and a mom and pop coffee shop there make for a neighborhood in becoming.
Pulling into the modest parking lot (something to keep in mind when planning your visit), Umami looks like a little oasis of burger serenity. The Japanese origin of the word is reflected in the Asian-inspired interior. As it happens, Umami took over the space from the ill-fated Korean fusion restaurant Bap-Jip that was trying to hawk a taco. I mean, who would eat a Korean taco, right? Well Bap-Jip's lack of timing was Umami's good fortune. The space has received just a minor makeover, but I suspect the memory of its origins will quickly fade.
Adam had agreed to let me watch a burger go from raw ingredients to plate and then, most importantly, to my belly. Before I head into the kitchen we sit down to chat about all this burgerness came to be.
The Origins of Umami Burger
Adam grew up in Maryland outside of Washington DC and decided to pursue a career in film before finding his way to the food business. His first passion was for wine and that led to a pair of wine bars in Culver City: Bottle Rock and Vinoteque. While he still maintains an abiding interest in the grape, he decided that he wanted to make the burger his focus (and who can blame him). Before coming up with his current menu, he went through the test kitchen process in his home. That's when he hit upon the idea of focusing on umami as an organizing principle.
Salty, sweet, sour, bitter—these four are the flavors we grew up playing with in science class, but umami is not basic to most people's academic understanding of taste. The description of what has been dubbed "the fifth taste" is not so easy. Savory? Meaty? Yes and yes. It has been localized to the reception of glutamate, hence the MSG-dousing so many restaurants employ. The thing is, that road to umami is not only low, it's also (with some attention to detail) unnecessary.
Adam wanted to recreate that craving he gets for his two favorite burgers: the In-N-Out Double Double, and The Father's Office burger. He began researching all of the foods that have high umami ratings and decided to see what would happen if he started combining them. What he came up with is both delicious and certainly no facsimile of either of his inspirations.
While we finish up our chat, Umami Burger's dining room turns into a food writing convention. Los Angeles's king of the food scribes, Jonathan Gold, walks in with some folks from the Los Angeles Times. Then a writer for Saveur shows up to talk recipes. I feel at the center of the excitement of this food moment and yet out of place. Luckily, I have a backstage pass today. I do what I always did as a boy when my father's restaurant got busy: I head for the kitchen.
Behind the Scenes
Adam shows me the meat grinding process. I'm not allowed to know everything, but I do know that flap meat plays a role. His grind is coarse and he hand packs the meat loosely in a form. From there it gets a hearty helping of salt and pepper and then finds a home on an equally seasoned cast iron griddle. While I think it's fair to say that the burger is gourmet, the process falls somewhere between chef and fast food. It lacks flourish, but is executed meticulously.
All of the condiments are made in house, but the one I am most intrigued by is the Umami processed cheese used on the So Cal Burger (a take on In-N-Out). Gruyere (in this case, Comté) is shredded and mixed with Sherry and some heat. Then it gets a little hit of sodium citrate. The mixture is poured into a sheet pan to stabilize and voilà—homemade American cheese. You'll also find homemade ketchup, relish, chili, and host of others. To be honest, while they are all good, they don't compromise my love the cloying sweetness of a commercial ketchup.
Complex Flavors Make for an Original Burger
When I dig into the Umami burger the force of all of the tastes hit me. The meat is well-seasoned and beautifully cooked and packed. The Parmesan is baked into a tuile and the tomato gets a roasting (upping the umami rating apparently). The onions are caramelized, but Umami resists the browning impulse that foils so many grilled onions. The flavors come together as something entirely "burger" and yet something else. There is a complexity to the flavor that makes this burger eat like an original dish. The commercial, mass produced burger legacy of Post-WWII America is absent, yet it's still definitively a burger (unlike one if its inspirations, as Nick pointed out).
One of the big reasons Umami maintains a hold on the burgerness of its creation lies in its bun. It's attractive, but not the perfect round like those for-looks-only brioche buns. This one is a Portuguese-style roll so it has a nontraditional sweetness, but the texture is soft, sturdy and satisfying. In fact, the texture is a key component as it's what keeps the burger together. I am able to use my hands all the way through despite the loosely packed meat and multiple condiments.
Speaking of the meat, it comes from Rocker Brothers Meat & Provision in Inglewood. Adam estimates the fat content at 24 percent, but this isn't the sole explanation for the meat's tastiness. The mixture makes for a bigger flavor and, as we've discussed before, seasoning and proper cooking (high heat) make all the difference.
After trying three of the burgers on the menu, the signature Umami Burger is my favorite. The So Cal is good, but didn't come together as well for me. The Port & Stilton is delicious, but something I'd order with a bottle of wine at dinner. That reminds me—there is a modest $5 corkage fee (and no booze) at Umami, so burger night can feel like a night out without the financial stress. An affordable fancy-pants burger in this minimalist setting seems a treat in times like these.
All in all, Umami Burger is an exciting restaurant in becoming. The burgers are great, but there is still a sense that the machine aspect of a restaurant's smooth operation has yet to set in. Also, Adam's eyes light up when I ask him if he's going to expand the menu. He has numerous ideas including a Maryland crab cake (yes, please). I expect Umami to grow up fast.
When I ask Adam what he is trying to do at Umami his answer comes fast, furious, and audacious: "We're trying to improve upon nature. That's what a burger is doing. It's taking the good things about nature and fitting them in your hand." While Umami's iteration is certainly a reworking of the tastes of a traditional burger, Adam is insistent that he remain loyal to the form. "We're trying to focus on what appeals about burgers in the first place. We're trying to make something you crave." He sounds like someone who is both passionate and committed to food. He sounds like an eater who is, well, serious. No wonder I like his burger.