Berkeley, CA: Tempura-Fried Burgers at Sumo Grub
2235 Milvia Street, Berkeley CA 94704 (map); 510-396-3967; facebook.com/sumogrub
Cooking Method: Deep-fried
Short Order: The burger gets lost beneath the breading, but fried food is tasty. Avoid the dried out griddled burger.
Want Fries with That? Waffle fries are a snooze, but get the deep-fried mac and cheese, maybe even in place of the burger
Price: burger, $4; tempura mac and cheese, $3.95; fries/rings, $2.25
Jason Sum, the chef/owner at Sumo Grub, says that his current motto is, "Live free or die frying." Though a few non-fried items appear on the restaurant's menu, the majority of the grub at Sumo Grub gets breaded in house-made panko and tempura-fried. That includes pizza (full details over at Slice), sausages, a menagerie of candy bars, and, of course, a burger. It's a balls-out approach to cookery that has earned the restaurant plenty of notice, including an upcoming slot on Outrageous Foods.
Sum has embraced the stuntman appeal of his food with a sense of humor. The restaurant's logo features a cartoon sumo wrestler proffering a hot dog and what looks to be a plate of pasta. Customers can earn their way onto the "Wall of Fame" by eating their way through one of four massive challenge meals in under 15 minutes—though, at last check, there were only two eaters that had claimed fame, while 19 others had been pasted to the "Wall of Shame." And if all that fried food isn't entertaining enough, Sum recently installed a karaoke machine, so you will soon be able to hear bad versions of "Achy Breaky Heart" while you clog your own.
So about that deep-fried burger. Though Sumo Grub advertises its technique as tempura-style, my Sumo burger arrived not with the pale, light, and airy breading I have come to associate with Japanese food, but instead with a crunchy, golden shell. This is not to say that Sum and his staff don't know their way around a fryer—if the breading arrived denser than I had envisioned, the crisp crust was free of grease and certainly tasty, as properly fried foods tend to be.
Finding the burger within this crunchy nugget was another matter. The quarter-pound of Angus beef hardly factored into the final equation. In fact, not much about this burger—besides the friedness—really registered. I'd have gladly taken my panko-crusted patty off the bun, tossed the fixings, and eaten it like finger food. I'd certainly keep the Sumo Sauce which came slathered on top of my fried patty, though. Sumo Grub's creamy, barely-green condiment of choice veers to the sweeter end of things, but its combination of Thai basil and chili is pretty addictive, and certainly a winning complement to fried foods.
The lack of beefy punch in Sumo Grub's burger appears to be as much the result of the patty itself as the frying process. I ordered a plain old griddled patty along with my fried burger so I could give the meat an honest tasting. Sum says he started out using hand-formed patties in the restaurant, but these fell apart or didn't cook evenly in the fryer, so he switched to using the pre-pressed kind to guarantee perfect uniformity. In the griddled version, the result was a thin round of dried out meat that could have passed just as easily for a coaster on which to set your drink as a hamburger patty.
The pale and mealy slice of tomato on my burger didn't much help matters, and if I'd known that Sumo Grub used cheese sauce rather than a proper slice, I'd have left that off my order as well. A generous helping of the Sumo Sauce and some griddled onions improved things, but couldn't fully remedy the situation. I was tempted to lick the toppings off my burger and leave the beef behind.
Just as I'd recommend skipping the griddled burger at Sumo Grub, go without the uninspired waffle fries. Instead, get the deep-fried mac and cheese. More so than any of the fried creations I tried at Sumo Grub, the flavor of the creamy Kraft-like center actually stood out against the shell of breading. And the panko crust meant that the best part of baked mac and cheese—those crisp edges from the top of the casserole dish—completely enveloped Sumo Grub's version. I'd have passed on both of my burgers for a few more of these.
To fully understand Sumo Grub's odd little place in the culinary landscape, it helps to know that the restaurant sits directly across the street from Berkeley High School. Sum estimates that he gets 400 students through the tiny restaurant on weekdays. I'd guess that a 16-year-old boy can put away quite a few deep-fried burgers, though Sum says that the kids tend to opt for the chili-cheese fries, or maybe a quick dessert of fried Oreos. Without the benefit of a growth spurt to fuel my own eating, I admit to feeling just a bit wobbly as I left Sumo Grub. Time to get my cholesterol checked.
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. Though he's an equal opportunity eater, there's a special place in his heart for crispy slices of pizza and juicy hamburgers. You can check out his take on deep-fried pizza over at Slice.