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Umami

In this world of ever changing burger menus, you can generally tell whether or not you’re gonna get a winner by the ingredients. Granted, you could have a burger piled high with exotic hams, fancy French cheeses, and an onion jam compote made by the chef’s mother and still strike out if the burger is poorly cooked,  over-seasoned or just made with plain poor quality beef. But most burgerheads (Yes, that’s a word. Starting when? Starting now) will tell you if you look at a menu if there’s something with the words “truffle” and “burger” on it, that won’t let you down.

It is no surprise therefore that the truffle burger at Umami Burger is scrumptious.  The burger itself is a very simple affair. Resting on their signature bun is a patty glazed in truffle sauce and covered in their home made truffle cheese. There are no vegetables, no frills, no bells, no whistles, and no distractions, and the result is an extremely satisfying earthy experience. Vegetarian? No sweat. You can almost have the same experience with their truffle cheese fries which, if you were concerned that your breath wasn’t powerful enough to knock over your date at three paces, come with a side of garlic aioli.  Heath nut? (Why the hell are you in a burger joint? Did you lose a bet?) Even then they’ve got you covered. Umami makes a great beet salad covered in truffled ricotta, smoked almonds, wild baby arugula, truffle dressing, which is almost as good as the fries.  What I’m saying is, if there was any chance I could swim in a vat of their house made truffle sauce…I would.

This burger blog is not just about the safe bets, though. It’s about exploring menus and finding things that would otherwise go unnoticed. Umami is one of those institutions though where taking risks pays off in a big way. They make things that in other restaurants would be the last thing we’d order like a tuna burger. Tuna burgers in general are sad affairs.  Usually they come in two varieties. Either they’re  dry hunks of tuna covered in god-awful tartar sauce layered with iceburg lettuce and a slice of tomato or they’re pieces of sashimi drenched in vinaigrette and mercilessly wedged in the center of a hamburger bun.  Both are depressing and neither really qualifies as a burger.

Most people fail to make a tuna burger because they either want to treat it like a beef patty or a fried fish sandwich and it is neither. A nice piece of tuna deserves respect. This is why Umami’s burger is so damn revolutionary. It doesn’t try and turn the tuna into something it’s not.  Their burger has hand-chopped ahi tuna, crushed avocado, pickled ginger, sprouts, wasabi tartar spread.  The sandwich is built on traditional flavors that work with tuna: avocado, pickled ginger, and wasabi. The chefs have managed to find a harmony in this burger that most burger joints don’t bother to figure out.  So if you’re asking me which burger I enjoyed more…I just couldn’t tell you.  You’ll have to try them both and decide for yourself.

-Molly Bergen

Thanks to John and Serge for the photos.

Los Angeles’s burger scene is as vast as it is eclectic, hence our desire to create this website. Though the places to go get a great burger are seemingly innumerable, there are definitely a few spots whose names are repeated just as countlessly in response to the question “what’s the best burger in L.A?” Umami is definitely among them. With 9 locations in Southern California (made 10 by Umamicatessen) each boasting ever-so-slightly different menus, Umami truly has claimed its post atop the pantheon of local burger joints. The interior design of each location is unique unto itself, but in all cases sleek and curated, leaving no doubt in the customers mind that this is no divey greasy spoon, but rather an establishment that demands respect.

Umami is a burger restaurant. Though there are numerous creatively constructed options (usually about 10 staples and 3 or 4 specials on any given day) and several outstanding sides on the menu, the only entrée they offer is a burger. If you’re the type to order a chicken caesar salad and watch your friends indulge in the enjoyable food from across the table, you’ll need to eat before you come. These guys don’t waste any menu real estate with non-burger dishes, to their credit.  I nearly always find myself at the Los Feliz location, purely due to its close proximity to my home. That particular venue has 11 regular menu burgers, always a few specials, and more often than not the ingredients necessary to create a past special or former menu item if you know to ask for it. (Secret menu = me feeling special. Win). It also has a great selection of craft brewed beers, affordable wines, and fancy non-alcoholic sodas if those are more your speed. No detail has been overlooked. Should it still remain unclear, I LOVE this place, not only due to the consistent quality of the food, but to the aforementioned creative construction. Their flavor combinations are definitely atypical, and the result is phenomenal.

Umami’s signature burger (the Umami Burger) is far more interestingly assembled than it is named. All of their burgers begin with a course ground, well seasoned, hand formed patty cooked medium-rare unless otherwise requested (don’t you dare ask for it well done) on a very soft sweet bun that reminds me quite a bit of the pandesal that The Oinkster used for its Pork Adobo Burger during burger week (which still visits me in my most pleasant dreams). It is then topped with shitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, oven-roasted tomatoes, a parmesan crisp, and house made ketchup (which is extra think and has a healthy hint of white truffle). Everything about this combination of flavors is perfect. There is so much tartness from the tomato, ketchup and parmesan, but the meatiness of the shitakes and the juicy crumbly beef bring it right back into sublime equilibrium. The bun is thick but very soft and malleable, and its sweetness is the finish on each bite. Accompanied by tempura battered onion rings, or the most amazing hand rolled cheese tots you will ever have in your life (those are on the secret menu, so don’t forget to ask, and be prepared to impress your friends) I can say with some confidence that should I ever find myself in a situation wherein I get to choose my last supper, this is what it would be. Perhaps that’s a bit dark but this burger is that good, and as I discovered while scouring the internet for photos to steal for this post, apparently GQ feels almost as strongly as I do about this meaty masterpiece.

If you’ve never been to Umami before, go. If you feel overwhelmed, go with one of their pairings that has a burger, side, and adult beverage all picked out for you. Try additional sauces with your side, because they make them all in house. And then think about how awesome it is to have a fine meal out at a nice restaurant and still get to eat a cheeseburger, because that is most definitely awesome.

-Geoff Sawyer