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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Umami Burger: Great Patty, Hold the Fries

When I arrived at Umami Burger for my most recent burger club outing, I was surprised to find that it was in the old location of a very bad Korean fast food place on La Brea that held so much promise. Food Darwinism at work, I guess.

I'm happy to report that this was one of the more successful burger club outings. I was impressed with the patty, which was fresh and ground just the right consistency. The meat was seasoned well and cooked just the way I like it -- a perfectly juicy, red and appropriately bloody medium rare. I daresay the patty was on par with my favorite burger from Houston's. Was it as good as Houston's? No. As important as the patty is, a perfect burger isn't perfect if the bun, toppings and sides aren't up to standards.

The bun tasted a bit like the cheap rolls you get at hotel banquets and didn't have enough heft to hold together a full-on burger with the works. I don't have to have a brioche but don't give me a spinless bun. The toppings on my SoCal Burger that included butter lettuce, oven-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, cheese and a thousand island-esque spread made for a good combination of flavors and textures that melded well together. I also had bites of the Umami Burger, which came with shitake mushrooms and similar toppings and the Triple Pork Burger, a pork extravaganza that threw in ground pork, chorizo and bacon topped with manchego and pimenton aioli -- presumably an ode to Spain. I liked both, although I liked my classic one better. I would like to try the six chile burger, the High-end Chili Burger and the Port and Stilton Burger.

You can get relishes like roasted garlic aioli and the special sauce to dip your burger or sides in. My biggest problem with this place was that most critical accompaniment to a burger -- the sides. How can a self-respecting burger joint mean business with such colossally lame fries and onion rings?
First of all, look at the size of that portion. For $3, you get 8 fries at most! Each fry will cost you 37 cents. Now that is a travesty. On top of that, they were not even good -- in fact, they were pretty darn bad! They were advertised as "triple-cooked hand cut fries," but so what if they were triple cooked and hand cut? They just didn't "cut" it for me. They weren't crispy or particularly well-seasoned. They were so chunky that you bit into them and they just about scorched the roof of your mouth. I liked that they weren't oversalted like in many restaurants, but the problem was they were borderline bland. I detected some sort of spice like cumin but it was barely discernible. The "malt liquor tempura onion rings" (guessing the owner is a big fan of Japanese food judging by the name, umami, which refers to the alleged "fifth flavor" and tempura reference) were ok but not great. I initially got excited about the sweet potato chips because I thought they were sweet potato fries but alas, not only was I disappointed to see they were actually shriveled, thinly sliced chips that were greasy and not very crispy either.

It was nice being able to bring your own beer (save money too -- I greatly enjoyed my Pacifico) since it doesn't yet have a liquor license. I was surprised to find a significant line forming outside of the tiny restaurant after 8 p.m.. I had traumatic flashbacks of my Kogi BBQ truck experience and felt like they were rushing us out of there. Service, incidentally, was erratic. Nice and relatively laid-back but our waiter forgot to give some of us waters and it took several asks to get mustard and other condiments. I would return for the burger, however, especially since it's smaller than a Houston's burger and a lot more affordable at $9 a pop. I know I sound harsh but I did like the patty a lot. Still, while it was a satisfying burger, I so lament that the owners didn't take the time to really invest in amazingly good fries -- or even half-way decent fries.

Umami Burger
(323) 931-3000
850 S. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036

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