If you know me well, you know one of my favorite foods is a great burger with fries. I'm not talking the McD's (haven't had a burger from there in years) but the ish I'm talking about are high quality beef patties, seared just right and with all the right fresh fixings. And the fries. Don't get me started on how. much. I. love. fries. If food were drugs, there's no question french fries would be my drug of choice... but I digress.
It's therefore no wonder that while living in Korea, I often get a hankering to devour a good ol' juicy burger. Of course, there's a few decent burger joints in Korea now too but they just don't come close to the real American deal, the ones here often being overloaded with weird sauces and toppings and stacked so pretentiously high that they give you a fork and knife to eat with as though it's some fancy restaurant grub. Good grief.
California in recent years has really embraced the premium burger concept in recent years and even from across the Pacific I've heard of all these happening burger joints and chains including Father's Office (which I had the opportunity to sample back in my 2010 trip to LA) to the Counter and more.
Another place I frequently heard about was Umami Burger which has its share of raving fans. Since my time in LA was so tragically brief this time around, there weren't many meals I was able to indulge in but my dear friend, Geneva, was able to take me to an Umami for lunch one day where I finally got my hands on an Umami burger.
We arrived at the joint near Studio City to find the place lively and happening but thankfully no wait needed. Choosing a patio to soak in as much of the California sun as possible, we were quickly given the menu to peruse.
Umami derives its name from a Japanese word, which is roughly translated as a "savory taste". It goes a bit beyond the description of just the taste though to the effects it has inside your mouth and shouldn't be confused with "salty". The flavor can be found in meats, fish and seafood but also in vegetables such as ripe tomatoes.
Umami Burgers' introduction statement
If I could have, I would have sampled all the different burgers and I definitely had a difficult time narrowing down to a single choice. In the end, after much contemplation, I went with the hatch, my friend with the truffle and we split an order of regular shoestring fries as well.
I also got an order of Bubble Up which is apparently a Mexican equivalent of Sprite.
Direct from Mexico
Bubble Up tasted like a more tart and less sweeter version of Sprite but that worked for me as I'm not a big person for soft drinks anyways. Next time, I may just order water though as I don't think it warranted a future order.
The fries are shoestring and come with three different house-made sauces including a jalapeno ranch, garlic aioli and ketchup.
(Clockwise from left) Garlic aioli, jalapeno ranch and ketchup
The sauces tasted house-made and fresh with the garlic aioli being particularly memorable and this coming from a guy who always eats fries with ketchup and ketchup alone.
The real standout was the house-made ketchup. Much more potent and tomato-y than your average Heinz in a bottle, it was a rich and sweet tomato sauce that made bottled ketchup suddenly taste completely artificial in comparison. It was a sort of "awakening" taste moment for me as I doubt I've ever tasted home made ketchup before.
The fries were just average. They weren't anything knock-out or particularly memorable but I NEVER discriminate against my favorite guilty pleasure food so I still ate it up with glee.
Soon our burgers arrived side-by-side.
For this long-term Korean resident who was used to towering and overstuffed burgers, the visual simplicity of the burgers took me by surprise for a moment. The patties were a nice thick size and gave off a slight shiny glean from their rich fatty juices.
The truffle burger was really, just as its name stated, a burger with truffle oil on it and white truffle cheese. The hatch burger was just as simple with the burger simply topped with roasted chile and a white american cheese.
Splitting our burgers in two, we traded and I chomped down on my burgers with delight.
The truffle burger was as good as a simple burger could be. The meat tasted fresh, was juicy and it certainly had the "umami" taste covered. The garlic aioli and truffle oil and cheese surprisingly didn't overpower the taste of the patty while the oil really accentuated the burger's taste. The buns were a nice density and thickness pairing with the beef ratio. The beef was just a smidge cooked more towards medium than medium rare as I would have preferred but hardly noticeable.
The hatch burger was the big winner for me though. There's a lot of toppings that can go wrong on a burger but roasted green chiles certainly is not one of them. The slight underlying spicy notes of the chiles ever so slightly cut into the juicy umami burger taste giving a real nice contrast of flavor and texture. Absolutely no need for extra condiments to mask the burger's taste for sure!
Outside of the taste, I really was wowed by how juicy the burger was throughout and I learned later on that Umami prepares their patties sous-vide before they hit the grill. In the sous-vide method, the food is placed in an airtight plastic bag and placed in water which is slightly heated and regulated at a certain temperature, giving the food an even cooking inside and out while retaining its juiciness.
Thus explained the really juicy insides of the patties.
Certainly accounting for the time and work intensive preparations of the patties, the cooking, the fresh ingredients and such, the higher price for the premium burgers were understandable. I do want to note that on the same day, another separate group of my friends tried the U-Mini in Westwood, which I understand to be a slightly scaled down but still same quality version of the chain, and some of my friends found the burgers a bit underwhelming and the fries too salty. Since I wasn't there nor have I tried the U-Mini, I can't say anything on that matter but I certainly didn't find a similar experience with the food at the location I tried.
That being said Umami Burger is a damn fine burger joint with quality you can taste, however, I can't say I would bestow it the title of best burger in LA. For me, that honor still goes to the burger from Father's Office, minus the conspicuous, borderline pompous atmosphere there. There's just something about how everything comes together so damn deliciously in FO's burger without becoming a mess or convoluted that makes me still think about their burger to this day.
Granted, with me being out of the LA scene for a while now my burger experience is limited to only FO and Umami so far... but mark my words, LA, for one day I shall sample all your top burgers!
Nevertheless, Umami is still a top notch burger joint, the likes of which I would kill to have anything on par with in Seoul.
Ratings: 3 out of 4 stars
Address: Multiple locations all around but the one I went to was the Umami Valli branch-12159 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA 91604
Alcohol: Beer, wine, cocktails and other drinks are on the menu. The draft beer list is pretty big but I didn't sample any
Tip: So popular are Umami's sauces that they can be ordered online! http://www.umami.com/shop/