Umami Burger, and Some Reflections About Culture and SoCal

Paleo Retiree writes:

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Though L.A. partisan Blowhard, Esq. has been urging the Question Lady and me to give Umami Burger a try for a couple of years, we’ve never found time during our L.A. visits to indulge. So how convenient that Umami Burger recently expanded its franchise to Manhattan. I’ve been to the Greenwich Village branch twice now and my verdict is: Blowhard, Esq. has first-rate taste in burgers.

“What’s with the weird name?” some of you non-foodies may ask. Well, umami is a Japanese word for one of the five primary tastes, the other four being sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The actual taste of umami is notoriously hard to nail down. Experts and academics like to say that the experience of umami is “savoriness,” but I always find myself thinking “succulent woodsy mushroomy” and “tamari sauce” instead. In any case, you probably get the idea.

Umami Burger, which has been a wild success since its founding in 2009, really goes to town with the concept, highlighting umami whenever there’s a half a chance. The burger in the pic I kicked this posting off with, for instance, was all about smokiness and mushroominess; even the cheese, the bacon and the meat-juice were contributors to an overall impression of hyper-rich, salivary-gland-busting umaminess.

When we visited another day, truffles and truffle-flavors were featured on the bill.

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Excellent fries, kicked up to a level of earthy, creamy/crisp bliss by a selection of fresh and sparkling sauces and a lot of truffle salt.

Part of what’s fascinating about the place as a concept restaurant is that this monomaniacal focus on umami turns out to be more than enough. You’d imagine it would quickly become monotonous, but it doesn’t. The Question Lady and I both want to explore the place’s entire, not-very-extensive menu and then start all over again. Even when isolated and heightened, umami turns out to be a complex thing in its own right as well as a quality/flavor/color/tonality that can muddle, highlight and complexify other flavors and textures in fascinating ways.

Another thing that intrigued me about the place is how L.A. it is, and how L.A. its approach to good eating is. This is a fast-food joint, really — a very sophisticated and upscale one, but still a take on fast food. There’s a counter … You can get food to go … If you’re in a leisurely mood you can settle in for a long stay with a cocktail or two (the cocktails are so-so to pretty-good) and enjoy the scene, but you’re free to treat the place as a quick-and-not-too-expensive fast-eating joint as well.

The Question Lady and I indulged in a more conventional high-end dining experience not long ago at a great old New York place. Minetta Tavern — run since 2009 by Keith McNally, legendary in NYC for such restaurants as Odeon, Nell’s and Balthazar, and some partners — offers a $26 Black Label Burger that we couldn’t resist trying. Though I neglected to snap a shot of our burger, I can report that the Minetta Tavern serves up a really magnificent one.

But what a contrast with Umami Burger.  To illustrate a little bit, here’s a collage of snapz from our visit to Minetta Tavern:

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Minetta Tavern’s retro speakeasy/steakhouse style is pretty easygoing for such a ritzy Manhattan place — it’s something a 19th century business tycoon might enjoy on a relaxed day. (And its booze and cocktail offerings are really sublime.) But it’s still an urban restaurant in a traditional style, and the burger it serves is one that asks to be judged in comparison to other fine-dining-style dishes. The Umami Burger experience by contrast is fast, sleek, and relatively cheap. It’s In-n-Out Burger raised a half a dozen levels up in quality, stylishness and pleasure — culinary fabulousness for the fast-moving modern Everyman. Minetta Lane and Umami Burger both serve life-alteringly great burgers, but how can one be said to be better than the other? Wonderful burgers they both are, but in cultural vibe they’re about as different as can be.

What my recent burger-eating adventures have mainly got me reflecting on is how much I’ve learned from the time I’ve spent in Southern California. Among the lessons I’ve picked up there: not to despise easy pop fun, which can be not only rewarding in its own goofy right but also a great basis for more complex pleasures; the psychological/emotional benefits of cultivating and then indulging one’s own gift for silliness; and what a relief it can be to stop fretting over questions of greatness and lastingness … Instead of approaching the world of culture with all critical facilities prickly and on the alert, why not instead meander through culture whimsically, sampling, comparing notes and giggling as you go? As someone born, raised, and educated in the often-hierarchical, often-gloomy, intellect-worshipping and very Euro-centric Northeast, I’m very grateful for the body-pleasure-centric, Asia-oriented lessons that SoCal has drummed into me. Hey: Why not take it easy and see what might be there to be enjoyed, and in whatever way? No one’s giving you a grade … and even if someone is, who cares?

Many thanks to Blowhard, Esq. for tipping is off to Umami Burger. Now, what’re we gonna do for dinner tonight?

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About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Food and health, Personal reflections, The Good Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Umami Burger, and Some Reflections About Culture and SoCal

  1. Really glad you guys enjoyed that place. Next time you’re in town we’re going to Alma or Taylor’s Steakhouse for dinner.

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  2. Will S. says:

    Ketchup is said to be umami as well as sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, but probably a sin to put it on a gourmet burger like that, as well as unnecessary. 🙂

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    • I didn’t know that about ketchup. They supply ketchup at Umami Burger for those who want it, and it’s really good ketchup — they make it in house and it’s way less sweet and way more complex than most ketchups. But you’re right, there’s no real need for it on a burger like this one.

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      • Will S. says:

        Sounds intriguing! I’d love to try more gourmet ketchups; I do like Heinz, but it would be nice to come across other, even better ketchups, more often… Looks like one can buy it online

        Heinz has all five tastes, according to this; the same is probably true of most ketchups out there.

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  3. Sasha says:

    There’s a gourmet hot-dog place here called Snag Stand that has a curry ketchup you can order. It’s fanfreakingtastic.

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