Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hey, Umami Burger, I want my calories back.

Marisa, a little over one month ago:

Getting ready for our first trip east with the Belle, we decided that Steve would pick up a quick lunch for us. For the last two weeks, I've been feeding the family a steady diet (as Steve would say, emphasis on "diet") of fresh fish and very, very fresh farmers market produce. (N.B., if you live in Southern California, get thee to a farm stand tout de suite and stock up IMMEDIATELY on fresh asparagus, Harry's Berries strawberries, and some purple ass potatoes. They're all, like, negligible points and beaucoup de delish.) Anyway, we keep hearing about this damn Umami Burger -- from such varied sources as people on Facebook and noted Brentwood potheads. If those bastards know a burger joint in our 'hood before we do, then clearly something strange is afoot at the Circle K. So I dispatched my man-servant to South La Brea while I changed the bird's fifteenth soiled diaper of the day. He returned with burgers, fries, onion rings, and sweet potato chips. The minute they hit the counter in our kitchen, I felt the need to reach for a mop and a bucket o' Lipitor. The waxed paper containing these items could not contain the oil slick within.

Steve and I bit into our burgers with the glee of exhausted new parents who forgot to eat breakfast (oh, wait, that's exactly what we are). I had the So Cal burger (Umami Burger's riff on a basic cheeseburger), while Steve smacked down on a Port Stilton. As we recoiled from our first bites, we looked at each other, perplexed. "Do we like this?" we kept asking ourselves as we ate our lunch, occasionally swapping burgers in the interest of science. Hours later, with the overwhelming fifth taste haunting me with a shimmer of nausea, I think it's safe to say the answer is no.

Steve, present day:

The Umami experience was so traumatic for the Primipara that she cannot countenance eating another hamburger, let alone finishing this blog. Now Marisa is a burger girl at heart and has always loved herself some In-N- Out and Carney’s. So for her to desist from eating burgers, for more than a month after the Umami debacle, is a testament to how bad the place is. Of course, this has made my life difficult, because I do enjoy a burger and have been really into 8 Oz. lately. But the Umami burger was so repugnant that Marisa’s seemingly rash response is, in fact, quite reasonable.

Umami Burger wants to impart the so-called fifth taste into its hamburgers. The question of what “umami” actually is remains outstanding and perplexing. Harris Salat, writing in the Times, tersely defined umami as “the taste of mouthwatering savoriness.” But this definition is less than helpful, since savoriness, even intense, “mouthwatering” savoriness, would seem to have a home in one of the four other “tastes.” (This taste classification system feels as crude as the five Classical elements.) The umami inquiry veers off into peculiarity because of the allegation that the fifth taste was somehow discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. I would not expect a particular sensory experience to be a candidate for discovery, like some rare species on the Galapagos or an esoteric element with a minuscule half-life on the frontier of the periodic table.

Perhaps Dr. Ikeda actually identified the chemical composition of the so-called umami flavor such that when a given food consists of at least these chemicals, it has the umami flavor. Along these lines, the Umami Information Center, a marketing group, defines the fifth taste as a “pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.” I’ll concede that salty foods include NaCl, just as--I have long (and geekily) joked-- organic foods contain carbon. But the Center’s description of umami as having glutamate (such as MSG, which Dr. Ikeda invented) and ribonucleotides is too clinical for me. (I’ll concede that a technical definition of umami may be warranted, but it vitiates the romance associated with food.) As a result, describing umami to non-chemists may be akin to Potter Stewart’s famous legal definition of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . .”

If umami can naturally occur in meat, it certainly does not do so in the Umami burger. Accordingly, the chef saw fit to use tamari sauce, which is a thicker version of soy sauce (itself a flavor-emasculating grotesquerie) and anchovies, normally one my favorite fishes to eat. But it is a mystery, on a Lynchian scale, why anyone would mix a very astringent soy sauce and loads of anchovies with quality ground flap meat, as if it were some perverse East-Meets-West version of Hamburger Helper. Thanks to Umami Burger, my wife may never want to go out for burgers again.


The wife was so totally disgusted by Umami Burger that she refused to finish her blog AND took forever to edit my own portion of this entry. As a result, we were scooped by our homie TC at Sinosoul. Not only did Umami Burger ruin our lunch, its mere existence silenced our blog for far too long. Umami Burger, you can suck it.

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


Pat said...

Wow, this is unfortunate, sorry you didn't enjoy it! My first Umami burger, cooked to order and eaten onsite, was revelatory. However, my second, with green chile and a bit too rare for my taste, was definitely a digestive challenge. Love the scallop burger though.

Steve said...

Pat -

Thanks for leading the taco tour and good meeting you yesterday. Thanks also for reading and commenting on Infinite Fress.

My burger was cooked properly, and I do like a burger on the rare side. But that so-called umami flavor was harsh.


yutjangsah said...

hmm... good points re: the suspect origins of the discovery of umami -but i still like this creationist story bc, an asian discovered the 5the 5th taste. Whitey discovered America, why can't we have umami? ; (

SinoSoul said...

Sorry for "scooping". Figured it'd motivate you two so I won't look like the lone wolf.

next up, Ludo!

christina said...

i completely agree. there was no umami. it wasnt even a good burger. i went into the restaurant really wanting to like their burgers but ultimately, i didnt.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that you didn't like them, I just finished my first Umami burger, and my daughter had the Caburger. The sweet potato fries were too sweet, they actually add sugar to the fries. However, the dessert, the Cookies and Cream ice cream sandwich was to die for, like macaroon cookies with ice cream. They however, are not from Umami, but from "Milk" on Beverly... I will go back though, I think the in house experience would be different than the take home

Anonymous said...

Brilliant web site, I hadn't noticed previously in my searches!
Continue the great work!

Anonymous said...

You;re palate is retarded.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I am definitely delighted to find this. cool job!

Anonymous said...

what!!! i just had my first umami burger today! the truffle burger, smushed potatoes, cheesy tots and tried the manly burger also. they were so insanely good! i guess its not for everyone (:

Anonymous said...

You should give Umami a second chance, and get the "Umami" burger next time. It is literally the best thing I have ever eaten.