Umami Burger – Sorry, I just don’t get it

Last year I was watching “The Next Iron Chef” on the Food Network and the chefs were asked to create dishes highlighting the tastes salty, sweet, bitter, sour and a new one called “umami”.  The show translated this word as “delicious” which I thought was a weird taste category. Reading on Wikipedia about umami, the site describes it more as “savoriness” which makes more sense when you read about what it is. It turns out umami is used to describe the taste of glutamates (as in the MSG that is in some food). Seeing the list of foods described as having umami, I think I get what the taste is (fish, meat, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes and fermented foods like soy sauce), sort of.

I decide to accept the existence of this 5th taste and kind of forget about it until I drive down La Brea near Wilshire and see a place called Umami Burger. Curious, I look it up online and find all these rave reviews about the place. Then a friend tells me she was told by someone that the best veggie burger they ever had came from here, so we have to go try it out. The Umami Burger on La Brea is really small with not many tables (as are all of these trendy, popular food spots in L.A.) and of course full. We end up waiting 45 minutes in the cold. The whole time I’m thinking that this burger has got to be really good, though a small voice inside my head is reminding me that I once waited this long for brunch at a place called Toast and even longer for pizza at Casa Bianca, both which were supposed to be amazing and it turns out weren’t. Silencing this voice though, the excitement for Umami burger built.

I peak through the window and see people getting their orders. The burgers appear very minimalist, meaning there doesn’t seem to be a lot of toppings, like the usual tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and cheese. There are some, but it seems that the thick, but smallish-sized, patty is what you should be focusing on when you eat this burger and the taste should not be affected by what you put on top of the patty. My friend goes with the signature umami burger and I choose the Hawaiian teriyaki burger that was a special that evening. I try some of my friend’s umami burger and am dissatisfied. “Deliciousness” is not at all what I tasted. Nor did I think it was so savory.  I actually didn’t like the taste of the burger. My teriyaki burger was delicious though (I recommend it if you ever go there and it’s available), but this umami burger was just ok. After tasting it, I was perplexed. How could all these people be raving about that mediocre tasting (and expensive in my mind for a burger) burger? I don’t get the hype. And there is a lot of it. Most reviews you read go on and on about how great this burger is.

But I’m not dismissing the whole Umami Burger experience. They have great potato side dishes (like cheesy tater tots-the best tater tots I’ve ever eaten-and smashed potatoes) and some of their other burgers were good. I just think that maybe my taste buds are not refined enough to appreciate this burger….or, it’s like most places here, the buzz about the food is better the food itself.

My teriyaki burger from Umami Burger, which was delicious, and samples of 4 sides: malt liquor tempura onion rings, smashed potatoes, thin fries and cheesy tater tots

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