Food & Wine

In Search of Umami

The Fifth Flavor becomes a mystery

by DAVE AUSLENDER, Contributing Writer
Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014 | 11:03 AM

Firmly snuggled in between Romantix, the homey X-rated porn and toy store, and The Intelligentsia Cafe,  a heady student-filled respite for caffeine-addled, culture-cramming PCC students—Umami Burger patiently sits, Zen-like, waiting to catch customers from both sides of the aisle.

And catch them it does, and many others.

Umami Burger appeals to a wide variety of our human needs—from our desire for the “flesh,†(always served medium rare unless otherwise specified), to our need to be educated on some “higher concepts† (Umami – a kind of magical Japanese spice and herb concoction that creates a “fifth” hidden taste upon your tongue that you didn’t even know about). This flavor activation—an intellectual and primal mystery—is as irresistible to the intellectual foodie as the Boson-Higgs particle is to a science major.

The Umami Classic Burger.

Unlike the Umami spice construct, Umami’s interior design concepts vary widely from location to location. Some are playful and colorful, some old-fashioned. The Pasadena location is serious, and certainly sparse, and with its all white interior and shiny stainless steel kitchen area, even a bit sterile. Large block-framed pictures reminiscent of shadow-plays and bonsai trees help to warm the cold feeling, and Japanese calligraphy adorns portions of the walls. It turns out the color comes from the beautifully plated meals.

I wanted to experience the “Heavy Umami Flavor” as promised by the iconic burger lips next to its description on the menu.

“Classic or Truffle?” I implored. Although Selena said the Truffle burger was the one she dreams about, the Classic was the way to go. So I ordered it in the standard medium-rare style, along with aioli garlic shoe string fries and the suggested beer pairing of “Anchor Steam.” My friend ordered the Veggie burger known as the “Veggie Mami” and an order of “smushed potatoes.”

Selena brought out the burgers. My Classic was a piece of art—a rounded brioche bun with a crispy interior from where it had been griddled, not grilled (Adam’s burger secret), along side the burger. A round, crispy, wafer-thin fried cheese disc crowned the medium-rare beef. Remembering founder Adam Fleischman’s words that I had recently read somewhere about the perfect ratio, “Every bite should be half burger, and half bun,” I took my first bite and…. lions didn’t roar.

My tongue searched for the fifth taste, and searched again. Surely it’s there, I checked five times. Look how beautiful this burger is, it’s there right? I was enjoying the sweet bun, the meat was nice, but where was the flavor? Why was my burger lukewarm at best?

I decided to move on to take a bite of my friends Veggie Mami. The lentils were complex when compared to my patty. A bright bit of flavor with some depth. Her’s was hotter than mine. And there was a familiar taste. Ahh, it’s the homemade ketchup. It’s a lentil ketchup burger. Not bad. I might try this at home. The shoestring fries were crispy, and glued together with a bit of garlic aioli. I was glad they were under $4. The smushed potatoes, while perfectly brown, looked better than they tasted. Nothing stood up to that beet salad. I kept making my way through the burger like a gold miner hoping to find that special nugget. Alas, it was never found.

The Pasadena Umami burger brand has a lot of things going for it. Most of the sides won’t blow your budget, and it’s a nice place for families. There’s  also a nice beer and wine selection culled from Fleischman’s many years of running the wine bars that he established and eventually sold.

Perhaps it’s because the place has only been open for three months, and they are still working out the kinks, but the kinks are not with the serving staff, or how quickly the food makes it to the table, or anyone’s attitude, or even the decor, but with the food itself.

This was my first Umami Experience, and time will tell if I return.

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