A passion for food + fashion

First Bite: Umami Burger

In Food, On Location: Out and About in L.A. on February 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Umami Burger / via Thrillist

In which The Foodinsta is intrigued by a provocative posting she read on Thrillist about a new burger joint, which results in a lunch that is wacko even by LA standards.

Before I launch in here, I do want to say up front that the food at Umami Burger is really quite good. And the service, while totally batty, ends up being inexplicably charming.

Okay. Let’s back up. Met my friends Mary and Leslee for a girls lunch today at the newly—and I mean newly—opened Umami Burger on La Brea.


Once inside, it’s an attractive space with an attractive clientele. The tightly edited menu consists of 10 burgers, and a few sides including fries and a market salad. But, we’re told at 12:45 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, they’ve run out of buns.

Allow that to sink in. At a burger joint. Next we’re told they are out of salad, but have french fries or chili. We ask how long they’ve been open. Since Friday, our server tells us. Who is the chef? Oh, the first chef quit, then the second chef basically had a meltdown and it is unclear whether or not there is a third chef working today. We ask and are told, “I think so.” And when no food appears an hour after ordering, we begin to wonder.

stilton and port-caramelized onion sliders with sweet potato chips

stilton + port-caramelized onion sliders + sweet potato chips

But then our food does arrive and, surprise!, they’ve found buns! We ordered the port and stilton sliders ($8); an Umami burger with amazing homemade ketchup, grilled onions, fried parm, grilled shiitake mushroom, and tomato ($8); a SoCal burger with butter lettuce, “dried” tomato, house spread, house-made processed cheese (yum!), and caramelized onions, which came with soggy if colorful sweet potato chips ($7.50); and a couple sides of fries ($2.50). By the way – the beef patties on all of the above, really flavorful and just plain GOOD. I don’t know how they can make such a great burger and charge so little.

umami burger

umami burger

Back to the fries. We got a stack of eight thick-cut french fries on one of the plates along with a spoonful of that amazing house-made ketchup. But when we asked about the rest of our fries, we were informed they’d run out. Of fries.

thick-cut fries and house-made ketchup

thick-cut fries and house-made ketchup

Which we then sort of forgot about because there was a kerfuffle at the next table where one model-good-looking 30-ish hipster yelled at a 20ish hipster at a neighboring table “Get out of my FACE!” to which the provocateur yelled, “What are you going to do if I don’t?” Our server escorted the offending hipster and his well-heeled girlfriend out of the restaurant, smoothing over the dispute in the parking lot. What the … ? An attractive 40ish woman at a third table huffily got up to leave, passing by our table and pointing to the enormous painting above our table, snorting, “Yeah, Buddha.”

Oh, and they don’t accept Amex.

But regardless, their credit card machine wasn’t working so it was a good thing we had cash (why do I never have cash???). Yet even with all of the madness, our server remained unflappable and, I’m telling you, the burgers are great. So let me know if you brave a visit, and if chef #3 is still holding his—or her?—own. I’ll be heading back with the husband this weekend, if only to confirm that today’s lunch was or was not in fact a special Food Network episode of Punk’d.

Update 2/19/09: For a less frenetic, but every bit as tantalizing, experience, check out Pat Saperstein’s review on Eating L.A. Interestingly they have raised the prices since my Tuesday visit—but we’re talking .50 or $1 on a couple items. I still don’t get how they can produce such a superior burger at these recession friendly prices!

  1. this. is. hilarious. i had the same thought when you mentioned the price. huh? $8.00? i can’t make a burger for eight dollars. (can i?) i can’t wait to go, and i’ll just hope the have fries. carolynn

  2. Wish I lived in LA – would love to try this place. Great story!

  3. The husband and I ate here at their previous incarnation. Great food, took an hour to get it. I hope they figure out how to run the business!
    You can get money out at the mini-mart across the street, we used to purchase wine for our sushi dinners at Lucas in the (car wash parking lot).
    Maybe a bottle of wine would help ease the long wait for the food.

  4. Oh for other good burgers, we also like 8oz. Nice waitresses, good burgers and it’s never too crowded for a late Sunday afternoon lunch.

  5. LOVE this story… I once was in China at a restaurant who told me they were out of Green Tea even though they were in a shopping center with a large grocery store. And once I went to KFC … shhhh–yes KFC– it was China … where else is it safe to eat?? anyway at KFC they told me they were out of chicken… well at least they didn’t substitute with the obvious Chinese second choice…right?? ruff ruff — LOL

  6. Still working out the kinks, that’s for sure. At lunch today they were out of the Umami burger. This was at 12:30, long before the lunch rush. So I ordered the Stilton, Port-caramelized Onion Burger with fries (not in slider form today). They forgot my order. In the meantime my two kind and generous lunch mates shared their Pork Burger, which was surprisingly incredibly tasty, and the Cal Burger – not so much. When it finally arrived (after I brought it to their attention), It was worth the wait. And they were kind (smart?)enough to give us free cookies for the mess up.
    As to the ketchup. It was a pale red and tasted like tomato paste. Yuck. But it looked a lot different than the stuff in the photo above – yours looks a deeper red and quite a bit thicker – much more appealing!

    I’m planning on going back to try the umami burger and to give the ketchup another shot.

  7. I dined with Janet, and had the good luck of ordering the pork burger. I really liked it. Smoky, porky, and really moist. I also really liked the sweet potato chips. They were beautiful. Some were a little floppy/soggy (gross) but the majority were crispy and delish.

    And I think I should mention that the Buddha “artwork” is even more frightening in person. There’s something about a Buddha with a six-pack that seems wrong. And don’t even get me started on the yoga nymphs who are posing around him. Argh!

    Oh, and the ketchup was not good. Tasted not just like tomato paste, but CANNED tomato paste.

  8. Crossing my fingers my lunch date at Umami tomorrow is good and the FOH/BOH dramas have dwindled down to a bearable minimum.

    • would love to hear what you think. apparently the lunch lines are pretty long, but word is the food is still great so i hope you have a drama-free experience! i’m still a little gun shy about returning.

  9. a month later, I am STILL not convinced. Finally had a decent Westside burger: http://sinosoul.com/?p=1754 and am worried about wrecking my burger batting ratio…

  10. The price of the burger is good, but the fries at $3 are a rip off! And they are always out of something.

  11. LOL im baffled bout the story, how fun =)

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