Umami Burger x Impossible Foods

The Place
Umami Burger
738 East 3rd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

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If you work in a reasonably woke corporate environment (or a not-at-all woke corporate environment doing its best imitation of a woke corporate environment), you’ve probably heard something about implicit social cognition (it’s more commonly referred to as unconscious bias, but I actually prefer the former term.  Anyway).  According to UCSF, these are extra-conscious formed perceptions about groups of people that “stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”

I admit that this idea is probably most usefully deployed to explain human interactions, but actually, I don’t think it’s cabined to our views about people.  I think these kinds of categorizations apply to our feelings about everything–like food.  It’s why your one friend inexplicably avoids okra in spite of having never eaten it.  Or why your significant other refuses to countenance egg white in his cocktails.  Or why your sister refuses to try the red velvet from that vegan bakery.  Or why your cousin won’t eat at Gracias Madre.

We all have our biases, built over decades, brick by seemingly-unrelated brick.  The sum total of our experiences is a flawed whole, a view of the world through a lens that’s necessarily cracked.  Or convex.  Or smudged.  Or something.  Point is, the very act of being an individual means operating with incomplete information.  Even absent malice, the manner in which we examine the world is informed by our inevitable lack of information.  Or our inevitably incomplete or skewed perspective.  It’s what our venerable former Secretary of Defense termed the “Unknown Unknowns.”

This, I suppose, is why I wouldn’t try a specific Known Unknown, viz., the Impossible Burger at Umami Burger, for so long, despite having been urged to do so by numerous people.  I could never quite articulate a rational reason why I’d never tried it.  Eventually, my refusal to give it a shot was distilled down to a prejudice against meatless burgers.

Sunday afternoon, then, can serve as living proof that the tides of progress are inexorable.  It was then, after all, that I faced up to my prejudice, went to Umami Burger in the Arts District, and tried the Impossible Burger.  The woke architects of my spiritual improvement?  Kelsey and her mother.  Who else?

The Order: The Impossible Burger

The Price: $16

The Burger
Most prejudices are not well-founded.  If, however, you share my (roiling) prejudice against meatless burgers, though, you know this specific prejudice is the exception to that rule.  The essential feature of a great burger is that juxtaposition between charred skin and juicy meat.  It’s the foundation stone for a dish, the central appeal of which is textural contrasts.  Smooth sauces; silky cheese; juicy, explosive meat; crisp, parchment-like lettuce; the burst of juicy tomatoes; and an airy bun all exist together in one unified whole.

The epicenter of that textural mix, the one constant, is the patty.  No matter how many different burgers you try, what makes them all burgers is the presence of that meaty anchor.  It needn’t be beef, but it needs to be charred on the outside and juicy on the inside.  Most meatless patties fail because they don’t provide both of those features.  They may be crisp on the outside, but then they’re lifeless inside.  Or maybe they’re moist inside, but then they can’t offer that grill-crisped shell.

So, if you ever breathlessly have protested, “A meatless burger is not a burger,” then you understand that you aren’t making a crassly presented judgment on the relative values of two objectively coequal members of a category; to the contrary, you’re making a definitional claim, namely, that a burger needs a patty that is charred and juicy.  Meatless patties aren’t charred and juicy (at best, customarily, they’re one or the other).  It would follow a burger built around a meatless patty isn’t a burger at all; it’s just a, like, fried lentil sandwich or something.

Tempting as it is to venture further down the “What is a burger?” rabbit hole, I’ll spare you.  Suffice it to say, the Impossible Burger complicates the calculus a great deal.  The patty is made of a proprietary blend of…well, not-meat things (wheat, coconut oil, and other not-meats; the precise mix is, apparently, a secret).  The idea is that it’s a legitimate alternative to meat (it even looks like beef before you cook it) from a taste and texture standpoint, but without the nasty ecological impact that attends the production of meat.

The flagship ingredient is heme.  Without getting too esoteric, heme is an iron-laden porphyrin (a class of organic molecule).  Its most famous work is in hemoglobin–that stuff in your blood that carries oxygen.  A lesser-known work in its oeuvre is that it’s a big part of what makes meat…meat.  You can find heme in all living things.  You may wonder how such a compound wound up in a “meatless” burger.  The answer is that the heme used in the Impossible Burger is generated by introducing the gene in soybeans that encodes the heme protein into yeast, and–

I can feel myself losing you.  Okay.  I’ll just dish on the burger.

The presentation, I think, is meant to highlight just how meat-like this patty is.  Two Impossible burger patties are smothered in American cheese, caramelized onions, mustard, spread, pickles, lettuce, and tomato.  If that sounds utterly conventional, it is; and that’s precisely the point.  The goal here is to challenge the eater to distinguish this in a meaningful way from what you flipped off a grill with a spatula and slapped between sponge buns with a careless spray of mustard and ketchup and whatever garnishes you could snatch on the way to the cooler to grab a Coke.

To be sure; you will be able to taste the difference.  There are stronger notes of mushroom in this burger than you’d note in a beef patty.  But you also probably won’t dispute that this is, undoubtedly, a burger.  Calling it a “carnivore’s dream” might be something of a stretch, but it’s miles away from being a carnivore’s nightmare.  The impression it leaves is more like a beef burger than a Gardenburger: There is char.  The patty is juicy.  It is flavorful.  And (this is, after all, still Umami Burger) it is overcooked.

And again, because this is Umami Burger, the garnishes are largely uninspired, the miso-mustard tries hard but won’t lay you flat, and the spread lacks piquancy.  The bun is just a hair shy of being too dry for comfort.  The whole thing doesn’t sing; it just kind of murmurs unobtrusively.  But you don’t care about all that.  You know all that.  What you want to know is whether the patty is worth trying.  The answer is a resounding yes.

If you’re anything like me, your aversion to trying this burger is the product of prejudice rather than judgment.  It likely emanates from a feeling that meatless alternatives aren’t alternatives at all; they’re just an aggravating failed imitation from people who have made a reasonable choice to not eat meat, but then show an unreasonable unwillingness to stay in their proverbial lane.  But the Impossible Burger isn’t just the product of vegan FOMO.  It’s the product of an impulse for ecologically responsible consumption.  And vegan FOMO.

Whatever its genesis, the product has some merit and deserves attention.  Is the Impossible Burger as good as a beef patty?  No.  But unlike its meatless forebears, that’s a question worth asking.  Time to get woke.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.50 / 10.00
Freshness: 8.00 / 10.00
Value: 8.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity / Style: 10.00 / 10.00
Bun: 7.80 / 10.00
Patty: 8.70 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.00 / 10.00
Balance: 8.80 / 10.00

Total: 84.90 / 100.00

Umami Burger (Pasadena)

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Umami Burger is, for better and worse, an institution.

The better: This place is pretty much entirely responsible for the revitalization and elevation of burgers. Before Umami Burger, the words “cheeseburgers” and “high cuisine” couldn’t really be used in the same sentence. Well, unless the sentence was, “Cheeseburgers are not high cuisine.” Then, Adam Fleischman had an inspired, Double Double-induced moment of clarity, went to Mitsuwa Marketplace, and opened up a shop on La Brea.

The focus was simple: complex burgers that explored the interplay between different savory foods. Obsessively high quality (American Wagyu) beef. Weblike crisps of ossified parmesan. Slow-hot roasted hatch chiles. Juicy, salty cubes of bacon lardon. Sweet, pliant brioche (emblazoned with that signature “U”). That weird, kinda sweet ketchup. Umami was totally “L.A.” On Friday nights, it would buzz with activity; flannel-clad hipsters would wait an eternity to sink their teeth into one of Fleischman’s brainchildren while they pretended to really like – and really get – Bitte Orca.

From those humble roots, the Umami empire spread north (to the Bay Area) and then east (to Miami and New York). Now, you don’t have to be a Silver Lake hipster to get an Umami Burger. You can be a hipster in Greenwich Village or Brooklyn too. Three cheers!

The worse: The restaurant’s expansion has been a double-edged sword. The growth of the Umami brand has been concomitant with the increasing prominence of burgers, and the culinary credibility they’ve accumulated over the years. On the other hand, it’s shown what can happen when a once great outfit spreads itself too thin. So now, Umami is better for what it represents than for what it actually is.

Janak and I went with Shanil and a couple of Shanil’s friends to the Umami Burger in Old Town Pasadena. After running into Silva and Shant – Pasadena’s preeminent power couple – outside the place, the five of us sat down to get to work.

The Place
Umami Burger
49 E Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91105

The Order: Hatch Burger

The Price: $10.50 (before tax)

The Burger
In light of the foregoing, I may well be criticized for being a little cynical. Some among you may suspect that I’m unfairly subjecting Umami Burger to the Death Cab for Cutie treatment – you know, being all shitty about their getting famous. But here’s the thing about Umami Burger (and about Death Cab, for that matter): it kind of sucks now, and it didn’t used to.

The patty is still – allegedly – six ounces of American Wagyu. But if we’re being real, it tastes like the good stuff has been diluted a bit with some more conventional chuck. These patties, quite simply, are not what they used to be. The burger was still pretty well-cooked, though: a competently executed medium rare, glistening on the outside and a delicate pink inside. It was also really juicy; the coarse grind of the beef probably helps in that regard. But while the preparation is still skillful, the meat itself just isn’t as good, and at bottom, that’s kind of a deal-breaker. It’s kind of like…I don’t care how wonderful her personality is: I’m not dating a Celtics fan.

Anyway. The Hatch burger features roasted Hatch chiles, cali cheese, and roasted garlic aioli on that sweet, familiar bun – think of it as a demi-brioche. This is a different version of the Hatch than I’ve eaten previously. The earlier version featured slow roasted chiles; this iteration is slathered in a tendril-hued roasted chile relish-like substance. It’s got less heat, less flavor, and less texture. Basically, it’s a bunch of not-hot slop gracelessly spattered like a bad Jackson Pollock knockoff all over the almost too-melty (and awkwardly flavorless) cheese. The aioli was all over the lower bun, spilling out from beneath the patty with every bite.

Everything about this burger was messy. The patty dripped juices. The aioli oozed out with every bite like cream when you squeeze a Twinkie. The chile slaw was all over the place. The cheese was strange and almost soupy – think hopelessly insipid fondue. While previously, Umami Burger’s menu showcased nuanced, counter-intuitive collaborations between distinctive flavors and textures – all bound by the common thread of being savory – now, it leans too heavily on a) its reputation/laurels, and b) the fact that the patties have some Wagyu beef in them, maybe. The ingredients are largely flavorless and don’t interact very well together at all. The bun is by far the most interesting thing that this burger has to offer, unless you’re interested in insipid meat and chunky chile sauce.

The worst thing I can say about this burger was that it was uninteresting. It is damning evidence of the marked decline of a once-iconic, once-credible, once-awesome burger place. Umami Burger has done us all a great service: It set the table (sorry, that’s a disgraceful pun) for the Plan Checks and the Father’s Offices of the world not only to take Los Angeles’ culinary scene by storm, but also gain that culinary credibility that eluded burger joints for so long. Beyond that, though, I’m surprised to say that I think Umami Burger has kind of outlived its utility.

You might come away from this thinking I’m being too hard on Umami simply because of some proprietary rage about the restaurant I loved before it was mainstream. I can’t really deny that, though I don’t think it played much of a role. Besides, I love lots of famous, mainstream things. Like this. Or this. Or this. Or this. No, I don’t think my problem with Umami Burger is that it’s growing and successful. I think my problem with Umami Burger is that it’s just nowhere near as good as it used to be.

On the bright side, it’s still the best burger in New York.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.20 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 7.80 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.20 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.90 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 6.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.00 / 10.00
Sauce: 4.00 / 10.00
Balance: 6.00 / 10.00

Total: 66.40 / 100.00

The L.A. Weekly Burger Battles

I owe Shannon for the tip on this one. She managed to reach me through the thick, noxious, mind-altering fog of bar exam preparation (which is also what I’m offering by way of an excuse for the lack of reviews lately), and apprise me of something of which I was shamefully unaware.

So apparently, LA Weekly is running a burger bracket. They’ve put sixteen burgers in Los Angeles into categories (“divisions”), and they’re putting them up in a head-to-head, winner-advances tournament. It’s not clear how they chose these sixteen burgers. There were some on the list that really didn’t belong, and others that were undoubtedly snubbed. The first round is over, and here are a few quick thoughts heading into Round Two (the “elite eight”):

  • Ledlow beating out Belcampo Meat Co. is the most ridiculous miscarriage of justice since, well, this. Or this. Or this. Or this. God, that last one really hurt.
  • Actually, the whole “Fancy” bracket kind of sucks. Not only were both matchups incorrectly decided, those burgers decidedly, well, just aren’t that fancy. Though I suppose fancy is relative.
  • It’s not clear what the “New School” Bracket actually is, considering some of those places have been around longer than, say, Ledlow, and are decidedly classic burgers (I’m thinking the Oinkster).
  • I don’t know how these sixteen burgers got their feet in the door. This is arbitrary as shit.
  • If the final is anything besides In-N-Out v. Plan Check, this bracket is a crime on par with…well, this. Which isn’t to say that Plan Check should even be in the final, because…ugh, where do I even start?

Now, your humble correspondent was snubbed for an invitation to judge the competition. I’m as perplexed as you are. However, I’ve decided to do the next best thing and offer you my suggested votes for the next round. Do with this information what you will.

Fancy Division: Pick Petit Trois (because you can’t pick Belcampo (because Gillian Ferguson’s tastebuds apparently are less functional than the cuff buttons on an rented tuxedo)).

New School Division: Go with Plan Check. Neither of these places really represent the best of what I think of as “New School” burgers in Los Angeles, but it’s the better of the two.

L.A. Originals Division: Close, but it’s got to be Father’s Office. But the even closer call would be “Which of these places offers a more unpleasant dining experience?” That’s a genuine toss-up.

Fast Food Division: If you have to ask, we’re obviously not in one another’s lives. It’s In-N-Out. By a marathon of country miles, it’s In-N-Out.

This is one to watch closely. In the meantime, you definitely should go do your civic duty.

Meat District Co.

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Pasadena is blooming. During my lifetime, Colorado Boulevard has morphed from a “hide yo kids, hide yo wife” zone into a charming little hipster-free facsimile of Silver Lake. A sprawling Intelligentsia Coffee anchors it, abutted by Indiana Colony, home to Cool Haus, Pressed Juicery, the Pie Hole, this one place that sells tea and spices and shit, and this one place that sells flowers and shit. One of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles (seriously, it’s world-rockingly good), Union, just opened up on – you guessed it – Union Street. Oh, and there’s an Umami Burger too. And while those spots do attract their share of carefully (almost convincingly) disheveled beautiful people, it’s nothing like, say, Venice.

Umami Burger, however, isn’t the only burger place that’s made its way into Old Town. Meat District Co. came all the way from Sydney to open up a location just down the block from Slater’s 50/50 (another burger spot). Intrigued by the carnivorous focus and urban-chic décor, Kevin and I went on a romantic little lunch date there. Kevin ordered for me, we split a garden salad…it was kind of adorable. Don’t hate us ’cause you ain’t us.

Anyway, our server was quick to a) conclude that Kevin and I were the cutest couple in the place, and b) tell us that this burger had been named the second best burger in Pasadena this year. And while Pasadena is a fine city with many a fine burger, bragging about that accolade (totally sua sponte, by the way) just felt a little pathetic. It’s kind of like the girl who tells you on the second date how into sports she is. It’s like, I get it. Just watch a Laker game with me, and I think you’ll prove the point. And plus, when a girl talks about being “into sports,” she really means she’s into posting Instagram photos of herself wearing child size jerseys and impossibly short shorts. The point is this: girls who are really into sports don’t talk about it.

Besides, who brags about second place, right? Anyway.

The Place
Meat District Co.
69 N Raymond Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91103

The Order: Cheese Burger and fries

The Price: $9.95 for the burger (lunch special) and $2.00 extra for the fries (yeah, I know – stupid)

The Burger
While I maintain it is still thoroughly lame for our server to have bragged about their micro-regional silver medal, I’ll happily concede (and report) that Meat District Co. makes a good burger. The patty is a half pound of Harris Ranch chuck and short rib. The chuck gives it a grill-ravaged hardiness, while the short rib keeps things tender and subtle. The bun is a well-toasted brioche with a honeyed roundness to it. It holds up well to all the toppings, which cling to it without soaking in. The aged cheddar is nutty, mellow, and substantial. The little gem and the tomato add a breezy freshness. The pickles, however, are insipid, and the house sauce – whatever it is – is overused and too heavy on mayonnaise. Worse still, the caramelized onions get lost in the monsoon of sauce, so their sassy sweetness – of which I caught just glimpses – is muted.

That last criticism is a little misleading, though. While the sauce is a bit overdone, this burger actually is quite well-balanced. In fact, the loss of the caramelized onions might actually have been a good thing, because they might have seemed a little out of their element here. See, this is fundamentally a traditional burger (raw onions would have worked well, adding the sharpness that the pickles didn’t quite bring). Caramelized onions would have stood out for the wrong reasons. So sure, the balance of this burger probably is accidental, but it makes for a happy accident.

At $9.95, Meat District Co. is a pretty good lunch option. I wouldn’t feel as comfortable paying $13 for it (which is the dinner rate), and the $2.00 extra for fries is un peu ridiculous (parenthetically, the fries were excellent). But coming out with a burger of this size and caliber for less than ten bucks is an unequivocal win. The lunch special is great value for money. The fries aren’t, but that’s a conversation they can have on the Los Angeles French Fry Project.

(On that note, a brief aside: some readers have pointed out that I don’t write about French fries enough. Leaving aside the fact that you should know by now that I respond horribly to criticism of any variety, I feel like only people from Idaho really care about potatoes enough to wax poetic about them and last I checked, I’m not Jack O’Connor.)

Anyway, where was I?

Whatever. Here’s the bottom line. This burger gets a lot of the big things right: the patty and cheese interface well together. The garnishes are thoroughly serviceable. The sauce is overbearing, but luckily ends up masking what otherwise might have been an unpleasant oddity. Things sort of fall into place and work themselves out, in spite of the apparent lack of much intentionality. That may not inspire confidence in the creative or culinary chops on display here, but the end product tasted good enough that I don’t care too much.

There are a lot of great places to get a meal in Old Town. There are a few places to get a burger, including the now national titan Umami Burger (when did that happen, by the way?). In spite of the abundance of options,  though, I’ll consider going to Meat District Co. for lunch again. But I’ll skip the fries. They just dampened the mood.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.80 / 10.00
Value: 9.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.00 / 10.00
Bun: 8.00 / 10.00
Patty: 8.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.80 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.90 / 10.00
Balance: 8.60 / 10.00

Total: 82.40 / 100.00