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

LABP x PHL: Village Whiskey

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It is conceivable that, if there is a heaven, it resembles Village Whiskey.

I’m hesitant to wax theological here; that’s a horrendously fraught enterprise, and I doubt many of you would like what I had to say. To be clear, though, I’m not saying Village Whiskey is necessarily a perfect place. But it does have a lot of the trappings of a perfect place: a robust, whiskey-focused drink selection; a menu composed by a talented chef, José Garces (the centerpiece of which is a burger); and a vibrant, friendly atmosphere that is the perfect complement to good company. And milkshakes. It’s hard to imagine heaven without milkshakes.

This is a restaurant that is proud of its burger. I went with Kevin, Rumi, and Alexis to see if that pride is misplaced. It was a busy evening: I took selfies with two random girls for them to send to their friends on Snapchat. Alexis broke a glass in rage because she drinks slowly. And between the two of them, Kevin and Rumi can’t match my check-paying skills and sneakiness. And we ate.

The Place
Village Whiskey
118 South 20th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

The Order: Village Burger, medium rare, with cheddar, bacon, avocado, and caramelized onions

The Price: $22.50 ($13 base; $2.50 for cheddar, $3.00 for bacon, $2.50 for avocado, $1.50 for caramelized onions)

The Burger
The patty is eight ounces of farm-raised Maine Angus beef, impressively juicy and roughly packed into a small puck. It’s got the hallmark structural imperfection and asymmetry of a patty that was assembled by hand. The cheddar forms a nutty glaze over the top of the beef, bleeding over the sides and into the natural crannies in the patty. The patty is balanced atop thin blades of avocado. Beams of bacon shoot out the sides of the burger like exposed girders. Anchoring it all is a slice of tomato and a couple leaves of Bibb lettuce and a thin drizzle of Thousand Island.

The customizable burger is a tricky endeavor, and it’s hard to know how to evaluate it. After all, it leaves a lot in the hands of the consumer (and therefore, out of the hands of the chef). On the other hand, it places the onus on the restaurant to provide a burger of consistent quality no matter what ingredients they’re given. Oftentimes, diners don’t know how to thoughtfully assemble ingredients and instead opt to just choose a bunch of stuff they like. By offering a relatively diverse and challenging selection of additions, Village Whiskey places a lot of trust in their customers and their kitchen staff to make everything work.

It’s nice that as a fallback, the default garnishes are limited and fresh, the Thousand Island is unobtrusive and a mostly textural element, and the beef is very precisely cooked. This sets up a strong foundation upon which the other ingredients can interact more comfortably. My selection was relatively uncomplicated, with the bacon-avocado combination doing the heavy lifting. The smokiness of the bacon was mellowed nicely by the creamy avocado. Lurking under it all, the caramelized onions were sweet and tangy, harmonizing nicely with the Thousand Island.

So yes, this is a well-balanced burger, and it’s also pretty big — but you pay for it. At $22.50, it’s one of the most expensive burgers I’ve yet eaten. Candidly, it doesn’t completely live up to its price tag, but it’s still pretty good and really satisfying (I came medium hungry and didn’t even come close to finishing this monster). And as expensive as it is, I’d recommend it. My advice: round out the experience with some duck fat fries and a whiskey cocktail (or two), then finish with a vanilla bourbon milkshake. It’ll run you quite a few bucks, but you’ll leave full, happy, and maybe even a little buzzed.

The Ratings
Flavor: 9.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.50 / 10.00
Value: 7.00 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.80 / 10.00
Bun: 8.90  /10.00
Patty: 9.40 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.20 / 10.00
Balance: 9.20 / 10.00

Total: 86.90 / 100.00

Messhall Kitchen

IMG_0025Before I start, a prefatory remark. I apologize for the long delay between posts. I have been busy being an enormous catch. File this under not-so-humble humblebrag. Point is, I’ve been too occupied reading internet comments about myself and looking longingly at my own picture to eat or write about burgers. Sorry not sorry. In related news: my being featured in that campaign hasn’t made women more attracted to me. At all.

ANYWAY. Let’s talk about Messhall.

For most people, Los Feliz triggers one of three thoughts:

Los Feliz Boulevard at rush hour is one of the most compelling pieces of proof of a malevolent God;

or

Do I pronounce it like the Spanish (Los “Fe-LEES”) or do I pronounce it like the transplants who live here say it (Los “FEE-liz”)?;

or

Oh, that’s a nice place to, like, raise a young family.

If you’re me, you also think of late nights with friends at House of Pies and the 101 Café after concerts at the Wiltern, but that’s because I’m a fat kid with a nostalgic streak. You might also think of Mexico City. Or Little Dom’s (whose burger this Project imminently will tackle). What you probably don’t think of is the flourishing restaurant scene. And why would you? Sure, Los Feliz is a cool part of Los Angeles, but it really hasn’t managed to produce a real blockbuster restaurant like Downtown, mid-city, or Silver Lake have. Unless you count Sqirl. Sqirl is good. Plus, saying you got brunch there makes you hip, plugged-in, and trendy. And you can sit with people who are too cool to go to Alcove (because, like, who even does that anymore?), but who want to wear their sunglasses while they take down their frittata, or seared polenta, or whatever.

(I actually like Sqirl, but targets don’t come much easier than their clientele.)

Listen, the point is the culinary pickings in Los Feliz are pretty slim. It’s not clear that Messhall Kitchen is aiming to change the culinary reputation of Los Feliz all by itself. But it’s safe to say that this place might augur a tectonic shift in the food scene here. Their menu offers quietly multicultural and just-inventive-enough takes on comfort foods. The sweet potato tamale weds sweet corn with slow-braised, drippy pork chile verde. The poutine features fries soggy after being slathered in short-rib and cheese curds. With time, places like Messhall could well change the culinary complexion of Los Feliz (interesting, because the co-owner, Bill Chait, owns Louise’s Trattoria, one of the most aggressively uninteresting culinary experiences you can have in Los Angeles County).

But Kevin, McAdoo, and I didn’t go to taste the ground floor of a sea change in the culinary profile of Los Feliz. We went to try Messhall’s vaunted burger. Well, and McAdoo was there to help defray the simmering perception that Kevin and I have a weird relationship (we aren’t dating).

The Place
Messhall Kitchen
4500 Los Feliz Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027

The Order: Mess Burger

The Price: $16 (before tax, includes fries)

The Burger
So okay, here’s a brief anatomical rundown of the burger. There’s a bun the size of North Dakota. Then, a substantial – say between one-third and one-half pound – patty drenched in what Messhall mysteriously dubs their “smokey sauce” (I’m resisting the impulse to make a crass joke about the forest fire safety bear), a sweet, runny, terra cotta condiment in which tangy belts of slow onion swim about. Crunchy discs of bread and butter pickles are also bathed in the sauce, but not enough to hide their charming, sweet and briny bite. A leathery sheet of nutty white cheddar is melted over the patty, almost to the point of liquidity.

If that sounds like a wonderful mix of flavors to you, I agree. Unfortunately, I can’t really report to you how they interact. The bun in this burger is so structurally dominant that it actually becomes physically intrusive. It is so enormous that, with every bite, it folds over and envelops the rest of the ingredients, masking their respective flavors and their interactions with one another. Whatever subtlety there is in this burger is completely obliterated by an overmassive bun that is kind of like a pushy salesman; it just won’t let anyone else get a word in.

In one sense, I get it: the patty is juicy and there is a lot of sauce on this burger. This bun avoids the problem of over-absorption and sogginess to which a less substantial bun might have been susceptible. But for God’s sake, there’s a happy medium in there somewhere. This was way over the top. Ultimately, I had to physically deconstruct this burger to actually taste the other ingredients. I removed the top bun and put it aside, and ate the burger open-faced with a fork and knife. Which made me look, well, not great.  And was pretty ridiculous. But I do what I have to do, damn it.

Anyway, the patty was very high quality. Our server confidently recommended that we order it rare, and the meat’s natural flavor could support that preparation. The sauce tasted fine but was poorly portioned; it crowded out the other flavors, such that everything else was muddied in a smokey-sweet haze. The pickles were present, but too inextricably linked to the sauce for their flavor to shine on its own. The onions were effectively lost in the soupy swirl of the sauce. The cheese complemented the rare beef well, providing a mellow counterpart to the assertive savor of the patty.

No one should be heard to criticize this burger for the quality of its ingredients. Even the fundamental ideas informing the assembly are sound. The problem is one of proportion. The burger is oversauced, but more importantly, features a bun that literally swallows the rest of the dish. The result is a dry, spongy front end to every bite that gives way to a muddle of ingredients too chewed-up to appreciate its individual components.

One more thing: this burger is very, very expensive. For sixteen bucks, I expect something truly memorable. In one sense, Messhall gave me that. I remember this burger, just not for the right reasons. I remember this burger because it’s bun got all up in my grill (literally), and didn’t let me taste anything else. I remember it because it tasted way too much like I was eating two uncharacteristically filling pieces of bread. I remember it because I actually thought, “Man, if I want a bunch of meat and shit wrapped in bread, I’ll eat a Hot Pocket. That takes three minutes, costs a few bucks, and I can do it in my sweats.” Not the right kind of memorable.

For now, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether Messhall portends a change in the culinary scene in Los Feliz. That’s a bigger question, one more effectively addressed by someone with a deeper knowledge than I. What I can tell you is this: this burger gets a lot of good ingredients together. The sauce is distinctive but also somehow familiar. There is real potential for something special here. But the experiment is botched due to its imbalance. So if Messhall does want to spearhead a change in the food future of Los Feliz, it probably won’t do it on the back of this burger, which is good – maybe even great – in concept, but just about average in execution.

The Ratings
Flavor: 8.30 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.40 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.90 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 8.60 / 10.00
Bun: 4.10 / 10.00
Patty: 9.10 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.90 / 10.00
Toppings: 8.80 / 10.00
Balance: 4.00 / 10.00

Total: 75.90 / 100.00