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

Stout

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Alexandros Kagianaris and Charles Lew are pretty serious about casual dining. They envision neighborhood joint Stout as being a place where – to quote their website – “club goers meet the culinary elite for burgers and beer.” Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure who fits into either of those groups, the thrust seems to be that they’re aiming to appeal to a broad swath of people. It’s one of those restaurants that’s trying to please foodies and philistines alike. They do it by using high-quality beef, and assembling burgers with interesting (but not too challenging) toppings.

Regardless, Stout has received its fair share of accolades. L.A. Weekly called its eponymous burger the ninth best burger in Los Angeles. And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that ninth is the new first. Anyhow, Stout has three locations: Hollywood (on Cahuenga), Studio City (on Ventura), and Santa Monica (on Santa Monica).

McKenna and I went to Stout’s Studio City location to put its bona fides to the test. Our trip was not without adventure: She got a burger with an over-easy egg on it; as she picked it up, the yolk split and spilled out of the bun like lava over the rim of a volcano, completely drenching her hands. It bears mentioning that she survived the explosion and took down the burger like a champ (even if it meant having hands so covered in yolk and sauce that she had to drink her beer through a straw. Which she did. Also like a champ).

For her trouble – or maybe just for her scintillating personality – our server really took quite a shining to McKenna (probably because she didn’t hear all the shit McKenna was talking about the evening’s playlist). They bonded over the course of the night, not always (albeit quite often) at my expense. But a dose of well-intentioned derision is a small price to pay for seeing someone’s hands coated in egg yolks like a vegan’s ideation of Jack the Ripper.

I’m digressing. The TL;DR version is that we went and ate burgers. One exploded. Beer was sipped through a straw.

The Place
Stout Burgers & Beer
11262 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA 91604

The Order: The Imperialist (roasted tomato, ketchup, aged cheddar, mustard relish), cooked “pink” (as opposed to “not pink” – the other choice)

The Price: $11.00

The Burger
Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t know why they call it the Imperialist. I’m also fully aware that I didn’t eat the flagship burger at Stout, the one for which it earned such acclaim. Obviously, I will be back to Stout for its namesake burger, but I was jonesing for something a bit on the subtler end. So obviously, I ordered a burger called the Imperialist.

Like I said, I don’t know why the call it that. But I have an idea. I think it’s because they took a perfectly good, perfectly functional, perfectly traditional ingredient combination – cheddar, ketchup, and mustard – and invaded that tranquil space with some weird newfangled addition. Listen, roasted tomato is a dicey proposition in any context. Put it all up in the shit of a classic burger, and it’s just invasive (not to mention arbitrary).

It was aggressively smoky and then concentratedly sweet. The ferocious – almost saccharine – back-end of the tomato bled into the ketchup, brought out the sweetness of the (excellent) bun, and really accented the notes of fruit in the cheddar (simultaneously blunting its acidic and nutty quality), making a sunburnt sweetness the dominant element of the early part of every bite.

Both McKenna and I noticed that the patty was a little dry. This probably had something to do with the fact that it was coarse and loosely packed, which gave the meat’s juices room to escape. The bottom of the patty was coated in mustard relish, a weird but very pungent sauce that pretty much overwhelmed the finish of every bite.

My brown person bias maybe coming into play here, but I’ve never been a fan of imperialism. One of my friends – who shall remain nameless and blameless – argues that imperialism gave the backward masses of the developing world a sense for administrative efficiency and built us roads and rail (mind you, he’s 84% joking when he says shit like that). Be that as it may, I think the colonial footprint is a harmful one. Stout’s Imperialist, sadly, is no more successful.

The Ratings
Flavor: 6.10 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.40 / 10.00
Value: 8.10 / 10.00
Efficiency: 8.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 6.10 / 10.00
Bun: 9.00 / 10.00
Patty: 7.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.20 / 10.00
Sauce: 5.20 / 10.00
Balance: 6.90 / 10.00

Total: 71.00 / 100.00