Happy American Independence Day to all you Brunch with Bearees! We love nothing more than parades, fireworks, and star-spangled pants and hope that your long weekend is filled with all of the above and more. Today we bring you to Umami Burger, to remind ourselves of the innovation and creativity that inspired the formation of this country, as well as the hamburgers and French fries that sustain it today.
One of the things that neuroscience majors such as myself learn over and over again are the five tastes that human tongues can detect. Perhaps the most commonly known ones are sweet, salty, bitter, and sour—but a taste with which you may not be familiar is known as umami. The Japanese word for “delicious,” umami describes the savory taste of meat, mushrooms, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and a multitude of other foods that are often sources of proteins. Capitalizing on this taste is the hip chain Umami Burger, which started in my hometown of Los Angeles but has since branched out to Greenwich Village, TriBeCa, and Williamsburg.
On a sunny spring visit to NYU’s Shakespeare in the Square, we stopped by Umami Burger for a quick lunch on a blustery day. Located on 6th Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets, Umami Burger is a short walk away from the iconic Washington Square Park. The closest subway stops are the W 4 station on the A, B, C, D, E, F, and M trains, the Christopher Street – Sheridan Street station on the 1 train, or the Astor Place station on the 6 train. As aforementioned, there are also locations in TriBeCa and Williamsburg.
We were seated by the window in an empty upstairs section, and immediately we noticed the aggressively thumping club music—at 11:30 in the morning. Our waiter came over and walked us through the menu and I asked him about my food allergies to dairy and to peanuts. He pointed out several gluten-free menu on the items, but was unsure about the dairy and peanut situation. He pointed out that sometimes the buns have honey, which is not vegan, but I explained to him that I actually eat meat, but not dairy products. He seemed confused, so we started off with an order of maple bacon fries while he checked on the buns with the kitchen.
When he came back with information in the buns, he said that the buns indeed had dairy in them, and contained honey. The way he kept repeating the information made me think that he thought I was allergic to honey, to which I said that I was actually only allergic to dairy. The miscommunication was not a good omen for the rest of the meal, as it made me suspicious of our waiter, as well as disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to eat an actual burger at a burger place. I decided to just order the classic umami burger without the parmesan frico, or a fried disc of parmesan cheese, and, of course, without the bun. The waiter mentioned that the restaurant really discouraged substitutions or changes to the menu, “but in your case, I guess we have to make the exception.” So far, not a great start for Umami Burger, though a very popular chain in the hipster-foodie-land of Los Angeles, and likely to be a big hit in New York City.
The maple bacon fries were rich in flavor, although I’m not sure that I would necessarily call the flavor umami so much as just decadent. Pan-fried with a maple syrup glaze, these sweet potato fries were also tossed with generous “bacon lardons,” which is a fancy French way of saying thick chunks of bacon. The “group” serving may not seem that large, but because of the intense flavor, it was certainly enough for three people. We also ordered regular fries, which were just as crispy and salty as you would hope. Honestly, these might have been the best thing on the menu.
The classic umami burger was certainly a disappointment. We hail from the land of In-N-Out Burger so we know a thing or two about simple hamburgers. Unfortunately, Umami Burger is anything but simple. Served almost rare, the meat was juicy and bursting with strange tangy flavors that seemed misplaced—although maybe that is just what raw meat tastes like. The lack of a bun was then a double disappointment, as the whole thing fell apart almost immediately after I speared it with my fork. Let’s just say that wrapping rare meat in lettuce is not a good substitute for not having any bread that accommodates dietary restrictions. In addition, the house made ketchup did not have the same sweet tomato flavor of Heinz, or even other homemade ketchups. It had a sharp vinegar flavor that left a sour aftertaste, which was only heightened by the onions. In addition there were tomatoes and mushrooms in the mix, to confuse my tastebuds even more The entire experience—bitter, sour, tangy, and not a bit umami—drove me to drink a lot of water, which is probably good, and eat a lot of fries, which is probably bad.
The flavors were so heavy and so eclectic that it reminded me of the time my grandmother put apples, orange juice, and Japanese cucumbers in a blender and made me drink the whole thing—the textures, the flavors, the concepts were good in her mind, but definitely did not work out in the blender. And the umami burger did not work for us on the plate.
Umami Burger is also a great deal more expensive than your average fast food burger, with each burger upwards of ten dollars and all fries, even regular ones, are extra. The crowd at Umami Burger was nonexistent, as we were seated first in an empty upstairs room with only the bartender for company, and later were joined by only a few couples, hopefully not on first dates.
Of course, this reaction is one of personal taste rather than relating allergies, so it is naturally necessary to report that we suffered no allergic reaction or even the hint of side effects from Umami Burger. However, my experience with food allergies has taught me that sometimes the simpler foods are often the safest and the most comfortable. Umami Burger was certainly an exercise in discomfort, and we will likely not return again soon.
Although America may have been founded by rakish youths who wanted to settle a new world of freedom and hamburgers, it is also a country of tradition and loyalty so we will exercise the right to freedom of hamburger choice and stick to our regular hamburgers with ketchup optional. And what a perfect day for those!