Umami Burger, a burger chain from sunny Los Angeles, landed in Chicago in September. It’s just north of my neighborhood. I’ve been putting off going, since chain restaurants don’t usually give me a food boner. But I like the idea — their burgers (and the rest of their food) are loaded with umami flavor, which many people consider the fifth taste. The word umami itself, translated from Japanese, means “pleasant savory taste.” It’s the flavor that makes snack food like Doritos taste so good. That flavor is most commonly found in monosodium glutamate (MSG) in the food you eat today. People freak out about it, like it’s some kind of toxic additive to food, but the truth is, glutamates are found naturally in lots of food, like seaweed, mushrooms, and tomatoes.
As a discovered concept, umami is relatively new, defined by a Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Obviously, the flavor has existed naturally, for pretty much forever, but nobody really came up with a name for it until then. Scientifically speaking, umami is detected by receptors on your tastebuds from L-glutamate and 5’-ribonucleotides. I basically just vomited up Wikipedia for you so you didn’t have to look it up yourself. The most important fact is that it’s delicious.
Most people balk at the idea of a chain restaurant putting out good food, since we’re so used to shitty results from chains, but in this case, Umami Burger’s got a pretty solid concept.
Their namesake burger, the Umami Burger (listed as The Original) on their menu, is made from grass-fed beef (finished with grain) that’s ground in house on a daily basis. It’s topped with a Parmesan frico (basically a Parmesan cheese crisp), shiitake mushroom, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, and their Umami house ketchup. At $12.00 it isn’t exactly on the cheap side, but that price is comparable to a lot of great burgers around Chicago.
And guess what? It’s genuinely good. The griddled beef is juicy and flavorful; it came out just a bit over medium-rare, but that didn’t prevent it from being moist and drippingly satisfying. The toppings are about as busy as you’d imagine, but they all hit your umami receptors with each bite. The toppings are both savory and surprisingly sweet, which isn’t always a good thing, but in this case the sweetness isn’t an issue. The bun, airy like Japanese milk bread, is surprisingly durable and holds up to the juicy burger.
The place was bumpin’ at lunchtime on a weekday, so I don’t think it’ll be going away anytime soon. Especially if the food stays about the same.
The shoestring Truffle Fries are good, but they’re expensive, at $6.50. They’re topped with truffle cheese fondue and truffle salt. The fondue congeals pretty quickly, turning into a sticky and intensely truffly mess. Skip the truffle part. The crisp shoestring fries are great by themselves.
The best dipping sauce is the house-made Umami Ketchup. I heard the woman at the table next to me say that it tasted like marinara sauce, which isn’t entirely off. It’s sweet and rich with a lingering savory kick. The mayo-based sauces, like the roasted garlic aioli and the jalapeno ranch don’t work too well, since the aioli tastes strangely greasy. The hot sauce is fine. I didn’t have too much of it.
As I arranged the spoons for a photo, my bubbly waitress, Allison, whispered under her breath, “That’s adorable.” She didn’t mean for me to hear it. I guess seeing a guy fool around with his food at lunch is kind of funny. I liked her. She was nice and she called me “love.” The service was good and attentive without being intrusive or annoying. Everyone eating seemed happy.
I sat near a couple, a blond-haired white guy and a pretty Asian woman, and I listened to them talk. It was mostly him speaking, non-stop, complaining about people he knew. He wore a wedding ring and was almost oblivious to his own constant chatter. He wasn’t eating. She was eating the same exact thing I was, the Umami Burger and the truffle fries. The woman wore a dazzling engagement ring, studded with diamonds. I wondered if someday I would have enough money to buy a ring like that for someone.
Occasionally he would reach over and touch her shoulder and hair while she was eating. I listened to him talk about how he didn’t have the urge to have children, and that it didn’t do anything for him. She didn’t respond much except for a few words, here and there. Their body language was a little stilted. He sat hunched over, elbows on the table, stiff and slightly strung-out, and the woman spent most of her time listening and eating her lunch, murmuring soft responses occasionally. I couldn’t tell if she looked defeated or if she was quiet or didn’t give a shit.
If they were a couple, the lines were blurring. Maybe they were friends. Or coworkers. Coworkers don’t usually touch each other affectionately. Not like that. But couples don’t sound like they’re just getting to know each other, either.
Suddenly, this post isn’t just about the food.
I’d go back for the food.
1480 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60622