Thursday, February 28, 2013

Umami Burger - San Francisco, CA

Umami Burger in the Cow Hollow area of San Francisco is one of several California locations of this upscale burger chain. The space is dark and inviting. We arrived around six on a Thursday evening and to our surprise were ushered right to our butcher block table. We have eaten here several times and it can be very crowded, particularly on a weekend or later in the evening.

Our server appeared immediately to take our order. I ordered the Umami Burger ($11). It is one of several burgers built from the ground up. Umami takes pride in concocting each burger with toppings and custom sauces to make each one a unique experience. The 1/3-pound burger is house-ground from some "proprietary blend of high end cuts" as our server told us after inquiring with the manager. It is griddle fried rather than flame broiled, which I always prefer. The Umami Burger itself includes Shiitake mushroom, caramelized onions, slow roasted tomato slice, parmesan crisp and Umami ketchup. (Don't miss the Umami Ketchup on your thin fries either. The ketchup is more tomatoey and spicier than your normal Heinz 57.)

The burger arrived sitting atop a white bun, perfectly dome-shaped and stamped with a "U".  The bun is finely toasted to perfection. The burger itself is a work of art. I have never seen one so finely assembled and presented. Biting into the burger, which is prepared a perfect medium rare, you get each taste hitting your tongue separately and then blending in unison. I noticed the mushroom first, then the beef, cheese and ketchup. It is really a delight.

The Thin Fries ($3.50) are little matchsticks that really live up to their name. Crisp, salty and tasty, you need to eat them fast, because they don't hold the heat for long. The Onion rings are surprisingly uniform in appearance. Their light batter covers and somewhat overwhelms the soft onion inside. I dunked them in the jalapeño ranch sauce and they added a nice little kick.

My wife Pat had a burger with only cheddar cheese. Called the kids burger, it is the same size and bun as my burger. It is really the margarita pizza of burgers. In its unadorned state, it achieves a certain burger perfection that only works when the beef is flavorful, sparingly spiced and fresh.

Skip the pecan, bacon pie. Microwaved to a tongue burning temperature, it disappointed after the quality of the rest. Crust should never be subjected to a microwave, so it was hard to tell how good it was. The bacon was more of a gimmick than an addition.  Instead, have another beer or glass of wine from the nice selection.

According to Cookthink, the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour are familiar, but there is a fifth taste we can perceive with our tongue. Called umami, its taste has been described as rounded, rich and savory. I think this aptly describes the Umami Burger.

Burger 5 spatulas out of 5
Fries 4 spatulas
Onion Rings 4 spatulas

Umami Burger
2184 Union Street
San Francisco, CA 94123

This Samurai Sword sits in the entrance.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Smashburger - Thousand Oaks, CA

Smashburger in Thousand Oaks, CA presents a clean modern looking restaurant to have your hamburger. I liked the laminate wood grained tables and wood chairs.  No faux 50s aesthetic that has become a cliché in burger places. You walk right up to the counter and order from the flat screen menus behind the server. I ordered up a Classic Smash in the big size ($5.99). The regular ($4.99) is 5 ounces. The big is a half pound. They also offer a double, which is two quarter pound patties rather than one half pound ($5.99).

I barely sat down and my order was there. It is a nice looking burger. The yellow bun was left open with the burger on one side and all the veggies and condiments on the other. I assembled as served and took a bite. The patty was cooked through, but still plenty moist if not particularly juicy as billed. The theory on the "smash" in Smashburger is that they start with a ball of fresh Angus beef and then smash it onto a buttered griddle, searing in the flavor and juice. I have always thought that you compress the ground beef as little as possible to keep the patty light, juicy and soft. The thicker patty also allows more pink beef in the middle. Having said all that, this is a very high quality enjoyable burger. The meat tasted savory and flavorful. All the flavors had a nice balance with the very fresh veggies: pickle chips, green leaf lettuce, tomato slice and red onion. There is also mustard and ketchup.  The American cheese was mostly melted, although it could have been more so. 

The Haystack Onions ($2.29) were light, thin, peppery and flavorful. Served hot and crisp they were supposed to be served with a dipping sauce, which I did not get. I had to go back to the counter and ask for it. Turns out that they were out of the containers for it and had to improvise a french fry container for it. Not a big deal, but leaving that great sauce out of the order would have robbed me of the delightful concoction. The sauce stings the taste buds with a delightful, creamy horseradish mix. 

The Smash Fries were the best of the lot. For a chain, I really appreciate the creativity here. Smashburger rolls the thin, crisp fries in rosemary, olive oil and garlic. The subtle garlic didn't overpower like garlic fries. These fries would be great without the extra spices, but with them, they are a don't-miss addition to the burger. 

Smashburger is a worthy option against other burger chains. It compares well with In-N-Out and beats Five Guys in my opinion. The more substantial burger is a plus. It is more expensive than the previous mentions, but that is not unexpected given the quality of the items ordered.

Burger 4 out of 5 spatulas
Haystack Onions 3.5 spatulas (Get the sauce)
Fries 5 spatulas

650 North Moorpark Road
Thousand Oaks, CA 91360