Umami Burger's Bold Flavors Are Too Greasy for Comfort
The Cubano Burger at Umami Burger tastes like gravy-topped chicharrón. The grease-ridden concoction pairs a pork patty with a lightly toasted bun. Shaved ham, pineapple mustard, and molten cheese crown the fatty swine, summoning images of Havana, Hawaiian pizza, and heartburn. Each nibble makes your lips gleam and your fingers look gross.
And then, once you're all done, your stomach feels even worse.
So is the patty deep-fried? Did a cook sneak lard into the sauce? "Well, those are preparatory secrets," says a manager at Umami, the California-based chain that opened in South Beach this past May. "You're going to have to call our PR firm for that."
Though its burgers are far from ordinary, Umami Burger operates like a standard franchise — with a strongbox of classified recipes and procedures. Founder Adam Fleischman is a former food and wine writer credited with launching Los Angeles' first wine bars. He opened his original Umami in 2009 and built a booming brand around bold flavors. Each recipe stars umami, a category of taste that extends beyond sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami exists in tomatoes, mushrooms, fish sauce, bouillon cubes, and anything rife with MSG or glutamates. Each of Fleischman's creations stems from his unique food-as-science approach. His burgers manipulate palates and proffer a combination of things that should taste good.
So far, the formula has succeeded. In 2010, GQ declared Umami Burger "Burger of the Year." Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Blake Lively are constantly photographed at West Coast locations. The restaurants have garnered a reputation for their crowded dining rooms, full bars, and determined branding.
In his official portrait, Fleischman holds a magic wand over a compact hamburger, a tubby creation that fits comfortably in the average palm. On the Umami website, he peddles Umami Ketchup, Umami Master Sauce, Umami Dust, and Umami Spray. In writing, the brand unabashedly employs the verb "umamify." On the restaurant's menu, burgers are labeled as boasting "serious Umami Burger flavor." They are packed with ingredients such as bacon, truffle cheese, and roasted garlic aioli.
Health is of no concern to Umami, and neither are rivaling restaurants. "There are a lot of people in [Miami's] 'better burger' market, but we don't look at any of them as competition," Fleischman says. Indeed, in the past few years, the area has seen an influx of specialty burger joints: BurgerFi, Elevation Burger, Burger & Beer Joint, Fort Lauderdale-based ROK:BRGR, and Danny Meyer's Shake Shack. Those restaurants propelled our then-nascent burger craze.
But recently, the tendency has slowed. In 2012, Lincoln Road's Five Napkin Burger switched to Five Napkin Grill. Joshua Woodward — the man formerly behind 8 Oz. Burger Bar in Los Angeles and Miami — was arraigned on attempting to induce a miscarriage in his then-girlfriend in 2009. His local partner, Eric Fried, closed their Alton Road location, reopened it as American Burger, and, shortly thereafter, shuttered that venture. Umami Burger South Beach, which is Fleischman's first restaurant outside California, took over that very same space.
So why does Fleischman think he can succeed where others have failed? "Most of them are either very vintage and backward-looking or about personal customization without any culinary guidance," he explains.
It's true — culinary guidance abounds on Umami Burger's menu. For instance, male patrons are encouraged to indulge in the Manly Burger, a beef patty topped with beer-cheddar cheese, bacon lardons, and smoked-salt onion strings. The manliest of men can also test the resilience of their gut with an extra side of Manly Fries, a dish finished with similar ingredients. Best of all, both servings of sexism are offered without egg whites, edible flowers, or kale — lest females get the wrong idea.
Vegetarians might want to sample the Miami Earth Burger, a meat-free invention that layers crushed avocado with goat cheese spread and roasted tomato. But on a recent Saturday night, its loosely formed patty — a hodgepodge of forbidden rice, turtle beans, and shiitake mushrooms — spilled from the bun like a cascade of black grains. Perhaps a better bet would've been the ahi tuna burger, which our goofy waiter recommended. "I don't know what 'gingered carrots' means, but it tastes really good," he said.
We wound up ordering the Umami Caesar instead. The salad features shards of kale and butter lettuce sprinkled with lemon zest and Parmesan. But its greens arrived coated in excess dressing, a condiment heavy enough to drown any food lacking floaties.
Chain restaurants succeed because they are consistent. And in that respect, Umami Burger thrives. Every salad we ordered was overdressed. Every burger we requested medium-rare was cooked well-done. Every meal — a farrago of fat, sloppiness, and cheese — culminated with regret and a greater risk of developing gout.
Still, Umami's founder stands by his brand. The restaurateur launched his first New York City location last week to eager crowds. He also hopes to open additional spots in the Miami area. But does the city need more specialty burger restaurants? "Umami South Beach is killing it," he says.
Actually, it's more like Umami South Beach is killing us.
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