Dining review: Take a savory bite out of Umami Burger

Customers can enjoy different burgers such as the Le Cordon Bleu Burger and the Ahi Tuna Burger at Umami Burger in Pasadena.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer)

Umami Burger has made its way to Pasadena. The modernist burger joint was bound to arrive sooner or later. Lucky for us, it was sooner.

The first Umami Burger opened in L.A. on La Brea in 2009. Since then, the locations and the following have exploded.

The first peek into the Umami on Colorado Boulevard is a little shocking. From the sidewalk, the place looks more like a stripped down Asian noodle shop. Where are the brick walls of the Hollywood Umami? The wacky neon and artfully mismatched walls of the Los Feliz storefront? Even the weird, rusted license-plate art of the Anaheim Umami? But look a little closer and there’s some texture there. Two series of matte silver squares and hanging, curling light fixtures break up the white walls. And look closer still: When the white tables and black chairs are filled with diners and the blond-wood floors being trod by waiters carrying the signature, fist-size burgers, it becomes clear. The white just offers a clean backdrop for the burgers. And the burgers are why you’re here.

The idea of umami, the savory “fifth taste” is king here. Just so you don’t forget, it’s written twice in Japanese calligraphy as a central part of the wall art. Adam Fleischman, the owner behind Umami Burger, seems to go all in on his concepts. His is the same restaurant group whose PIGG offers Cone O’ Cracklins with the guarantee “100% lard fried.”

The concept does not disappoint. Umami is an idea that’s been keeping hungry biochemical researchers busy for years. The umami taste, brought to you by glutamic acid, is found in foods like tomatoes and Parmesan cheese, soy sauce and sardines. There’s no sardine burger at Umami, thankfully. Not yet, anyway.

But before you get to the burgers, there’s the lead-up. Sweet potato fries are thin, crisp and satisfying, dipped in Umami’s signature ketchup. But the appetizer to choose is the tempura onion rings. Three people at our table said, nearly simultaneously, “These are the best onion rings I’ve ever had.” And they are. Perfectly crisp batter surrounds an onion that still tastes, well, exactly like an onion, crisp and sweet. A serving only brings six rings, but at $3.50 per, go ahead and order two servings.

So, onto the burgers. They’re small, but they pack a punch. The thick patties come almost caramelized, well-browned but crazy juicy on the inside, and nestled within lightly toasted and slightly sweet buns. The umami burger is the one to try if it’s your first time at the joint. Why not dive headfirst into the concept? The burger is layered with shiitake mushroom, roasted tomato, caramelized onion, a disc of melted and crisped Parmesan, and, just so you remember it’s a hamburger, ketchup — but a ketchup that offers hints of mushrooms and spices.

If you’re a blue cheese lover, the port and Stilton burger is for you. The cheese oozes off the sides of the patty and the burger is piled high with sweet port-caramelized onions.

If you were the frugal traditionalist in your group who just wanted to go to In-N-Out, the Cali burger’s your call. With roasted tomato, butter lettuce, a delicious house spread (yes, reminiscent of the beloved drive-through), house-made American cheese, and caramelized onion, this will make you wonder whether, if In-N-Out could charge $10 for a burger, if it could pull this off.

If you have teenage boys in your group, rest assured that one of them will order the manly burger, just so he can tell the waiter in his deepest baritone, “I’ll have ... the Mannnnly Burger,” imagining his hands on his hips and his cape snapping in the wind behind him. Manly indeed.

It’s got beer-cheddar cheese, salty fried onion strings, smoked bacon and bacon lardons. It’s a burger you can’t put down, and only partially because if you do it will fall to pieces on your plate.

The Hatch burger features roasted chiles from Hatch, N.M., “the chile capital of the world,” and house-made and extra-gooey American cheese. It’s not a heat that will make you sweat, but it might make you smile. In a nod to its new locale, Umami offers Le Cordon Bleu Burger designed by students at the culinary school several blocks to the east. A patty of chopped chicken holds a cheese-y Mornay lava that comes out so super-heated the waiters warn diners not to burn themselves on the first bite. It’s topped with a bechamel sauce and greens. It’s good, it’s fine, it’s a decent choice if you can eat cream sauce but not beef. But it may just make you wish for a burger.

It’s surprising that such a small burger can leave you feeling so sated, but that’s one of the effects of umami. But you can stick it out through dessert.

The variations on ice cream sandwiches are stunning, but the cookies and cream ice cream smushed between double-chocolate cookies is a winner. Try the salted caramel and cookie shake. But don’t split it with another diner; that just won’t end well.

REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and Caribbean Travel & Life.

What: Umami Burger

Where: 49 E. Colorado Blvd. Pasadena

When: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.

Cost: Sides and salads, $3.5 to $7; burgers, $10 to $15; desserts, $3 to $6

Contact: (626) 799-8626