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Umami, aka the fifth taste, is a real thing, much to the irritation of antifoodists who dismiss it as a term of pretension among vocabulary-starved food writers. It was discovered in 1908 by Tokyo chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who determined glutamic acid provided the main flavor in dashi. Ikeda gave the taste its name, which comes from the Japanese word for "delicious," umai. It's the same stuff that makes things like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, truffles, soy sauce, cured meats, fish sauce, and of course, burgers, taste so good.
Umami was also the name chosen by Adam Fleischman for his L.A.-based burger chain and restaurant group, which, after just five years of explosive growth, landed in Wicker Park in late September in the old Covo Gyro space. Umami Burger's shtick is adorning freshly ground steak burgers with a secret proprietary tamari- and miso-based "Umami Sauce," and a dust likely made from ground dried porcini mushrooms and fish heads. Burgers are then stacked with various combinations of glutamate-rich toppings, say, in the case of "The Original," a Parmesan crisp, a single shiitake mushroom, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, and a house ketchup incorporated with fish sauce and, again, mushrooms.
Umami Burger joints in California are ridiculously popular and often boast long lines. I like to think that the reason that hasn't been the case here isn't because we midwestern rubes aren't hip to its stratospheric rise, but that we can spot lipstick on a pig, er, cow, er, burger, when we see it.
Ex-Chicagoan, L.A. blogger, and Friend of the Food Chain Tony Chen sees it. "Fish sauce, soy—these Asian ingredients are Adam's truffle oil," he told Los Angeles magazine in 2012. "That's great, but eventually there will be a time when people will revolt and, like with truffle oil, not want it on everything anymore. When I bite into a burger, I want that corn-fed, all-American flavor. With Umami, there's too much of that artificial, fermented taste. I think that's really contrived."
I think that's just about right, though I wouldn't necessarily describe the taste as artificial (except for the liberal use of truffle oil all over the menu). The burgers themselves are not bad at all. The moderately sized six-ounce patties are coarsely ground and loosely packed, and have an enjoyably chewy texture—not unlike Rice 'N Bread's galbi burger. (Certain Umami locations have a galbi burger on the menu, but apparently not here.) But they don't taste like much of anything in the interior, so overwhelmed by the stratum of comparably savory flavors. Of course that aspect isn't new to Chicagoans here in the post-Kumapocalypse, where a burger isn't a burger unless it's dwarfed by what goes on top—but usually burgers in this style have some contrasting elements. You know, for balance.
Of course if you like your burgers burdened there are a lot of ways to go including an In-N-Out-style Cali Burger, a double-pattied cheeseburger, a burger topped with a triple dose of truffle aioli, truffle cheese, and truffle "glaze" (gas mask not included), and an exclusive-to-Chicago Calabrese sausage burger with giardiniera. For those who go red-meatless there's an ahi tuna burger ($15), a turkey burger ($12), and an open-faced lentil, mushroom, and tomato situation ($12).
You can apply similar indiscretions to fries—thin, crispy shoestrings, relatively more distinctive than the burgers until you dump them with truffled stuff, or bacon, onions, and mustard ($3.50). And you can scrub your guts with a Caesar, a fairly assertive housemade pickle plate, or a beet salad with truffled ricotta and truffle dressing, unnaturally. Not all Umamis serve liquor, but ours has wine, cocktails, and bottled and draft beer—but beware of the latter. They are short pours—not pints, though they're priced like they are. That's a ruse that isn't going to endear Umami to Chicagoans any more than the other upscale out of town burger chains that have landed in our city in recent years have. Next up? Shake Shack.