When it's a beautiful, summer-like Friday night in October, it's probably one of the most challenging times to try and get a table anywhere in the Marina without a reservation. But while some folks are willing to stand in line and wait for hours for the new iPhone 4S, I was committed to getting into the new location of Umami Burger, the famed mini-empire from Los Angeles. As I'd never had the opportunity to try one of their much-ballyhooed burgers down in SoCal, I was looking forward to finally sampling their fare. They had opened their doors on October 7, much to the delight of the Bay Area foodie crowd which has already packed Yelp with their reviews with its first week.
I rounded up some fellow colleagues from KQED (one who jokingly refers to herself as a "meatoutatarian," which means she'll only eat red meat when out dining) to join me in line. I'm glad I had the company of my colleagues as the wait was long: over an hour and a half long. Granted, as mentioned before, it was Friday night and the hype factor was in full effect, but some seating snafus at the front of the house had our party of three overlooked and not called when we were next in line. The hostesses were cheerful for the most part -- as cheerful as they could be while wrangling the horde milling about the front door -- and we were finally seated in the back of the restaurant. (If you're a lucky duo, you'll get one of the sidewalk tables that's out front while this lovely weather lasts.)
The Union Street location of Umami Burger is housed in the former location of Jovino. (According to one of my KQED colleagues who lives in the neighborhood and had dined their regularly, they were also known for their excellent burgers during its run.) The interior space itself has a spare, Asian aesthetic with wood accents and muted colors. The noise isn't overpowering, even when packed to full capacity was it was tonight.
After we settled in, our server asked if this was our first time dining at the restaurant, then gave us an explanation of the meaning of "umami" and their mission statement. We ordered an array of burgers to share: the Greenbird ($12), the Umami Burger ($11), and their priciest, most decadent item, the Bacon-Wrapped Scallop Burger ($15, topped with crispy pork belly and only available at this location). I was curious about their Cali Burger and its "house-made American cheese," and apparently there's some cheese alchemy involved as they create their own special blend of cheeses in the kitchen (which are not made from scratch). Sides are ordered separately, and during our wait I had spotted other diners eating tater tots. Our server explained that these "cheesy tater tots" were now a secret menu item since they often sold out but were available for the asking. We ordered those along with a side of truffled cheese fries.
The fried items arrived first, and we dipped them into the Asian soup spoon filled with their house-made Umami ketchup. They were both delicious, especially the tater tots, which were crispy on the outside and the texture and flavor of creamy mashed potatoes on the inside. Later on we also asked for their complimentary jalapeño ranch sauce (which wasn't really appealing to any of us as it was reminiscent of cheap nacho chips) and the garlic aioli (fantastic).
Then the burgers came shortly thereafter, and they were impressively plated on large white dishes with a "U" stamped on top of their brioche-like buns. The medium-rare, juicy Umami Burger was definitely our favorite, as the shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted tomato, parmesan crisp, and umami ketchup toppings delivered a wonderfully savory combination as promised.
I was partial to the Greenbird next; the Shelton Farms turkey had been seasoned with a blend of spices that made it taste unlike any other I'd ever had. It was truly original and delicious, and accompanied with avocado, green cheese (more house-made cheese magic from the kitchen), butter lettuce, green goddess dressing and sprouts. My colleague was curious about these sprouts as they had had black seeds; our server had assumed they were alfalfa sprouts, but after some inquiries were made to the kitchen it was determined they were onion sprouts.
Sadly, I wasn't as impressed with the Bacon-Wrapped Scallop Burger, which had two lean slices of somewhat tough pork belly dressed with a sweet chili sauce and yuzu-garlic aioli on top of the scallop patty (which reminded me more of a fried egg than scallops). The blend of flavors just didn't match up to the Umami Burger and I was disappointed with the quality of the pork belly; I'll have to try it again in the future to see if it holds up on another occasion.
Although we were stuffed, we ended our meal with one of their house-made ice cream sandwiches as the peanut-butter cookie made with salt-and-pepper ice cream (the flavor of that day which are rotated regularly) piqued our curiosity. The cookies were quite crisp and thus made it difficult to share (I think it's better as a solo dessert) and the ice cream had a vinegar tang to it instead of a peppery quality we were expecting. Not outstanding, but definitely not the main draw of the restaurant, either.
So did I find it to be worth the wait? Yes, although I probably won't head back anytime soon unless it's during the presumably quieter hours of the weekday. And our bill ended up at $34 each (we'd also ordered one drink apiece), so it's not like a cheap run to In-N-Out. But I'd love to try some of their other items off the menu, especially the Cali and Veggie Burgers, which are only available at the Union Street location. If you don't have the stomach to wait for too long, walk up to the bar and order to-go. We saw one lucky resident who lived right next door walk in, pick up his order and slipped right back upstairs for private dining in his apartment.