Given how long we’ve heard rumors of Umami Burger coming to San Francisco, I couldn’t wait for the hype to die down before visiting. Often labeled “the best burger ever”, I had to go and see if it lived up to such a statement, or if Umami, like so many other restaurants, falls short. I intended to try just the food — and leave service and everything else on the wayside for now until things settled down.
But service was surprisingly smooth and polite, despite how busy it was inside. Outside, the hosts managed the massive number of people waiting quite savvily, with even my party of six people being seated in a little over an hour. Our server was polite and was obviously enthusiastic about everything he was serving–giving us detailed description of everything we ordered. (And everything, we did order!)
Umami Burger serves beer and wine with no hard alcohol. The Zinfandel we ordered was good, pleasing to the nose and offering up a good deal of spiciness to pair nicely with the burgers, but the Cabernet was lackluster (and I’m being kind). The beer selection was great; though not a lot was offered, each offering was good quality beer. One of our favorite beers, Scrimshaw Pilsner, was on tap, which was the ideal choice for these burgers. I ordered a Lienenkugel Sunset Wheat Ale which was extremely fragrant, fruity and flavorful on its own, but I thought the Pilsner made for a better burger partner. Notably, Hoeegarden is on tap at Umami Burger but I suspect it’s a bit too weak in flavor to hold up to these burgers, which abound in flavors.
This block on Union Street is unfortunately completely barren of any bars. Luckily, my friend had parked right in front and we basically had our own tailgate party w/ a flask full of scotch, but ideally — there’d be a bar around so Umami patrons can wait comfortably, with some paging system so we could come on over when it was our turn to be seated. Seeing the crowd outside — I cursed myself for not opening bar at Union and Fillmore a few months ago! Alternatively, you can go into the restaurant, and squeeze in to order some beer or wine while you wait — but keep in mind it’s a walkway and crowded; it’s a far cry from “comfortable”.
Moving onto the food — everything at Umami is homemade. It goes without saying that all the meat is ground fresh and made into patties daily — but they also make their own bread, cheese and all dipping sauces. Pictured above is their ketchup. I am not a fan of ketchup but given that it was homemade, I did give it a try. While subtle, I could taste the additional sweetness and onions, blended into the ketchup, and an added “real tomato” flavor that took away slightly from regular ketchup’s tartness and provided some depth in flavor. Not bad — but it was still ketchup and I know I am repeating myself, but I don’t like ketchup!
There were quite a few side orders options, of which we tried four. First up was the “House Pickles”, a plate full of various types of pickled vegetables including the classic cucumber pickles in addition to unique pickled items like string beans, okra and even kimchi! The sourness of these items were a nice accompaniment to the heavier and denser flavors in the burgers that would follow. For $5, I thought it was a good addition — but most definitely, two people (or more) can share this order. We also opted for one order of the sweet potato fries which were fine, though nothing truly notable. I would have preferred slightly thicker-cut pieces, and the sweetness of the sweet potatoes were a bit lost once deep-fried.
Both side dishes above were nothing short of fantastic. The onion rings were perhaps the best I’ve tried in the city. The tempura batter was as light as can be, and eating one of these distinctly lacked heaviness as well as the associated guilt of eating deep-fried onion rings. The sweetness of each onion was enhanced by the batter and biting into one yielded a nice crisp while leading to a perfectly cooked, ideally-sliced piece of onion. We ordered three orders of this and I could have had three more plates on my own. The smushed potatoes were a last-minute add-on, and I ordered two of these for the table of six. These baby Dutch yellow potatoes, slightly fried, then smushed, then fried once more to offer a nice crisp on the outside while offering some outstanding starchy texture and flavor on the inside. This was also a nice pairing to the burgers, as the flavors were clean and simple.
First up, we had the Umami Burger itself. When not otherwise specified, all patties are cooked to a medium-rare, which is what they recommend (and I prefer). This Umami burger had a thick patty in it but at first glance, it’s considerably smaller than one would expect. It’s taller than it is wide, but gorgeous to look at with the shitake mushroom and roasted tomato laid atop the crusted parmesan crisp. Below the crispy piece of cheese was a small amount of caramelized onions. Note the nicely toasted bun in the photo. Of all the burgers were ordered on this evening, this was considered the #2 favorite.
The Umami Burger was second only to the Manly Burger. Offered on the same bread, this nice chunk of meat was topped with homemade beer-cheddar cheese and crispy-fried onion strings; the onions offered mild sweetness to the burger, rather enhancing the beefiness of the meat. There was a mild bacon flavor to the meat, thanks to the bacon lardon infused into the meat. I requested mine sans ketchup and mustard, which are otherwise standard on the burger. Doing so allowed me to taste the burger for what it is — without being decorated (tainted?) by the flavors of ketchup and mustard. It was juicy, cheesy and a burger I would eat again, anytime. Some other burgers we ordered were as follows:
This burger was simple in that it offered three distinct and strong flavors that melded together nicely. Great blue cheese was melted atop the burger with caramelized onions and the same juicy patty that came with the other burgers. Each bite was a nice mix of all three flavors – and while each flavor was strong, none outshone the others.
Much like truffle-anything, the Truffle Burger does offer an immense amount of flavors and don’t get me wrong — it was good. But just like an awesome cut of steak needs for nothing other than some salt and pepper– the addition of a truffle glaze with the Umami-made truffle-infused cheese nearly took this burger to overkill. The burger was kept simple, but it also offered little in terms of texture compared to other burgers, and it was the only burger where the excellent quality beef used in Umami patties was outshone by the truffle and cheese flavors that were present. In fact, the cheese took over the truffles and that took over the beef; it was like an unorganized mesh of flavors in the mouth with no real winner. It did add a couple of notches to the savory department, but given that it’s a burger first and foremost, it wasn’t one of my favorites.
Yes, we really did order this much food for six people. The scallop burger was a sensational surprise. As the priciest burger on Umami’s menu at $15, and it not being beef – I was expecting nothing much from this order but the addition of “pork belly” intrigued me. Much like I am not a fan of ketchup, I’m also not a huge fan of bacon; I love, love, love pork belly but not smoked bacon. Anyhow, this order arrived and one bite into it and I was mesmerized! The scallop patty is juicy and offers a very burger-esque texture; I would have expected ground scallops to offer a softer, mushier and perhaps even sticky texture, but this patty offered just the right amount of “bite” while clearly being a white patty. Seasoned properly, there was no mistaking this patty for anything else other than what it was: a huge amount of scallops. The addition of plain pork belly (rather than bacon) kept the flavors of scallops alive while intertwining the fatty and savory taste of pork — the combination balanced sweet and savory perfectly. The yuzu garlic sauce that was drizzled on top added additional sweetness and a mild kick was provided by the chili sauce. Together with the bread, this burger was seriously delicious and I’d have quite a time picking between this or the Manly Burger on my next visit.
Another surprise for the evening was the Greenbird — Umami’s turkey burger offering for those who don’t eat red meat. While I make a mean Thanksgiving turkey, I have also used ground turkey before and know what that should taste like. While the flavors are always good – the meat is significantly drier than a whole turkey with hours of manual labor would be, and it’s just not my favorite when it comes to ground meat. Short of having a medical reason, I would really never opt for a turkey burger. But Umami’s Greenbird was divine. I’ll never know how they got their patty to be so juicy and moist when it was thoroughly cooked. Perhaps it was all dark meat? I’m not sure, but the patty was superb for turkey. Unlike most of the Umami burgers, this one was topped with fresh greens like butter lettuce and alfalfa sprouts, and a green goddess spread with the crushed guacamole and green cheese made for a really flavorful burger with sweetness from the greens, slight sourness from the sour cream in the dressing, creaminess from the cheese and excellent savory flavors from the well-seasoned meat. While it felt somewhat healthier – it really satisfied the burger craving despite it being turkey.
It’s a long wait for a burger. And given how popular Umami’s other locations are in Southern California, I suspect the wait will continue to be long for quite awhile. But the line does move, and the hosts do get people seated. While the servers are unusually rushed to get plates cleared (often before we were finished eating) – they were polite and attentive, and truly curious to know what we thought of the burgers. With the enormous amount of food we ordered, the final cost broke down to almost $40 per person including drinks. All burgers coming out solo sans sides – every order of fries and onion rings costs more, making the average burger plus a side approximately $16+ and including a drink, easily over $20. They do offer three “meal” options which include one burger, with a side item and a drink — all predetermined with no subsitutions — for a slight discount. I found these to be limiting and useless, as the chances of them pegging the exact type of burger I want, side I want, and the imbibe of my choice is almost nil to none; I’d rather pay the addition $3 or so and get exactly what I want…which would be as follows:
Burger: Manly Burger
Side: Onion Rings
Beer: Scrimshaw Pilsner or Edmeades Zinfandel
Check out Umami Burger on their website. The hours are wide open from 11am to 11pm daily; going at off-peak times may yield no wait — who knows?
Addictive Factor: 8.3/10
Overall Rating: 8.65/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.