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EARLY BIRD: Umami Burger

'Umami' -- that fifth taste on the tongue -- flavors the name and the savory specialties at the tiny L.A. chain's new outpost in Los Feliz.

November 02, 2009|Jessica Gelt

For ages, it was accepted that there were only four primary tastes on the tongue from which all others arose. Those would be sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But over the last few decades, a fifth taste called "umami" has gained acceptance among gourmands worldwide. A Japanese scientist identified it in 1908, and it can best be described as savory.

That flavor (enhanced by an all-natural umami rub made of proprietary ingredients) is the secret in the sauce at the ascendant L.A. chain Umami Burger. The first Umami Burger opened less than a year ago on La Brea; last month, a second outpost opened in the old Cobras & Matadors space on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz. The second Umami has an attached Japanese-centric beer and wine bar called Salaryman (the space was formerly Sgt. Recruiter).

Owner Adam Fleischman isn't thinking about stopping there. Since the first Umami opened, he's sold about 100,000 burgers. "We create different umami extracts from different products and put them in the burgers," he says. "That, along with the umami-rich ingredients we use, creates the craving." And he's counting on that craving to support three additional Umami Burgers and an Umami catering truck.

The Umami empire will resemble a compass with locations in all major directions and the original in the center. The new location is East, and Fleischman is fairly certain that in the West, Umami will reside at Fred Segal. North and South are still being worked out.

In the meantime, customers are busy working their way into the new Umami Burger, which was packed on a recent Wednesday night. Cobras & Matadors owner Steven Arroyo (he is an investor in the location) designed the large room to resemble, Fleischman says, "an old restaurant in Japan that decided to serve burgers." Concrete floors, high wooden rafters, reclaimed wood walls, American flags and a giant yellow-and-red neon sign that reads "Chow Fun" make for a light and fun environment.

Then there are the burgers: juicy patties smothered in fresh cheese that literally drip and crumble and bleed into their chewy buns. The flavor, that umami magic, is there, begging you to gobble it up.

There are eight burgers on the menu (though there are other options), including the signature Umami; the Manly burger with zesty beer cheddar, smoked-salt onion strings and gooey bacon lardons; the Hatch burger, which sets a pleasant fire in your mouth with four types of green chiles; and a veggie burger (Fleischman says they take an entire day to make) that is created without using grains or legumes and tastes an awful lot like fresh beef.

Add a side of un-greasy malt-liquor tempura onion rings or potato fries with a spoonful of roasted garlic aioli and a bottle of Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale, and you just might melt into a food coma.

When you come to, you may have a strange craving for more.

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jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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Umami Burger

Where: 4655 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Noon to midnight daily

Price: Burgers, $9 to $12; sides, $3 to $5; beers, $3.50 to $14

Contact: (323) 669-3922; www.umamiburger.com

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