Umami Burger, Oakland CA

Mondays present multiple challenges across many arenas, and one of them is to find a quality restaurant that is open for dinner. On a national holiday observed on a Monday, the initial assumption would be that any restaurant open for dinner would be slammed with patrons not wanting to deal with meal preparation on top of unpacking and decompressing after a long getaway weekend. We expected many more people on the freeways along our way towards Umami Burger but were surprised by relatively mild traffic. That the parking meters weren’t being enforced was another bonus. When we walked in there was no line. All omens were good for this visit.

a portion of the massive mural

a portion of the massive mural

Now it’s time for a history lesson. Umami is the fifth taste, after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. For over two thousand years there were believed to be just the four tastes, even though the sensation of umami is natural and attributed to the glutamic acids in foods themselves and developed through cooking processes. Mushrooms, tomatoes, seaweed, meat, and aged Parmesan cheese are some of the more commonly recognized examples of umami. Clearly these food items have been around for long before the last century, but we can thank Professor Kikunae Ikeda for uncovering the rationale behind this fifth flavor in 1908. Glutamate is the chemical compound these foods have in common. Professor Ikeda later went on to patent concentrated glutamic acids in the form of monosodium glutamate, or MSG. While we know that large quantities of MSG are unhealthy, one cannot deny how tasty a meal can be when it is added. Thus we call this fifth flavor “umami,” coined by Professor Ikeda, meaning “pleasant savory taste” or simply “yummy.”

tempura onion rings, truffle fries, three dips

tempura onion rings, truffle fries, three dips

Umami Burger is definitely “umami” in the yummiest sense of the word. There were many starters to choose from including fried items and fresh salads, but we began our evening simply with two sides, the tempura onion rings and truffle fries. Thick cut, hand dipped, and malt battered, the onion rings were noticeably fresh and never once near a freezer during prep. The onions were sweet and not cooked to sliminess, leaving just a bit of a sinking bite amidst the crisp, light batter. Without a sprinkling of salt, these rings were yearning to be dipped in the trio of sauces, but be prepared for the range of spiciness. The garlic aioli was very thick and creamy with a pleasantly mild garlic flavor. The jalapeño ranch, despite the fear sent into the hearts of some tastebuds upon hearing that J word, had zero heat and pure flavor. August, typically the one to avoid spicy foods, particularly enjoyed the opportunity to taste the jalapeño without any burn. The diablo sauce, on the other hand, was all for Zach, being that it was made with habanero peppers. If you like heat, you will be happy. With no need for extra dippers were the thin cut truffle fries, generously tossed in a creamy truffle cheese sauce. They weren’t overly truffly nor cheesy, but almost all fries had at least a smidgen of goodness on them. Some fries were particularly coated, so the crispiness resulting from the thin cut helped to keep the textural integrity intact.

throwback

throwback

With such variety, we had to sample and share three burgers between the two of us. To be fair to the restaurant, of course, clearly not because there were too many good things to choose from. We evenly split the Throwback, featuring two seared beef patties, white cheddar cheese, miso mustard, Umami house ketchup, soy pickles, and sliced onions. It was like the classic as described in that infectious song marketed by the chain with golden arches, but immeasurably better. Never mind the tasty char on the burger and lightly grilled bun, as some time on the flame adds a lot of flavor to already quality beef and bread. The variety of condiments created a combination of flavors that explored the broad depths of umami flavor, including savory, tangy, and slightly sweet. But the fresh pickles and sweet onion, you mustn’t request them to be omitted. Their sweet crispiness brought some much needed texture to what otherwise would be a very meaty cheeseburger.

cali burger

cali burger

August the California girl tends to gravitate towards menu items with some variation of California in the name. Typically that means a combination of bacon, sprouts, avocado, and/or Swiss cheese, but Umami’s Cali burger had none of these. Instead, the single patty was adorned with butter lettuce, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, house spread, and “Cali cheese” – a high quality white American cheese that gooed like brie over the patty. The nicely treated tomato and onions added slightly acidic, slightly sweet layers to provide contrast to the handsome savor of the grilled beef and bun.

sunny side

sunny side

The Sunny Side burger, aka Truffle Especiale, caught Zach’s eye for the few albeit quality ingredients stacked together in a novel way. Not just cheese, special sauce, and lettuce sat beneath that beautifully fried egg, oh no. Parmesan frico (a cheese crisp), truffle butter, and truffled arugula gelled with the burst yolk. The Parmesan provided a bite while the arugula brought freshness, and all together the flavors balanced so that overall it was not an overwhelmingly truffled burger.

We did not have any alcoholic beverages this evening, although we might on the next visit because the menu was inventive, diverse, and tempting. We did not have any dessert either, since we learned that they are not made in house; no offense at all towards the dessert maker, but we went to Umami to blog about Umami. We had a very enjoyable dinner but must leave you with a warning: cut your burger in half. This is for two reasons. First, the burgers are large, so they’re just a hair easier to handle when halved. Second, the restaurant’s recommended temperature for your beef burgers is medium rare, but no matter how you order it, check to see it was cooked to your liking. If you are picky about meat temperature, communicate your preferences clearly to best enjoy your yummy meal.

Samuel Adams New World

(Always drink responsibly.  Seek help when alcohol affects your life and the lives of those around you.  For readers of a legal drinking age.)

Lots o' new 111

It’s been some time since we’ve posted. Life gets in the way, you know? We’ve not been inactive, however, having stayed current on Twitter and such, but it was high time we update our blog with something new for our readers. It can take sometimes up to six hours to research and write one of these articles, so it’s nice to slip into something a little more comfortable, like a beer, as we ease into refreshing our blog with monthly posts at minimum.

Strolling down the aisles at Costco, you’d be surprised at the unique finds. Don’t hate, it’s a great store. Each one carries its own special stock of things, as we learned recently that our favorite vegetable juice is available at the Costco over 15 miles away, not the one just down the road from us. But I digress. Walking through our Costco today, Zach spotted a trio from Samuel Adams’ Barrel Room Collection, aged in oak barrels once used for making Italian brandy. These are special craft beers, not something you’d find at your local grocer, so it was all the more of a surprise to see this selection at Costco. I like a sense of order, so I’ll be writing about the trio alphabetically.

The New World is a substantial yet subtle tripel at 10% ABV and 17 IBU. The impact is strong on the noggin, but the taste is smooth and only a little sweet, the same sweetness as a Basque sidra. Its description reads “spices and tropical fruits” so I was expecting something a little rummy, and thank god it’s not because I don’t like rum. It’s like a strong pale ale with minerals and a natural fruitiness. I’m sipping it solo so as to enjoy its pure essence, but in all honesty this is something that you would want to pair with a meal. Being that it is light in flavor, this would go very well with grilled chicken or fish of any kind. The caramelization of meat would bring out the deeper notes of the brew.

2014 Asparagus Festival, Stockton CA

stages of growth of an asparagus plant

stages of growth of an asparagus plant

Asparagus is 93% water. That’s what Stockton, CA felt like on the first Friday of the 2014 Asparagus Festival, as it rained enough to shut down the first of a three-day foodie event. Thankfully the rain stopped long enough on Saturday for droves of people to come out and celebrate asparagus together under an overcast sky. Most of the droves drove and the numerous parking lots within blocks were filled quickly, but at least street parking in Stockton isn’t metered on the weekends.

We attended last year and sampled every bite (and sip) of asparagus. Of course this year we wanted to enjoy some more, but to avoid redundancy we also wanted to try other creative cooking. If only there was time to do it all in just one visit!

The festival takes up a large area, so there is plenty to experience while shuffling from food stand to food stand. While we walked around, we listened to Berlin as they played on one of several entertainment stages billed to host a variety of bands and singers. There were also chef demonstrations, shopping vendors, children’s activities, a farmers market, eating competitions, dog agility competitions, a hole-in-one golf competition, paddleboats for rent, and a sea lion exhibit.

Food, beverages, and alcoholic drinks are generally purchased with tickets, which are found in the white tents that are conveniently marked on the map in the free brochure – make sure to pick one up when you enter. The cost is $1 per ticket and most items were three to six tickets, but lots of food vendors were accepting cash, as well. We did not have any alcoholic drinks, but we know from trying them last year that they are good. These folks were happy to let us snap a shot of their yummy asparagus margaritas.

Asparagus Alley is the legendary collection of gigantic tents where groups of volunteers produce an asparagus spread en masse. Last year we tried the asparagus beef burritos, asparagus steak hoagies, and asparagus pasta, but the most popular item that people flock to is the deep fried asparagus. The batter itself was light and crunchy, sprinkled with a good amount of sharp Parmesan cheese. The asparagus itself was cooked perfectly – not mushy, and not stringy. It was hot and fresh, too, so the crew of volunteers was really working well together this year.

ice cream!!

ice cream!!

Did you think we wouldn’t have another round of asparagus ice cream? Truly it is tasty. Tasty enough that we each got our own instead of just “sampling.” The asparagus flavor is light over a rich and creamy vanilla base; anyone saying they didn’t like it was in denial and couldn’t get over the fact that there was asparagus in the ice cream. Little chunks are visible but it does little if nothing to the texture, so this is a delicious dessert despite a doubtful disposition.

We’ve met Castro’s BBQ Shack and Filipino Food before at last year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, and we appreciated that they embraced the theme of that festival. They did the same here, with asparagus lumpia added to their menu for the weekend. While we waited for our order, we were gifted a sample of their famous traditional lumpia with a spicy, tangy dipping sauce. We noticed the traditional lumpia was more popular than the asparagus lumpia, but that’s not to say that the asparagus lumpia wasn’t selling fast.

asparagus lumpia

asparagus lumpia

No offense to the volunteers making the deep fried asparagus over at the Alley because it was great, but Castro’s asparagus lumpia had them beat. A delicately thin and crispy wrapper was fried just right so there was little excess oil, and there was zero difficulty in biting through the fresh asparagus. Of the three dips for choosing we went with the ranch; maintaining a balance of herbs and tanginess, it was a good choice to highlight the celebrated vegetable.

deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich

deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich

We admit, we walked by many food stands because they either 1) didn’t provide something new and/or different, or 2) we had tried them before and they had nothing new and/or different to offer. But of all the festival, the one non-asparagus item that made us melt was Castro’s deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If we had to sum it up on one word, it would be “ohmmfggd.” Pretty sure we actually said that as we chewed the first bite. It was similar to a Monte Cristo sandwich in terms of texture and presentation. The creamy and savory peanut butter mellowed the bright sweetness of the strawberry jelly, and together they oozed between slices of standard white bread. Despite being deep fried, since you’d think that the bread would soak up excessive oil, it was not greasy. In fact, all we needed to wipe our fingers when done was the wax paper on which it was served.

Barring event-cancelling weather, we encourage you to attend the Asparagus Festival at least once in your life, although it’s likely something you’ll want to return to. This was its 29th year, so it is reliably a festival that can be made a tradition for families to enjoy through generations. All those in your company will have a good time, whether or not they like asparagus.

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