Too Precious

Back in the 1990s I had an idea. Actually, I can trace the early origins of the idea to 1980 when I lived in New York City. At that time, whenever I went out to dinner with friends I’d order a hamburger. Partly this was due to my limited cash resources. A burger was generally the affordable and filling option. I used to explain to my friends that a burger was a barometer of a restaurant’s quality. If the chef treated the burger as if it held a legitimate spot on the menu and put a decent expression of this humble meal on the table, it was a good sign that this restaurant was committed to good food.

In the 90s I encountered a book written by a friend, Don Knuth. His book 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated posited that one could understand the whole of the bible by reading the sixteenth verse after the start of the third chapter of each book. His theory that a common sample of many texts could prove illuminating, revived my interest in the burger theory. Over the years I collected some notes on favorite burgers, and from time to time I flirted with writing a book about burgers, how they capture a chef’s humble side, and explore the theory that you can really know a restaurant’s gestalt by tasting its burger. I’m not convinced there’s an audience for such a tome, but I have a hard time shaking the urge to order burgers when I eat out.

Three years ago I decided to commit to a vegetarian diet, and to be completely honest, the most challenging part of this commitment was giving up hamburgers. I enjoyed being a vegetarian (pescetarian, actually) not only because I felt great, but also because there are lots of healthy vegetarian foods I enjoy that I ate more frequently. The draw of burgers was strong, though, and a few months ago I gave in. I still eat meat rather infrequently, and when I do indulge, it’s often for a burger. And I’ve revived my interest in exploring restaurants by their commitment to this simple sandwich.

Recently, Anna and I shared a meal at the new Umami Burger on Franklin Street in Oakland. Umami is a chain which has its roots in Southern California. I thought it would be fun to sample their fare so we stopped in early one evening for a taste. Before I describe that meal, I want to provide a little context about my burger preferences.

I have a few favorite burger places in the Bay Area. Trueburger in Oakland is one of my top choices. Their burgers are simple, straightforward classics, perfectly portioned and cooked juicy. Just enough of a bun to make eating possible without overpowering the sandwich. Trueburgers are made with quailty beef, ground on site. They are cooked to order, but prepared quickly. No pretense here. If you don’t want a tomato on your burger just say so. They’re happy to give you what you want. A trueburger is also a decent value. At $5.15 it’s as cheap or not much more expensive than burgers at various greasy neighborhood burger stands (Kwik Way, Ahn’s, Giant Burger). A real deal.

When I’m working in the City, I often grab a quick lunch at Super Duper Burger. Like Trueburger, this is a classic, straightforward burger. Lettuce, tomato, onion, and a small tasty Niman Ranch patty, cooked crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. This is a two-napkin burger. I order the mini, which is a quarter-pound patty, priced at $4.75. This is a very tasty burger. If you visit Super Duper during happy hour you can get the burger, a beer and fries for $9.25.

Trueburger and Super Duper are essentially fast food joints. You order at the counter and the food comes out a few minutes later, on a tray. You find a spot for yourself in the dining area — bus your own tray, please. But the burgers are very satisfying and prepared with attention to detail, and a good value.

If you want to sit, order, and have your meal delivered, you can’t go wrong at Barney’s Hamburgers on Piedmont or College in Oakland. Barney’s isn’t much more expensive than Trueburger or Super Duper, and it’s also a decent alternative when you’re dining with a group. Burgers are around $7 to $9 — still a decent value. Barney’s offers lots of variations on a burger, and the Niman Ranch patty is a bit bigger than a Trueburger or Super Duper Mini burger.

So when we came to Umami, our expectations were shaped by a fairly positive experience with local burger restaurants. I should start by saying that we enjoyed the flavors of our Umami burgers. Anna had some sort of Turkey burger. I ordered Umami’s “Manly Burger.” I can forgive the fact that the burger was overly salty — several of the ingredients were contributors: the salty onion strings, and the bacon lardon contribute sodium, and I’m sure the cook salted the burger patty as well. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a very small burger, it’s diminutive size emphasized by the fact that there was nothing decorating the plate. Just a small burger surrounded by a sea of white porcelain. This was a $10 burger, small by comparison to Barney’s options, and not even as tasty as a $4.75 Super Duper Mini. (The Mini might actually be a little more filling than the Umami burger.) Anna and I shared a very small kale caesar salad, each of us had a beer, and we each had a small burger. The check was over $50. We didn’t even have fries with our burgers.

What made the evening especially interesting, though, was overhearing the conversation at the table next to ours. Our server turned to our neighbor to take his order. He asked about the Beer Cheddar cheese which was served on the burger that he wanted. He told the waiter that he didn’t drink and would like to substitute a different cheese. She initially agreed and went to the kitchen to turn in the order. She was back in a few minutes with the bad news: “No, the kitchen will not be able to switch the cheese on that burger,” she said and then offered some sort of explanation about the integrity of the menu and the chef’s wisdom about pairing cheeses, bacon, and other ingredients into a subtle symphony of flavors that was the essence of an Umami burger. She held her ground as the patron redoubled his effort to make the change, finally suggesting that the chef leave off the Beer Cheddar on the burger he was ordering, and then he ordered an additional burger with the cheese he wanted, so that he could scrape that cheese of the second burger and put it on the burger he intended to eat.

Anna and I were blown away. This is a hamburger restaurant! And unless I’m totally uninformed, Umami doesn’t have a Michelin star. I realize that there is a faction in the food industry that treats preparing and eating food as high art, but there’s a point where taking yourself too seriously wanders into the realm that another friend, English professor Dave Crowe, calls “too precious.”

We won’t be going back to Umami.

UPDATE: Here are some other interesting thoughts about burgers.

Sunday August 4, 2013 — Mark —