poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie


Umami Burger = Japanese for Best Burger EVER?!

Picture it:
It’s a few days after Christmas in Los Angeles. Despite the date on the calendar, it’s a beautiful 70 degrees with the sun beaming through cloudless skies. TC and I are sitting at the end of the Santa Monica Pier, after gridlock traffic prevented us from accomplishing Plan A: The Getty Museum. This was turning out to be a nice consolation prize though, and a game of Skee-ball and air hockey definitely helped to cheer us up.

As the street musician armed with a keyboard and an amp belts out old, cheesy love songs, I turn to my Yelp app to research lunch possibilities. A familiar name comes up: Umami Burger. One of us remembers, “Hey, isn’t that the place that ZF recommended?” A few days earlier, ZF, who had graciously agreed to let us stay at his apartment during our L.A. trip, gave us a list of recommended restaurants and bars. Indeed, Yelp backed up his recommendation: this Umami Burger place was quite popular, with an average of 4+ stars and over 970 votes.

To avoid the lunch rush, we take a long walk around Santa Monica and finally head to Umami Burger around 2:30pm. Even with the large picnic tables outside, the place is packed. The wait isn’t horrible though, maybe 20-30 minutes. About 5 minutes into our wait, TC gets up to ask the host about getting our orders to go. Miraculously, two seats open up for us outside. Score!

we have arrived.

We are starving, but our hunger is reigned in by the prices. Starting at $10, these burgers aren’t cheap, and they don’t come with fries either. But whatevs. We’re on vacation, let’s splurge a little. I order the truffle burger, which features house-made truffle cheese and truffle glaze. TC gets the Kombu #1 meal, which includes a Umami burger (hamburger patty with shiitake mushroom, caramelized onions, roasted tomato, parmesan crisp, umami ketchup), thin fries, and a bottle of Singha.

Maybe it’s because we’re starving, or maybe because we had no idea what to expect, but this experience is easily one of the most pleasurable meals I’ve ever had. I’m two bites into my luxurious, truffle oil-soaked burger when I hear TC look lovingly at his burger and say, “I never want it to end.”

Amen, TC, amen.

Because sharing is caring, we each eat half of our burgers and then trade. While we like the Umami, we agree that the truffle is superior. Every bite is just so unbelievably awesome… it’s hard to put it into words.

The Umami burger

The truffle burger: pure deliciousness.

After we finish our burgers, TC considers ordering one more but we decide to save some room for dinner, which is only a few hours away. We seriously think about coming back for another meal before we leave L.A., but then we find out that they just opened a Umami Burger in San Francisco. Hooray!

So, less than a week later, we’re visiting with EF at her mom’s place in SF, which just happens to be a 5-minute walk from Umami Burger. What a happy coincidence! We convince EF that it’s a great idea to go there for dinner (it wasn’t that hard really).  The three of us shared the truffle burger, the green bird (turkey burger), and the oxtail, which was the special that day. I have to admit — the truffle burger wasn’t as good the second time around. It might be because TC and I had hyped it up too much in our minds, or perhaps it’s because the Santa Monica location is superior to the SF location. Regardless, it was still pretty darn spectacular and way better than any burger I’ve ever eaten. The turkey burger was surprisingly flavorful in a meaty way (a good thing). I don’t remember much about the oxtail. I think it was kinda salty? Maybe TC and EF have a better recollection of it.

My advice: go, but keep your expectations in check. Oh yeah — the fries and the umami ketchup are great too!

(About the title: I know that umami means the 5th taste in Japanese, but that just didn’t sound as good, OK?)



October in a nutshell! (“How did I get in this nutshell?!”)

Sorry about the title of this post; I simply couldn’t resist the silly joke from Austin Powers. hehe. Anyway, now that I’m done with the Japan posts, my next goal is to breeze through the rest of 2009 as quickly as possible. Who needs to live in the past? Not me! Plus, with my ailing memory, it’s frankly very difficult for me to remember what I ate last night, let alone the food I had months ago.

In the beginning of October, I flew to Charleston, SC to attend J&N’s big fat Greek and Southern wedding. Charleston is renown for its cuisine and the weekend was full of culinary delights! On Friday, J’s mom and sisters hosted a Bridal Tea at The Thoroughbred Club. On the menu: open-faced finger sandwiches, scones and crumpets, tea cakes and more! Everything was so elegant; I really felt like I should’ve been wearing a big ol’ hat with a gigantic bow. In the evening, the rehearsal dinner was held at High Cotton. The highlight for me was the bacon-wrapped shrimp hors d’œuvres – YUM. Dinner was good too, with a creamy crab bisque, chicken with mushroom sauce (chicken marsala?), steamed asparagus, and rice and beans. I was really full but managed to have a few bites of the tasty praline cheesecake.

At the pre-reception cocktail hour at the Francis Marion Hotel, I helped myself to delicious Firefly sweet tea vodka + lemonade cocktails, which J had introduced me to back in August at her bachelorette weekend. There was a salad (no photo), followed by a filet mignon AND crabcake with asparagus (so good), and wedding cake (also very good, though again, no photos. Sorry — the Firefly must have kicked in. haha.) It was a fabulous wedding weekend! I had so much fun with catching up with friends from grad school and hanging out with the bride and groom and their warm, welcoming families. Congrats J&N!

J&N leading the guests in a traditional Greek dance.

The main course: filet mignon, crab cake, mashed potatoes, and asparagus.

In the middle of October, I celebrated another birthday. The theme was “let’s pretend we’re 10 again!” Following lunch at In-N-Out, we went to play putt-putt, laser tag, and arcade games at the Scandia Family Fun Center. Everyone got High School Musical goodie bags and the winning team at mini-golf went home with mini/airplane bottles of liquor. (Hey, just because I was pretending to be 10 again didn’t mean I was gonna give up adult fun too!) In the evening, we went to the Albatross for Pub Quiz, which was a lot of fun even if my team (High School Musical: The Team) didn’t win.

In-N-Out Fries, animal style!

A few nights later, M&K took me out for a birthday meal at Trattoria La Siciliana in the Elmwood neighborhood of Oakland. It’s a great little Italian place that does family style meals and is cash only, FYI. We started with freshly baked Italian bread and the house dipping oil (so good). Then we had the stuffed zucchini (delicious!), followed by mushroom ravioli (best ever), chicken and potatoes in tomato sauce (just so-so, not pictured), and broccoli rabe (very good, not pictured). For dessert, we got the chocolate cake which never disappoints. An excellent meal!

Also in October, KH and I visited the then-newly opened Burger Bar, one of the restaurants owned by chef Hubert Keller. I ordered the Black Jack burger, an Angus beef patty with Monterey Jack cheese and olive tapenade ($13.75). The burger was good but not great. The tapenade was an interesting twist, but the beef was sorta tasteless. As for the fries — I’m totally serious and I don’t mean this as an underhanded compliment — they are as good as McDonald’s fries, thin and fried perfectly. KH’s burger was much tastier, in my opinion. She got the Kobe beef burger ($16) which was super juicy and tender. Instead of regular fries, she opted for the sweet potato fries, which were also very good. Service was quite slow but I assume that it was because they had just opened and were still working out the kinks. Hubert Keller was actually there to ensure that his new restaurant was off to a good start. I took a photo of him from afar because I was too shy to approach him, and also because he looked pretty busy, so I didn’t want to disturb him.


On the road again

Last month, I went to Baltimore for work, and stayed a little while longer to hang out with friends and family.  Apart from the food at the workshop I was attending, which would be best described as “upscale dorm style/cafeteria food,” I ate very well. (Photos are posted below in gallery-style.)

First stop: lunch with EF at one of the few pho places in Baltimore, which happened to be about a block away from her house.  I was warned that the pho was “just so-so,” but after 3 days consuming the aforementioned cafeteria food, I was really craving some noodles and I wasn’t about to discriminate.  True, the rice noodles did taste a little factory-made, but the broth was good and so were the meatballs.  After lunch, we stopped by a newly opened vegan bakery for cupcakes.  The space had a cool industrial/art gallery vibe, and the guys running it were super nice.  This place wouldn’t have stood out in Berkeley or Brooklyn, but I should note that EF’s neighborhood is the very antithesis of Berkeley (i.e poor and black), and so it was really interesting to see a cheerful bakery brightening the urban landscape.

For dinner, EF, her boyfriend (now fiance… congrats, guys!), and I went to one of their favorite restaurants: The Brewer’s Art.  Delicious microbrewed beer and one of the best damn cheeseburgers I have ever had.  It was juicy, fresh, and cooked to perfection.  I also dug the dark interior of the basement, which in some ways made the food even more delicious, because I wasn’t expecting such good food to come out of a pseudo-divey place.

The next day, my sister treated EF and I to a sushi buffet lunch at Yuraku, which I’ve blogged about before, so I won’t belabor the point except to say it was great.

The feeding frenzy continued at a cozy dinner party at T&E’s.  T made chicken piccata from one of Giada’s cookbooks and served it over a bed of couscous.  She also made a fabulous salad of field greens with cherry tomatoes, candied pecans, and croutons (much like the one I daydreamed about previously).  I was very thankful that T graciously honored my request to serve the crumbled goat cheese on the side, instead of mixing it in with the salad.

Cheese-related aside: I know it’s probably very shocking to some of you, and in fact I myself am quite embarrassed, that I, as a foodie, do not like goat cheese. But alas, it’s true. Goat cheese makes me want to vomit. It is some sort of nasty byproduct of the Devil’s waste. Blech.

Anyway! Back to the tasty meal.  Dessert was a super delicous chocolate cake served a la mode.  After dinner, we worked off some calories with several hours of Wii Fit, which was mostly fun but occasionally embarrassing (especially the soccer ball heading task.  God, I suck at that.)

The next day was a blur, as I did my couch potato thing and watched about 10 hours of March Madness.  I sat on my sister’s new recliner and ate junk food all day: Costco pizza, chicken wings, and lemon meringue pie. It was awesomely indulgent, but I felt a little queasy after it was all over.

Finally, my last meal involved noodles (hooray!) and bubble tea from another branch of Asia Taste, which I blogged about before.  EF and I actually got to the place too early — the bubbles weren’t cooked yet, and it was going to be another 45 minutes.  So, we decided to eat our noodles and then order our bubble teas to go.  Despite my bubble tea fanaticism and our 6+ years of friendship, EF had never tried it before.  I don’t really blame her since she’s never lived anywhere with trustworthy bubble tea.  I mean, I wouldn’t touch bubble tea from Chapel Hill, NC with a 100 foot pole, no matter how desperate I am.  Anyway, so I think EF was really glad to hold on to her bubble tea virginity for as long as she did, because her first experience was a good one.  I was glad too, relieved that she was not frightened by the chewiness of the bubbles (or pearls), as many people are.  Success!