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Review Thu Sep 18 2014

Opening Today: Umami Burger

15252342126_3e63292836_z.jpgThe last time I was in California, a visit to the regional chain Umami Burger was on my vacation bucket list. Sometimes it's hard to be a food tourist, especially when it requires putting pressure on your hosts to end up in San Francisco's Marina neighborhood, a ritzy, indifferent enclave full of shops selling nothing you need or can afford. Getting past the long wait, the severe wood-paneled interior, and the order taken down on an iPad (worthy of a Liz Lemon-grade eyeroll), I brought my bags of pricey takeout to my host's car for eating while on the road that day. As the car lurched up Fillmore Street, one of the steepest streets in the city (an experience that normally would make my flat land-loving self very anxious and miserable), I chewed slowly on my burger, quietly savoring my lunch and completely unaware of my surroundings. You have no idea how good this burger is.

15274962122_4b1ffe54a7_z.jpgFast forward to nearly two years later, with today's opening of Umami Burger on a busy corner in Wicker Park, surrounded on all sides by bars and other eateries. Unlike most burger places in Chicago, Umami's stark, modern d├ęcor has no flat-screen TVs or banners proclaiming that indeed, this IS the place to watch Michigan State games each weekend. They don't have a kids menu, and the stereo blasts The Smiths as you eat. You are in a burger place whose logo, rather than the red-haired clown in the jumpsuit and a gaggle of burglars, purple creatures and oddball mayors, is a lone hamburger bun curled into a subtle, alluring smirk.

htfymtmu.jpgBy definition, umami is Japanese for "pleasant savory taste," combining the five senses into a central experience that is best when mild and sustained by glutamate--essentially, that balance of flavor that makes salty and sweet palatable together. You will find that most in the menu standbys, particularly the namesake Umami Burger, made with tender Allen Brothers meat--the acid of the roasted tomato, the sweet base of the parmesan crisp, the salt of the shiitake mushroom--really articulates why Umami will bring distinction to the burger circuit in town. You're stuck with what you order, even if the listed ingredients aren't your bag; Umami doesn't do substitutions for the finicky, but you really shouldn't be here if you want your dressing on the side. It all goes together, and it's remarkable; the Umami Burger is subtle but strong, and for someone who doesn't really think a lot about meals after they've ended, I found myself wishing after my visit to Umami for a do-over with the same dishes. The sweet potato fries, lightly coated in sugar; the caesar salad topped with sliced, jewel-pink Ahi tuna; and the plate of pickled vegetables all were flavorful experiences.

15254874936_38b7e5e321_z (1).jpgUmami Burger will certainly be an upscaled challenge to local contenders, who rely more on huge portions or novel beer lists to attract long wait lists; however, some things could use improvement. The Calabrese, the "signature" burger of the Wicker Park location, is intended to be an homage to Chicago's greatest food creations, but instead was an oily, crumbling mess--a sausage patty covered with truffled aioli, cheese and a small mountain of giardiniera. While the cocktail list was ample (and naturally, served by men sporting ample beards), the lone local brew on the menu was Goose Island's Green Line. When I asked about local sources for their ingredients, it seemed like they weren't aware (rather innocently, to their credit) that people around here care about who supplies their vegetables and meat. Despite these setbacks, I won't be surprised if the lines outside of Umami rival that of a soon-to-be-departed hot dog place that also took a risk in reinventing a simple American staple. Time will tell.

Umami Burger
1480 N. Milwaukee
Ph. 773-423-2005

Pictured: Manly Burger, Umami Burger, Caesar Salad, Pickled Vegetables Plate.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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