Thursday, November 15, 2012

First Thoughts: U-Mini

Mere hours prior to their grand opening, the kind people at Umami Restaurant Group graciously invited U.E. to sample the fare at their brand spanking new U-Mini in Westwood. Designed as a fast casual version of the ever popular and expanding Umami Burger franchise, U-Mini is viewed as the next notch on URG's belt and is actually located adjacent to another Umami-run fast casual joint, the uber-popular 800 Degrees, a.k.a. "the Chipotle of pizza." The Westwood U-Mini stands not simply as the first in what appears to be multiple locations, but also as a test kitchen for all Umami restaurants. New special burgers will be tested out here first before being finding their way on the other menus.

Since I hardly find it reasonable to justly review a restaurant on a first visit, let alone amidst the chaos that comes with pre-opening lunch, the following merely serves as my First Thoughts. Check back in a few weeks or a month or so for a full report on U-Mini.

The interior.
iPad kiosk.
Burger buttons.
Order recap. 
All placed orders are tracked on a flat screen.
THE SPACE/RESTAURANT: I imagine if a character on an ABC sitcom were to open a cool fast food joint it would look like just like U-Mini. Clean and sleek, yet with the classic fast food restaurant feel, U-Mini's design is clearly the work of thousands of hours of architectural design research. It looks like a fast casual Umami should look like. Seating is limited however. Slightly a dozen seats inside (as well as a long standing table) and maybe two dozen more outside are all the restaurant offers. This clearly is for a reason. Located in the midst of a collegiate village, U-Mini is intended to grab and go. Furthering this point, the restaurant plans to offer a mobile website ordering system in the near future. By logging in, you will be able to place your order, pay and set a specific pick-up time. This will be great for students, teachers and local businessmen alike. For now though, all ordering is done in the restaurant on one of the two iPads in opposite corners. While certainly a nice technological touch, I wonder how efficiently the line will move when they get really slammed. We'll just have to wait and see. The iPad kiosks may also eventually, via "secret" buttons, enable customers to order secret menu items.
Salted Caramel Shake.
Chocolate Shake.
SHAKES: Glutton that I am, I'm actually not much of a major milkshake consumer. The lack of milkshake consumption stems from two things: rarely are milkshakes thick enough for my liking and almost all the high quality ice cream shops overprice them. It shouldn't cost an entire paycheck to enjoy a friggin' milkshake. I'm staring directly at you Sweet Rose Creamery. So color me surprised that U-Mini makes an incredibly tasty, THICK (I mean, really, really, the way it always should be, THICK) shake for only $3.50. Sure, that's for a small, but as you can see in the picture the small's plenty big. They don't use Albertson's ice cream either. Rather, LA Creamery, the much lauded local ice cream company in which Umami founder Adam Fleischman recently purchased a stake, makes special ice cream blends specifically for U-Mini shakes. Although the shake menu plans to expand, for now they only offer Chocolate and Salted Caramel. While the Chocolate is decadent and definitely worth a try, I would steer you toward the exceptional Salted Caramel - this despite the fact that I've really soured on the now rather ubiquitous salt plus caramel/butterscotch dessert trend. I just know there's a baker in a kitchen somewhere smiling his/her ass off because they accidentally put too much salt in a recipe a while back and started a freaking revolution. Still, the U-Mini Salted Caramel shake, with just enough sweet and just enough saltiness, is the best shake for your dollar in Los Angeles.
Regular Fries.
FRIES: Whatever one of my grandmother's friends that taught me the saying, "You can't judge a book by its cover" certainly had the U-Mini fries in mind. Fried THREE TIMES as part of a very elaborate prepping process, the freshly cut and peeled Kennebec potatoes come out looking a little dull. Almost In 'n Out fries-esque appearance. But they are tasty - and thanks to the multiple fryings, appropriately crunchy. U-Mini offers two varieties: "Fries" and "Umamifries." The Umamifries, dusted with parmesan, tomato, mushrooms and herbs umami-ness, were perfectly fine, but, in my opinion, nothing to write home about. Then again, why are you writing home about fries? I found the "regular" Fries to be more appealing. Topped with a few sprinklings of sage and rosemary, they are the perfect fry for a restaurant to lay claim to. Bonus: U-Mini's ketchup is the housemade Umami stuff.

Dads Burger. 
Dads Burger porn view.
Mushroom Burger
Mushroom Burger porn view.
BURGERS: With regards to the burgers it's probably best to first state the differences between the U-Mini burgers and Umami burgers. First, they're smaller. Not by much, but U-Mini's weigh in at 5 oz, while your typical Umami burger is an ounce more at 6 oz. Secondly, U-Mini burgers are so-called "smashed burgers." While I don't want to bore you to sleep with a burger sub-genre type discussion, just know that smashed burgers are a very common cooking type in the fast turnover/fast casual/fast food world because smashing/pressing a round ball of meat on the hot griddle not only cooks the burger much faster than other methods, it also, when done correctly, gives a burger a nice outer crust. It also works well in the pick up and go U-Mini setting because it keeps a burger hotter longer. While many purists abhor the thought of smashing burgers, know this: many restaurants do their burgers this way. New York's Shake Shack being the most famous. If you want to know more about the smashed burger intricacies (although I can't imagine why you would), read more here.

U-Mini has four burgers on the menu - all of them new to the URG. I tried the Dads Burger and the Mushroom Burger. The remaining two burgers are the ALT Burger (crushed avocado, butter lettuce, savory onions, slow-roasted tomato, house American cheese) and the Vintage Burger (bread and butter pickle slices, minced onion, butter lettuce, mustard, Umami ketchup and house cheddar cheese), an homage to McDonald's. Unlike these two burgers and the Dads Burger, the Mushroom Burger (shitake veggie patty, slow-roasted tomato, butter lettuce) has no meat at all and serves as the restaurant's vegetarian alternative. I wanted to give it a try because I don't think I've ever had a good fast casual veggie burger. U-Mini certainly makes a gallant effort to change that with the Mushroom Burger, but I still think they may end up just a tad short. Comprised almost completely of shitake mushrooms, the patty tastes too shitake mushroom-y. I think a blend heavier on the other vegetables in the patty may lead to a slightly more balanced patty in taste - and in texture. As for Dads Burger, I was very pleased with what will probably be U-Mini's signature dish. Topped with savory onions, bread and butter pickle slices and house cheddar, I challenge each and every one of you to find a higher quality burger in Los Angeles -- with housemade cheddar no less! -- for the $5.85 pricepoint. With a nice crust on the patty, a slight toast on the Umami-branded bun, well-cooked onions and the powerful (but not too powerful) cheddar taste, this is a quality fast-whatever burger.

IN CONCLUSION: Clearly Umami Restaurant Group's plan for U-Mini is to do for burgers what their 800 Degrees is doing across the street with pizza. They want U-Mini to serve the highest quality burgers, fries and shakes... for the (low) pricepoint. Based on first impressions alone, I found them to be generally successful at accomplishing this goal. UCLA students and local businesses are probably going to go gaga over this place. The true question remains though: will non-Westwooders flock there? It may not even matter as drunk college kids (myself previously included) can consume ungodly amounts of food. Yet, I think part of the astounding 800 Degrees success comes not just from locals, but from other Los Angelenos making the trek there - or, at the very least, ensuring every time they're in the area, stopping in. With one of the few Westside In 'n Outs just up the street, will people choose U-Mini instead? One sip of the Salted Caramel shake and one bite of the Dads Burger may make them do just that.

1131 Westwood Blvd, Westwood
Open 11 am - midnight daily


  1. this makes me wanna move to westwood!

  2. Great review! It's funny you mention Shake Shack because that was the comparison that occurred to me just looking at the pics. Something about the patties is very SS like.

  3. Well, it's no Shake Shack, but the burgers are tasty. Still, I'd like it better if there were a turkey burger like the Greenbird.

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