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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Serving strictly breakfast, lunch, and special brunch on Saturday (closed on Sunday), 900 Grayson has built a name for itself on pillars of freshness and quality. Had this place been around when August went to Cal, she would have been so frequent they’d know her by name. We came here for lunch on a Friday, and like all the other patrons filling every seat in the house, we left full and satisfied.
Much of the owners’ intent is based in what’s local and available in season. The current selection for the seasonal veggie side included broccoli, romano beans, cherry tomatoes, rainbow chard, summer squash, and carrot. Each bite was fresh and, while cooked, still had a bit of give from the natural texture of the vegetables. Light seasoning complemented all the greens (and reds and oranges).
Zach had the Grayson Burger, which put the place on the map as one of Zagat’s “25 best burger joints” earlier this year. A natural beef patty comes with apple wood smoked bacon, New York white cheddar, shoestring onions, and house-made barbecue sauce on a soft Acme French bun, with herb French fries as an automatic side. Zach thought the patty was particularly lean and juicy, cooked to his desired temperature on a good, clean grill. Hand-forming results in a tender, not tough, burger. The mild white cheddar and crisp smoky bacon added extra creamy and savory layers, and despite being a fully loaded burger, the bacon was more meaty than fatty, therefore not adding so much grease. Zach says you’d better have good teeth, because this bacon is almost all meat and very high quality. Crunchy onion strings and a lightly smoky and tangy barbecue sauce are finishing touches, but were necessary to make this burger mouthwatering and complete. Zach thought the fries were cut in-house so we were surprised to learn they were frozen, albeit from a very good company, so they didn’t taste like they came from a frozen state; most frozen fries are made from potato puree, extruded and molded to look like fries, but the fries here were cut from whole potatoes. Zach the supertaster was nearly fooled by the quality and preparation.
The chef’s sandwich is a daily creation with choice of a salad or herb fries, and luckily for August, the day’s feature was a Reuben. Instead of traditional rye bread, this one came on buttery salt focaccia, warmed and crunchy out of a panini press. Thick slices of meat gave this sandwich some real chew. The sauerkraut was crisp, tangy, and house-made, offset by a semi-sweet French dressing. Thanks to the panini press, the Swiss cheese was nicely gooey without getting oily and soaking into the focaccia. Since Zach already got fries with his cheeseburger, August chose a side salad. The colorful, fresh lettuce was tossed in a light shallot vinaigrette, and the firm beets and zingy pickled onions, both made in-house, were excellent for this summery mix.
We sat near the front and were able to eye the desserts at the counter, so we couldn’t pass up an ice cream cookie sandwich made with decadent fudge cookies like those we had been staring at through the meal. Extremely rich chocolate flavor held creamy vanilla gelato, accented by homemade strawberry jam with chunks of fruit. The jam was not overly sweet, in fact it was more tangy and true to real strawberry flavor. The hand-whipped whipped cream was lightly sweetened, providing a light and smooth texture without overpowering the rest of the dessert.
For our 300th post, we couldn’t have asked for a better lunch. We anticipate coming back for a Saturday brunch, or to try the whimsical “Hobbit” selection, or a “TV dinner” – like the chef’s sandwich, is a daily special with “a veggie and a starch” that pleases diners’ nostalgia and palates. The entire menu is tempting, be the items quixotic and inspired by fiction or based in reality, so we’re sure anything had here is delicious.
Three years ago we came to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, and honestly we didn’t have a good time. We felt that parking was too far from the festivities, the garlic ice cream samples were miniscule, and there wasn’t enough garlic-laced food for eating there – plenty of garlicky sundries for taking home, but limited to the world-famous garlic fries and garlic ice cream to eat on site. Since then we’ve been telling people that it’s a “once in a lifetime” event because it’s only worth going to once, just to say you’ve been. Now that we have Seasoning And Salt, we wanted to return and find out if things were the same. We brought Zach’s brother Will to help us compare, and let’s just say, we’re eating crow for dinner.
We lucked out that today was about 15 degrees cooler than average, but we thought we were going to have to trek down and then up a gargantuan hill on a dirt path. It was a huge surprise, then, to see chartered buses taking guests to and from the main gates! Lots of buses meant we didn’t have to wait at all in either direction.
The food center known as Gourmet Alley is in the middle of the whole event. Leading up to and around it are multiple other food vendors, and we were so thrilled to see more than garlic fries and garlic ice cream! The first stand we saw with garlic food was Olde Tyme Kettle Korn, all the way from Pennsylvania. They created a garlic popcorn that was sweet with a strong garlic flavor, fresh, perfectly popped, and didn’t get any of those hard bits stuck in our teeth.
Jeepney Guy from Santa Clara is working up to a Filipino-inspired food truck, so catering in general is the focus for now. By attending events such as this one, they get great practice for the street food demand! The Karubi pork short ribs are smoked for five hours, and we guess that the eight in the smoker pictured above got eaten pretty quickly.
We tried the Karubi pork in the Flip-Dip adobo sandwich, with a side of atchara. The pork was so smoky, juicy, and tender, we couldn’t hold ourselves back from eating the whole thing, even knowing that we had much more food to get to. It was served on a soft telera roll (kind of like ciabatta) spread with garlic aioli, and the savory adobo dipping sauce complemented the sweet garlic very well. Atchara is a condiment in the Philippines, made of pickled unripe papaya, carrots, red bell peppers, garlic, sweetened rice wine vinegar, and lime zest. It was like a refreshing salad with a bit of spice, but the pickle flavor prevailed.
You can purchase a ticket that includes a plate to sample four items from Gourmet Alley. There are two combo plates to choose from, so naturally we got in different line so that we could get a bite of everything. Combo Plate #1 has half of a pepper steak sandwich, calamari, pasta con pesto, and garlic bread. The pepper and onions in the sandwich were well cooked, matching the tender beef with a good amount of garlic. The calamari had a basic red sauce, perfect for the garlic bread. The pasta con pesto was super garlicky with mild basil on al dente noodles.
Combo Plate #2 offers half of a garlic sausage sandwich, scampi, marinated mushrooms, and more garlic bread. The sandwich had crunchy peppers and onions with a very strong-tasting sausage. The scampi had tender, sweet, and succulent shrimp in an extremely garlicky and savory buttery sauce. The mushrooms could have used a bit more salt, but otherwise the spices were good.
If you visit Gourmet Alley, be aware that most of the festival is run by 4,000 volunteers, so quality control might be a little spotty. Forgive the hard workers burning up in their makeshift kitchens for the occasional raw garlic or undercooked/overcooked meat.
Two of the three of us liked this dessert from Salinas’ Works of Wonder. A tender butter waffle was made with garlic, then covered with a sweet pineapple compote and rich whipped cream. What makes this work is that the garlic is completely cooked, turning it sweet. The pineapple is tangy while the garlic is earthy, but both are sweet and strangely, they worked together.
From Orange County came The Bamboo Hut with their impressive garlic egg roll. A crunchy wrapper was folded around fresh vegetables with an extreme garlic flavor. The garlic was so strong, we could taste it before biting into the crisp vegetables through the wrapper. When we told them we’d be taking pictures for Seasoning And Salt, they graciously gave us a second one, which was devoured almost instantly.
It’s a Melone Family tradition to come to the Gilroy Garlic Festival as themselves, not as a business. We thought it was endearing to see a family working together in this context – doing it just to do it for fun. We tried their garlic onion rings, which were admittedly prepared from a frozen state, but fried just right. The garlic was fresh, but it was the dip that caught us off guard because it wasn’t plain mayonnaise but garlic mayo. Its flavor was very rich and brought a creaminess to the crisp rings. This was a simple item, but very good.
Castro’s BBQ Shack and Filipino Food from Manteca added heaps of caramelized garlic on top of their traditional pansit of sweet and savory noodles. We recommend that you squeeze on the lime juice to add some zing to the exceptionally fresh, crisp vegetables.
Hercules, the town represented at the festival that is most local to us, is the home of the Powder Keg. When possible, they use organically grown herbs and vegetables in collaboration with the Hercules Community Garden, and it would be nice to think that we tasted some of those herbs in this half-pound of mussels. Sauteed well, the mussels were tender and meaty, enhanced by the garlic sauce.
California Lavash, local to Gilroy, makes flatbreads like lavash, naan, noor, and sangak. Today they turned some into pizzas, and we tried the vegetarian version. Artichoke hearts, mild feta and mozzarella cheeses, spinach, garlic, and tomato sauce were layered for a delicate and savory pizza.
During the last 35 years of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, over $9 million has been donated to various charities. This year, proceeds of the garlic fries go to YoungLife.
In reality this is soft-serve, not ice cream, but it’s still delicious. Over 100,000 people from all over the world come to Gilroy for this one weekend a year, and the garlic ice cream is one of the main attractions. Smooth, creamy, and sweet with natural garlic flavor, very few people dislike this confection.
We met Alex, proprietor of The Garlic Shoppe and Rapazzini Winery. From the Garlic Shoppe stand Zach picked out a garlic hot sauce, a garlic lollipop, and garlic chocolate. We haven’t tried the hot sauce yet and we’ll probably save it for a product review, but we have to chuckle about the last item in particular. There are only two food groups in the world: foods enhanced by garlic, and foods enhanced by chocolate. This was the first time we saw them together, so we couldn’t pass by without snatching it.
Alex offered to let us sample the garlic wine from his winery. That is not a typo, garlic wine. There is cooking garlic wine, both red and white, and that we totally understand for a sumptuous saute. What puzzled us, but ended up pleasing us, was the drinking garlic wine, also in red and white. We tried both the red and white drinking garlic wines, and they had a distinctly green, raw garlic smell. That smell, though, was more intense than the flavor. It was more mild in the mouth, with the white wine being particularly tart and refreshing.
Don’t be alarmed by the dozens of CHP cars waiting on the side of the road as you drive up to the festival. Four thousand volunteers do a lot behind the scenes, but of course we always need security to be present and visible. The mounted officers were happy to pose for us with their beautiful steeds.
Sweet Delights of Stockton had a broad menu, and the potato chips were the most different from what we had already seen. Thinly sliced, the chips were very crunchy and made in the kettle style with the skin still intact. A bonus is that you get a huge helping, so this satisfies lots of people.
Walking by Sandi’s Shaved Ice, we jokingly lamented that there wasn’t any garlic shaved ice. Then August looked up at the menu and saw that garlic was an option! With the sweetness of roasted, caramelized garlic plus sugar, this was a shockingly tasty treat.
With four stages well spaced from one another, music was constantly playing while not clashing with each other. In the evening we strolled by Steel Horse, motivating the crowd to rock out to Bon Jovi covers.
We couldn’t leave without garlic souvenirs. After sampling a few jerkies from The Jerky Hut, aka Papa Dan’s (two branches of the same company), we picked two to take home. The garlic jerky’s recipe was developed by co-owner Tracy, and it is impressive. The texture was ideal, and the flavor was deep. We plan on doing a product review of the second jerky, and in the meantime if you’d like to order your own from the Jerky Hut, try the promotional code JERKY1 for a surprise!
The bulb on the left is what you’d find at your typical grocery store. The bulb on the right is just daunting. If you were to pick only one item to bring home, grab an elephant garlic bulb.
One bulb isn’t enough for our household. Lane Enterprises of Bakersfield brought all kinds of braids, and while three feet might have been too much, a large braid (furthest to the left) should cover us for six to eight months. Stored properly, these braids will last up to a year, so every time you cook with this garlic you can bring your senses back to the festival.
After our experiences today, we will never speak ill of the Gilroy Garlic Festival again. That last time must have been on a full moon or something, because today was vastly different from what we went through three years ago. This time we were impressed by the thoughtful amenities like parking transportation, dozens of hand-washing stations, and free cups of water by the exits. Even more amazing was the garlic, the mere fact that there was such an abundance of it! There were many garlic items that we saw but didn’t try, like garlic corn, garlic steak tacos, and garlic hamburgers and other sandwiches, and six varieties of garlic ice cream. Three people can only try so much food, so we had to pick and choose what we thought you’d like to read about the most. Of course there were plenty of non-garlic foods, but why come if that’s all you’re looking for? No vampires will approach the guests of the festival for months, and that’s the way we like it.