The first thing I thought of when I saw that Graze—the new 4th Street Market vendor—had a burger with black garlic in it was Bob’s Burgers. If you’re a fan of the show, as I am, you’ll remember that black garlic was what our greasy but earnest burger maker used as a secret ingredient during a cooking competition in a pivotal Season 5 episode.
It was Bob Belcher’s shining moment as a burger auteur, but also black garlic’s. Before that episode, I’d only thought of black garlic as a niche ingredient. I’d seen it dissolved into oil and drizzled into bowls of ramen. Occasionally, it would show up on high-end menus. But for something that was developed and used for thousands of years in Korea, it still had a long way to go before becoming as familiar to Americans as kimchi.
That episode, I would argue, gave black garlic the mainstream cred it deserved. And the way it was presented—on a hamburger, acting as a viable alternative to ketchup—made me wonder when a real-life Belcher might step up and do it.
Then Graze came along.
As it turns out, Graze is even more than I hoped for. It doesn’t just use black garlic on one burger; it celebrates the ingredient like no other restaurant I’ve seen do so before. It not only offers a black garlic fried egg and black garlic fries, but it also “ferments” its own black garlic through a 192-hour process.
Traditionally, black garlic is made by storing fresh bulbs in a humidity-controlled environment set to 140 degrees to 170 degrees over a period of three or four months. The end result is a tar-like substance with the stickiness of a date and a taste that’s nothing like garlic. The enzymes that give regular garlic its sharpness break down, and the Maillard reaction—the process that gives roast meat its flavor—uncovers the umami treasure trove previously hidden in its depths.
When I finally came face-to-face with Graze’s black garlic burger (which is actually called “Umami”), it was drowning in it. Even before I picked it up, the jet-black relish dribbled off the sides. But upon tasting it, I realized there’s no such thing as too much black garlic. I lapped up every bit that fell out. And on the burger, it was kismet. It was not only the fulfillment of having a cartoon food that I’ve always dreamt of eating, but it was also the first time I witnessed black garlic’s full potential.
I liken it to caramelized onions cooked with a splash of balsamic, a dash of Worcestershire and maybe a hint of red wine. But those descriptions are still inadequate. There’s something else I’m not accounting for, something I can’t put my finger on. The one thing I’m certain of is that it catapulted the umami quotient of this burger to heights far higher than Umami Burger’s own signature sandwich.
I should probably mention the burger had other toppings, including cave-aged Gruyere, bacon jam, garlic mushrooms, crispy parmesan, roasted tomato and truffle aioli. Graze stacked the umami deck on this burger, but compared to the black garlic, those other ingredients sank into non-speaking roles. All I tasted in the burger was all I needed to: the seared patty; the thick, brioche-like bun; and the black garlic—all melding into a greasy mass that left me satisfied the rest of the afternoon.
The patty itself is of the smashed variety, in which balls of ground beef—here blended from short rib, brisket and chuck—are pressed flat by a spatula on the griddle to maximize the build-up of that coveted, crispy, brown outer crust. The last time I had a patty like this was at the chain called Freddy’s, whose closest location is Victorville. Graze’s patties are much crunchier and thicker by at least two times. The buns are also better—not so much fluffy as they are sturdy, enough to wick up the juice and grease without turning into mush.
There are, of course, other burgers at Graze, starting with a base model that has arugula, tomato, sauce and caramelized onions so liquidy they’re soup. And it’s a great burger, with particularly good house-cured pickles that complement the meat rather than overpower it. But somehow, when you’ve had the black garlic burger, everything after seems anti-climactic. Even the fries, which are freshly cut from actual potatoes—and thus nearly indistinguishable from In-N-Out’s—beg to be smothered in black garlic.
I’m not even sure if Graze’s owners have watched that episode, which was appropriately titled “Best Burger,” or any other of Bob’s Burgers, but I can tell you that compared to others I’ve had this year, Graze’s burger is exactly that.
Graze, 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana, (949) 735-2389; grazehandcraftedburgers.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Burgers, $7.95-$10.95. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.