Years ago “American” fast food meant hamburgers, maybe fried chicken. Now it means pizza and tacos, those real “American” foods. But hamburgers are still very popular, and served in a lot of restaurants. So it’s not an easy task to ferret out the very best in any area, and only a highly paid, dedicated reporter like myself would try this.

After extensive interviewing and polling among different cultural groups, it was pretty clear that there were two main contenders: Father’s Office on Montana Avenue, and the Umami Burger at Fred Segal’s.

First, the criteria. Naturally the quality of the meat is most important. It has to have enough fat to be juicy and tender, not too compressed, and have lots of flavor. Second is the bun. Here experts differ. Some like their buns meaty, and some like them soft. Third is the thickness, especially for those who like them rare. And fourth is what comes on it — if anything.

The hamburgers at the two main contestants are very different, but here’s my take on them.

The Umami burger has just the right texture of meat, with the right fat content. It’s tender and flavorful, and comes apart without you noticing much texture. The bun is soft, slightly sweeter than I’m used to, but it soaks up juices well, and there is a lot of juice from this meat; lean over the plate as you bite into it. It’s served medium rare unless otherwise requested. It’s a small, thick burger, just the right size for me.

At Umami Burger there are seven toppings to choose from. My personal favorite is the Hatch Burger, with roasted green chilies and American cheese. I only wish they would capitalize “American” on the menu. The burgers are between $9 and $12.

There’s an extensive beer list, with six or seven on tap, and a few wine selections.

The Father’s Office burger — in fact, the whole experience — is quite different. First of all, this is a bar, not a restaurant or café. You can tell that because they ask for a credit card before they say hello. The selection of beers is unsurpassed in the area. But you have to be 21 years of age to get past the security at the door. I made it. Next is the issue of where to sit: there is no table service, so first you have to elbow your way to the bar, place your order, then hope to find a place to sit.

The Father’s Office burger is bigger and more solid. The meat is probably more expensive, with lower fat content. The patty also seems heavier, and I probably should have taken half of it home for breakfast the next day.

The bun is more solid, a bit chewy, and not as fresh as some. The burger comes only one way, and both the menu and the waiters, especially Ed, make it clear that this is the way the chef makes it and therefore this is the way he expects you to eat it. It’s served medium rare. I don’t know if you can ask for it cooked differently as I was afraid to ask.

In fact, it’s not bad. The caramelized onion is terrific, and many would like the slightly bitter arugula served on top. Even if the customer were permitted a slight deviation, this might be the burger of choice for many. Since there’s only one burger, there’s one price: $12.50. The “office” is open for dinner every night, but lunch only on Saturdays and Sundays.

Both locations have a number of other dishes on the menu, including French fries and sweet potato fries. But for me, these are the destinations of choice for a good, American style burger.

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at

If You Go

Umami Burger

500 Broadway

Santa Monica, Calif., 90401

(310) 451-1300

Every day 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., 11 p.m. weekends.

Father’s Office

1018 Montana Ave.

Santa Monica, Calif., 90403

(310) 736-2224

Monday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Friday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Saturday, 12 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Sunday, 12 p.m. to midnight

The bar has longer hours

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