PICTURED: Chicken karaage sandwich from Yume Japanese Burger Cafe in Ojai. Photo by N. Lackey Shaffer
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
Yume Japanese Burger Cafe
254 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai
If you’re heading to Yume Japanese Burger Cafe in picturesque Downtown Ojai on a weekend, I recommend getting there shortly after it opens at 10:30 a.m. You’re more likely to have your choice of seating — one of the handful of window tables up front, with a view of Ojai Avenue, or something on the spacious, shady, dog-friendly patio, facing the Arcade Plaza. As the clock nears 12 noon, crowds descend on this hip, popular spot.
But that can be a benefit, too: The congenial atmosphere and friendly service encourage communion with your fellow patrons. On our outing, we were smitten with the friendly and very vocal Captain Jack the Black Pearl, a French bulldog who has become a regular, and is greeted by the servers with a bowl of water and a little bow.
No matter when you arrive, however, you’ll need some time to browse the menu at your leisure: It’s a multi-page, visual, mouthwatering experience.
That’s all part of what owner Takeshi Ozaki told me he aimed to do with his fusion burger join. “Japan has a very strong food culture. Even if you go to the equivalent of a Denny’s, the menu has several pages and photos of everything.”
Living the dream
“Yume” means “dream” in Japanese, and one of Ozaki’s dreams, as explained on the restaurant’s website, was to “make a bridge between Japanese Culture and American culture through our food.”
The burger is the quintessential American sandwich, and Ozaki has embraced that foundation while building upon it with Japanese flavors and presentation.
All beef patties are made with fresh Wagyu beef, exceptionally tender and flavorful. It’s marinated for 24 hours in a delicious concoction that I can’t name, but found to be savory, rich and packed with that umami character. If all you had was a fork and a Yume patty, you’d be eating perfectly well.
But of course, there’s more to a burger than the patty. And Ozaki has put together a number of masterpieces, adding toppings like sautéed mushrooms and onions, cabbage, teriyaki and demi-glace sauces. Yume makes its own tangy, tasty kewpie mayo (think of it as a Japanese aioli) and a spicy miso sauce, too. The brioche buns are pillow soft.
On Ozaki’s recommendation, my family and I tried the Ojai Wagyu Burger, filled with mushrooms and onions, and the classic, which featured a house ketchup and a fried egg. Both were heavenly, super moist and bursting with flavor. I’m not normally a fan of eggs on my burger, but I’ll happily make an exception when dining at Yume.
By land and by sea
Wagyu beef isn’t the only reason to try this Japanese-American fusion cafe.
For one thing, vegans and vegetarians will be happy to know that any patty can be substituted for the plant-based Impossible version. These are marinated, too, so you won’t sacrifice even a little flavor. Or try the vegetable croquettes, made with mashed potatoes and other vegetables and deep fried to a golden, crispy brown.
My personal favorite is the karaage chicken — what Ozaki described as “Japanese fried chicken.” The batter is light and crisp, similar to tempura but more substantial and with a fantastic crunch. You can enjoy it as an appetizer, either plain or topped with cheese and spicy sauce (both delicious). It makes a damn fine sandwich, too — and I recommend adding spicy miso sauce and avocado, to hit several flavor profiles at once.
One of the more interesting creations on the Yume menu are the rice bun burgers. Sticky rice formed into a disk is used to sandwich shrimp or vegetable tempura, grilled chicken or barbecued Wagyu (plus a whole slew of toppings and sauces). It makes an impressive presentation and tastes as good as it looks — but be warned that it can be a little messy to eat.
Fries can be topped with nearly anything (the Wagyu drizzled with house barbecue sauce is to die for) and every bite is a party in the mouth. Or, skip the buns altogether and get Yume’s delicious meats and seafood as part of a rice bowl with miso soup and edamame on the side.
Beverages and more
But wait — there’s more to explore on the Yume menu.
First up, beverages, including eight different milkshakes, coffee and tea drinks (hot and iced), smoothies and boba milk teas. Bottled Japanese soft drinks in flavors like lychee and yuzu are many and varied. Grown ups can choose from Japanese beer, sake (Ozaki even has recommended pairings for all of his burgers) and sake- and soju-based cocktails.
There’s also a very interesting dessert menu, with items you almost certainly won’t find anywhere else.
Mochi waffles are an Asian treat made with rice flour. Crispy and lightly sweet, they can be enjoyed on their own (perhaps drizzled with chocolate or caramel) or turned into a sundae. The powdered green tea known as matcha is used to make both a pretty green waffle and a syrupy topping. With an earthy, grassy flavor, it’s a bit of an acquired taste, but beloved by those who take to it.
Anything made with ube, or purple yam, takes on a glorious violet hue which is as fun to look at as it is to eat. Enjoy it as a hot milk drink, a cold boba milk tea, a vivid waffle or an inky drizzle. It’s also baked into a soft, moist brownie.
Yume is more than a burger joint — it’s a cultural experience, where you’ll take a culinary journey one tastebud at a time. One final note: The proper pronunciation is yoo-may . . . but it is the very definition of yummy.