Friday, August 27, 2010

Houston Burger Challenge

Update:  More burgers added.  You know what to do.

OK, Burger fans.  We've got an adventure for you.  Together with, we have put together the Houston Burger Challenge, a list of the twelve burgers that we feel every Houstonian who loves burgers must experience.

The challenge takes place primarily inside the loop, but for the adventurous, there are treks far OTL into the hinterlands of the Woodlands and Tomball.

How do you participate?  Sign up on  Then travel to each location, and photograph your burger.  Log the event on Foodspotting to share your experience with burger lovers everywhere.  (If you've got an iPhone, there's a cool Foodspotting app that makes it even easier.)

Lots of folks say they're serious about burgers.  Are you up to the challenge?

Houston Burger Challenge (

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sneak Preview: Samba Grille

We've been keeping up with a new project opening downtown, and were excited to be invited for the Friends and Family preview.  Called Samba Grille, it's a Brazilian restaurant offering rodizio service, and it's located in the center of the Theater District in the Bayou Place center.

Walking in, we were immediately taken by the swank surroundings.  The Texas Avenue location is sleek and sophisticated, yet the warm Latin vibe makes it very inviting.  A well-equipped bar hugs the back wall of the room, and the tables and booths are placed in a multi-level arrangement, adding to the sense of intimacy and romance.  This is without a doubt a romantic restaurant - we expect it to be a very popular date destination.

(The only negative about the intimate, romantic setting is that natural light photos with the iPhone 4 didn't come out well.  Thus there aren't any food photos in this article. The paparazzi should find this frustrating, too.)

Lead by partners Nathan Ketcham and Estella Erdmann, the team behind Samba Grille is a strong one.  Chef Cesar Rodriguez is at the helm in the kitchen, and his experience with the Vallone organization has translated into the kind of smooth consistency that you rarely see in a new establishment.  Sommelier Marc Borel, previously with 13 Celsius, brings his studied approach to a carefully edited wine list, and he's fully up to the challenge of suggesting pairings with the broad rodizio and composed offerings coming out of Chef Rodriguez's kitchen.

Marc Borel, Nathan Ketcham, Estella Erdmann, Cesar Rodriguez
Photo credit: Chuck Cook / @Bitspitter

Let's look at what the kitchen brought forth.  (And remember, Samba hasn't even had its soft opening - the kitchen is just sorting things out at this point.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Burgers are Good - A short film

A short film by hamburger expert George Motz

Sam's Deli Diner - How The Mighty Have Fallen

In our constant quest (some would say obsession) to locate the best burger in the Houston area, one name kept popping up.  "Sam's Deli Diner".  "You've gotta try Sam's".  "I've been going to Sam's Deli for years, it's the best!"  I'd never heard of this place two years ago, but now it's on the radar, and it's exactly the type of burger place I love to find: Small, privately owned, and successful for decades.

Last weekend found us wandering the rats maze / retail wonderland that is IKEA, and presented the perfect excuse to try this legendary hamburger joint.  So zipped down I-10 and pulled up to the nondescript strip center location.

Sam's was easy to find, and parking was plentiful on this early weekend afternoon.  The place looked clean and inviting, and when we entered we were surprised by the size of the dining room, with a long, linear open kitchen tucked behind a low counter.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Burger House in Kemah - An Alternative to the Landry's Empire

The Kemah Boardwalk is the closest thing the Houston area has to an amusement park, and it has the added benefit of no entrance fee.  The downside, for many of us, is that the dining options are all Landry's restaurants - if you're not a fan of that conglomerate (and we're not) you won't be happy with the food choices.

We were pleasantly surprised to run across The Burger House, a small, casual burger spot located right by the Boardwalk's parking lot.  Located just outside the border of Landryville, the Burger House offers a cost-effective alternative to the mediocre offerings that Landry's does so well.

We parked right in front, and climbed up the ramp to the restaurant.  It's a counter-service place, so we walked up, and after perusing the big board, we placed our order.  The focus clearly is on the homemade burgers, and the friendly counter person suggested that we try the onion rings.  We sat down, and in short order, our burgers arrived.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Carrabbas - Garbage in the Soup. Literally.

Back in the 80's and 90's, Carrabba's was one of my go-to Italian restaurants.  Back then, that meant the family-operated locations on Kirby and Voss.  To this day, I have a soft spot for the chain, and consider them to be a step or two above their Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill brethren.

Lately, we've gone to the Woodlands location several times, and I've become hooked on their Tagliarini with Picchi Pacchiu sauce - pasta, crushed tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and basil.  Simple, light, and very tasty.  Carrabba's has entered into our regular rotation when we're in the mood for Italian food in the Woodlands.

That changed over the weekend.

We were dining with friends, and I decided to order some of their tomato basil soup - even though we are in a summer heat wave, it sounded refreshing.

The soup arrived, and it was very tasty - light, tartly tangy, and with a bit more bite than you typically find from a chain.  All in all, it was quite good... until my spoon encountered something in the bowl.  I assumed it was a bit of pasta that got tossed into the wrong pot, but that wasn't the case.

It was a chunk of plastic.  Covered in the soup, I couldn't identify it further.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The New Generation of Vallone - We Visit Caffe Bello

UPDATE: Caffe Bello closed in the Spring of 2011.

I make no bones about it - I'm a big fan of Tony Vallone, and I think his restaurants set the standard that few others in town can even approach.  From the food to the service to the setting, Tony and his staff show an attention to detail that is rare in the restaurant business.

(The Vallones are also clients of mine.  Ever since my friend Jack Tyler introduced me to Tony almost a decade ago, my company has created all of the web sites for Vallone restaurants, from the original pre-Landry's Grotto to Ciao Bello, and of course for his flagship, Tony's.  And as a foodie, they are the best client I could ever have, because every meeting involves wonderful food, and the opportunity to learn from Tony, his son Jeff, Chef Bruce McMillian, their young front-of-the-house wizard Scott Sulma, and the rest of their team of extraordinary minds.  It's like being a baseball fan, and being asked to create something for the Yankees.)

So I was very happy to hear from Tony and his son Jeff about the new concept for a restaurant they were creating in Montrose, to be called Caffe Bello.  The excitement in Tony's voice was palpable.  Caffe Bello really was to be something different, targeted at a young, hip, Montrose crowd, while still maintaining the signature Vallone touches that lift their restaurants above the ordinary.  Most restaurateurs who had 45 years under their belts would be coasting, but Tony was visibly excited by the challenge of bringing his art to a whole new generation of patrons.

Caffe Bello is an Italian restaurant, of course.  That's what the Vallones do best.  But what would Tony bring to Montrose, the epicenter of hip and cool?  Driving down lower Westheimer one encounters a veritable who's who of hot, trendy restaurants, with places like Feast, Indika, and Dolce Vita each doing a brisk business.  In this setting that craves the new and different, how would Houston's iconic establishment restaurateur create a restaurant to surprise and delight this finicky neighborhood?