Rectangular burgers? That's the gimmick at Mia's Table, Johnny Carrabba's new Texas-cafe-style family spot. It's a brand-spanking new, limestone and pressed-tin palace flanked by dining porches and a huge old live oak, just a half-block behind his flagship Carrabba's Italian restaurant. He still operates the original, long after selling the Carrabba's name and concept that became a big national chain.
He's obviously done well, judging from the spacious new parking garage that's gone up on property he owns between Carrabba's and Mia's — the kind of amenity few Houston restaurant owners can boast. And no expense has been spared on the Mia's interior, which is clever and attractive and just a little bit Disney World, as if you're visiting the Texas Hill Country Pavilion, and somebody will be around in a minute to take your ticket.
But instead they'll be around in a minute calling out your name so they can deliver your rectangular burger, because that's how it's done here. Come along for a taste.
*PRICE: Up there. $10.50 for the cheeseburger with fries; shake $4.00; onion rings $5.00. (The "meatball burger" is $12.00 with fries.) Shiner Bock and St. Arnold Summer Pils are on tap for $3.
*ORDERING: Mia's is semi-serve, which means you order at the counter, stopping by the iced-down beer island or the soft-drink coolers as you enter. You can pick wine by the glass or beer on tap at the counter, or grab a dessert from a curlicued wooden pastry case that's plausibly vintage. You just give your name; there's no number-calling or table flags to fool with. Take your drinks, find yourself a table, and before too long (at least when I was there around 7 on a weeknight), a server will come through the various seating areas, looking about questioningly and calling your name. It's a strange system, and I have to wonder how well it works when the place is packed, but it got the job done for me. Despite the semi-serve setup, Mia's feels like the kind of place where you ought to leave a tip.
*ARCHITECTURE: Salad stuff on top. On a soft toasted sub roll go major lashings of yellow mustard, a rectangular beef patty, a slice of American cheese, some mayonnaise and shredded iceberg lettuce. Next come pickle slices, Roma tomato slices, a bit of diced onion and a whole lot more mustard.
*QUALITY:I had two main beefs with my cheeseburger here. Firstly, the uneven rectangular shape of the patty — which varied from about a quarter to a third of an inch thick — was coupled with an aggressive griddle-sear which made it well-done and juiceless on one end, and the faintest bit rosy on the thicker end. The thickest end was better, of course, because it retained at least a suggestion of beef juices. Secondly, however, I've noticed on two separate visits that Mia's ratchets up its seasoning levels to the max, whether we're talking copious salt-and-peppering of the patty or lavish application of ballpark mustard. On a sandwich level, the balance of flavors seemed way off. I left maybe a third of that expensive cheeseburger on my plate, and I only ate the second third out of a sense of professional duty.
I had a better impression of the so-called Meatball Burger on another occasion. Like the cheeseburger, the seasoning level was sky-high (lots of salt; lots of black pepper). Like the thin end of the cheeseburger, the rectangular patty — made with the herby meatball ground beef mixture from nearby Carrabba's — the ground beef was cooked well done and juiceless. Yet on a sandwich level, the meatball burger had its own swagger appeal, thanks to plenty of "Jaime's sauce," which resembles a ruddy and wildly rambunctious remoulade, with lots of heat and salt and tartness and sharp edges. Against the nicely chewy toasted ciabatta bun, that sauce made the burger, even as it semi-obscured the flavor of the meatball mixture.
*OOZE RATING: fair to poor; mostly condiment-based.
*GRADE: Cheeseburger: C-minus. Meatball burger: B-minus.
*BONUS POINTS: Very good Blue Bell shakes. They're not that big (you don't get any run-off in an extra container), but they're well made. And the onion rings are well above average: cut medium thick, coated in a spicy batter that crisps up nicely while not overwhelming the sweet onion, and served with that rambunctious remoulade dip, "Jaime's secret sauce," that goes on the meatball burger.
*EXTRA CREDIT: Kids of all ages can help themselves to a swirly cone of vanilla soft-serve as they exit. It's enough to make a hard-hearted curmudgeon smile.
*MINUS POINTS:Blah frozen French fries that aren't worth the calories.
*LOCAL COLOR: There's a pronounced West U family vibe here, but the crowd had enough diversity that all the determined family-friendliness (the term is part of Mia's branding) did not oppress. It did occur to me, as I paid my bill of nearly $20 bucks for a burger with fries, a shake and onion rings (which were not available as a "mixed" option on the burger basket), that it would be a fairly costly business to treat the family here. Yet the surroundings are very pleasant, with a choice of cafe-style seating under a high pressed tin roof, a vaulting limestone side room with interesting shadowboxes containing vintage kitchenware, and a long outdoor dining porch beside sleepy old oaks.
Mia's Table, 3131 Argonne St., 713-522-6427. Open daily 11 a.m. — 9 p.m.