I like Samba Grille, downtown's upscale South American spot, and I'd heard they served a formidable burger at lunch. Nothing could have prepared me for just how formidable this specimen of the Fancy Chef Burger genre turned out to be. It actually scared me, and if you have been following my burger chronicles over the years, you know that ain't easy to do.
Twenty-four hours later, I'm still not over the trauma. Let's relive it, shall we?
*PRICE: $14 for Death by Burger, a half-pound ground beef patty laden with pork belly, bacon, ham, avocado, spicy potato, roasted red pepper and huacatay sauce. Among other things. That $14 tab includes a choice of yuca fries or regular fries with huacatay dipping sauce. Add $2 for the fried egg option for a total of $16.
*ORDERING: Table service all the way. Take a seat in the sleek, glamorous dining room or sit at one of the terrace tables overlooking Wortham Center. It's one of downtown's better al fresco views.
*ARCHITECTURE: Salad stuff on top, if you actually clap the upper half onto the mighty stack of protein, which results in a tower a good 8 inches high. I am not exaggerating. Let's take it from the bottom of the toasted bun: a spring-green swipe of huacatay sauce akin to an herbal mayonnaise; a slice of spicy roasted potato; big flaps of roasted and skinned rocoto pepper; a half-inch-thick patty of ground beef. Here we must pause to rest before continuing. Next comes some thin slices of ham, followed by a tumbling heap of glazed-and-braised pork belly and a couple of slices of bacon, all capped by a fried egg and a half an avocado fanned out over the crest. The separate top half consists of sliced red onion, sliced tomato and whole leaves of Bibb lettuce.
*QUALITY:I hardly know what to say here. Taken individually, all these many ingredients are worthy. Taken together, they're a bit of a nightmare. While the ground beef patty was nicely seared and cooked, oozing beef juices and with a bit of pink at the center, its steak-y flavor was nearly obliterated by a wild overdose of salt. That scotched the whole burger experience as I made my way, forkful by forkful (forget about picking this burger up, seriously), through the massive pile of food, mixing and matching flavors and textures as I went. More of them mixed than matched, I must say.
I'm not sure it's a good idea to basically put a whole Argentine mixed grill on top of a burger. I loved the idea of the huacatay sauce as a binder, with its dusky-minty herbal flavor. I probably would have kicked out the potato slice, the ham, the bacon and the egg and just let the ground beef and the excellent, tender pork belly converse with each other, with the avocado and, oh, hell, probably the roasted red pepper, which I might want to marinate in a vinaigrette first.
Truth is, I don't know how I'd make this stunty extravaganza work. It's really more of a conversation piece than a burger, the sort of thing you'd order just to brag that you'd done it. None of the other food at the enormously likable Samba Grille has that stunty quality, which makes the burger a puzzling anomaly. I left much of it on my plate, defeated by the aggressive salt content and the lack of harmony among the rest of the elements.
*GRADE: C minus. Only the fact that I got some pleasure from the pork belly, red pepper, bacon, egg and huacatay sauce--and the fact that I know I would have liked the high-quality beef patty had it not been so oversalted-- saves this misbegotten mashup burger from a D.
*OOZE RATING: Excellent.
*BONUS POINTS: One of the nicer Caesar salads in town makes a great first course here--at least until your Death by Burger arrives and you realize you bit off way, way more than you can chew.
*LOCAL COLOR: The leafy downtown view of Wortham Theater's plaza and the terraces of Bayou Place make the outdoor tables at Samba Grille one of Houston's best al fresco venues.
(Samba Grille, 530 Texas Avenue, 713-343-1180. Lunch 11 a.m. — 2 p.m. Monday — Friday. No burger at dinner: 4:30 — 10 p.m. Tuesday — Thursday; 4:30 p.m. — 11 p.m. Friday; 4 p.m. — 11 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. — 9 p.m. Sunday.)