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

OK, Burger fans.  We've got an adventure for you.  Together with Foodspotting.com, 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 Foodspotting.com.  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 (Foodspotting.com)

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.)

First out was a Caesar salad, and it was a very auspicious start.  The romaine lettuce was deftly coated with a tart, briny Caesar dressing, sharp with plenty of bite and anchovy flavor.  Large, thin shavings of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese completed the salad.  It was one of the best Caesar's we've had in Houston.

Next up was the vegetable plate, an artistically composed arrangement of flash-fried yucca, sauteed Peppadew peppers, sweet plantains, and thin green beans.  The careful handling exhibited by these veggies was impressive; the yucca was crispy on the outside yet fluffy and tender within; the Peppadews were sweetly spicy and not overpowering.  The plantains were rich and flavorful, and we dabbed a bit of the house chimmi-churri sauce on top.  The green beans were al dente and had a nice snap.

But the centerpiece of a rodizio is the meat, and Samba rolled out an impressive variety.  The presentation is dramatic - servers circulate with large swords impaling the savory chunks of meat and seafood, slicing off a portion as requested.  The servers displayed an uncanny ability to deliver the precise degree of doneness I requested, and seemed to magically appear just as I'd finished the previous portion.

The bacon-wrapped filet was a walnut-sized nugget of bacon-wrapped beef, deliciously smoky and peppery. The dark, earthy-sweet flavor of the bacon infused the filet, making for a very satisfying start.

Next up was the house-special sirloin.  This was a standout among the very good offerings - a rich, robust, beefy swagger, sliced very thin, yet were still juicy and tender.  We came back for seconds (and thirds) on this one.

Broiled shrimp came out next.  The large shrimp were nicely firm and cooked to just the right point; the delicate buttery herbal baste completed the preparation.

Large, baseball-sized chunks of filet mignon came out next.  Cooked to a beautiful medium rare, the flavor was gentle and delicate, a skillful counterpoint to the bold flavors of many of the other beef servings.

A real surprise were the bacon-wrapped chicken breasts.  A sweetly tangy apple flavor infused the chicken (no doubt the result of some slow, careful brining) and offset the peppery bacon.  Another dish we could have eaten all night.

Another surprise were the pork ribs, atypical for rodizio service.  Gently grilled, the dense, chewy pork provided a textural contrast to the tender, silky beef.

Speaking of silky, our final offering of flank steak was very unusual.  Prepared on the rare side of medium rare, it was almost supernaturally tender and luscious.  This cut of beef was even richer than the filet, and had a smooth mouthfeel that was totally unexpected.  We suspect some very artful grillwork here.

There were other rodizio offerings, but at this point were were simply too full to sample them.  I blame multiple samples of the sirloin; it was something we kept eating more of.

Samba's grand opening is auspiciously scheduled for Brazil's Independence Day, September 7.  Considering how well things were running during this sneak preview,  I have a feeling that it's going to be an event to remember.  We'll see you there.

(For another early look at Samba Grille, check out Phaedra Cook's article on Houston Food Adventures.)

Samba Grille - 530 Texas Avenue - www.SambaGrilleHouston.com

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

A short film by hamburger expert George Motz

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.

Clearly, the place does some business, even if it was nearly empty.  We placed our order, and waited for the food to arrive.

The first attempt at my burger was wrong - I requested "dry, no tomatoes" as is my habit, and what came out was neither dry (it was slathered with mayo) nor tomato-free.  This was surprising, since the room was essentially empty.  The lack of attention on the part of the cook didn't bode well for the burger, but I returned it to the counter, and waited for the replacement to appear.

What came out was perhaps the saddest burger to ever come out of the kitchen from one of Houston's famed burger joints.

The grey, overcooked, machine-formed patty was dry and ooze-free.  The cheese was slightly melted; more attached to the bun than to the beef.  And the tired looking veggies were huddled under the patty, trying their best to avoid the prying eyes of a hungry patron.

I bit into the burger, hoping that the flavor would be the saving grace.  It wasn't.  I've had better burgers at McDonald's, and I didn't finish this one.

I've heard uniformly great things about Sam's, and I'm hoping I caught them on an off day.  It happens.  But one mark of a great restaurant is the ability to always deliver a quality product, and what was served today showed me that it is certainly possible to get a lousy burger at Sam's Deli Diner.

Update: One of our favorite Twitterers (@sensestorm) visits Sam's, and confirmed what we experienced. Her tweet.

Update: Katharine Shilcutt visits Sam's Deli Diner and shares her experience.

Update: Another opinion, from The Mighty Rib.

Sam's Deli Diner - 11637 Katy Freeway - 281-497-8088

Sam's Deli-Diner on Urbanspoon

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.

First up are the sliders.  They're larger than usual, and not limited to the traditional slider toppings.  Alex, our 11-year-old son, chose to dress his with ketchup and pickles, and they were served over a bed nicely seasoned waffle fries.

The sliders got a "thumbs up" from Alex.  We can see why; the patties are hand-formed, the cheese a nice thick slice of American, and the pickles were fresh, with a nice snap.  We didn't get a chance to taste the sliders - they were devoured before we could sneak a bite.

Next up was the hamburger.  A nice, third-pound hand-formed patty, topped with American cheese that was slightly melted.  The bun was dense and slightly chewy, a nice surprise.  And the vegetable toppings were very fresh.  Biting into the burger revealed only minimal ooze and a flavor that was good but not great; we think the burger was more than a little overcooked, and the cheese was added too late in the process.  But it was still a respectable burger, and something we'd pick over the generic seafood being served across the parking lot.

Earlier we mentioned that the onion rings were suggested by the helpful staff member, and it turns out that this was a great suggestion.

The sweet rings of onion were heavily breaded and fried perfectly; the breading was crispy and not at all greasy, and the onion flavor infused the crust nicely.  These rings are more breading that onion, but the result was outstanding.

We liked The Burger House, and would come back, especially considering the other choices in the area.  Our trip to the Kemah Boardwalk just got a lot more tolerable.

The Burger House - 600 6th St.- Kemah, TX 77565 - (281) 334-1600

Burger House on Urbanspoon

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.

A few minutes later, a manager walked by, and I told him that there was debris in the soup.  He took the spoon and fished around in my bowl (at the table... very appetizing) and declared it was the top to one of their containers.  He whisked it away, saying that he'd get me another bowl.

A few moments later, someone else dropped of another (thankfully, plastic-free) bowl of soup.  No word from the manager... not even an apology, much less some sort of offer of compensation for the trash that was served to me in my soup.

And less than a minute after the soup appeared, the entrees were brought, so the timing of the meal was ruined.  Honestly, at this point, I didn't have much of an appetite.

Folks, this is a perfect example of how NOT to handle a screw-up in the kitchen.  Screw-ups happen, but it tells you much about an organization to see how they handle the situation.  Honestly, after the debris in my bowl, I wasn't anxious to eat more of this soup - no telling what else fell into the same pot, from which the second bowl was no doubt ladled.

A competent manager would, at a very minimum, apologize for the mistake, and have asked if I would prefer something else.  A smart one would have gone above and beyond in some way to change what we remembered about the meal.

This manager has now guaranteed that when I think of Carrabba's, I'll think of garbage in my soup.

At this point, all I can suggest is that you avoid Carrabba's.  With this attitude from management we have no confidence in them whatsoever.

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?

The answer: Tony would do this the way he does everything else:  By adapting to his customers, and creating for them something unique.  And exceeding expectations, which are already high, given the Vallone name attached to the project.

Upon entering Caffe Bello on its first Friday night, we were surprised by how different the space feels.  This isn't Tony's with its soaring ceilings and world-class art grabbing your eye.  Nor was it Amici, feeling upscale and casual and filled with families and couples on dates.  This was edgy -- a long narrow room along Westhimer, exposed brick, no tablecloths.  It's fairly dark.  A bar hugs one end of the room.  It felt more like the Village or SoHo in Manhattan than near downtown Houston.

One new Vallone trademark grabbed us immediately - stunning abstract works by John Palmer.  Palmer's canvasses captured the edgy energy of the room, and reflected it back.

The edge extends into the back of the house, with chef Michael Dei Maggi, formerly of Max's Wine Dive and the Rockwood Room helming the kitchen.  Chef Dei Maggi is the kind of chef you'd never picture working with Tony Vallone - sporting numerous tatoos that speak volumes about his cutting edge sensibilities.  But a look through Dei Maggi's previous gigs shows the sort of creative flair that Montrose craves - he's the type of chef who's looking forward, never backward.  We've been a fan of Chef Dei Maggi's work, and were looking forward to seeing how he and Tony would work together.

The youth isn't just in the kitchen.  Scott Sulma is a partner in this project.  For those who don't know him, Scott is the twentysomething general manager of Tony's, the Vallone's flagship restaurant and considered by many to be the finest restaurant in Texas.  Scott brings an intuitive grasp of hospitality and organization to Caffe Bello; he is simply unflappable in very demanding situations, and the fact that a man in his 20's can rise so high in the Vallone organization is testament to his ability.

We drove into Montrose from the Woodlands, and handed off our car to the valet.  After a very brief wait, we were seated.  The restaurant was going through its soft opening, and hadn't advertised its presence, but the buzz had already started in Montrose, and the dining room was full.  It turned out that we were at a table next to Tony, his wife Donna, and their daughter Lauri, there to enjoy dinner and make sure the new store was up to speed.

We perused menu, and were immediately taken by the tightly edited menu of unique offerings.  A variety of pizzetta (small, individual pizzas), none of which looked familiar to us.  A meatball burger.  A chicken-fried sirloin.  And a variety of other dishes you'd never seen on the menu at Tony's, Ciao Bello or Amici.

We couldn't wait to order.

First came the bread service - instead of the expected basket, it was placed on a sheet of brown paper, and casually arranged.  Of course, being a Vallone joint, the casual arrangement somehow looked effortlessly artistic.

The breads were warm, housemade, and had surprisingly complex flavors - we fought over the dense, chewy, sweet roll, and fortunately more were quickly delivered when ours was devoured.

We jumped around the menu, ordering items that looked most fascinating.  First up was a pizzetta - one with bresaola (thinly sliced cured beef) pear, taleggio and Italian truffle honey.

Rarely am I a fan of what I call "designer" pizza - I am a devoted pepperoni guy.  But this pizza was outstanding - bubbly, crispy, slightly sweet crust, dense, chewy, smoky beef, creamy and herby white cheese, and the tangy bite of the pears made this a dish we'll be reordering as soon as possible.  Even my lovely bride, who is not a terribly adventurous diner, found herself drawn to this creation.  A pity, because that meant I had to share it with her.  But love conquered... at least this time.

While I dolefully watched my wife enjoy her last slice of pizza, Tony caught my eye from the next table.  He handed me a plate, and on that plate was a sandwich.  As was the theme for the evening, it was no ordinary sandwich.

First, half of it was missing, and Tony's wry smile let me know who had tested it.  Second, it was a veal cutlet grinder, containing a gently breaded slice of veal, some fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers and greens, and it was served on a housemade ciabatta bun.  The bite of the peppers, the smooth, lush cream of the mozzarella, and the mild beefy flavor of the veal played together like a well-practiced band, with each ingredient playing well on its own, but the combination being so much more than the sum of the parts.

This demostrated something I learned years ago - if Tony or Jeff suggests something, do not pass it up.  And if Tony orders something for himself, prepare to be wowed.

Tony was very interested to know what I thought of the dish, and he was very happy when I raved about it.  His interest caught me off guard when he asked for my feedback the first time, many years ago.  The man is a true master of the culinary arts, yet his humility is a guiding force... he really wants to know what makes each and every guest happy, and he will figure out how to give it to them.  He's built a very successful business doing so, and his patrons display the sort of loyalty that is unheard of in the restaurant industry.  There's a reason for this.

Back to the food.  Next out of the kitchen were the diver scallops saltimbocca.

We've always enjoyed Tony's seafood offerings, but this was something totally different.  Rich, silky, just-past-al dente scallops were blanketed in thick-sliced, earthy prosciutto, and a sharp, sour caper agresto added a bold note.  Served with tomato and grilled asparagus, this small plate demonstrated convincingly that combining the deft Vallone approach with daring Dei Maggi strokes was going to lead us in some deliciously unexpected directions.

After a brief break, it was time for the entree.  I love chicken-fried steaks, and I honestly never expected to see one served at a Vallone place.  But here it is:

Unsurprisingly, this is not a typical chicken-fried steak.  Tender sirloin was hand-breaded, and topped with truffle cream gravy - the mild, soulful truffles were a nice bonus.  The accompaniment for this dish was the side of whipped potatoes, highlighted with reggiano cheese.  We've never before encountered a chicken-fried steak that spoke to us with an Italian accent, but we're glad we tried this one.  The quality of the meat alone made a huge difference, and adding the Italian accent elevated this dish to new heights.

Around this time Jeff Vallone wandered over, and said we had to try something.  In this case, "something" proved to be their orecchiette pasta, a simple but unique dish composed of pasta, rapini, grape tomatoes, and breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumbs?  The breadcrumbs were crunchy, and added a delightfully new texture to the slightly tart pasta dish, and the rapini added an assertive bitterness that was deftly offset by the acid from the tomatoes.  Again, the rule of thumb:  If Tony or Jeff suggests something, do not pass it up.

At this point, I was so full as to nearly be in pain, but I've learned that I cannot bring my bride or our daughter to a Vallone restaurant without ordering dessert.  Thankfully, they were doing the selecting at this point, so in my food-induced haze I sat back and watched what came out:  First were petite, housemade ice cream sandwiches.

Both the cookies and the ice cream were housemade; we were particularly taken with the strawberry, which was lusciously creamy and studded with pea-sized chunks of fresh strawberry.

The end of the meal was a staple of any Vallone dessert menu - Elizabeth's cheesecake.  Finally we'd get something that was familiar.  Or so I thought.

This was a remarkable juxtaposition of the familiar with the new - the silky, lutescent filling and the delightfully crispy crust were present and accounted for, but the serving was a bold rectangle, the topping was thick, rich caramel sprinkled with nuts, lightly caramelized bananas were sliced on the side, and a smear of delicate, ambrisial butterscotch sauce punctuated the service.  Apparently even family icons are not safe from the twists that come forth from Chef Dei Maggi's mind.

This remarkable meal speaks volumes about how well things can turn out when you assemble a team with culinary talent and let them do what they do best.  And we were again amazed (although by now we should expect it) that a restaurateur who's been successful for over four decades can create a new, cutting edge restaurant, and delight an audience that probably wasn't born when he opened his first location.

I've been accused more than once of being a fan of Tony Vallone's, and I cannot dispute this.  Tony is the textbook definition of a master restaurateur:  His restaurants are considered to be among the very best anywhere, and he's been keeping them there for over four decades.

Caffe Bello shows that the master hasn't lost his touch, and that he's assembled a team that can translate the legendary Vallone experience into one that will be embraced by a cutting-edge audience.  I think that sums up Tony's philosophy:

The food will always be changing, but excellence never goes out of style.

Caffe Bello - 322 Westheimer - 713-520-5599 - CaffeBello.com

Caffe Bello on Urbanspoon

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