My first rule of dining is to order what a restaurant specializes in, or is known for.  That rule rarely steers me wrong, so I tend to follow it almost every time.  But recently I broke this rule.

Samba Grille is a new restaurant downtown, one I've visited before.  I really enjoyed their churrascaria; as a devoted carnivore, a variety of freshly grilled meats is something hard to pass up.  They also have some tempting seafood dishes, many of which I've yet to sample.

But I was on a quest.  One of the partners in Samba Grille is Nathan Ketcham, who happens to be a friend of mine.  Nathan and I used to eat lunch together frequently when he lived in the Woodlands, often at the late, lamented Tesar's Modern Steakhouse, which was home of one of the state's great hamburgers.

Nathan shares my passion for burgers, and he knows a good one from a bad one.  Now that Nathan is helming his own restaurant, I had to sample his hamburger.  Of course, his place specializes in the cuisine of South America, so my expectations weren't too high... but I figured Nathan wouldn't disappoint me.
So on a recent Friday, I picked up my lovely bride at her downtown office, and we drove over to Samba for lunch.  Parking was a snap (often an issue downtown) and we entered and sat down.  After a brief perusal of the menu, we both ordered burgers.  While we waited, we snacked on Samba's addictive cheese rolls.  In short order, the burger appeared.

Samba's burger has a strong Latin flair.  It's made from grilled sirloin, no doubt trimmed from the steaks they butcher in-house.  The beef is blanketed with buttery Spanish machego cheese.  To this they add crisp, smoky bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, and aji aioli, a spicy garlic sauce made with Peruvian peppers.  The burger was built on a soft, slightly sweet bun.  I'm a bit of a burger purist, so I vetoed the avocado, but I decided to try the aioli.

Biting into it, I was immediately impressed by the smooth mouthfeel and the balance of the burger.  Front and center was the flavor of the meat - a robust beefy swagger that really hit the spot.  I've eaten some very good burgers lately, but none have nailed the beefy flavor quite like Samba has done.  The counterpoint of the buttery machengo cheese added smoothness, and the heat from the aji aioli popped in a moment later, adding a spicy Latin counterpoint to the flavor profile.  Not only has Samba created a great burger, they've done so with South American flair.

The choice of ingredients was masterful.  The bacon's flavor was subtle, and the slight crunch was a nice contrast to the smooth feel of the beef and cheese.  The difference between good and great is in the details, and it's obvious to me that Nathan and Chef Cesar Rodriguez spent the time to sweat the details.

This is the burger I've been waiting for since Tesar's shut down.  Thank you, Nathan.

I came to Samba expecting to enjoy a good burger, but instead I found one of Houston's very best.  If you love burgers, go check 'em out.

Samba Grille on Urbanspoon

The Mighty Rib, one of our favorite food blogs, has relaunched with a head-to-toe redesign.  Kevin Shalin, who also writes for Eating Our Words in the Houston Press, is the voice behind the blog, and we think he's one of the city's unique voices.

Whether they're discussing BBQ or interviewing a world-famous chef, The Mighty Rib brings a unique perspective to food writing.  It's one worth reading.

Check it out.

Travel + Leisure Magazine did their annual survey of America's Favorite Cities, and H-Town was on the list.  Visitors and Houston residents agreed... Houston has the best burgers in the country.

Double Cheeseburger at Hubcap Grill - One of Houston's Best Burgers

Houston was also in the Top Five for Affordable Hotels, Business Hotels, BBQ, and Luxury Stores.

Also worth a look - a handy tool to compare cities.  We had to check to see how Houston compared to Dallas.  (Spoiler: Very well, even with Fort Worth thrown into Dallas's corner.)  Houston also compared favorably overall with such other Sun Belt cities as Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta.

Why?  Houston has some incredible home-grown burger joints, like Hubcap Grill, Beaver's Ice House, Zelko Bistro, Christian's Totem, and Beck's Prime.  The proprietors of these places raise the bar for burgers in Houston, and other restaurants follow suit by upping their game.  Hungry folks all over Houston are the winners.

Beaver Burger at Beaver's Ice House - One of Houston's Best Burgers

It wasn't all glory, though.  Houston was rated among the worst in terms of Summer, Public Transportation and Pedestrian Friendliness, and Weather.

We recommend dealing with these less pleasant facts the way that every life-long Houstonian does:  Get in your air-conditioned car, and go grab a burger.

Update: Wahoo has closed.

On the monthly visit to Sam's Club, we noticed a new eatery in the Portofino shopping center, across the freeway from the Woodlands.  Called Wahoo's Fish Tacos, it's a West Coast (in this case, California and Colorado) fast casual chain offering a variety of Cali-Mex dishes in a faux surf-shack setting.

More than anything, it reminded me of Chuy's Hula Hut in Austin after being run through the corporate concept machine.
But how about the food?

We decided to sample the fish tacos, which is their signature dish.  The very personable counter guy took our order, and withing five minutes this came out:

That is a lot of salsa (which in this case means marinated tomatos) and shredded cabbage.  We're pretty sure there's fish under there somewhere.
Biting into it revealed that there is, in fact, fish involved.  But it was dry, bland, and not terribly flavorful.  The suggested creamy cilantro sauce didn't do much to help, either, although it would have been nice on chips (of which none were offered.)
Bottom line:  If you're craving a fish taco, skip Wahoo and drive over to Berryhill on Market Street.

Wahoo's Fish Tacos  on Urbanspoon

We got word today that Chef Michael Dei Maggi is no longer with Caffe Bello.

No word yet on his next gig, or who will be replacing him in the kitchen at Caffe Bello.

In a followup, the company responds:

"We are expanding the menu and we have made changes.  We are very proud of the food we are putting out at Caffe Bello."

More news when we get it.

C'mon.  Call him a ballerina.  I dare you.

We missed the show (Thanks, AT&T!) but just got the bad news.

Houston's own Chef Bryan Caswell, the mastermind behind Reef, Stella Sola, and Little Bigs, was cut from the Food Network's Next Iron Chef show.

We think that Chef Caswell was a strong contender, but we are starting to believe the rumors that the entire show was just a long coronation for Ming Tsai, who was preselected to be the next Iron Chef.  We'll have to watch and find out.  At this point, we'll be cheering for Marco Canora, who seems to be the most talented of the chefs still cooking.

AT&T said Sunday that it has reached a new carriage agreement with Scripps Networks. Find out more from The Hollywood Reporter .

Sanity prevails.  The question - did my DVR still record The Next Iron Chef?  The answer - No.  %#$#@$!

After they disappeared from U-Verse, I contacted the Food Network to try to find out what happened.  Here is the response I received:

Hello.  Thank you for your email to Food Network, and please accept our sincere apology for the interruption of your programming. Unfortunately, we only have video clips available on our website. However, you might consider checking online and on YouTube.
We are shocked and disappointed that AT&T U-verse has taken our Networks off the air.  AT&T U-verse?s decision to drop our channels is particularly surprising considering we reached an agreement in principle with AT&T U-verse on the distribution fees we would receive for our networks well in advance of last month?s contract deadline. Over the last week or so, we were simply trying to complete some final details to the contract.
We, like you, want our channels back on AT&T U-verse immediately. It was AT&T?s decision to drop our channels, even though we offered a third extension to keep them on the air while we worked out final details of a new contract.
The loss of our networks to AT&T U-verse was something we worked hard to avoid, even offering an extension through year end to work out final details of the agreement while allowing AT&T the rights to continue delivering our channels to you. Instead, AT&T stopped negotiating, took our family-friendly networks off the air and left you without our must-see shows.
This was not an issue about money, and Scripps Networks had worked out financial details in principle before the contract with AT&T U-verse expired at the end of October. The remaining issues involved AT&T?s demands to use video content we created specifically for our networks in ways that go beyond our normal business practices.
Accepting their demands would have constrained and limited our ability to provide our network's content to our viewers in new and innovative ways. What?s even more frustrating is that we offered AT&T an extension to work out final details while keeping our channels on the air, but AT&T refused and instead pulled our channels off the air.
Should AT&T U-verse decide to resume discussions, we remain committed to continue our good faith negotiations and bring back our networks to ATT U-verse customers.
You can tell AT&T U-verse you want your favorite network back by calling 1-800-288-2020, or go to our website at to e-mail AT&T and see what your options are for other distributors in your area.
Best regards,
Food Network Customer Service

Consumerist and other sources are reporting that AT&T has chosen to drop Food Network, HGTV, DIY Network, Cooking Channel, and GAC from its U-Verse service.  According to Scripps (the owner of these networks) the issue isn't money; it's non-broadcast rights.

I've been a supporter of U-Verse ever since they came out in Houston; I felt that they were a great alternative to Comcast.  But now AT&T shows us that keeping customers happy falls way behind the need to strongarm their content providers.
(I can't fault AT&T for wanting to cut a great deal for themselves.  But using your customers as pawns is wrong... apparently AT&T has forgotten who pays their bills.)
Greed wins.  Customers lose.
I called AT&T, and there is no ETA for restoring Food Network and the other channels.  At this point, I suggest that everyone votes with their wallets.
Apparently that's all AT&T understands.
More Info

If you're watching Bryan Caswell on Next Iron Chef, you may wonder how to keep watching.  I've e-mailed Food Network to see if they have a solution.

Until then, please don't even consider using this link to a BitTorrent network download site if it is illegal where you are.

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