Big Surprise Downtown - Samba Grille Burger

November 19, 2010

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

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