A stellar specimen at Taqueria Guadalajara
It’s a glorious day for a Houstonian who discovers that there’s burger potential at her neighborhood taqueria.
I learned of this tantalizing possibility through my neighborhood e-mail newsgroup, which I approach gingerly lest I be sucked into the pettiness and recriminations that sweep through periodically, like ill winds.
Nevertheless, on a recent morning, glad tidings hit my inbox: a neighbor posted a heads-up on a promising nearby taqueria. He spoke highly of a cheeseburger, among other items.
Naturally, I felt compelled to investigate. I hereby submit my report:
PRICE: $7.95 for the half-pound cheeseburger with hand-cut fries; $2.50 for a jamaica agua fresca, for a pretax total of $10.45.
ORDERING: Full service at tables in the chipper, tangerine-and-marigold dining room. You can also order at a walk up window to one side of the front parking lot.
ARCHITECTURE: Open-face format in which add-your-own salad stuff — in the form of coarse iceberg shreds, chopped tomato and thinly shaved dill pickle rounds — is served on the side.
On a whomping sesame-seeded bun that has been griddle-toasted goes a beef patty that’s about three-quarters of an inch thick, followed by a splodge of melty white cheese. (More on that later.) The top bun bears squiggles of mustard and mayo. You add lettuce, etc. to taste and clap the two halves together.
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QUALITY: This burger speaks with authority. Its personality springs from the thick, sprawling beef patty with its emphatic sear and seasoning. We’re talking the kind of flavorful ground beef that remains juicy and appealing even at a medium-well degree of doneness, no mean feat.
And somehow all the accouterments click together in a primally satisfying way— from the sticky Monterey Jack cheese to the fresh, salad-like chop of iceberg and tomato and dill pickle, to the just-right application of bouncy yellow mustard and mayonnaise. It’s a lively Texas flavor profile that can turn Tex-Mex, if you wish, with a spoonful of the taqueria’s red or green table salsas.
Small story: I meant to order the Guadalajara Cheeseburger, a full-on Mexican treatment involving ham, bacon, Monterey jack and avocado. But between my sweet, tentative waitress and what the owner confided was “a new guy in the kitchen,” I received the regular cheeseburger instead.
When the owner saw that it wore Jack cheese, he was horrified and apologetic. It should have been yellow cheddar, he said. I was happy anyway. I’ll get the full Guadalajara next time. And there will definitely be a next time.
OOZE RATING: Good.
LETTER GRADE: A minus.
BONUS POINTS: Funky fresh-cut fries with the kind of texture variation I crave, for reasons rooted in my childhood. Some people require uniform crispness. I like my fries like these, skins on and deeply bronzed to a crisp in some places, a little soft and bendy in others, with loads of real potato (not freezer potato) texture. What makes them taste even better: the availability of a tart green salsa and a cumin-spiked, pureed warm red salsa on your table. Who needs ketchup?
MINUS POINTS: The jamaica agua fresca was too sweet for me. I like it better with a little of the dried hibiscus flower’s natural bite.
On HoustonChronicle.com: The $5 burger so good Alison Cook ordered two
LOCAL COLOR: Everything about this cheerful, highly detailed dining room lifts the spirits. The bold black-and-white checkerboard floor, the multicolor Christmas lights, the festoons of papel picado swooping from the ceiling all fill my shriveled soul with a deep sense of well-being. I could spend an hour just inspecting every piece of memorabilia and art and bric-a-brac, from Diego Rivera prints to beer trays, ranchera equipment to kitchen artifacts.
A neighborhood clientele trickles in even in deep mid afternoon, when guys coming off their shifts address steaming bowls of caldo while putting away heroic numbers of corn tortillas.
If you get lucky, you might enjoy a Spanish-language rendition of “My Way” over the sound system.
Alison Cook is the Chronicle’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic. Follow her on Twitter, and keep up with Houston’s latest dining and drinking news and reviews by subscribing to our free Flavor newsletter.