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The "Amacones" at Amazon Grill are tacos shaped like ice cream cones. Four corn tortillas are freshly fried into perfect cone shapes and then stuffed with layers of stewed chicken, pico de gallo and guacamole with a perfect grilled shrimp on top. I ordered the taco cones for lunch the other day and marveled at the presentation. Each was wrapped in white paper, and then the four of them were suspended in a wire holder that made them look like they were floating in midair. But they don't just look cute — they may be the best crispy chicken tacos in the city, especially if you douse each bite with Melinda's habanero sauce, which can be found at the condiment stand.
My lunchmate had a chicken B.A.L.T. salad. Tasty grilled chicken with thick slices of crispy smoked bacon and avocado was served on top of some lettuce and tomato tossed with cilantro dressing, with toasted pita bread on the side. I liked the salad a lot, but my picky companion complained that the lettuce was wilted and gloppy and guessed it had been dressed in advance. The chicken and bacon were excellent, so I said "whatever" and ate the rest of her salad.
Amazon Grill is owned by the Cordúa family and is advertised as a casual version of their popular Churrascos and Americas restaurants. Amazon Grill helped pioneer the fast-casual category when it opened eight years ago. In the early days, the restaurant had a much more ambitious menu. Since then, the management has lightened up on the concept and narrowed the food choices down to 32 items. The dishes that remain — three soups, four salads, three sandwiches, ten chicken and beef dishes, five seafoods, five sides and two desserts — are proven crowd-pleasers. Some items, like tamarind-glazed grilled salmon, churrasco steak and tres leches cake, are survivors from the original menu.
5114 Kirby Drive
Houston, TX 77098
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
Puffy tacos: $9
Mixed Grill: $13
Chicken B.A.L.T. salad: $10
The first time I ate lunch at the original Amazon Grill on Post Oak, I was being interviewed for this job. It was my first fast-casual experience — I had never seen a nice restaurant with counter service before, and I didn't know what to make of it. I liked the free plantain chips and salad bar, though.
I ordered a weird shrimp dish called gambas. The shrimp was served over a savory bread pudding that was layered with spinach and covered with a chipotle cream sauce. Tim Carman, who was to become my first editor and is now the restaurant reviewer for Washington City Paper, asked me what I thought of the dish. I was confused by what I was eating and said something incoherent. I'm lucky I got the job.
The next time I ate at Amazon Grill, some years later, it had relocated to Kirby. Houston Press contributor Paul Galvani had called and told me to meet him there because I'd been writing a lot about hamburgers. Galvani believed that Amazon Grill had one of the best burgers in town.
I was surprised by what I saw there. The interior design and menu at the Kirby location were a lot more whimsical than what I remembered from the elegant Post Oak restaurant. The well-dressed crowd appeared to be mainly comprised of office workers on lunch break. I was happy to see that the free plantain chips were still there. And Galvani was right about the burger. It was then, and is now, a landmark Houston hamburger.
The Amazon burger features a half-pound, grilled, ground beef patty on a fresh-baked bun. The bottom half of the bun is spread with "smoked mustard" and a chopped tomato and red onion mixture that's easy to mistake for pico de gallo. Then comes the burger topped with provolone cheese, and on top of that, there's chopped lettuce liberally dressed with a "special sauce" that may be Amazon's cilantro dressing. The whole symphony of meat and condiments comes together brilliantly. My only suggestion would be to reduce the size of the bun — the meat-to-bread ratio is a little skewed to the bread side.
I was also curious about the mustard. I keep at least a half dozen bottles in my fridge at all times, and I'm always looking for interesting new varieties. So I had to ask the guy behind the counter, "Where do you get smoked mustard?"
"We make it ourselves," he said.
"On a smoker?"
"No, it's just mustard mixed with Liquid Smoke," he finally confessed.
It was a year or more after eating lunch with Galvani before I visited the Amazon Grill on Kirby again. That was for a dinner, and my party included an infant in a car seat. I was worried that the child might start wailing. Boy, were we in the right place.
While I wasn't paying attention, Amazon Grill had somehow morphed into a South American-themed competitor of Chuck E. Cheese's. Half the patrons that night appeared to be under eight. A kid's birthday party was going on a few tables away from us, and sugar-charged toddlers in pointy hats were zipping around the room giggling at full volume. A little girl with an unusually shrill voice was complaining loudly about a balloon.