Cottonwood Masters the Squirrel (and a few other items, too)
I looked at the cardboard caddy on the table in front of me as if it were an alien spacecraft containing creatures that I'd never before seen or heard of. Ketchup? From what distant land do you come? Tabasco? Why are you here, invading my quiet corner of the earth? Suddenly, these classic condiments were like foreign objects, and I had no concept of or use for them in my meal.
That's how perfect the poblano-stuffed, bacon-topped Squirrel Master Burger is at Cottonwood Bar. There was no need for anything else to adulterate and no doubt mar the impeccable balance of the flavors that serenaded my taste buds from the first heavenly bite. Never before had I been tempted to fling a red plastic squirt bottle across a table, but now I wanted to stand tall on the outdoor picnic table and proclaim to the crowd: "Put down the condiments! They are useless to you! Nothing can be done to improve upon the burger before you, so don't insult it by trying!"
It's difficult to pinpoint one individual quality of the Squirrel Master Burger that elevates it beyond basic burger to masterpiece of meaty modeling. There are the smoky slices of dark green poblano peppered throughout the 100 percent Angus beef patty hand-formed by chef Daniel Ajtai. There's the thick layer of creamy pepper jack gently hugging the browned beef. There's crispy bacon and a flawlessly fried egg dotted with bright green flecks of fresh jalapeño. When you take the top half of the toasted bun and set it atop the fried egg, gently pressing to ensure it stays put, the thin film on the sunny yolk bursts and the buttery yellow center oozes out over the burger.
Again, I ask: Why would anyone meddle with a masterpiece like this?
I have lamented in the past the slow disappearance of the basic burger in favor of over-the-top flavor combinations and burgers piled so high that there's no conceivable way to wrap one's mouth around them without dislocating one's jaw. I still believe that the burger itself should be the star of the show, rather than relying upon supporting characters like bacon or peanut butter to do the heavy lifting. But I've warmed slightly to the notion of the gourmet burger now that I've had so many stunning examples here in Houston, and the burgers at Cottonwood have played a big part in my indoctrination into the Berserk Burger Club.
Cottonwood isn't a burger restaurant, though. I don't think the place would even want to be called a restaurant. It's first and foremost a bar, a craft-beer joint, an expansive patio with a great brew selection that just happens to serve pub food beyond what the term "pub food" usually implies. The food is carefully constructed to be paired with one (or more) of the 33 beers on tap, which means the bar food is less an afterthought and more a reason to stay and drink just a while longer.
If you aren't looking for Cottonwood, it's easy to drive right past it, because it's tucked away on a short offshoot of Shepherd that dead-ends at a railroad track north of 610 in Garden Oaks. When you look up the building on Google Maps, you can recognize the Alamo-shaped facade in the image, but it's abundantly clear how much work has been done on the space since Charles Bishop of Liberty Station and Rob and Sara Cromie of Picnic and The Raven Grill purchased it in the summer of 2012. The building was once a drab, graffiti-covered shell surrounded by a chain-link fence lining an empty, overgrown lot. Today it's a vibrant space with strings of glowing lights, warm, inviting colors and people of all ages playing outdoor games and slipping bits of burger to dogs lounging under picnic tables.
Inside Cottonwood, squirrel sculptures and silhouettes peek out from behind sample beer bottles lining the top shelf above the taps, a clear nod to the rodent that is depicted on Cottonwood's logo. The long bar is backed with reclaimed wood and a massive chalkboard that notes, in ornate, colorful script, the beer available on tap and the rotating cocktail specials. Whimsical and futuristic light fixtures cast a golden glow on the bar, while the color scheme of avocado and carrot-orange gives the joint a retro vibe. Outside on the 2,000-square-foot patio there are rows of wooden picnic tables, old metal signs from breweries and soda companies, and enough games to keep anyone — children, adults and even dogs — occupied for hours.
In this way, Cottonwood is more, even, than restaurant or bar. It's a veritable entertainment venue. There's foosball, oversize wooden Jenga towers, corn hole, bocce ball, big-screen TVs and a stage for live music. But don't mistake the place for a wild party venue seven nights a week. Game days can get pretty rowdy when the Texans are projected on a huge screen for the entire bar and parking lot to see, but otherwise it's a chill spot where Garden Oaks families and craft-beer aficionados alike can enjoy the cool fall nights under twinkling lights.
There were families with kids and dogs at Cottonwood on the occasions I was there, though the children trickled out early in the evening, leaving the young, childless or babysitter-friendly to eat and drink without fear of a good buzz being killed by wailing toddlers. The menu is kid-friendly as well, with items like plain hamburgers and fries to appeal to wee ones (or adults) who might not be as interested in blue cheese burgers or salmon deviled eggs.
The Bleu Cheese Stuffed Burger, by the way, is every bit as magical as the Squirrel Master, and choosing a favorite between the two would be akin to choosing one's favorite child (or in my case, cat). Funky blue cheese can easily overwhelm anything with which it's paired, but there's just enough mold-marbled tang in the middle of the burger to jazz it up without overpowering the salty shoestring onion rings, sweet bacon jelly or juicy Angus beef patty. The waitstaff may not ask for a preference, but order your burger medium-rare, since the kitchen tends to overcook them just a tad. That said, the delightful crisp the chef achieves on the outside of the patty is something all burger spots should strive for.
Alternatively, you could indulge in beef in another form: the Sloppy JoJo, which features tender braised brisket slathered in a secret Cottonwood sloppy sauce and topped with a fried egg, because, as the menu says, "Why not?"
Since Cottonwood opened, the menu has been pared down to make it a little less fussy and a little more accessible. Pâté has been replaced by ceviche, and instead of oysters and mussels, the kitchen serves up burgers and wings and fewer salads. Newer items like CFS (chicken-fried steak) Bites with brown pepper gravy appeal to children (and one of my dining buddies), and they're tasty enough. But they're improved upon by forgoing the gravy altogether and instead dipping them in the spicy mayo that comes with the crispy onion and poblano rings.
Pterodactyl wings (so named because they're made with turkey wings instead of chicken and are, thus, larger than the average flapper) are available only as a special and only on certain days, but their heft and zesty buffalo sauce flavor, combined with the slow-cooked turkey meat, make them a great appetizer option if you can find it in yourself to share.
I found only two things on the menu that I'd be willing to share, though: the kale salad, because it was cloyingly sweet and far too watery, and the made-to-order doughnut holes, because by the time dessert was served I was too stuffed to eat them all by myself. Apparently, fried pie was once on the menu (I hear the chef is planning to bring it back), but for now, doughnut holes fill those tiny extra spaces in already-full stomachs still craving dessert. They're baked, then quick-fried, and, unlike most airy doughnut holes, they're substantial and cakey and lightly spiced, little balls of cinnamon-sugar heaven. I shared them out of necessity, not out of choice.
In spite of all the pseudo-gourmet pub food and the funky atmosphere that I just can't seem to get enough of, it should be noted again that Cottonwood is first and foremost a bar. And though there aren't enough TVs glowing from every corner of the space to qualify it as a sports bar, it's still more the type of place that I'd go intending to drink, only to discover (or rediscover) how great the food is.
On a typical Saturday night, the patio will be packed with dudes wearing a hodgepodge of plaids and gals just a little too dressed up to be sitting at a picnic table and eating off a tray. There will be people at the bar grilling the bartender on the provenance of a particular craft beer; there will be a handful of beautiful mutts sitting patiently under their owners' legs; and there will be small groups playing bocce ball, not because they truly enjoy it but because they think it looks ironic. And it kind of does.
And then there will be folks kicking back with a Shiner or tearing into a burger with reckless abandon while they contemplate showing off some severely lacking foosball skills. There will be families with kids, biker guys, grandmas, alternative musicians, bros and industry folks. The crowd that gathers at Cottonwood is an amusing cross section of Houston, and, thankfully, the rustic compound is large enough to welcome them all.
You'll probably see me there, too, sipping on a frozen cocktail, even though I don't usually go for frozen drinks. At Cottonwood, though, they are that good. I'll also be spilling chipotle mayo on my teal shorts, eating far too many sugary-sweet doughnut holes and casting sideways glances at that stupid, useless ketchup caddy.
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