The half-pound Angus burger I ordered at Fox Sports Grill, the gleaming new sports bar in the Galleria, comes to the bar medium-rare as specified. The patty sits on a bun, but it isn't yet a sandwich. The lettuce, tomato and pickles are over on the other end of the plate. There isn't any mustard or mayonnaise on the bun, and there isn't any available. A salad ordered on the side sits there without dressing. I wasn't supplied with a fork, a knife or a napkin, either.
I pester two bartenders and several waitpeople for mustard, mayo, salad dressing and silverware, but they just look at me helplessly. Everybody's in the weeds, which is to say a college football game and an Astros baseball game are both nearing dramatic conclusions and the drink orders are coming in faster than the staff can get them out.
The bartender who had been so chatty a few minutes ago is now grimly shaking cocktails as fast as he can while angry waitpeople watch him impatiently. So I sit and watch the naked burger get cold. When he took my order, the bartender asked me if I wanted fries or a salad with it. I thought I'd be healthy and get the salad.
Well, okay, that's not entirely true.
Actually, I first took a seat at the bar a little before two-thirty on this sunny Saturday and got a beer and a large plate of homemade potato chips covered with sour cream and blue cheese, which is one of the appetizers featured here. The cheesy chips were pretty good with the brew, although they tasted like they'd been reheated rather than freshly fried.
Three and a half hours later, when I got hungry again and ordered the burger, I wasn't in the mood for any more greasy potatoes. But now I'm thinking I should have gone for the fries. At least I could be eating something.
Fox Sports Grill and a competing chain called ESPN Zone (which doesn't have a location in Houston yet) are part of a new wave of sports bars that attempt to go beyond food and televised sports to bring patrons "behind the scenes" of broadcasting.
On Wednesday nights at seven, for instance, Fox Sports Grill serves as the set of FSN Houston's show Texans Huddle, a weekly recap of the Houston Texans' fortunes. Fans are invited to visit the restaurant and become a part of the broadcast. Likewise, whenever Fox Sports needs some reaction shots from Houston fans, this is where they go to shoot them. A sports bar tied into a sports network sounds like a great idea.
But Houston has a lot of great sports bars. And at the moment, I'd rather be at any one of them. At least I'd be eating a hamburger. Maybe the suits who run Fox Sports Grill should visit a few classic Houston sports bars and learn the basics of the business before they attempt to move beyond them.
Griff's Shenanigans is Houston's oldest sports bar. Established in 1965, the wooden-floored Irish pub exudes funky local charm. I settled back to watch an Astros game there the other night with a pint of "half and half" (half Guinness stout and half Bass Pale Ale) and ordered some dinner.
Their "world famous Griff's burger" is a half-pound hamburger lovingly composed of a thick layer of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, pickles and jalapeños (when you pay the extra quarter to add them) above the patty and a nice coating of mayo and mustard on the bun. I found the patty too flattened, and a little too dry for my tastes. But the hand-cut fries were spectacular, among the best I've had lately. The burger and fries here cost two bucks less than what Fox Sports Grill charges, and they're easily twice as good.
Griff's represents the earliest concept of the sports bar, essentially a neighborhood tavern with a couple of extra television sets -- a place to witness televised sports events in the company of your tribesmen. When the weather's nice, a lot of fans sit outside on picnic tables. But unfortunately, there's a disconnected feeling about Griff's; the interior is cut into several rooms so that you can never really assemble a decent mob. When the Astros got a hit, it felt like several different groups were cheering.
Bubba's on Washington Avenue has the same sort of natural wood interior as Griff's, but it's one big room, so you feel like you're in the bleachers at the ballpark. I watched another Astros game there, ordering another cheeseburger, a Dos Equis lager and a bowl of Texas chili.
I sampled the chili at Fox Sports Grill too -- it's made out of filet mignon and ground meat with three designer colors of beans and no discernible chile peppers. I wonder how much they paid the New York chef who came up with the brilliant idea of making gourmet chili by leaving out the chiles.
Bubba's chili was the real thing. It looked like a bowl of mud. It was made with ground meat rather than distinct chunks of beef, but it proved to be beautifully seasoned with comino, chile peppers and garlic. After a few spoonfuls, I added some cheddar cheese and raw chopped onions and scooped some onto a few saltines.
Bubba's "double play" hamburger is the best I had in a sports bar. It was a towering creation held together by a long toothpick with cellophane frills on the top. On the bottom bun, the tall stack began with a large slice of raw sweet onion, a crunchy ingredient too frequently overlooked by hamburger architects. On top of that sat the lettuce, tomato, pickles and a huge layer of pickled jalapeños (optional, of course). A melting slice of American cheese was layered between the two patties, each of which weighed a third of a pound. I got cole slaw as a side -- it was the sweet and creamy variety made with lots of mayo. You can choose fries or onion rings instead. The double-meat burger and fries sells for $7 here, a buck cheaper than at Fox Sports Grill. And Bubba's actually knows how to make a burger.
Instead of competing for fans of the local teams, some sports bars have specialized. Bubba's is home away from home for alums and backers of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Longhorns fans might not want to watch college football here, but Bubba's is a great place to watch Astros or Texans games.
Other sports bars with fan clubs include Nick's Place Italian Sports Bar & Pizzeria, which hosts the Cheddarhead Pack of Houston, as Green Bay Packers fans call themselves; Big Woodrow's is LSU territory. The list goes on and on.
I sampled a crawfish poor boy and some crab bisque during an Astros playoff game at Big Woodrow's. The sports bar and Cajun restaurant on Chimney Rock near the Richmond Strip may be the closest thing in town to a singles sports bar. The crowd was heavily weighted toward college students, some of whom actually appeared to be studying while they drank beer and watched baseball.
My dining companion found the crawfish poor boy too dry, but she forgot to apply the tartar sauce that came in a little paper cup. When she had discarded her mangled half of the sandwich, I slathered the other half with the white stuff and added a generous dose of Cajun Chef Louisiana Hot Sauce. With these adjustments, the sandwich was pretty good, although the previously frozen crawfish lacked any juiciness.
Cajun crab bisque is generally a dark, roux-based soup, in my experience, but the Big Woodrow's version is white and creamy. There is lots of crab in it, and it's very rich and thick, sort of like a crab chowder with no potatoes or onions. I don't think I would order it again, but it really wasn't all that bad. We also got an order of chicken wings. They were tasty, but the sauce hadn't been baked onto the meat very well. When I asked if they had any sauce on them at all, the waitress brought me some more. Dipping each wing in extra sauce made them extremely hot.
Among the best wings I've sampled are the ones at the Wet Spot, a new sports bar on West Gray in the old Freedmen's Town area of the Fourth Ward. The locals who are left hate the place, but it may be the hippest sports bar in town. It's made of corrugated metal and concrete, just like some of the new loft buildings.
I sampled the Wet Spot's tuna sashimi on shredded cabbage, easily the most bizarre sports bar food I ate all week. Three of us also got a sampling of their sandwiches. The Philly cheese steak was the best, though I will never get used to mayonnaise on this kind of sandwich. The catfish poor boy was made with thick fish steaks that didn't get crisp enough, so the sandwich tasted gloppy. The bacon cheeseburger with jalapeños was delivered without bacon, without jalapeños and with a side of fries that were pale, limp and undercooked.
"The kitchen is really slammed," the waitress apologized.
"They probably had no idea there was an Astros game tonight," one of my dining companions quipped.
Back at Fox Sports Grill, I've been waiting more than 15 minutes for the mustard, mayo, silverware and salad dressing to finally arrive. And nobody is apologizing about it. Earlier I got up and got my own salt and pepper shaker off a nearby table.
You don't expect all that much from sports bar cuisine. But at Fox Sports Grill you can't even get a properly made burger. Throwing the ingredients on the plate may be all the rage in Phoenix or New Jersey or wherever this corporation is based, but here in Houston, we expect somebody to actually make the sandwich. And take a little pride in it.
But the biggest surprise is the check. After that fiasco of a hamburger, the bartender hands me a bill for more than $10.
"The burger is $7.95 on the menu," I point out to him.
"It's $1.50 extra for the salad," the little geek tells me.
"You asked me if I wanted fries or a salad; you didn't say it was extra to substitute the salad," I snarl. It's a sleazy little trick that no self-respecting Houston sports bar would ever pull on you.
"Okay, I'll take it off the bill," the bartender says as I berate him. Thirty minutes later when all the games are over and I pay the check, he charges me the full amount anyway.
"I thought you were going to adjust the bill," I say.
"I couldn't find a manager," he says.
I tip him some nickels and dimes. For service that bad and an attitude that snotty, what he really deserves is a kick in the ass. Of course, he's only doing the job he's been trained to do.
Slick, oversized and impersonal operations like Fox Sports Grill belong in places with an endless stream of tourists, like Times Square or Las Vegas -- not in a great sports bar town like Houston.
Our Favorite Sports Bars
Big Woodrow's, 3111 Chimney Rock, 713-784-2653
Bubba's Sports Bar & Grill, 6225 Washington Avenue, 713-861-7161
Griff's Shenanigans Cafe & Bar, 3416 Roseland, 713-528-9912
Nick's Place Italian Sports Bar & Pizzeria, 2713 Rocky Ridge, 713-780-8338
The Wet Spot, 160 West Gray, 713-523-7768
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