It's long been said that good artists borrow, and great artists steal. When Sammy's Wild Game Grill announced its opening many months back, the word on the street was that the men behind Moon Tower Inn were none too pleased to hear the news: The idea that two places in town would now be specializing in wild game hot dogs hit too close to home for the Second Ward icehouse whose bread and butter is its pretzel roll-encased wild game dogs.
But now with the news that Moon Tower Inn is shutting its doors for three months to renovate, it might be a good time to get to know Sammy's Wild Game Grill. It's not a great artist — it didn't steal Moon Tower Inn's concept outright by any means — but it's a good one, and the food is pretty good, too.
In fact, even though both places serve wild game dogs in pretzel buns, there's very little overlap between the two. Sammy's also serves sangria, margaritas and hamburgers — both of ordinary provenance and of wild game — as well as an assortment of fried sides: crispy french fries, sweet potato fries that are an industry standard but still tasty with a cup of Cajun rémoulade on the side, fried pickle chips and a chili-and-cheese-drenched pile of fries that's large enough to feed three people. The meat in the chili on top changes with the season; a few weeks ago, it was rattlesnake. When I went in just last week, it had already changed to elk.
Those weren't the only things I noticed that were different: Notably, there is virtually no overlap in the clientele between Sammy's and Moon Tower. I can't picture button-up-shirted yuppies enjoying frozen margaritas at Moon Tower any more than I can picture hipsters on fixies enjoying sliders at Sammy's. For better or worse, both places have their niche. And Sammy's is settling into its niche just fine.
On a recent Friday night, my dining companion and I settled into a comfortable pub-style table facing two of Sammy's three flat-screen TVs and waited for our orders to come out. He was sucking down a sangria swirled with a margarita, both of which were wine-based and too sweet for my tastes. But boy, was he going to town on that stuff.
"You can really taste the wine," he enthused. So I may not be the target audience for wine-based mixed drinks, but he certainly is, and Sammy's offers up as good a frozen sangria as any place and — I'll have to admit — a frozen margarita that tastes far better than your typical frozen wine drinks.
My dining companion was really the target audience for a place like Sammy's in general, which is why I brought him. He lapped up the three different sporting events playing on TV just as he did that margarita, plowed through the sweet potato fries with glee and polished off both his own wild game dog and the nub-end of my own. He liked the deer head mounted on the wall, the John Deere tractor signs and shadowboxed Texas flag mounted on the construction site-orange walls. He toyed with the little flags that came planted in our hot dogs to tell us which was which (a problem, by the way, that Moon Tower could neatly solve with flags like these, although the flags seem too purposeful to make an appearance there).
Neither of our dogs had lasted long, wrapped in those warm Slow Dough pretzel buns that seem purpose-built to house sausages inside; they hold everything in place without fear of the dogs or topping departing from the back end every time you take a bite, and they are soft enough that you can bite through the entire thing without crushing your sausage and condiments into oblivion. The condiments here range from toppings to sauces, and you get three toppings with your dogs: raw onions, fried onions, bacon bits, sauerkraut, purple cabbage, jalapeños, feta cheese or regular old relish.
I had my pheasant dog fixed up with fried onions, sauerkraut and purple cabbage, in an attempt to make a Texan-German hybrid dog. It worked splendidly, the crunch of the cabbages and onions partnering up with the tender meat of the pheasant. My friend's venison dog was equally good, the meat so fresh-tasting that it could have shone brightly all by itself.
The friendly guys behind the counter had brought over extra sauces for us to taste with our food that night, since we'd had a difficult time deciding between the habanero ketchup, aji mayonnaise and the Cajun rémoulade. All three ended up being winners, but it was the ghost pepper sauce that surprised me the most. I'd been looking at the little unlabeled bottles of saffron-colored sauce near the register when one of the Sammy's employees caught me and asked, "Do you like spicy stuff?" The answer to this question has already been firmly established; I love spicy stuff.
He told me that Sammy's makes the ghost pepper sauce in-house and has been experimenting with getting just the right heat level in the stuff. You can buy a bottle and take it home for $10, and after tasting it, I think I'll be buying a flat of it for Christmas presents.
The almost creamy, yellow-orange salsa is unabashedly made from the Bhut Jolokia chili pepper — a.k.a. ghost pepper — although you'd never know that this sauce comes from one of the hottest peppers on record, with a Scoville Heat Unit rating of 1,382,118. (For sake of comparison, a jalapeño ranks at between 2,500 to 8,000 units.) Instead, the sauce distills all the flavor of the ghost pepper and leaves behind only trace amounts of that Guinness World Record-winning heat.
It's all warm, musky flavors of dusky spices like cumin at first before giving way to bright, sweet, citrusy punches that taste like ruby red grapefruit slices wrapped around a silver ballpeen hammer. It's a spike and a rush of flavor and then pain that's thoroughly intoxicating. It's a tribute to the stuff (or my own levels of insanity) that after recovering from a particularly vicious stomach bug, I wanted some of that ghost pepper sauce the very next day.
I had it, too, poured atop a pile of elk chili-cheese fries, the mound of which was delicious albeit otherwise unremarkable-looking. In fact, most of the food here is rather unremarkable-looking, served in standard black plastic trays with thin sheets of wax paper on the bottom. It's one of the ways — I imagine — that owner Sammy Ballarin is keeping costs down here. And more power to him.
My dining companion and I walked away that particular evening with a $35 tab that included an enormous burger, a trio of wild game sliders, that precious mound of chili fries, a Fireman's #4 and a frozen margarita. Counter service encourages a low tab, too, but the employees still never forget to come by and check on each table a couple of times throughout the meal; it's like having the best of both service worlds.
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The only disappointment on this visit was that my sliders were cooked to a near char, each and every one of them. I'd thought that ordering the trio was a good way to sample three exotic meats at once — buffalo, venison and antelope, in this case — but was disappointed to see three little hockey pucks delivered to our table. I gazed longingly at my dining companion's Angus burger — cooked to a respectable medium — and stole a few bites of it here and there. The temperature wasn't the only thing respectable about it, either: the sturdy pretzel bun also held fat, red slices of tomato, sharp slices of red onion and big, beefy leaves of butter lettuce. It was a surprisingly hefty and dignified burger from a place that ostensibly specializes in hot dogs.
I tore off the most charred edges of my sliders and tasted the meat inside. Yes, there is a serious difference between venison and antelope — one buttery and sweet, the other grassy and lean — and the sliders should showcase that to great effect...and would, if the tiny patties spent far less time on the grill. I couldn't fault the tiny Slow Dough buns, though, nor the spicy-sweet rémoulade that coated the bottom of each one.
My disappointment was assuaged, however, by my crisply cold pint of Fireman's #4 and the tremendous pile of elk chili fries that sat before me. I can see myself repeating the same scenario — sans the sliders — on Sammy's small but efficient patio as the weather continues its welcome cooling pattern in the coming months. And, of course, with a bottle of that knockout ghost pepper salsa at my side.