Bar Beat

$9 American Kobe Beef Burger at the Mockingbird Bistro Bar

There's nothing more fun that sitting at a bar and eating a burger. When the burger happens to be a $9 American Kobe Beef Burger, and the bar happens to be at Mockingbird Bistro on a lively Friday night, the enjoyability factor goes up several notches.

Arriving after 8 p.m. on a Friday evening, I snagged the very last seat at the bar, which meant that I was in prime position to watch what was, in effect, a cocktail-making show by bar manager and resident mixologist Carlos Ballon and another bartender named Renee. They both worked speedily, grinding mint, shaking shakers, crushing ice, flipping bottles - ultimately producing a myriad of drinks from the uncomplicated to the complicated - like Ballon's signature pisco sour, with a lusciously thick foamy top; the new summer-menu gin-spiked strawberry-basil adult snow cone; and the refreshing, dreamy rum-spiked yuzu-lemon adult snow cone.

The bar menu is distinct from the sit-down menu, and while everything seemed appetizing, the amazingly bargain-priced American Kobe Beef Burger had my name on it. "Have you had the burger here before?" I asked the gentleman seated next to me, who was a regular at the restaurant. "Oh yes," he nodded, "many times, and it's awesome every time."

I don't know what I expected, but this burger definitely exceeded it. From the soft springiness of the slightly toasted Slow Dough onion bun, to the perfectly rendered medium-rare patty dripping in flavorful juiciness, to the full-size order of crispy, thin-cut fries served with deeply flavored homemade aoili (garlic mayonnaise), to the small dishes of cornichons and pickled red onions provided for garnishment, this was one mighty fine burger. And the $9 price tag was almost unbelievable.

"How on earth can you sell this for $9?" I asked Chef/Owner John Sheely in wonderment. "We don't really make any money on it," he replied, " but it brings people in and it's a crowd pleaser." Texas Monthly named this burger one of The Fifty Best Burgers in Texas, and it definitely pleased me, so much so that I pretty much cleared the plate, including all my fries. I found out later that you can upgrade to truffle fries for a small supplement. An over-the-top version of this burger topped with a huge slice of seared foie gras is also available on the sit-down dinner menu for $32.

As far as ambiance goes, the restaurant's funky gothic decor, with the large wrought-iron chandeliers and colorful patterned carpeting, creates a welcoming warmth that puts you at ease. Or maybe it's the smiling countenance of Chef John Sheely darting in and out of the kitchen, shaking hands with regulars and exchanging banter with his staff. In any case, I can definitely understand why Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez named Mockingbird Bistro his favorite restaurant in the city when I chatted with him last week.

Mockingbird recently expanded its bar area, doubling the seating capacity. The restaurant also introduced a $5 happy hour menu, with $5 dollar wines, signature cocktails, and bar bites from 5-7 p.m. daily.

Even though the burger is only available at the bar, sitting there was half of the fun. I can't think of a better way to spend what would have been a lonely Friday evening than with a juicy burger, a spiked snow cone, and some great conversation at a bar that has been recognized by Esquire as one of the Best Bars in America of 2010.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham