Restaurant Reviews

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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kaitlin Steinberg