Go for the Drinks, the Playground or the Burger at The Del

At The Del, a casual new restaurant in the Memorial area, there is a burger that could be proudly served in fine-dining establishments. The patty, layered onto a crisscrossed pretzel bun, is wonderfully drippy and adorned with a respectable cheddar fondue. Deeply grilled onions add a great deal of caramelized depth, and the pickles contribute just enough of a tangy punch to ensure the richer elements don’t become overwhelming.

Unfortunately, that burger was the only bright spot in a restaurant where the food shines infrequently. Those who visit The Del hoping it’s going to have the life, color, sophistication or culinary wherewithal of other restaurants by Studewood Hospitality Group — Brooklyn Athletic Club and Glass Wall — will be disappointed. Usually, the best thing that can be said about the food is that it’s “fine,” with all the monotone connotations implied.

The Del markets itself as a prime family-friendly restaurant for the suburban (and generally well-heeled) denizens of Tanglewood and Piney Point. Indeed, in that sense, The Del is providing a valuable service to the area. It sports an outdoor play yard with big wooden blocks for building and bean bags for tossing. There’s covered seating so that parents can relax while keeping their eyes on the little ones. (It sure beats hanging out at the McDonald’s ball pit.) While neighboring restaurants Bramble and Roegels Barbecue serve much better food, they don’t have the kind of kid-specific entertainment that parents sometimes need.

At The Del, the children have fun and the parents don’t have to eat fast food, and can even enjoy a nice cocktail or glass of wine. We didn’t encounter disruptive kids on any of our visits, either, and were rather impressed by the decorum of a table full of young ladies and their moms who were celebrating someone’s birthday.

The problem is that the food execution falls short, so diners looking for solidly good dining experiences won’t find them here. The Del’s food lacks ambition and vision, even though its website says the restaurant offers a “tasty new take on classic American cuisine in a ‘country-club casual’ atmosphere.” There are three things wrong with that sentence: There’s nothing about The Del that is like a country club, its takes on classic American cuisine aren’t new (there is nary a dish on the menu that couldn’t be found elsewhere in Houston) and the food is often not tasty.

In some cases, it seems as if no one has applied critical thinking or an evaluation of how a dish actually looks and performs. Now seems like a good time to remedy that oversight.

Take, for example, the Yellowfin Tuna Tar Tar with sweet chile sauce, crispy wonton, tomato and shiso. It sounds good, as if all those ingredients should work together. In a different form, they might. As presented here, they do not. Red chunks of fish are covered in red tomatoes and red chile sauce — red on red on red broken up only by big, clunky cucumber wedges. The wontons are big and flat and, when bitten into, shatter — dropping raw fish, chunks of cucumber and tomato everywhere.

Did no one look at this dish and see that it’s almost all one color? Did no one actually try to eat it? At least the flavor was pretty good, although so much chile sauce was used that it overwhelmed the fish.

Only one dish tasted truly awful. The roasted red pepper bisque with shrimp was floury and bland and had so few chunks of seafood that it might as well not have even been mentioned. There was nothing to do but shrug and set it aside.

Fortunately, everything else tends to be on the sunny side of the seesaw, even if not everything is spectacular. The macaroni and cheese with little chunks and slivers of short rib seemed of the Velveeta and Ro-Tel ilk — an acceptable rendition, but no one is going to cheer for it. Ditto for three oregano-seasoned meatballs in marinara — fine meatballs but very standard. (That said, those lucky enough to get their hands on these during happy hour from 3 to 6:30 p.m. will pay only $5 for two — and nothing adds interest and flavor like a good deal. At dinnertime, though, three medium-size meatballs cost a whopping $15.)

More promising are the creative gnocchi tots, in which fried, pillow-y pasta substitutes for potato nuggets. They’re close to rave-worthy and, like the meatballs, only $5 at happy hour before climbing to a hefty $12. What’s lacking, though, is a good, hard sear that would give the gnocchi crispy, snack-worthy exteriors. As they were, the soft, pliable interiors were pleasing and the flavorful cheese fondue used on the burger made an appearance in this case as a dip. The fondue is a little grainy, but it’s tasty enough that that’s not too much of an issue.

The value of the larger dishes depends largely on adeptness of preparation. A whopping ten lamb chops appeared on top of a pale gold porridge made of roasted corn. The quantity validated the $26 price tag. It’s unfortunate that they were lacking in the flavor and temperature departments. There didn’t appear to be much bang in the ancho-chile glaze, and the chops didn’t seem fresh off the grill. Instead of a piping-hot exterior sear, the meat was lukewarm. Regardless, they were flawlessly rare and the dish just needs a touch more spice to become a winner. A group could easily order these and split them up as an appetizer.

On the other side was the ancho-chile glazed pork chop: $28 at dinner and $20 at lunch, which was when we ordered it. A dining companion looked dubiously at the menu, noting that the pork chop was the most expensive lunch item. “I wonder what $20 gets you?” he asked. After it arrived, he answered his own question. “Apparently, $20 gets you an overcooked pork chop.”

We realized after it arrived that our server had not asked us how we’d like it cooked. When it comes to slabs of meat, especially pork and fish, that’s an important question. Some people are understandably concerned about meat being cooked all the way through, and tend to order it well done. That’s all fine and good, but should be considered a special request, not the norm. A good pork chop has equilibrium. It’s been cooked to the internal temperature recommended by the National Pork Board — between 145 and 160 degrees — but is still juicy. That was definitely not the case at The Del. Ours was not juicy at all, and was straying into “tough” territory. As far as the vegetable hash underneath it went, the Brussels sprouts, which were halved and retained their texture, lacked only a touch of salt. The carrots mixed among them were in such small cubes and so sparse that they just seemed lost.

The Del’s cocktails are surprisingly good — so much so that it seems to emphasize the sad state of culinary affairs. The classic Negroni here is excellent. Even though it’s a very simple cocktail (one part Campari, one part gin and one part vermouth), execution makes the difference between a delightful aperitif or an unbalanced mess. Similarly, The Del’s Vieux Carré is strong and balanced enough that it would even pass muster at The Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, where the drink was invented. The house drinks, which often feature Texas whiskey, tend to be a little more timid than the dead-on classics, but they’re still quite passable.

Unless you’re dining with kids or just heading out to drink (please pick only one or the other, not both at the same time), there’s not enough well-executed cuisine at The Del to recommend it. It is the IKEA of restaurants: What it has is functional but not especially interesting, and you can drop off your kids in the play area. There’s one big distinction between The Del and IKEA, though: More things at IKEA are actually a bargain.

The Del
6565 Del Monte, 713-750-9259. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Red pepper bisque $9
Mac and cheese $9
Gnocchi tots $12
Tuna Tar Tar $12
Pretzel cheeseburger $14
Ancho-chile glazed pork chop $20 lunch/$28 dinner
Lamb chops $26
Negroni $10
Vieux Carré $11

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