Sam's Deli Diner: Keep the Change?

I admit to having an enormous soft spot in my heart for Sam's Deli Diner. Before it moved to its current location at 11637 Katy Freeway, I used to ride my bike up to the old restaurant -- anchoring a tiny strip mall in front of a typical, tree-lined Houston neighborhood -- and use my allowance to buy a scoop of Blue Bell ice cream (mint chocolate chip, always) and a cheeseburger. Any leftover change went to playing the Ms. Pac-Man in the back of the store.

As a teenager, I drove to Sam's from the neighborhood pool during lunch breaks and used my pittance of a lifeguard's paycheck to indulge in giant portions of seasoned fries and milkshakes. Over the years, Sam's remained almost completely unchanged. A bit dirty, a bit rough around the edges, but charming in its weariness and its weathered signs. It was the neighborhood milkshake and burger shop that time forgot, a monument to far simpler times. Just last weekend at a party, my cousin sighed to me out of nowhere: "Remember riding our bikes up to Sam's and getting burgers? Man, I miss that." Would that everyone had at least one noble childhood memory involving bikes and milkshakes.

I still don't entirely recognize the "new" Sam's with its spacious interior and shiny chrome-and-red color palette, but the joint has continued to serve the same delicious burgers, fries and milkshakes I remember. At least, that's what I thought.

A blog post from Albert Nurick last week stunned me: Sam's Deli Diner, How the Mighty Have Fallen. In it, Nurick described "perhaps the saddest burger to ever come out of the kitchen from one of Houston's famed burger joints." I was crestfallen.

He went on: "The grey, overcooked, machine-formed patty was dry and ooze-free. The cheese was slightly melted; more attached to the bun than to the beef. And the tired looking veggies were huddled under the patty, trying their best to avoid the prying eyes of a hungry patron." I couldn't believe this was the same Sam's I'd known and loved for years.

I headed over today to check the status of the burgers for myself. If Sam's had indeed given up the ghost, I wanted to at least pay my last respects.

On a Tuesday afternoon at lunch, Sam's was utterly packed. The hum of diners talking over their burgers, the bubbling sound of laughter, the clatter and sizzle of the enormous griddle, the sing-song calling out of orders over the din -- it was all melodic in its cacophony. People were eating, people were sucking down Byron Freezes, people were happy.

I ordered a chipotle cheddar burger, some seasoned fries and a buttercrunch milkshake (Butterfingers blended with Blue Bell's homemade vanilla ice cream), grabbed a seat and took it all in. The kids working the griddle work fast, snatching up the frozen patties (yes, folks, they're sadly frozen now) and creating your burger to order, quick as jackrabbits.

My burger -- which came with everything -- wasn't exactly how I remembered a Sam's burger to be. The bun was a little too processed and too dry. The patty was definitely not fresh or hand-formed. In spite of these two things, I enjoyed it anyway.

The burgers here have lost a lot of their ooze, that juicy enjoyment which comes from freshly-ground meat and a buttery bun and yards of gooey cheese. But they're still good, still palatable. They're easier to eat now and don't make quite the mess they once did. The veggies were all fresh and perky, especially the thin slices of ruby tomatoes and crunchy pickles. The slight smokiness of the chipotle sauce gave the meat a needed punch, a depth that it was lacking.

But that leaves an important question to be answered: Can Sam's still turn out a decent cheeseburger, sans the help of the sharp cheddar and smoky chipotle sauce? And more importantly, was Sam's simply having an incredibly off day when Nurick visited, or a decent day today during my visit?

One thing is abundantly certain: Sam's Deli Diner is no longer the burger shrine it once was, even if the burgers here are still palatable, and even if the milkshakes and fries are as reliably wonderful as ever. But is that good enough? Frozen patties and boring bread have moved in to meet the supply of hungry customers each day at lunch; it's certainly cheaper and quicker this way. But Houston is poorer for that change.

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Katharine Shilcutt