Tunnel Explorer: First Look at Tejas Grill

When Tejas Grill and Sports Bar opened up recently, several people joked about creating a Batman-esque Tunnel Explorer signal. It would be mounted to the roof of the Houston Press offices, and shone into the sky to alert me to new tunnel eateries requiring a visit. I'm all for this idea. I'm thinking A simple superimposed TE, but I'm open to suggestions.

It took me a while to get down to Tejas Grill, despite the fact that it's only about 100 yards and a few escalator rides away. I'd been so busy at work recently, that I'd been brown bagging at my desk everyday. If you haven't figured it out by now, I have an endlessly glamorous job.

I'd been looking forward to Tejas Grill since the brown paper went up over the windows of the defunct Monsoon Wok and Lounge, the space's previous tenant. It seemed the intent was to create a restaurant environment that might actually be able to half convince you that you were eating somewhere other than the ass-end of an office complex mini mall. Lunch breaks are best used as a restorative break from the workday, and the further removed your mind can be from the office, the better.

It looks as if they did a pretty good job. Though my necessary to-go order didn't allow me much time to soak it in, the interior was bright and bustling, and people seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

That to-go order is the first bone I have to pick with Tejas. I stayed on hold for nearly ten minutes before being allowed to place my order. I recognize that they were busy, and that they probably don't plan on the bulk of their business coming from to-go orders, but it seemed a bit excessive. I'm pretty sure they forgot about me, given the slightly confused "who are you holding for?" that greeted me when the phone was picked back up. All of that could have been forgiven, though, if the food had been good.

Further indicating that to-go is not high on their list of priorities, the Tejas Old Fashioned Burger I ordered came in oddly disassembled fashion in my takeout box. Or, rather, the manner in which the burger is topped does not lend itself well to boxing. Most odd was the pile of shredded lettuce tucked into one corner, a pickle spear buried underneath.

I gathered the toppings as best I could and stacked them on top of the sandwich. The patty itself showed encouraging char and a slightly loose-formed texture, making me more willing to believe their claims of fresh-grinding. A strident smokiness permeated the box.

Despite my complaints about the manner in which the produce was packed, it proved fresh and vibrant. The tomato, even, was juicy and brightly flavored. The chef had clearly respected my wish for medium-rare, with a nice band of pink forming a promising mantle under the aggressive char. The moist, sweetish bun held up well, though it offered no hint of the jalapeño heat it promised.

Unfortunately, the burger turned out to be far less than the sum of its parts. That patty, which looked so promising with its fire-wrought crust and vibrant interior color, was devoid of seasonings and juices, both. The bacon I was promised was conspicuously absent, and even the sharp cheddar I'd requested brought very little personality to the sandwich.

Not a single flavor stood out, except a hint of smoke and a light sweetness. Sometimes, this just points to a well integrated burger; here, it merely pointed to blandness. I found myself applying liberal amounts of the supplied mustard in order to give it some zing, and hoping to perk things up with interspersed bites from the pale, slightly flabby pickle. No such luck.

The fries were similarly afflicted, with a strange toothsomeness underneath an oddly stiff sort of crispness. Their pale visage was a portent for things to come, as the fries were similarly pallid in flavor, suffering, much as the burger, from a shameful lack of seasoning. The only redeeming quality was a slightly smoky character, no doubt picked up during their box-time alongside the burger. That has me thinking about smoking blanched potatoes before their second fry. Someone get on that. Hubcap Grill, Burger Guys; I'm looking at you.

Overall, the experience reminded me of the average backyard cookout burger; great in theory, sorely lacking in execution. Of course, the average cookout burger is vastly improved by the presence of beer, the company of friends, and absence from work. Without those things, I'm afraid Tejas Grill isn't offering anything more than a mediocre burger, eaten quickly, at the ass-end of an office complex mini mall.

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