A Grill with Cheap Thrills
Most diners, including reviewers, are sensible enough to take cost into consideration when reflecting upon a restaurant meal. If served, say, a savory but less-than-stellar sirloin for $15, we are apt to cap any negative judgment with a modifying sentiment: "It might not be the best steak I've ever had, but it was decent enough for the money." Low prices, in fact, are an effective deterrent against criticism, and so is a friendly staff after all, it is impolite to say bad things about somebody who has just been kind to you (and here I am not speaking of reviewers, but of regular eater-outers). The formula for positive word of mouth isn't that complex: If a dining establishment makes you feel comfortable, treats and serves you well, and proffers food and drink that pass muster at a price deemed fair, it will likely be favorably commented upon. When such a place is casual and affordable, we generally refer to it as "a good neighborhood restaurant." Scorch Grillhouse and Wine Bar is a good neighborhood restaurant.
"It will probably resemble a smaller Houston's," I said to my wife before we headed out to Scorch. "I'm guessing a cool, contemporary design; smartly framed photos on brick walls; a gleaming and steaming open stainless-steel kitchen; and the wine bar ... maybe mahogany." I was basing my vision partly on the restaurant's chainlike moniker and "wine bar" adjunct, as well as its suave exterior, with corporate-slick logo, darkened glass windows, and outdoor tables under a bright red awning which I had driven by many a time since Scorch's inception in 2004. It's difficult to say which of us was more taken aback upon entering the eatery, with its college-town burger-bistro décor. It is a compact but lofty 60-seat space, the upper reaches of the tall walls all but obscured by oil paintings, television screens, and oversize chalkboards touting nightly drink specials. Other appointments include stacks of shelves lined with wine bottles, a counter piled with wine cartons, and an exposed grill area behind the counter. "At least I got the open kitchen part right," I noted to my wife, who felt compelled to point out that it wasn't really a full kitchen, and was neither gleaming nor steaming. We both agreed the laid-back ambiance was an improvement over my more formulaically envisioned establishment.
Perhaps Scorch reminds me of a burger joint because it sells a lot of burgers. Plenty of patrons here thrill to the fat, ten-ounce slab of chopped, char-grilled meat, but to me these bloated balls of bovine are simply obese sisters to the anorexic patties of fast-food chains: They both have weight problems. A great burger is one of proper proportion of meat to bread, with a crisp lettuce leaf and sweet, acidic slice of tomato (poetically echoed by a tangy touch of ketchup) to contrast the texture and counter the grease. That said, Scorch's hamburger tastes just fine and will certainly fill you up. And thin, crunchy, steamy-hot fries on the side were exemplary.
Grilled steaks are Scorch's other specialty. The two main cuts offered are a long, skinny skirt and a "Scorch steak" taken from the bottom sirloin shorter and thicker than the skirt, but with a similarly stringy texture and robustly fatty flavor. The latter was regrettably overcooked and overly garlicked though I suppose I should note that it goes for just $14.95 and like all entrées is accompanied by either vegetable of the day (broccoli and carrots) or one of sundry starches: rice, fries, sweet potato fries, extremely creamy skin-on mashed potatoes, and the widest, meatiest disks of tostones I've ever seen (the plantain these were sliced from must've been the size of a baseball bat!).
Squid were likewise larger than usual, a starter portion of calamari delivering bulky rings and tentacles that were thickly breaded and crisply fried. The rest of the extensive list of appetizers encompasses a multiethnic mishmash of crowd pleasers gazpacho, bruschetta, steamed mussels, sesame tuna, spinach-artichoke dip (probably not a big seller these days), and so forth. The crabcake was the old-fashioned sort, a soft patty the size of a properly weighted hamburger, with an orange-tinted interior of shredded crabmeat, bread crumbs, and lots of Old Bay and other such savory seasonings. Very satisfying, especially if you avoid splashing on the vinegary salsalike side dip or garlicky cream dressing ("chimmitartar sauce"). The Santa Fe quesadilla hit the spot as well; the flour tortilla was piquantly packed with strips of chicken breast and melted jalapeño-jack cheese. Again, though, you might want to go easy with accompanying dressings sappy guacamole and a second, watery pink dip that tasted like garlic vinaigrette.
Service, not so incidentally, is a big plus here; the staff is consistently welcoming, caring, and efficient. Proprietors Tony Puche and Luis Vargas are often on hand as well.
A trio of lamb loin chops is the costliest menu choice ($22.95), and although the meat was succulent and possessed full lamb flavor, like so much of the food here it was too generously gilded with garlic. No such problem with a big, juicy roasted half-chicken which at $13.45 clocks in as one of Scorch's best buys.
Seafood selections are affordable too; a solid square of grilled mahi-mahi, salmon, or sesame tuna swims in the range of $14 to $18. However, beware the cost of nightly specials. One evening our waiter informed us that New York strip was available but didn't tell us, until we asked, that it was $25. This isn't expensive for a steak, but in the context of an à la carte menu, your meal would likely add up to more than you might expect to spend at so casual a spot. On the other hand, Scorch is a penny pincher's paradise for wines; a savvy selection of varied varietals is marked up in modest fashion, and the $2.99 deal for a glass of house wine is great, even if the wine itself isn't (the better stuff goes for about $6 to $8 per glass).
Salads and pastas pad the rest of the menu, with few surprises or standouts in either category. The former grouping includes caesar, oriental, and Greek, which was basically the house toss of greens, radicchio, tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, with the addition of black olives, pepperoncini, and crumbles of feta cheese. Linguine and penne noodles are offered in a mix-and-match manner, with a half-dozen ingredients and a slightly smaller selection of sauces to choose from. Thus you can order penne with salmon and red sauce, or linguine with salmon and pink sauce, or linguine with mussels in white wine sauce, or penne with chicken a cornucopia of combinations, yet none especially enticing. I relied on the old standby, linguine and clams in white wine sauce, which brought a bowl of properly cooked pasta completely covered by shells with a moist mollusk nestled in each one.
Desserts are taken from some tired and trite list of treats that I'm beginning to suspect is surreptitiously handed down from one new restaurant proprietor to the next. Could it be that diners are incapable of enjoying anything but key lime pie, tiramisu, chocolate mousse cake, and flan? The owners of Scorch apparently believe so, although they break the boredom a little with caramel-fudge pecan pie, which isn't a pecan pie at all but a dense dark-chocolate pie with gooey nut topping. It might not be the best dessert I've ever had, but it was decent enough for the money.
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