Maybe it’s the “Burger” part of the name “Sam’s Burger Joint” that kept me from visiting the place for so long (I am, after all, a vegetarian). Whatever the (unconscious) reason was, I had never set foot in the building until last week. Not when it was Billy Blue’s, not when it was Backstage BBQ, and (most unfortunately) not when it was a divey lesbian bar. What’s more, Sam’s is within walking distance of the Current, but hasn’t been the subject of a Bar Tab investigation — until now.
In the past, the concerts that tempted me to check out Sam’s were the weird ones — Japanese bands like Peelander-Z and quaff playing at a rootsy place like Sam’s suggested a photo-worthy culture clash, but the timing was never quite right. But last week, when SA native Patricia Vonne celebrated the release of Worth It (her fourth album) at Sam’s, everything fell into place. I’m not obsessed with Patricia Vonne or anything. But I am a fan of her music; and she’s one of those rare people who’s managed to stay humble in the midst of fabulosity. As Robert Rodriguez’s sister, some might say she’s had an unfair advantage as an actress. But whether she’s dressed as Zorro — playing “Dallas” in Sin City — or dressed as herself, singing in Spanish and playing the castanets, she does it well and looks great doing it.
When I arrived at Sam’s, the table my friend Margo had reserved was full, so I walked to the back bar — which was recently completely renovated — and ordered a stiff, $10 cocktail. `Sidenote: Sam’s is not an expensive place to drink, but if you, like me, happen to get thirsty for a top-shelf, double Salty Dog, it’ll cost you $10, which is pretty standard.` Rather than sitting on someone’s lap, I decided to prowl around and look for a good spot to take some photos. As luck would have it, there was one empty seat at the end of the front row — right in front of the stage.
Depending on what kind of performance Sam’s is hosting, the music-hall capacity can be anywhere from 250 to 500 people. For an intimate concert, like the one Sam’s arranged for Men at Work frontman Colin Hay last year, additional seating is brought in and the capacity is 250. For Patricia’s CD-release party, however, only a few rows of chairs had been added, leaving room to dance, stand, or sway, and all the comfy-looking booths had been reserved (booths can be reserved for $30-$60 depending on the night).
Patricia sounded great, both with her usual band and with the Infidels (a band she was “voted into as an honorary Infidette” at a tribute to Ram Ayala). After the show, I asked her how she liked playing Sam’s. She immediately mentioned the sound-system upgrade (also part of the recent makeover), saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I love playing Casbeers, but sometimes the sound gets kind of lost in there.” Indeed, the sound quality at Sam’s was more polished and precise than other places I’ve seen her perform.
During a break, my friends walked out to the patio for cigarettes. In the outdoor crowd, I met Michael “Maestro” Aurora, a DJ at KUIW, which is the University of the Incarnate Word’s internet radio station (kuiw.org). “I can’t say enough great things about this place. I can ride my bike here, drink a Diet Coke, listen to some music, and go home without smelling like an ashtray,” he said.
“Tell me about your radio show,” I said. “I had no idea Incarnate Word had a radio station.”
“Well, it’s almost exclusively local. If I have to, I’ll mix in a few songs from Austin.” Just then, Patricia appeared, and after introductions were made, she handed Maestro a copy of Worth It, which features guest appearances by such locals as Rosie Flores, Joe Reyes, and Michael Martin, and almost locals Joe Ely and Rick del Castillo.
About this time, noticing that the building that houses the Burger Joint portion of Sam’s was preparing to close, I slipped in to introduce myself to promotions director Erik Christensen and entertainment director Keith Howerton. Chatting with the two of them, I learned quite a bit about the direction Sam’s is headed. The general idea is that (partially based on the swanky renovations, which cost more than the original budget for converting the place from a lesbian bar into Sam’s Burger Joint) the bar has evolved into Sam’s Burger Joint Music Hall — a place that’s serious about music and caters to a 25-45 crowd. In terms of music, you won’t be seeing any more J-pop or J-rock at Sam’s. It seems the Japanese bands attracted a crowd so young that some kids had to bring chaperones, and one dad in particular claims to have lost his hearing at Sam’s. “With the White Rabbit so nearby, we don’t need to book metal, punk, ska, or psychobilly bands anymore. We just don’t need a mosh pit in here. … We’re evolving,” Howerton explained. “But you should really come back and speak to Mo Canales. He’s been here since day one.”
Glancing at the menu posted above the cash register, I noticed that Sam’s serves veggie burgers, so I made plans to return the following day for lunch.
Sam’s looked completely different by day. Several of the girls working in the restaurant had multi-colored hair, and an interesting cross section of people were eating burgers with the Sam’s logo branded on the bun. I tried to order a veggie burger, but they were “out,” so I ordered some nachos and tried to talk myself out of being irritated. Eventually, I spotted Mo, who used to do everything at Sam’s —from the booking to the cooking.
“The original inspiration for this place came from my CD collection — a mixture of country, rock, all kinds of stuff,” he told me. “Sam’s has changed with the times, and we want this place to be like the Stubb’s of San Antonio. If you’ve never seen the place, certain bands might think, why should we have to play a burger joint? So now we’re calling it Sam’s Burger Joint Music Hall. … It’s named after Sam Panchevre, one of the five owners, who’s also got Acapulco Sam’s.”
“Well, I came here to try a veggie burger, but apparently you’re out,” I said, gazing at the half-eaten plate of nachos in front of me (they were perfectly fine, just not what I’d come for). “Yeah, we do run out. We get them from Green `Vegetarian Cuisine`, and some weeks we sell more of their veggie burgers than they do,” he explained.
“Wow, that’s a great excuse. I figured someone had forgotten to go to Costco,” I joked.
“Nah,” he said. “We like to keep it local.” •