Luther’s Café has been around since 1949. I came upon it much later, thank you very much, when it was still the kind of greasy burger joint where you could sit at the counter and watch your very own patty being poked and prodded. And I watched the place itself morph in many ways — not all of them architectural. As gay clubs moved in across the street, the clientele changed as well, especially late at night — though the original neighborhood vibe always seemed to linger during the day.
Now that Luther’s has been forced across the street by the juggernaut that is SAC expansion, it seems to have lost a little soul. Yes, the bar is bigger and it’s backed up by bevvies of beer signs and license plates, now coexisting unironically with a sign for the fashionable St.-Germain liqueur. But its menu also touts frozen bourbon and Coke, along with such temptations as the frozen chamoy pickle margarita.
Luther’s might have been one of the first places I ever had fried pickles, and they were way better than I imagined such a thing ever could be. Over the years, however, the chili — a San Antonio signature that is nevertheless in seriously short supply — has usually rated not much more than meh. “Slow simmered with onions and poblanos,” the beefy dish now seems to have matured; though the cup serving is almost comically small, flavors were big, and the chili component didn’t smack of powder.
Also making the move across the street, of course, were the burgers —about which I once said “they’re lip synching when a little seasoning would allow them to sing outright.” On this go-round, the lunch-special Route 66 burger also had its act together. Though the puffy bun looked as though it would wilt under a sardonic gaze, it held its own better than many más macho examples; the hand-formed patty had a good char and decent flavor; and the chopped lettuce and tomato were in proper proportion, a consideration not to be taken lightly. The fries were good, too. At $5.95 (from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.) this is one of the city’s better daytime deals.
A six-buck burger fits naturally into the Luther’s ethos; skeptics might be forgiven for wondering about a $13.50 plate such as sesame-crusted grilled salmon. (Of this and other diva-like dishes, I also said “bring on the (metaphorical) sequins; the food could use some eyeliner too.”) Fitting in without question is Lyn-z, “the petite princess of Luther’s Café” who hosts Martini & Heels Mondays and Karaoke with Attitude late Fridays and Saturdays — along with serving you your New Favorite tuna melt some evenings. Maybe this is where the missing soul resides.
Or maybe not. It was well after 11 p.m. one Friday when I left Luther’s. The karaoke hadn’t yet cranked up, the dry, boneless chicken wings made one yearn for bones, and both the Watermelon Wave and the cucumber martini had required multiple wedges of lime. Maybe after midnight.
1422 N Main