Scrape the surface

Don’t judge appearances at Big Bob’s Burgers

Release Date: 2009-01-07

“What a dump.” (Points to readers who can cite the original appearance of this camp-classic line; extra credit for recalling its reappearance years later in a more high-toned setting.) 

Robert Riddle, owner of Podna’s Catfish & Po’Boys on Austin Highway, might not be quite so blunt about his latest venture on Harry Wurzbach (he called it “nothing fancy”), but it’s clear that he hasn’t positioned Big Bob’s Burgers as a high-end alternative to the Big Mac. Perfectly timed to exploit the current economic unpleasantness, the joint — now painted an unashamed yellow with brilliant blue trim — occupies the former haunt of the original John the Greek, and the years have not been kind to what was never a jewel. I’m admittedly exaggerating somewhat here; I might think more charitably about the setting if it hadn’t been cold both days I was there, but the gas-log fireplace that is the only apparent source of heat gave a mere measure of psychological relief, no more. If I had to wipe ketchup off my notes, it’s because of trembling hands. 

But in context I did appreciate the hot fries — showing a bit of skin, just as I like them. They’re boldly seasoned and hit that desirable middle ground between crisp and floppy. Even better are the house-dipped onion rings, appropriately crunchy and graced with the slightest sheen of grease. 

But as important as these two sides are, Big Bob is basically about burgers, served to you simply wrapped in paper (upside down, I contend), and the cheeseburger with everything was the obvious choice from a menu that lists the usual options, along with a patty melt, grilled chicken and chicken-fried steak sandwiches, and a couple of dogs.  

When Bob says “everything”, he does mean it — pickles, onions, shredded lettuce, tomato, mustard, and mayo … and he means it to exuberant excess. The melted Swiss got totally lost in the avalanche of extras (American and cheddar are the other options — not that you could tell the difference), and even the beef had to battle for attention. Medium is the default setting, though the cooks can leave a little pink if you prefer, and when you get down to it, the meat is fine; it’s fresh, unfussy, and has a good char taste. My suggestion, if you’re usually won over by “the works,” is to ask for less of a good thing. 

At least that was my approach with the grilled chicken-breast sandwich, especially as I was intent on adding guacamole. Big mistake. My request for less of more got lost, the gray-green guac acted as a lubricant, and the whole thing became a slithery mess inside (and outside) of its sesame-seeded bun. The flavor of individual parts was fine: The guacamole may have looked tired, but it tasted good, and the chicken breast had real texture and flavor. But the combination was a construction catastrophe. Maybe, in this case, the approach should be to ask for a smear of guac on one half of the bun, mayo on the other, and a little lettuce on top of the chicken. Definitely no pickles. Or maybe that’s getting too fancy.  

Dessert sets out to be simple — as in there’s only one: peach cobbler. If I remember correctly, the cobbler is a staple at Podna’s, where it fits right into the Cajun-Creole theme. At Big Bob’s it seems like an afterthought, an evaluation reinforced by the order-taker’s confusion about whether or not they actually had it. The bready matrix holds heat, I’ll give it that, but not much in the way of fruit. It’s not bad, but you can safely ignore it — unless you need a personal hand-warmer. 

So, back to the dump. It was the queen of camp, Bette Davis, who uttered the line in the 1949 movie Beyond the Forest, in which she (over)plays a “small-town strumpet” yearning for a more exciting life. The quote’s second memorable appearance was on the lips of Elizabeth Taylor in her not exactly restrained performance as Martha, a small-town academic’s bitter and vituperative wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Moral: less can be more — in architecture, relationships, and burgers. But how often is it? 

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