Decemburger: Judges' Hill Restaurant & Bar

First came 50 Burgers, 50 Days. Then Novemburger. 2011 wraps up with a burger a day for Decemburger.
Day 17: Judges’ Hill Restaurant & Bar
1900 Rio Grande St. in the Mansion at Judges’ Hill. 495-1857,
Hours: 6:30 to 10 a.m. Monday-Friday. 7 to 11 a.m. Saturday-Sunday. 4 to 10 p.m. daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.17.11
Things you should know about eating at Judges’ Hill include how to park. If you’re not a hotel guest, don’t even think about parking by the building. Instead, go west on MLK Boulevard, then turn right at the second driveway past the two-story, columned facade of the main building. You’ll get the thrill of parking in an unmarked lot as rough as a honky-tonk’s backyard to eat in a place where a burger and chips cost $16. It’s an exaggeration fueled by a mammoth tour bus on the lot the night I was there. It belonged to the rock band Chevelle, whose members were staying at the boutique hotel and stirring up some celebrity buzz as they tipped a few at the bar.
Once you’re inside, it’s like a Victorian sitting room with a tiny bar that makes room for Austin Beerworks and Super Tuscans alike. The waiters are dressed in we-mean-business black, and the environment is calm and professional. And it’s a place to covet a glass of Inwood Texas tempranillo for $12, a wine whose aroma perfumes your table with dark fruit like a Glade Italiana air freshener. It’s a monster glass with modest tannins, bright heat and black cherry. Paintings from Kathy Womack’s “Women and Wine” series surround you at the bar, and that’s good. What’s not good is having to watch “The Biggest Loser” finale as you stare down the cheeseburger equivalent of a “before” montage.
The burger: Judges’ Hill made the Decemburger lineup because of a simple e-mail from executive sous chef Sarah Heard, who described the $16 Signature Kobe Burger like this: “We have a locally sourced Wagyu burger on a housemade onion bun, with Louie sauce, housemade pickles, tomato and local peppered white cheddar.” What’s your move, hotshot? Yeah, that’s something I had to try, too.
I’m glad she made the Wagyu distinction, a more careful wording than the menu’s Kobe proclamation. The Strube Ranch Wagyu shares lineage with the Japanese super-steer, but the Kobe name belongs specifically to basketball players and cattle from a foreign land. No matter. The fact is, the Wagyu makes a difference here, on a burger with the compact size to keep the meat in balance with the rest.  It’s rich, and any dreams of wolfing it down for a quick dinner disappear after three bites. Long, slow bites full of fat and lean in density and proportions we’re not accustomed to. It’s as much a steak sandwich as a burger, even in ground form. Heard didn’t even mention the balsamic onions, sweet and acidic and tart all in one bite, a reminder that some things are better left to surprise. We could raise every burger in the city a notch if they used this robust bakery bun, striped like a decorated soldier across the top with a single strand of caramelized onion. Louie sauce is a lot like Thousand Island. The good kind, but still, you’ll want to meet this burger on its own terms.
Fries or rings? House-fried potato chips, even ones as competently crunchy as these, aren’t in the same league as the Wagyu burger. I passed up cherry-pecan risotto, pepita-raisin polenta and grilled chayote hash from a list of add-ons and went with mushroom-parmesan risotto for $3.75. Too much black pepper, a mushroom shortage and an overcooked bite suggested that I might have made the wrong choice that night. More room for Wagyu, I say.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
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