Novemburger: Cafe Express

Because 50 Burgers, 50 Days wasn’t enough, I’ll write about a new burger every day this month. And next. We’ll call that Decemburger.
Day 29: Cafe Express
3418 N. Lamar Blvd. 452-9888,
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.29.11
It’s been a busy couple of years for Houston celebrity chef Robert Del Grande. His Mediterranean-inspired restaurant Soleil anchors the resurgent Oasis complex at Lake Travis, and before that he brought the first Austin location of his fast-casual chain Cafe Express to the old site of La Madeleine on North Lamar Boulevard. “Fast casual” is industry shorthand for little fast-food Pinocchios with dreams of becoming real someday. With big menu boards, self-serve soda fountains, sandwiches, salads, burgers and breakfast, this could be a Wendy’s, with sparkly pagers replacing shouted-out numbers. Except that Cafe Express adds salmon pasta and roasted chicken and wine by the glass, plus free wi-fi, bottomless cups of Kenya AA coffee and a condiment bar with kalamata olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted garlic. So what if you have to walk up and grab your own food?
The burger: Spinach and mushrooms collectively are the vanilla ice cream of the upwardly mobile menu. They show up in the fancy versions of everything: quesadillas, calzones, steaks, stuffed chicken, queso. And they work, because for the most part they don’t taste like anything. The same is true for the spinach-mushroom burger ($8.99) at Cafe Express. They look nice, with the spinach in a verdant tangle and the quartered pieces of baby portobellos tumbling down the sides like button-stemmed boulders. But they’re invisible against a half-pound of grilled beef that announces itself like the new sheriff in town. I’d cast off the watery shredded lettuce so it doesn’t damage the buttery wheat bun.
The secret: Raid the cluster of condiment jars by the drink station to give your burger real personality with a layer of chewy-sweet sun-dried tomatoes and mashed cloves of garlic. Express yourself. Another nice touch: Along with lemons and limes to garnish three kinds of iced tea, Cafe Express lays out fresh mint leaves.
Fries or rings? Burger plates come with a choice of chips, fries or fruit, but 99 cents will upgrade you to sweet-potato fries cut into burnt-orange planks with rough edges and hearts of gold. Otherwise, you can look into a loaded baked potato, steamed broccoli, green beans or other full-grown sides for $3.49. I used a menu loophole to turn my burger into a combo with a $1.29 cup of turkey chili. More accurately, it’s a salty stew of ground turkey, corn, onions, tomato and kidney beans, a mix that won’t challenge the adventurous palate but will suit four out of five people in your group just fine.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Novemburger index