Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Beefed up

Posted on Wed, Jul 23, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2008-07-23

“The old, neighborhood regulars still come,” offered our waitress. They think it’s fine in spite of the change, she was implying. Or maybe even because of it. Some ’splainin’ may now be required, Lucy.

I was driving down Main just south of SAC the other day — not a street I normally have occasion to take. Out of the corner of my eye something seemed different. Wow! The endearingly grungy hamburger hangout that was Luther’s had been transformed, added on to, opened up to the street, repainted … There were people sitting on a deck under umbrellas, no less. The original owner, Luther Combs, was long gone, that I knew. And though he was still manning the greasy griddle single-handedly when I first arrived in San Antonio, I had paid little attention to the continuing life of the landmark. This, however, was not your ordinary, slow-shuffle evolution but more a cataclysmic change of the meteorite-meets-earth sort. What had happened here?

Might know: Luther’s had been gentrified by gays. The new owner also runs Heat, a popular gay club within easy eyeshot, and apparently has an interest in the clubs directly across Main. As the block was already a gay nexus, it only makes sense that there should be a restaurant catering to the crowd. And as the clubs close at 2 a.m., it’s also logical that Luther’s stay open until 3. Earlier in the evening (I don’t stay up as late as 2 a.m. — and surely not 3 a.m., alas), the clientele is a friendly mix of, yes, neighborhood types of all ages, gay couples or groups, and diverse servers some of whose T-shirts might read “Actor, Waiter, (Off-Duty) Drag Queen.” It’s a side of San Antonio not often seen. And it’s encouraging; we may actually be maturing as a city.

Certainly Luther’s menu has matured. Yes, as they have been since 1954 in this location (Luther apparently opened elsewhere initially), the burgers are still at its core in all their many manifestations, but the one I tried, a chili cheeseburger, was the least of a couple of evening’s efforts. The chili tasted of chili powder, the pepperjack hadn’t melted, the bun, though sturdy enough, was ordinary… Not a bad burger; the meat itself was fine. But I wouldn’t go back just to have it. (I might return for the house-made chips, however.) I suspect the owner’s didn’t want to mess with tradition in this arena — the original open grill and counter configuration have been retained in testimony, in fact. But they have ventured out where many would fear to tread in other categories. The results may be uneven, but I give the kitchen credit for performing well above initial expectations.

We began one night with coconut shrimp, and, yes, I feared food-service product. (There are too many different and unrelated items on the menu — eggrolls, for example — to be confident the kitchen could produce all of them from scratch.) But the eight golden-fried pieces that arrived were impressive both in size and crunch. The accompanying lime dip, an assumed attempt to counter the coconut’s sweetness, missed the mark by dint of being too sweet in its own right, though the addition of lime zest to the mayonnaisey mix helped. On another night, when I thought I could actually face fried pickles, they were unavailable, but boneless wings beckoned. Big, crusty, and apparently coming from chickens that had been pumping full bags of Purina, they were odd but oddly appealing, in part because they had some of the heat but none of the mess of the Buffalo avatar. Upscaling the usual presentation, both slivered celery and red onion were part of the package, along with a polite blue-cheese dip. All of this, it should be mentioned, came on a handsome square plate. China, mind you.

As did a very impressive Cubano sandwich — properly pressed and full of the requisite ham, cheese, and pork. With the Cubano, we had opted to pay extra for the sweet-potato fries. Yes, they were appropriately crisp and colorful, but here’s a suggestion: To get more sweet-potato flavor, I suspect a coarser cut would be required. This may cause other problems (fry time, for example), but think about it.

Inventive salads are another category that must have Luther slowly spinning in his grave, but were he around to taste the Asian grilled-salmon option, he might be forced to pay it grudging heed. For my part, I’ll remove the grudging component. The mixed greens (and reds) underpinning the grilled fillet were as appealing as any I’ve had in town, the sesame-ginger dressing was snappy and judiciously applied, and the addition of fried wonton added a further layer of texture. The salmon itself, a generous slab, did lack the advertised sesame crust and was curiously smoky, but it didn’t lack for intense, teriyaki-like flavor. And, the salad was served in a stylish black bowl with a tilted opening. Let’s hear it for gentrification.

There’s a lot going on with the salmon salad, but it all works. In the entrée category, the cerveza strip steak has a lot happening as well, but this plate doesn’t quite come together. Our steak was well-flavored from its beer, lime, garlic, and cilantro marinade, but its texture was alternately tough and, well, not so tough — maybe an almost-inevitable result of the modest $10.95 price tag, I admit. Its melted-queso topping could easily be omitted, at least for this observer. And I’d rethink bedding the whole thing on top of the house-cut fries; the fries may have started out crisp (note — not crispy), but they surrender to the heat and heft of the steak ‘n’ cheese.

But a draft Dos Equis in a liberally salted glass did much to smooth out the experience. Mojitos are a possibility, too, as there’s now a full bar, well-lighted and open to the street as is the entire restaurant. No behind-closed-doors mystery here. And though Luther may also rotate underground when he thinks of turkey-burger patties with spinach, roasted red peppers, and oregano mayo, he might well be pleased that family in all its connotations seems now to have embraced his namesake. R.I.P. Luther — if you can do so on Friday and Saturday karaoke nights. “Get here before 8,” suggested our waitress. “They’re very popular.”

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