Let’s cut right to the chase: I have a new favorite everyday burger, and it comes from an unlikely source — a taqueria better known for its smoked meats and its funky mezcal drinks.
That would be Cantina Barba, the brick and mortar version of a popular taco truck that made its name on the edge of Old Sixth Ward. It sits like a goth-hipster bait camp on a busy corner leading into Woodland Heights, and I am pleased to say it is open from early morning to late at night, and on weekends into the early morning hours. Come along and meet Cantina Barba’s $5 cheeseburger.
Price: $5 for the single-patty cheeseburger. Add $8 if you want a shaken-to-order mezcal margarita. Hard to beat those prices.
Ordering: Line up at the register, consult the blackboard menu— the burger is the very last item, almost like an afterthought — and place your order. Then find a seat at one of the counters, a high community table, or out on the patio, which has a quintessential view of a vintage A-frame Whataburger. (Don’t worry; your Barba burger will be a lot better.)
3701 N. Main
Open 7 a.m.-midnight Sunday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday & Saturday.
Architecture: No salad stuff! (Therein lies part of its greatness.) Inside a tissue wrapper lies a super-toasty-on-both-sides bun, a thin 1/3-inch ground beef patty, a coverlet of melty American cheese, some thick bread-and-butter pickle slices, and a swipe of kicky pink sauce that tastes like it has some mustard in it.
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Quality: This burger has the perfection of utter simplicity. Forget all those tall, cheffy monsterburgers layered with all manner of prestige ingredients. Cantina Barba is dealing in essentials here, delivered in a size that makes it blissfully easy to handle and eat.
The lightly smashed-down beef patty has a great mahogany-hued frizzle to it, and a suspicion of pinkness at its heart. The sticky American cheese is as melty as you please. And those bold sweet-sour pickles! They are custom ordered from Houston’s Lizz Dean, aka The Pickle Babe, and the Barba boys were right about the thickness they wanted to give just the right crunch to their burger.
The buttery toastiness of the trim little bun wraps everything up into a package so primal and harmonious that I demolished it in record time. How good was it? So good that I did something I can’t remember doing before in all my years of writing Burger Fridays: I marched up to the register and ordered another one.
Ooze rating: Good, thanks to just the right balance of grease and melted cheese.
Letter grade: A plus.
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Bonus points: The availability of smart, slightly off-kilter beverages is a big attraction here. I love the elemental, soul-rattling aggressiveness of the mezcal margarita, shaken to order and served in an ice-filled highball glass rimmed with salt and a mix of peppers. And I’m a big fan of the seasonal fruit slushies, including the gentle fresh pineapple number livened with orange and lime.
Also notable are the taco add-ons you can request to customize your burger, including grilled onions, guac, queso or fresh (not pickled) jalapeños. I bet they’d even slip you one of their serious salsas if you asked.
Even so, I am not inclined to mess with the perfection of the basic 5-buck cheeseburger here — not even to spring another 3 bucks to make it a double double.
Local color: Rusted-out galvanized aluminum, wood paneling and a bit of neon are a backdrop for all manner of Houstonians to eat, drink and dash. At night, a delightfully motley parade of clubbers and party people crawls through. At odd hours, lots of solo diners duck in for a restorative burger or a handful of the very good tacos, while “King of the Hill” plays silently (closed captions, please!) on the flat screen. I was lucky enough to be there when The Pickle Babe made a delivery. She had an extra jar for a regular who told me he has spent about $50 on her pickles so far … and counting.
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Alison Cook is the Chronicle’s James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic. Follow her on Twitter, and keep up with Houston’s latest dining and drinking news and reviews by subscribing to our free Flavor newsletter.