For much of the last century, "horny toads" were a regular feature in the windswept West Texas landscape, ubiquitous enough to be named a major college mascot. These days, you're only likely to see the Texas horned lizard at the Matador Wildlife Management Area in the Panhandle, on TCU memorabilia, or painted on the outside of a namesake eatery just east of I-35. El Sapo Botanas y Burgers is the newish Tex-Mex burger joint from Carlos Rivero's El Chile Restaurant Group. The company has had control of the former gas station and automobile shop for several years, but it has taken them some time to develop just the right concept for the unique triangular spot on Manor Road's busy restaurant row. This mash-up of classic Texas iconography and Tex-Mex flavors could just do the trick. I never knew I wanted a Tex-Mex burger until I had one.
They've added a bricked-in patio out front with picnic tables and umbrellas that attempt to shelter diners from the relentless sun bouncing off the concrete. Some exterior landscaping could help, because all the grass and trees are on the back side of the property. But the former garage bays now house the dining room and bar where guests can relax in air-conditioned comfort. The cantina boasts an appealing selection of Texas craft brews and ciders on tap, complemented by burger-friendly Texas wines and a roster of spicy signature cocktails featuring Texas distilled spirits, tequila, or mezcal. There are no flat-screen TVs regularly, but they added them during the recent World Cup and promise to have them up on UT game days.
The menu continues the mash-up concept, taking the upscale burger, shake, and cocktail format – made popular nationally by Danny Meyer's Shake Shack and locally by Hopdoddy – and giving it a spicy Tex-Mex twist and clever Spanglish titles. Appetizers include house-made tostadas and salsas, chile con queso, guacamole, or various renderings of fries and onion rings accompanied by homemade, chile-inflected condiments. Huge Angus beef burgers and gigantic, all-beef hot dogs can be dressed with fire-roasted jalapeños, queso, chile con carne, guacamole, pico de gallo, and Mexican cheeses. The shakes and ice cream sundaes are made with Blue Bell and enhanced with Aztec chocolate sauce, cajeta caramel, strawberry chamoy preserves, and chile-glazed pecans.
Now that I've had a chance to give the menu a test-drive, El Sapo has become my go-to neighborhood spot for designer burgers, replacing the much-lamented Your Mom's Burger Bar that departed from Airport Boulevard in the spring. It's convenient both to eat in and take out, and the food packs a wallop of flavor. At this point, my faves are Charlie's Special ($12) with Cheddar, bacon, fire-roasted jalapeños, and all the trimmings, as well as El Chile ($13) with Cheddar, chile con carne, and more of those roasted jalapeños. The big, juicy patties are cooked on a flat top grill and are a meaty match for the fresh flavors of the vegetables and condiments. The only improvement I can imagine would be the option of my personal favorite – roasted poblano peppers – in place of their hotter cousin.
If beefy burgers are not your style, there's the Frijolito ($11), made with refried black beans, grilled panela cheese, grilled mushroom strips, a tostada, and guacamole; the La Cochinita ($11) with Yucatan-style achiote pulled pork; the El Pollito ($12) with a grilled chicken breast; the Lamburguesa ($14) with a lamb patty; the El Camarón ($15) with a hand-formed shrimp patty; and the El Pescador ($16) with a buttermilk-battered drum fillet. All the burger selections come with sides of fries or onion rings. While the potatoes are fresh cut and the onion rings hand-breaded, both could have been crisper (a necessary fryer adjustment, perhaps?), but the house-made chipotle ketchup had a smoky kick.
When I fancy a hot dog, the El Chiledog ($10) stuffed with cheese and topped with chile con carne and onions is the way to go. The El Jefedog ($11), stuffed with cheese and then wrapped in a corn tortilla for deep frying, seems a bit daunting. I've had every intention of sharing one of the Los Splits ($7, three scoops of ice cream with sauces and nuts) on each visit, but so far we've filled up on appetizers and burgers with no room left for sweets. While El Sapo's prices are hefty for burgers and fries, they are on par with other upscale burger outfits and the portions are very generous. Thinner, crisper fries and some roasted poblanos are all it would take for my newly discovered Tex-Mex burger craving to be totally satisfied.
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