Big Changes at Four Well-Loved Houston Restaurants

July has been a rough month for some classic Houston establishments, but it’s also been a time of second chances. The second oldest Tex-Mex restaurant in the Bayou City announced it was closing, but hope is on the horizon. Earlier this month, members of two of Houston’s most prestigious restaurant families announced they were closing their restaurant but looking for a new location. A chef with over 40 years of experienced opened a new eatery in his old stomping grounds. And hopefully, a Vietnamese favorite will enjoy a similar rebirth after it closed this July.

Spanish Village Has a Last-Minute Reprieve

On July 17, Spanish Village, a Houston institution at 4720 Almeda, closed, as reported by Loretta Ruggiero of the Houston Press. However, there is good news: Spanish Village has been purchased and is set to reopen on August 1.

The name of the new owner has not been announced (and despite rumors, Turkey Leg Hut’s marketing firm, Boost One Marketing, has denied being the purchaser). Current owner Abhi Sreerama says, “For the time being, they’ve said they plan on running it as-is. But improvements to the building are forthcoming as they are able to get the plans and permits together.” 

The restaurant opened its doors in 1953 and is the second oldest Mexican restaurant in Houston (after Molina’s). Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the building, which is the primary reason Sreerama decided to call it quits. “We decided to part ways with the restaurant after a lot of deliberation and we found a buyer for the building,” he said. “The pandemic, obviously, has been very tough, but more in a boom/bust and completely stressing-us-out way. While we were profitable, we never had the opportunity to invest in our business because there wasn’t enough business to hire folks and both Ish [Ishita Chakravarty, Spanish Village’s chef and Sreerama’s wife] and I were working very long hours to keep the place going. Operational expenses continued to rise and the building continued to fail around us. At one point, I was spending around $10,000 a month fixing issues in the building. It was unsustainable, especially as Ish looks to grow her dessert business and our vegan following, which has proven to be very popular thus far.” 

This classic Tex-Mex restaurant is known for margaritas, enchiladas and some of the best fried chicken in town. After Sreerama purchased the business from John Medina in 2018, Chakravarty became the chef.  She developed a full vegan Tex-Mex menu that was becoming famous in its own right. 

Exterior of Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen
Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen. Courtesy Photo.

Tony Mandola’s Plans to Return to a New Location soon

Another longtime Houston classic, Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen, at 1212 Waugh, will close July 26th, as the Houston Chronicle’s Greg Morago reports. The restaurant was the brainchild of Phyllis Mandola and her husband, Tony, both of whom come from a long line of legendary Houston restaurateurs. Phyllis is the daughter of “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo, founder of Ninfa’s on Navigation. Tony is the son of Grace Mandola the matriarch responsible for Carraba’s, Nino’s, Damien’s and several other eateries. Legend has it that Tony grilled up Ninfa’s first taco and Phyllis served it to Ninfa’s first customer, her grandmother. 

The couple are not leaving the business forever. In an Instagram post announcing the closing, Phyllis Mandola said ”We aren’t done” and that “a new location would be announced soon.” Tony Mandola’s is known for Gulf Coast seafood served Italian style in a romantic setting, including a patio facing Waugh Drive.

 

The famous banh mi thap cam from Cafe TH. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Building Issues and More Force Cafe TH to Close

Popular East Downtown Vietnamese restaurant Cafe TH had its last day of service on Thursday, July 15. Owner and chef, Minh Nguyen, purchased  the cafe, which had been a fixture in Houston’s old Chinatown since the 1980’s, in 2007. Nguyen breathed new life into Cafe TH, refreshing the menu, adding gluten-free, vegan and paleo options, and bringing the community together by supporting local artists and sourcing local ingredients. The result was a unique, Vietnamese-centric fusion menu that had a loyal following. 

When contacted by Houston Food Finder, Nguyen lamented the trials of restaurant ownership: “In general, behind each smile there is someone tinkering about the next thing to ‘fix’ or to improve upon. The list goes on and never lets up. Any unaccounted obstacle adds to the stressor aisle.” 

In a July 18, 2021 Facebook post, Nguyen stated that troubles with a landlord who would not do proper maintenance and repairs on the building was a major factor in deciding to close. According to Nguyen, he had to replace the air conditioner and sewer lines at his own cost and deal with a leaking roof, among other issues. He says, “Knowing how little you [the landlord] cared about my concerns, I would handle issues that normally a landlord should address because then it would just be done immediately and efficiently. Your contractors were the least competent, and while you saved [money], your tenants suffered. This is why I left. Onward and upward.” Nguyen had also previously revealed that his electricity bill was nine times higher than normal after the devastating ice storm that hit Houston in mid-February. 

In another Facebook announcement, Nguyen stated, “From a financial crisis to a pandemic, it has been a wild roller coaster. Many of you have become my friends, family and even beyond. I can truly say that you have given me more than I can ever imagine. Literally, blood, sweat, and tears have come into this ‘making look easy’ life. My staff have been through thick and thin with me and I believe that their transition will be secure soon. My family has been the most supportive through this venture. Seriously, TH would never have existed. The future is blurry but I will be back.”

The Original Peli Peli in Vintage Park is Gone for Good, but the Chef Starts Anew

While we wait for each of these Houston favorites to hopefully reopen in new iterations, a favorite chef has returned. Northwest Houston’s Vintage Park is gaining a new concept from chef Paul Friedman, The Chef’s Table, located at 110 Vintage Park.  Friedman was chef/owner of Peli Peli, a South African concept that Houstonian’s quickly adopted. As Peli Peli grew into multiple locations, including Galleria and Woodlands locations that are still in operation, Friedman and his partner Thomas Nguyen retired their positions to pursue other projects. Now, Friedman is returning to familiar digs with a new concept.

The Chef’s Table features booths built to give every guest the feeling they are sitting at a chef’s table. Once seated, diners can enjoy an eclectic range of dishes inspired by Friedman’s over forty years of restaurant experience on three continents. Starters include Onion Bahji, curried onion fritters with peppadew ranch and mango chutney and Vlees Pastei, curried beef and carrot bredie (a traditional South African dish that blends carrots and potatoes) in a pastry crust. Main courses include sandwiches, Jerk Snapper, Portuguese Chicken Pendurada (marinated curry chicken with guava sauce, garlic butter and a sweet chili sauce) and Beef Osso Buco with Chakalaka Stew, a spicy tomato and bean mix from South Africa. Friedman cut his teeth running restaurants in South Africa and Germany before moving to Houston. He has appeared on the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen” and CNBC’s “Restaurant Startup.”

 


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