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Meet the First Families of Houston Food

Connect the dots and you’ll find our city’s restaurant scene has been dominated by a few hardworking culinary pioneers and their descendants.

"My wife started making the marinara sauce for the meatball sandwiches," he recalls. "And then she made pasta, then lasagna, and the next thing you know...I can't remember the last time we served a hamburger."

Even fairly recently, though, Patrenella says, the area where Patrenella's sits off Washington Avenue was a bad neighborhood. He recalls that ABC came to town in 1991 to film a segment about the improvements in Houston inner-city neighborhoods, and the mayor suggested the crew speak with Sammy.

"The interviewer said, 'What made you come in this barrio?'" Patrenella remembers. "And I said I didn't have enough money to open in the Galleria. And the mayor yelled 'Cut!' So we changed it to 'It's my roots and I wanted to give something back to where I grew up.'"

Michael Cordúa (left) opened the first Churrascos in 1988, 
and now his son, David, serves as executive chef of all 
Cordúa restaurants.
Max Burkhalter
Michael Cordúa (left) opened the first Churrascos in 1988, and now his son, David, serves as executive chef of all Cordúa restaurants.
Ricardo (left), Roberto (center), and Raul Molina III (right) now own and operate the restaurants opened by their grandfather in the 1940s.
Max Burkhalter
Ricardo (left), Roberto (center), and Raul Molina III (right) now own and operate the restaurants opened by their grandfather in the 1940s.

Today Patrenella is still just as spunky, and he's still in the restaurant every day. His son is in charge of private parties and relieves his father at night, and one of his daughters does the payroll and insurance and keeps the books.

"I guess you'd call it a family affair," Patre­nella says. "And here's the best part: When I wake up in the morning, it's 48 steps to the cash ­register."

The Cordúas

Patriarch Michael Cordúa didn't intend to be a restaurateur. He was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and initially came to Houston to study economics and finance at Texas A&M University, graduating in 1980. By that time, the revolution in Nicaragua had made it a dangerous place to return to, so Cordúa started working for the International Gulf Chartering company at the Port of Houston. He was a port captain and shipping agent, which he enjoyed, but when the oil boom went bust in the mid-'80s, the shipping company was liquidated. Cordúa found himself with a wife and young family, a lot of free time, and no solid career path.

"The owner of the company closed down," Cordúa explains. "I didn't see myself out of a job. I saw myself out of a career. I knew cooking was what I loved to do. I had a hard time believing that, but it's true."

Cordúa had taught himself to cook shortly after moving to Houston because he missed the food of his home country. Suddenly without a job, he decided to take a gamble and open a small restaurant to showcase the food of his homeland.

On August 8, 1988, Cordúa opened his first restaurant, Churrascos, even though he had no formal training in the industry or in a kitchen. In spite of the fact that the food won high praise from critics, the restaurant lost money initially, because people were more accustomed to Tex-Mex cuisine than Latin American food. In 1989, however, Churrascos made Esquire magazine's "Best New Restaurants in America" list, and people began to take notice of the 130-seat Latin American joint.

"When we opened using the Spanish word churrascos, people assumed it was Mexican," Cordúa says. "There was no genre of Latin American. When we were opening, Houston had very good steak, very good barbecue, good Tex-Mex and some Italian, but very little beyond that."

Thanks to the popularity of the first restaurant, Cordúa opened a second, larger Churrascos in 1990, emphasizing the namesake churrasco meat that he is credited with introducing to the United States. In 1994, Cordúa was named a best new chef by Food & Wine magazine, and he was later inducted into the Food & Wine Hall of Fame.

Following the success of Churrascos, Cordúa decided to go a bit more upscale with Américas, which was named restaurant of the year by Esquire in 1993. Later came Amazón Grill in 1999, Artista in 2002 and another Churrascos.

In 2007, Cordúa's son, David, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris, decided to join the family business, though, as with his father, cooking wasn't his ultimate goal, either.

"For David, it was seen as a punishment," Cordúa says. "If he missed curfew, he'd have to go peel plantains. He thought he was going to be a rock-and-roll man, not a chef."

It wasn't until college, when David found himself working in a soup kitchen, his father says, that he "discovered the power of food."

Together, the father-and-son team has expanded the business into eight Houston restaurants and a hugely successful catering company. The fourth Churrascos opened in Gateway Memorial City in late fall 2013.

The elder Cordúa doesn't necessarily credit the fact that his restaurants are part of a local chain for his success.

"I don't think it's so much that people are faithful to their roots here," he says. "I think it's that we know our people here."

The family recently came out with a cookbook that features 99 recipes, many of which helped make the restaurants famous. It's not a traditional Latin American cookbook, because the Cordúas have been so influenced by the melting pot of cultures and cuisines in Houston, from Tex-Mex to Vietnamese. There are also some new recipes that David says are indicative of the continuing evolution of the Cordúa restaurants and the directions the family will be going in the future.

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15 comments
keith2127
keith2127

@Kaitlin  I wanted to send this article to someone out of state, but can only see some of it up to the first part of the Patranellas.  How do I get the whole article? Is this a website problem?


cmetz
cmetz

Where is Luke Mandola and the Rajun Cajun?

Vinh
Vinh

What about the family behind Kim Son?

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

Though Vallone himself no longer owns these places, he wants to make one thing clear: "We've never closed a restaurant. We've sold them, but we've never closed."

Not true. Vallone closed Cafe Bello in Montrose, as mentioned later in the story.

Sedona
Sedona

Local stories like this, full of context and how it relates to my experience today, is why I continue to love Houston Press. Thank you and keep it coming.

oldschoolitalian
oldschoolitalian

The story about D'amico's Italian Ristorante is not 100% true. Frank Petronella was never an owner in the restaurant. Frank and his brother Bernard where just employees of the restaurant who barely even showed up to work because they had a few bad habits that prevented them from getting up in the morning. After Nash D'amico and Damian Mandola sold there parts in the restaurant to Charles Petronella and Tony Rao. So tell little Paulie he needs to get the truth from his dad and uncle. 


glukin
glukin

Is there a higher resolution version of the family history graphic?  It looks very interesting, but it's not legible!

BrodoDiVitello
BrodoDiVitello

@cmetz

Yeah, he had that liquor store next to Ragin on Richmond, and there was that crazy partner of his, what was his name, Frankie Messina, maybe? 

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@Kylejack  Vallone said he sold Caffe Bello to an investor. I don't think he considers that closing outright. I think it's a matter of opinion. Thanks for reading, though.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@thibbodo @keith2127  Yes, I am too. I'd say give it an hour and refresh. I'll let our web guy know though. Sorry about that!

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@KaitlinS I think he transferred the lease to the Don Julio business owner, which I don't really see as selling the business. If it ceased to operate as Cafe Bello when he ended his involvement, I see that as closing a restaurant.

 
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