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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.

"Mama had some tough brothers," he says. "Papa met her and they eloped, because their relationship didn't go over too well with the brothers. He says some Jews hid him out in a chicken coop when the brothers came to annul the marriage with a .38."

Eventually Mary's brothers came around on the marriage, and she and Raul Sr. began saving money to open their own restaurant. By 1941 they were able to open the Old Monterrey Restaurant at 1919 West Gray.

"They lived upstairs and had the restaurant downstairs," Molina says. "It was a small deal. Papa had worked in restaurants and Mama could cook. It wasn't even a Mexican restaurant, though. It was more like a diner. And they'd have to lay off half the staff during the summer because they didn't have air-conditioning and no one wanted hot, heavy food in the summer."

[Click here to enlarge.]
Graphic by Monica Fuentes
1. Ninfa Laurenzo and her grandson Domenic, who is now the executive chef and owner of El Tiempo restaurants. 2. Three generations of the Molina family: (left to right) Raul III,Mary Molina, Raul Sr. and Raul Jr. 3. Nash D'Amico and Charles Petronella in their first restaurant, which was located in Huntsville. 4. Michael Cordúa teaches his son, David, how to cook.
Photos courtesy of the respective families
1. Ninfa Laurenzo and her grandson Domenic, who is now the executive chef and owner of El Tiempo restaurants. 2. Three generations of the Molina family: (left to right) Raul III,Mary Molina, Raul Sr. and Raul Jr. 3. Nash D'Amico and Charles Petronella in their first restaurant, which was located in Huntsville. 4. Michael Cordúa teaches his son, David, how to cook.

Still, the couple made it work, in part because there were only five or six other Mexican restaurants in Houston at the time. In 1945 the restaurant was moved to South Main and renamed Molina's Mexican City. Soon after that, Raul Molina opened several more locations, which were eventually called Molina's Cantina.

"The original recipes were very basic," Molina says, remembering that one early menu even featured Italian spaghetti. "Mama and Papa had their recipes, and later Santos (a long-term employee) came in. He trained me to cook. He was with us for more than 50 years. They'd collaborate, and things changed over the years. As we began to grow, you have to get standardized."

In the '70s the family began catering in response to repeated requests from customers. Unlike many restaurants that later launched catering arms, the Molinas never sought out that business. They began catering only after persistent inquiries from longtime customers and, eventually, presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who chose to have Molina's cater events in Houston.

"Catering is a big part of our business now," Molina says. "We do engagement parties, wedding parties, divorce parties — sometimes all in the same family. We go from cradle to grave."

Raul Molina Sr. sold the business to his sons and retired in 1977, and his family has continued to run the restaurants that made Molina a name in the Houston food scene. He remained a fixture at his restaurants, greeting customers at the door and checking on tables until the mid-1990s. Molina passed away in 2001 at the age of 91.

Today there are three Molina's Cantinas in Houston, all run by Raul Sr.'s grandsons, Raul III, Roberto and Ricardo. They're recognized for being among the first Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston as well as some of the best. Many of the employees stay with the company for decades because they love the food and the welcoming atmosphere of the place. Ricardo Molina says that one thing he's very interested in for the future is negotiating changes in the minimum wage and health care for his employees, who are family to him.

"I'm third-generation," he says proudly. "I remember people coming in here when they were kids, and now they're having kids. I know that we're serving four generations now. And if someone remembers an old recipe, I have cooks who remember it, too."

The Goodes

The first Goode Co. BBQ opened somewhat by accident. Jim Goode was a corporate graphic artist who had grown weary of being beaten down on prices after he'd already done the work for his advertising executive clients in the late 1970s. He had always loved fishing and cooking barbecue, so he thought he might want to do something with those skills.

"As fate would have it," his son, Levi Goode, says, "he came to this Goode Co. BBQ restaurant, which was the Red Barn Barbecue back in the '70s. The food wasn't good, but there weren't many options."

Jim Goode got to know the husband-and-wife team who owned the small restaurant, but one day when he went in for a late lunch, he noticed the wife manning the brisket and the register on her own. She said that her husband had passed away a few weeks earlier and she wasn't sure how she'd be able to run the business on her own. It was her husband's passion, not hers, and she longed to move back to where her family was in east Texas.

"And my dad said, 'That's interesting; I've been trying to figure out a way to get into the barbecue business,'" Levi Goode explains. "So while he ate his lunch, she sat down and they started talking. And it was pretty simple. He said, 'I've got $3,000 in savings, and I've got another $3,000 owed to me by the ad agency. And that's all I've got. Take it or leave it.' And she decided to take it. So she took off her apron and handed him her keys. Before he'd even finished his lunch, he was the new owner of a terrible barbecue restaurant."

Fortunately, Jim was really good at smoking brisket, and he enlisted the help of his uncle, Joe Dixie, in getting the restaurant started. Dixie had been a prisoner of war in Japan during WWII, and he'd become the cook for the soldiers and other POWs.

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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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