Mellow Mushroom's Kaleidoscope Pies
Take a trip through Mellow Mushroom's colorful kitchen and dining room in this week's slideshow.
Mellow Mushroom's neon sign is one of the largest I've seen outside of the Las Vegas strip, screaming bright carnival colors into the night and illuminating two mushroom-shaped cartoon characters that look like relics from a long-forgotten children's show from the 1970s. On the sign, the two mushroom men lean languidly back into a patch of other, non-anthropomorphized mushrooms. One holds a piece of pizza aloft, this gesture the sign's only real connection to the food that lies within the restaurant below.
That's the way it is with Mellow Mushroom, though. One wouldn't expect to find any of the components that make Mellow Mushroom great — its huge selection of craft beer; its sturdy pies; its impressive selection of vegetarian and gluten-free items; walls decorated with murals, paintings and mixed-media installations by local artists — in this unremarkable strip mall just north of FM 1960. One thing that the neon sign does indicate, however, is the laid-back attitude adopted by most of its staff, for better or for worse.
"I've been here five times," my dining companion chuckled during my second visit, "and I've yet to see an adult working here." Our meal that afternoon had been delayed long enough for him to catch the end of a riveting game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks — so he was happy — but I was annoyed that a meal of pizza had stretched to an interminable two and a half hours thanks to a comedy of errors: unavailable beers, kitchen screw-ups, general malaise and more.
To her credit, the waitress warned us when we sat down around 2 p.m. that our pizzas would take at least 45 minutes. "We just had a rush of people," she explained, nodding toward the half-empty restaurant in a confusing gesture. Nearly an hour later, the first of our pizzas arrived. Followed shortly by one of our appetizers — an order of pretzels and beer cheese that was short a pretzel — and the other pizza.
"The kitchen dropped one of the pretzels," our waitress laughed. "We'll get you a new one." Hey, at least you know that Mellow Mushroom makes the pretzels fresh. It turned out, she said, that our entire order was accidentally given to "the gluten-free guy" (which actually serves to show you how seriously Mellow Mushroom takes the separation of gluten-free pizzas in its massive, open kitchen), which is why only one of the appetizers — a very tasty "Magic Mushroom" soup with nubbins of shiitake and Portbello mushrooms bobbing in a white wine and Italian herb broth — had shown up within a reasonable amount of time.
Now it's entirely possible that my mind was clouded with hunger by the time my gluten-free pizza arrived, but the crust that formed the foundation of my Gourmet White was surprisingly great. It was thin and almost cracker-like at the edges but with a heft and sturdiness that supported the weight of the toppings easily. It doesn't have much flavor in and of itself, but it doesn't interfere with the ingredients that cover the top.
Although I'd only set out to taste the gluten-free crust purely for the sake of reporting back on what I'd expected to be a disappointing texture and consistency, I was shocked to find myself enjoying the wheatless crust even more than my previous pizzas at Mellow Mushroom.
I took half the gluten-free pizza home along with two other small regular pies we'd ordered for the road to test out a few factors: how well the pizzas traveled and how well they reheated. I'm pleased to say that all three pizzas stood up to the battery of tests in admirable shape. I'd even go so far as to say they're better when reheated the next day — especially the regular crust, which can be a little too thick, doughy and soft for my own tastes when it first comes out. (I prefer a crisper crust, which reheating in the oven definitely provides.) That way, you don't have to deal with slow service and a dining room that can occasionally be painfully noisy. But if you do take your pizzas to go, you'll miss out on some of Mellow Mushroom's more charming aspects.
Namely, the beer and art that make each Mellow Mushroom different, including this one — the first in the Houston area, which opened a few months ago. The pizza chain is based in Georgia but has some interesting rules in place to ensure that its restaurants across the country are as unique as the cities in which they're opened. As a franchisee, you're allowed to own and run only one Mellow Mushroom. And that Mellow Mushroom is going to be stuffed to the gills with beers from local brewers — Saint Arnold, Karbach, No Label and more, in our case — and art from local artists.
Alongside the tattooed, pierced and dyed servers, you'll find pieces from graffiti artist Weah, whose huge murals decorate most of the open wall space; a series of seven giant baseball card-style portraits by Katharine Kearns; and a massive metal sculpture in the shape of a submarine that's suspended from the main dining room's ceiling courtesy of Mark David Bradford, a.k.a. Scrapdaddy. The servers aren't the only part of Mellow Mushroom who would feel more at home in Montrose than in Spring; once inside, you'll quickly forget that you're in the suburbs. In fact, this may be the only spot to house a Weah piece outside the Loop.
For all their nonchalance, though, I'll give the servers here their credit where it's due: They're all perfectly friendly and they all know their beer, despite the fact that none of them look old enough to drink. It's a tribute to Mellow Mushroom's commitment to craft beer that their servers should be knowledgeable enough about the lineup to be able to recommend a Live Oak hefeweizen to someone who asks for an alternative to 312's Urban Wheat Ale.
Most importantly, though, Mellow Mushroom simply offers a solid pizza, sold in three basic sizes: ten, 14 and 16 inches. I just wish that you didn't have to commit to a whole pie at dinner (you can order by-the-slice at lunch only), because I want to try them all. That's how good every pizza has been so far.
I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into the first time I ordered here, and chose the small Red Skin Potato Pie, expecting thin slices of potatoes and a few caramelized onions scattered across the top. What I got was an exuberantly silly pizza that was basically covered with potato skins. Bacon bits, two types of cheese, sour cream and chives — plus spicy Ranch dressing, because this is Texas — all jostled for space, and I ate as much as I could — a single fat, gallbladder-wrecking slice — with glee.
I dove just as eagerly into my friends' pizzas that night, all of us glad to share: a Buffalo Chicken pie with a flourish of Frank's Red Hot sauce amid the chicken and blue cheese debris, and a Thai Dye with curried chicken jutting out brightly from a field of tomatoes, cucumbers, basil leaves and a red spiral of sweet chile sauce.
On a return visit, I switched between a shrimp- and andouille-sausage-topped Bayou Bleu with a base of spicy blue cheese and a Maui Wowie with ham, pineapple and jerk chicken that bounced off a garlicky pesto base. Both times, I could only manage one slice each before the flavors tilted from "enjoyably over-the-top" to "full-tilt saturation," but it was a hell of a ride.
Splitting pizzas is just one reason to visit Mellow Mushroom in a group. (I'd also advise splitting the impressively massive hoagies.) It's also one of the only places in town I know of where you can order a pitcher of top-notch, tough-to-find beers like Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan or Franconia Kolsch for about $20. And the bottled-beer list is nothing to scoff at, either.
In fact, despite offering a great selection of pizzas, Mellow Mushroom may just also be the best bar to come along in Spring in a great many years. (Sorry, Olde City Pub; I love the fact that patrons can still smoke inside your hallowed halls, but Mellow Mushroom's got you beat.) The prices are more than reasonable, and you can even design your own beer flight if you can't choose just one.
Whatever your reason to visit Mellow Mushroom, though, take a tip from the mushroom men outside before you go: Grab a pint of beer, chill out and relax. You might be here awhile, but that's okay; Mellow Mushroom is a good trip.
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