Hutchins Street in old Chinatown is one of those thoroughfares that most people drive down only when they're lost. The street was once home to several little mom-and-pop restaurants, and Jenni's Noodle House seems to have set off a revival of that tradition. Last May, in the spot where Sal's Patio used to be, the District 7 Grill (1508 Hutchins Street, 713-225-4950) opened. Head chef and co-owner Babak Elham tells me about his new place.
"My partner is Shelley Elham," Babak says of his wife. "She's the boss." The menu at District 7 features lots of variations on the muffuletta, but Babak tells me he isn't much of a fan of the sandwich. "I went in with a different concept in mind," he tells me. "I wanted to do salads, Italian food. I have always been around Italian food." Babak started in the business at Lombardi's and Sfuzzi, two Italian restaurants in Dallas. He was transferred to Houston when Sfuzzi opened a short-lived location here. Since then, he has also worked at Vincent's on West Dallas.
"So why did you start making muffulettas?" I ask him.
"Because the customers insisted on it," Babak sighs. Unbeknownst to the new owners, their restaurant location had been associated with muffulettas for more than 25 years. A newspaper article from the early '90s that now hangs on the wall at District 7 explains the place's heritage. The restaurant used to be known as Jabo's, Jabo being a nickname for the proprietor, Joe Sciortino, who was famous for his muffulettas. Joe sold the restaurant to his cousin, Sal Campise, who kept the muffuletta tradition going. "The muffuletta we make now is Sal's recipe," says Babak. And Sal probably got it from Joe.
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It's an unusual muffuletta, if your basis of comparison is the muffuletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans, which is generally considered the definitive version. Muffuletta bread in New Orleans is hard, and the sandwich there is made with ham, salami and provolone topped with an olive salad that's heavy on the olive oil. The sandwich tastes better as the olive oil soaks into the bread and softens it up.
But Houstonians are less patient than Crescent City residents when it comes to sandwiches, so muffulettas here are generally made with softer bread. At District 7, a soft sesame-seed bun is slathered with a mayonnaise-based spread, piled with ham and salami and topped with mozzarella cheese. Then the sandwich is popped in the broiler. It also comes with olive salad and pickles. The sandwich is good, but it's not like the Central Grocery original.
"I had my first muffuletta maybe seven or eight years ago. I tried the one at Central Grocery in New Orleans three or four years ago," says Babak. "It was awesome. You never forget that taste."
So why doesn't District 7 make a New Orleans-style muffuletta? You could ask the same question of Zinnante's or Jason's Deli or any number of other Houston sandwich shops. The answer, of course, is that Houstonians have their own ideas about muffulettas. "I try to improve on it a little," says Babak, "but I can't tell you how many times people have come in here and told me, 'Don't you dare change the recipe of that muffuletta.' " Babak keeps trying new things; he makes his own Caesar dressing, pizza sauce and pesto. And he's proud of his pizzas, pastas and bizarre buffalo-cake poor boy (made from ground buffalo and potatoes). He's also proud that nothing on the menu is over $8. "I want to be known for great burgers and great Italian food with fresh ingredients," Babak says. "But we will always have muffulettas, too. We have to work around what's been there for 25 years."