Take a tour through Bocca Deli in this week's cafe slideshow.
Situated in the endcap of a new stucco-clad strip mall that also houses a liquor store, the prim and tidy Bocca Deli wouldn't look out of place in most areas of Houston. But here in Lindale Park, founded in 1937 as a development to complement the nearby (now demolished) Lindale Park Golf Course, Bocca Deli stands out.
Only a few blocks away near Fulton, an old fenced-off gas station sells doghouses and used bathtubs. Across the street on Irvington, the second in a fleet of Taqueria Aracely taco trucks squats outside a Matamoros meat market. Bocca Deli backs up to the M.D. Anderson Family YMCA in its mid-century brick building on Cavalcade that has served the northside area for decades, although Bocca Deli itself is only 18 months old.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Soup of the day: $2.99 Ham sandwich: $6.95 Bocca combo: $6.95 Bocca club: $7.95 Brownie la mode: $3.95 Cappuccino: $2.89
View More: Slideshow: Signature Sandwiches at Bocca Deli Blog: Bocca Deli: Your North Downtown Destination for Sandwiches and More
That's when area resident Mike Kriticos and his family decided to open a soup, salad and sandwich shop also offering such creature comforts as ice cream, cappuccino and Wi-Fi. The result is a small, inviting cafe that stands out from its neighbors while fitting right in.
Driving down Irvington Boulevard where it runs parallel to Fulton before meeting in a point at Moody Park, there is a distinctly small-town America vibe to this heavily Hispanic area north of downtown. Chains are few and far between, and residents flock from their well-kept cottages to spots like Kuko's Taqueria, Gerardo's Drive-In, Taqueria La Macro and Veracruz Seafood & Steak at night instead. The few chains that do exist are local: Taqueria Arandas or Teotihuacan, for example. Just like Bocca Deli, these restaurants offer food that's inexpensive but delicious and service that's warm and welcoming.
I was first turned on to Bocca Deli, in fact, by a friend who lives a few blocks away and was charmed to discover a sandwich shop in his newly adopted neighborhood. Lindale Park and its surrounding plots are slowly becoming gentrified as the new Metro light rail winds its way through the area in a long, deliberate construction process that's given people plenty of time to consider how this part of town will look in another five, ten or 20 years.
Where Bocca Deli succeeds for now is in being forward-thinking enough to offer its creature comforts to the so-called urban pioneers moving into and renovating older northside homes but never excluding the people who've lived there for years. This was important to Kriticos, a tall and jovial man who'll remember your name after just one visit, since he's a longtime resident himself. He, his wife and two daughters have lived in Lindale Park for 11 years.
What you'll find, then, in its modern and airy dining room is a very northside slice of life: Hispanic couples with kids in tow, delivery drivers on break, young white folks who are drawn to the affordable housing and area charm, blue-collar and white-collar workers eating side by side, all of them enjoying Bocca Deli's signature sandwiches.
All of this would be interesting albeit decidedly less so for a restaurant review if those sandwiches were boring. But they're not. Bocca Deli manages to straddle another fine line by offering what a friend recently called "creative sandwiches that aren't weird." I found that a succinct way to describe the standard-sounding panini and deli-style sandwiches that are anything but routine.
A grilled chicken could be just a bland chicken breast awkwardly balanced between two slices of bread (something found at far too many places), but here the chicken is roughly diced and grilled lightly with rosemary and other herbs before being tossed with sweet shreds of carrot and roasted red bell peppers, drizzled with honey mustard and covered with a slice of melty Provolone cheese. That cheese gets even gooier when you opt for the sandwich to be made panini-style for no extra charge, the two thin slices of ciabatta bread gone all toasty and warm inside and out.
A ham sandwich is kicked up with paper-thin slices of crunchy cucumber and a just-spicy-enough mango salsa with sugary habanero peppers that bring out the sweetness of the smoked ham. The turkey sandwich is spread with intensely herbal pesto, the summery basil giving a sharp lift to the melted Swiss cheese and oven-roasted turkey slices. The roast beef and the signature Bocca Club both feature a chipotle-laced mayonnaise that's so popular with customers, Bocca Deli simply serves a free tub of the stuff with each sandwich. You don't even have to ask.
But while the sandwiches and panini form the backbone of the menu here, two other items of note make Bocca Deli that much more attractive. First are the soups — all homemade — which rotate daily. A roasted red pepper with thick, toothsome chunks of sweet peppers and carrots has been my favorite so far. I'm hard-pressed to narrow it down from there between the equally chunky baked potato soup and the Italian wedding soup filled with bouncy meatballs, fat pearls of Israeli couscous and forest-green ribbons of kale in a broth made with rich, buttery chicken stock.
The second are the burgers, which are only served in the evenings starting at 5 p.m. The Angus patties aren't formed by hand — and there's no deep fryer here, so you'll have to make do with a bag of Miss Vickie's chips — but they're still surprisingly juicy. And best of all, they're cooked to order. My requested medium-rare burger came out a blushing pink in the middle that was quickly covered with a melting cloak of Swiss cheese as soon as I cut through the center.
Kriticos — who usually mans the register or walks the floor checking on customers and delivering baskets of food — will add any of the sandwich toppings to your burger for no extra cost. I recommend the jalapeños and roasted red peppers with the Swiss cheese, but I prefer to abstain from the peppery chipotle mayo in lieu of the velvety background offered by a single swipe of standard Hellmann's on the soft, wheaty bun.
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Although the dining room itself at Bocca Deli is perfectly nice, with a single TV mounted to one wall that plays a steady stream of modern rock at low volume and wrought-iron window coverings that look a bit Keith Haring-esque in their tangled curls, I do wish on these recent cool nights that Bocca Deli had outdoor seating.
I would grab a seat and lounge there with coffee and a brownie à la mode — or maybe just the coffee, depending on how much of the beef-heavy burger I was able to finish — and let myself be captivated by Lindale Park as it is now. Lindale Park on the cusp of change. The long-overlooked northside where vegan taquerias such as Radical Eats and the promise of sleek light-rail lines coexist peacefully with kids in soccer fields, bungalows with shrines to La Virgen in the front yard, and taco trucks cranking out barbacoa and norteño music.
Whether you regard Bocca Deli as one of the first buds of an urban spring on the northside or a momentary interloper in an area that's remained very much the same since the 1940s is a matter of perspective. You can't argue about the sandwiches, though. And that's all that matters.