Wrap It Up

Woulxd anyone be too terribly upset if we declared the wraps fad officially over? The concept was okay -- an entire meal in one grab-and-go package -- but you can't really eat these bulky, cold contraptions on the run and have your shirt live to tell about it. Try as I might, I can't find one modern "wrap" that compares to such authentic favorites as the jumbo burrito at La Mexicana [1018 Fairview, (713)521-0963], served warm with lemony chicken and black beans, or the California burrito at Taqueria Arandas [4609 Irvington, (713)699-2415, one of 14 locations], a salad-stuffed version with al pastor pork and chunks of avocado. Encased in homemade flour tortillas, both burritos appear bigger than your head, demanding the use of a knife and fork, which is fine by me. Still, I must be the only one who doesn't buy into this fast-food feeding frenzy, because new wraps joints continue to roll out at an unprecedented pace.

The latest to join the fray is Sandella's Wraps & Pizzas [21503 Tomball Parkway, (281)251-9727], which opened in January to an increasingly steady flow of customers. A second location is planned for early March in The Woodlands [4747 Research Forest Drive] and two Inner Loop stores are scheduled for a summer launch. At least the New York-based franchise has put a slight spin on the concept. The Sandella's wrap starts with flat bread, the Middle Eastern mainstay that's thicker than a tortilla, yet flatter than pita, as manager John Thornburg describes it. "It tastes more like bread than a tortilla," he adds.

From there, Sandella's perks things up with pesto mayo, sun-dried tomato mayo or Thai peanut sauce, all of which complement the main ingredients, not the bread. (For my money, a spinach or jalapeño-cheese tortilla sounds good on paper but, in practice, does nothing to enhance a burrito.) Sandella's also uses grilled marinated chicken breast -- not the white-and-dark-meat fillers found at Wraps [708 Meyerland Plaza, (713)839-1100, one of three locations] and Atomic Burrito [3819 Richmond Avenue, (713)629-7999].

Not surprisingly, Sandella's franchisee Brian Forehand believes wraps are here to stay -- "for a while, anyway." How much faith do Forehand and his father, H.L. "Buddy" Forehand, have in this concept? They plan to open 30 Houston-area Sandella's in seven years. "People are tired of hamburgers and fried chicken. This is a fresh, healthy alternative to what else is out there that's fast."

The traditional fast-food giants haven't taken this trend lying down. KFC invented the Twister, an obvious attempt to recycle roasted chicken into premade wraps, which, thankfully, have been pulled from the menu. Other chains, such as Jason's Deli, Blimpie and Subway, have added wraps, each made with deli meat and pre-packaged tortillas. Atomic Burrito and Wraps both also serve their burritos cold on pre-packaged tortillas, yet both are doing a respectable trade.

At least Mission Burritos, which opened a third location in Carillon Shopping Center [10001 Westheimer, (713)782-0006], warms its tortillas -- no doubt part of the reason why a line snakes out the door during weekday lunches. It's all just more proof that the wraps biz continues to be, ahem, on a roll.

In a Family Way

Jeff Vallone surprised industry watchers in February when he stepped down from his Grotto duties to spend more time with his family. His wife, Elizabeth, is expecting their third child, and Vallone is going home for six to eight months to help out, says brother Joey Vallone. In the meantime, Joey is pinch-hitting for Jeff, overseeing the two Grotto locations [3920 Westheimer, (713)622-3663, and 6401 Woodway, (713)782-3663], as well as his own "baby," Vallone's [2811 Kirby Drive, (713)526-2811].

According to Joey, the brothers are co-owners with their dad, Tony Vallone, in the family business that includes Tony's [1801 Post Oak Boulevard, (713)622-6778] and La Griglia [2002 West Gray, (713)526-4700]. That's why Joey says this move can't be considered a demotion for Jeff or a promotion for him, as some were speculating. "No, ma'am," says Joey, when asked if Jeff was given the squeeze by his own family. "Jeff initiated this, and since I'm not married, I'm in a position to help him. Later, if I need him, he'll be there for me." Joey will divide his attentions "very carefully" between the three restaurants, leaving enough time to roll out a new menu at Grotto.

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