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A Much Overdue First Visit to Tony Mandola's

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As a self-identified "foodie" and food writer, there's little excuse I can offer for never having visited Tony Mandola's during my seven-plus years in Houston. "Mistakes were made," as they say, and it was only a few days ago that my inaugural meal took place. Note, "inaugural," not initial, because plans are already in place for follow-up visits.

The expansive menu offerings at Tony Mandola's make it impossible to appreciate the restaurant's culinary versatility in just a single albeit long dinner. Although Tony Mandola's ostensibly specializes in Gulf Coast seafood, this proclamation is not by any means limiting when it comes to designing ways in which to showcase this type of regional protein.

An entire repast could be made out oysters, to which an entire section of the menu is dedicated. "Plain," freshly shucked gulf oysters emitted a lovely maritime aroma that led us to slurp two down immediately without thought of lemon or horseradish. The addition of these condiments added a nice spicy, citrus twang that cut through the brine. Mandola's baked oysters are not overstuffed and oversalted like those at some other area seafood restaurants (Pappas, can you hear me?); the Rockefeller oysters, for example, maintain a good balance of bivalve, breadcrumbs, and garlic butter that gives rise to a rich but not cloying flavor. Likewise, the Bienville version are lightly dressed in a parmesan sauce and dotted with pepper and bacon such that you never forget you're eating oysters and not some bizarro seafood nacho. A trio sampler, btw, is the best way to try the aforementioned varieties plus the Buccaneer style with crabmeat.

Another standout starter is the shrimp cocktail Vincente, a delightful Mexican riff on traditional dish whose traditionally effete flavors reflect its WASP origins. Mandola's puts the prawns directly in the cocktail sauce, which is spicier and heartier due to the inclusion of pico de gallo and avocado chunks. The concoction could easily be consumed with a spoon, but use the accompanying fried tortilla triangles and you'll enjoy a pleasant salty crunch with each bite.

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Next visit to Tony Mandola's, I might linger over appetizers at the bar with a few friends; however, in the spirit of enjoying a proper multi-course dinner we moved on to entrees. In the face of a dozen or so tantalizing pizza, pasta, and seafood dishes on the menu, I combated this tyranny of choice by selecting the soft-shell crab special. If the preceding descriptions of Tony Mandola's fare haven't enticed you to go sooner rather than later, then this ephemeral entree offering is the perfect excuse to hasten your visit. Two monstrous, impossibly leggy crabs are battered and lightly fried, then smothered in a creamy sauce studded with oversized shrimp. My companion who ordered a perfectly good sandwich, poor boy, could hardly resist stealing some bites.

Concluding dinner at this point seemed necessary as stomachs seemed to be at capacity. Thank goodness for my hollow leg as it allowed me to end dinner on a seriously sweet carbohydrate note with the decadent New Orleans style bread pudding whose bourbon sauce just might put you over the legal limit.

What's missing from Tony Mandola's? Nothing. Okay, maybe an adjacent eponymous hotel where I can nap in between marathon meals.

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