Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Tony Mandola

Yesterday, we spoke with Tony Mandola about his new restaurant opening in the spring, appropriately named Tony Mandola's (1212 Waugh). Today as we ask him about his recent award and how it really feels to be a Mandola.

Eating Our Words: Your wife, Phyllis, of course, is part of a big Houston restaurant family. Mama Ninfa was your mother-in-law. And then there are the Mandolas. Your family just won the Legends of Houston My Table award. Congratulations.

Tony Mandola: Thank you. It was very, very flattering. It was a proclamation by the city that honored the entire Mandola family. Grandfather Mandola ran a grocery store during World War I. They had a grocery business for generations. The family before that were farmers, then grocers, and now we've taken it to the restaurant level, so it's really a full circle, multi-generational family business. We're very proud to be Mandolas. We had 545 people at the last Mandola family reunion.

But getting back to your original question about the concept of the restaurant. My first trip to New Orleans, it was wild, but I liked it. When we first got married, Phyllis and I went there quite a bit. We enjoyed the Battle of the Bands on Bourbon Street. It wasn't the seedy place it's become today. Eating that wonderful food there resonated with me. I worked at Ninfa's for nine years. I was the first grill man. There was a bartender from the Hyatt that would recommend us to visiting executives that would be dropped off by cab. That's when the fajitas really became popular. And they were beef fajtas. There was no such thing as chicken fajitas or shrimp fajitas.

EOW: So in one form or another, you've always been a part of the family business.

TM: Working the family business is hard. I went to Nino's for awhile. Then back to Ninfa's. Then the Blue Oyster Bar opened October 22, 1982 at 2:30 in the afternoon. I'll always remember that. Then in the spring of '89, we moved here. And now in the spring, we'll be expanding to our new building.

EOW: But for the most part, customer's old favorites will still be available.

TM: Oh, yes. Like the blackened snapper, which was my first fancy snapper dish with lime and cilantro. And the Snapper Martha and Linguini Tony. And, of course, our famous banana key lime pie. My wife invented that. She used to do the baking at home. Being a good Sicilian, nothing went to waste, so one day we had some bananas that were going bad and she decided to put them in the key lime pie. People loved it. They would ask for another slice, then another slice. We sold out. One-third of all our dessert sales are this banana key lime pie.

You asked about the concept of the restaurant. It's the influences that we have here in Houston. Gulf Coast Seafood, New Orleans architecture, and Latin and Sicilian influences. Maybe I'll do a little more Asian influence on the new menu to truly represent Houston.

Be sure to join us tomorrow when we sample some of Tony's creations.

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