While the chain of Carrabba's Italian Grill restaurants exists across the nation -- there are more than 230 locations these days -- the original Carrabba's itself was founded here in Houston in 1986. John Charles "Johnny" Carrabba III and his uncle, Damian Mandola, opened the first Carrabba's on Kirby. And although the chain was sold and franchised long ago, Johnny Carrabba still owns that first location -- and he has big plans for the old girl.
A few months ago, Carrabba announced that he'd be expanding the old Carrabba's into a brand-new space a few blocks down on Kirby. And along with that new Carrabba's -- to be rebranded as Carrabba's Johnny IV -- two more restaurants would be moving in. The first of those two was Mia's, which opened nine weeks ago.
Mia's looks as if it would be right at home in Austin or Dallas despite its native Houstonian roots. This isn't just a comment on its architecture or building materials (I've long resigned myself to the fact that Hill Country-style limestone facades are de rigueur in Houston now), but a comment on its overall feel. Inside, it's as though you've stepped into the suburbs even though you're square in the middle of the Loop. Young families eat at tables that have been shoved together in long rows; women host a Bible study in one corner; kids home from college slurp milkshakes and watch ESPN on the flat-screen TVs. But for all of this, it feels flat and fake.
"I feel like I'm on a movie set," I whispered to my boyfriend as we waited for our food to come out. Everything inside Mia's is beautiful and perfect -- almost too perfect. The design is meant to evoke an old-timey, small-town restaurant/soda fountain right down to the tall, tin-capped ceilings and 1940s-era light fixtures. Collections of antique cheese graters or Depression glass juicers are neatly organized and shadowboxed on walls in rooms with fake fireplaces and pre-faded signs. Again, it's all lovely. But it has an unsettling feel, like the uncanny valley of restaurant designs.
Luckily, the food fared better than I expected, despite being fairly expensive for a counter service, fast-casual place. It's a blend of casual American dining -- chicken strips and burgers -- and something verging on barbecue but not quite (there's no brisket or sausage here, but there are ribs and pulled pork). The menu is entirely made up of the sort of innocuous middle-ground territory that can please every member of a family, no matter how picky.
And because this is a slick, corporate-run joint (Johnny Carrabba's team knows how to run a restaurant, that's for damn sure), the service is impeccable, too.
"Is this your first time here?" asked a chipper young man as we approached the counter earlier that night. When we both nodded yes, he launched straight into a friendly explanation of how the Mia's "experience" works: You order, give them your name and they bring your food to you. That simple. You don't even have to take a number. We made our choices, I grabbed a Shiner Bock on draft ("It's served at 33 degrees!" the chipper counter man told us, while my beer-nerd boyfriend grimaced silently) and we went to find some seats.
Not a short amount of time later (fast-casual does not mean fast food here, it would seem), our orders came out: a basket of fried chicken strips and a pulled pork sandwich. My sandwich came with potato salad and baked beans, the chicken strips with Texas toast, fries and jalapeño-cream gravy. Each was served in cute, black-and-white tin trays. And aside from a few minor complaints, the food itself was good.
The pulled pork was surprisingly of the Texas -- not the Carolina -- variety (I don't know why the latter is more prevalent in Houston), with thick shreds of pork butt in a tangy, deep red barbecue sauce. The diced onions and pickles on top were a nice touch, but I wished the bun held together better. The baked beans were a bizarre pinto bean soup with black pepper and bell peppers in a soupy broth, but the excellent mustard-y potato salad tasted like homemade.
The fried chicken strips were soft and yielding, with a terrifically crunchy yet light batter. On the other hand, the Texas toast was simply two buttered and barely toasted pieces of thin white bread, and the fries were soft and mealy. The latter was a particular shame because they were well-seasoned otherwise.
On the whole, however, it was mostly inoffensive stuff. I want to go back and try the milkshakes I saw everyone around me enjoying, and I'm very curious to sample the Meatball Burger, a dish symbolic of Carrabba's Italian heritage which stands out to me as full of something that I think Mia's is lacking overall: a true personality of its own. Perhaps I'll love it and grow to feel more fondly toward Mia's overall.
Mia's isn't going to lack for business either way; it seems purpose-built to offer middle-of-the-road food at slightly above-average prices for the folks who are busily gentrifying the Inner Loop pockets of Houston once again. It's a smart niche to fill, and Carrabba is doing it well -- and we still have Grace's, which Carrabba plans as an upscale Italian restaurant, to look forward to.
Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords