Meet the First Families of Houston Food

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For his part, the 70-something-year-old spitfire isn't slowing down anytime soon.

"I think as long as you work, you're going to stay young and vital," he explains. "If God's good to me, I'll work forever.

"Someone asked me the other day, 'When are you going to retire? You're getting old.' I was offended. I said, 'First of all, I don't feel old. And I hope they carry me out of here with pasta in one hand and fish in the other.'"

The Molinas

Why did Ricardo Molina's family get into the restaurant business?

"They wanted to eat, I guess," Molina says, chuckling.

His grandfather, Raul Molina Sr., whom he calls Papa, came to Houston from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in the late 1920s to escape the Mexican Civil War. Upon his arrival he couldn't speak any English, but he was able to save money working as a dishwasher and busboy at the downtown James Coney Island. He was eventually promoted to working the counter at Tip Top Coney Island (now closed).

In 1928 Raul Molina married Mary Sarabia, whose family started a Mexican newspaper, La Gaceta Mexicana, that focused on the perspective of Mexicans living in Houston rather than just reporting on what was happening in Mexico. Ricardo Molina recalls that his grandmother's family had to figure out how to make money after her father was killed by bandits during the Mexican Civil War, so they started the expat newspaper and opened a Mexican grocery store.

"Mama had some tough brothers," he says. "Papa met her and they eloped, because their relationship didn't go over too well with the brothers. He says some Jews hid him out in a chicken coop when the brothers came to annul the marriage with a .38."

Eventually Mary's brothers came around on the marriage, and she and Raul Sr. began saving money to open their own restaurant. By 1941 they were able to open the Old Monterrey Restaurant at 1919 West Gray.

"They lived upstairs and had the restaurant downstairs," Molina says. "It was a small deal. Papa had worked in restaurants and Mama could cook. It wasn't even a Mexican restaurant, though. It was more like a diner. And they'd have to lay off half the staff during the summer because they didn't have air-conditioning and no one wanted hot, heavy food in the summer."

Still, the couple made it work, in part because there were only five or six other Mexican restaurants in Houston at the time. In 1945 the restaurant was moved to South Main and renamed Molina's Mexican City. Soon after that, Raul Molina opened several more locations, which were eventually called Molina's Cantina.

"The original recipes were very basic," Molina says, remembering that one early menu even featured Italian spaghetti. "Mama and Papa had their recipes, and later Santos (a long-term employee) came in. He trained me to cook. He was with us for more than 50 years. They'd collaborate, and things changed over the years. As we began to grow, you have to get standardized."

In the '70s the family began catering in response to repeated requests from customers. Unlike many restaurants that later launched catering arms, the Molinas never sought out that business. They began catering only after persistent inquiries from longtime customers and, eventually, presidents, including George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who chose to have Molina's cater events in Houston.

"Catering is a big part of our business now," Molina says. "We do engagement parties, wedding parties, divorce parties — sometimes all in the same family. We go from cradle to grave."

Raul Molina Sr. sold the business to his sons and retired in 1977, and his family has continued to run the restaurants that made Molina a name in the Houston food scene. He remained a fixture at his restaurants, greeting customers at the door and checking on tables until the mid-1990s. Molina passed away in 2001 at the age of 91.

Today there are three Molina's Cantinas in Houston, all run by Raul Sr.'s grandsons, Raul III, Roberto and Ricardo. They're recognized for being among the first Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston as well as some of the best. Many of the employees stay with the company for decades because they love the food and the welcoming atmosphere of the place. Ricardo Molina says that one thing he's very interested in for the future is negotiating changes in the minimum wage and health care for his employees, who are family to him.

"I'm third-generation," he says proudly. "I remember people coming in here when they were kids, and now they're having kids. I know that we're serving four generations now. And if someone remembers an old recipe, I have cooks who remember it, too."

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Kaitlin Steinberg