"You want mustard on that?" Larry Puccetti, the bartender at Sonny's Place on Galveston Island, asked my buddy John Bebout when he ordered a double meat cheeseburger all the way. It was an odd question, since a Texas cheeseburger all the way always includes mustard. But Bebout answered in the affirmative.
When Larry reappeared ten minutes later, he had my plate of Mama Theresa's spaghetti and meat sauce in his right hand and Bebout's hamburger basket in his left. Also held precariously in his left hand was a yellow squeeze bottle. As he set down Bebout's hamburger, a bright yellow stream shot out of the plastic bottle and went all over Bebout's starched white shirt.
"Oops," said Larry. My eyes widened. From where I sat, it looked like Larry had squirted Bebout with mustard on purpose.
1206 19th Street, Galveston, 409-763-9602.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Mama Theresa's spaghetti and meat sauce: $9.99
Mama Theresa's spaghetti and meat sauce (1/2 order): $7.99
Double meat cheeseburger: $4.35
Gumbo (bowl): $5.75
Gumbo (cup): $3.95
Tex-Mex pasta: $10.99
Tex-Mex pasta (1/2 order): $8.99
"Goll dog it!" yelled Bebout, leaping as far as the narrow confines of the Naugahyde booth would allow, trying to fend off the mustard onslaught with his right hand.
Then Bebout and I, along with nearly everybody else in the restaurant, convulsed in riotous laughter -- because the yellow stuff wasn't really mustard. It was a bright yellow string. Bebout and I had been taken in by the old fake mustard squeeze bottle. Which, as it turns out, is a running gag at Sonny's Place. Larry pulls this joke on people he doesn't recognize (e.g., tourists from Houston like us).
The cheeseburger patties were cooked to a pinkish medium and topped with finely chopped lettuce, onions, pickles, mayo and, yes, mustard. The freshly toasted bun was very fresh. They grind their own beef for the burgers, chili and meat sauce, and use a machine to turn out thin, fifth-pound hamburger patties. One patty would have been too thin for me, but the ratio of meat to bun on the double meat cheeseburger was just perfect.
I got a half-order of the Mama Theresa's spaghetti and meat sauce entrée, and it proved to be plenty for Bebout and me to split. It came covered with Parmesan with two large slices of toasted garlic bread on top. To me, it tasted like well-done comfort food, but Bebout went crazy over it. He asked a waitress to bring him another couple of dollars' worth of meat sauce to eat by itself.
With nothing but meat sauce on his plate, Bebout pointed out that there was no water runoff from the tomatoes; instead there was a thick oil halo, probably because they use so much olive oil in the sauce. And he said that the freshly ground meat made this truly superior meat sauce the best he had ever tasted. I can't say that I've ever compared meat sauces carefully enough to make a judgment of that sort, but I will agree that it was damn good spaghetti sauce.
Our waiter, Larry, came back by the table. "Is the food okay?" he asked with a serious look on his face. "I'm kinda worried that things may be off in the kitchen. My dad had an accident this weekend; he fell off a 40-foot ladder."
"Omigod," Bebout exclaimed. "That's, like, four stories!"
"Luckily he was only on the first rung when he fell off," Larry chortled. We smacked our foreheads with our greasy palms. Suckered again.
Larry has been working at Sonny's Place since 1977, but he's still regarded as a youngster. His dad, Lawrence Puccetti, Jr., or "Junior," as he's known, has been here for 55 years. Junior is the current owner of Sonny's Place, having inherited it from his father, Lawrence "Pappa" Puccetti, who opened the bar and restaurant in 1944. Junior stopped by our table after lunch and parsed the claim on the menu that says Sonny's Place is the oldest bar and restaurant on the island.
Sonny's Place isn't as old as Gaido's, the oldest restaurant in Galveston, Junior admitted, but Sonny's Place is the oldest Galveston restaurant to operate continuously at the same location.
Some of the furniture and fixtures look like they've been around since the beginning. The maple paneling is definitely approaching antique status, but I bet the salami-red tile floors are new. The walls are covered with photos and articles that go back for decades. Don't miss the plaque on the bar that tells the story of a gunfight that left a dent in the beer tap and a hole in the wooden bar top. Junior is evidently quite the gunslinger.
He told me the long gunfight yarn the first time I visited Sonny's Place, about a month ago. On that occasion, I sampled the muffuletta and wasn't terribly impressed. There used to be a bakery on the island that made muffuletta rolls, but it's gone out of business. So the rolls come from Randalls now, and they taste like white bread. Then Junior heats them in the microwave, which doesn't do much for the already insipid crust. At least the olive salad is good.
Once upon a time, the olive salad on the muffulettas was made from olives Junior's mother cured from the olive trees that grow all over Galveston Island, he told us. His mother was Mama Theresa, she of the spaghetti-and-meat-sauce fame.
Bebout, who had become understandably skeptical about anything a Puccetti told him, thought Junior was putting us on about the olives. But Junior told us to drive over to the corner of 17th Street and Avenue K after lunch. The house on the southwest corner has six olive trees in the yard, and the olives are just now turning black, he said.
Junior grinds his own meat because that's the way Mama Theresa did it. All the talk about his grinding his own beef made me want to come back and sample chili con carne and the retro classic called Tex-Mex pasta, spaghetti topped with chili, cheese and jalapeños. That's a throwback to the spaghetti mexicano found in old Tex-Mex joints like Felix at Westheimer and Montrose or Larry's Original Mexican Restaurant on 90-A in Richmond.
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I'm still looking forward to trying the gumbo, which is served only on Fridays. You get your choice of shrimp, crawfish or mixed, and young Larry thinks it's the best thing they serve.
The other outstanding item I did sample at Sonny's was something the menu described as a shrimp bun. A toasted hamburger bun is covered with three or four hot, juicy jumbo fried shrimp that have been butterflied and spread out to cover the bread. The bun is then spread with a lot of homemade tartar sauce that's deliciously heavy on the pickle relish. It comes naked or dressed (I got dressed). Which means topped with onions, lettuce and tomato. The hot dressed shrimp bun may be the best thing I tasted at Sonny's Place.
There were four women paying their bill at the cash register right next to us as we finished our lunch and got ready to leave. "Those are beautiful sunglasses. Can I take a look at those?" Bebout asked, extending his right hand toward one of the women standing a few feet away from our table.
"I know all about the mustard," she said to Bebout, who had his left hand on the yellow plastic squeeze bottle. "You should have tried it on her," she said, pointing to one of the other women. "She's new here, too."