The mark of a good restaurant happy hour is that one leaves at minimum more than satisfied—perhaps even pretty impressed—and willing to return for a second time around should the opportunity present itself. The mark of an incredible happy hour is that one craves third helpings of the food and cocktails the very next morning and badgers not just her significant other but everyone she knows to return with her to the restaurant as soon as possible.
Case in point, Tony Mandola’s new happy hour, which is incredible and, I will go as far as to say, this reporter’s current favorite in Houston. And it's a generous happy hour menu too, available every day—even Saturday and Sunday—from 2 to 6:30 p.m.
Over the past five years, Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen has sought to reinvent itself to keep up with our city’s evolving economic and dining landscape. Some patrons have welcomed the transformations, while others have greeted changes to the restaurant’s original menu with ambivalence if not outright resistance. I challenge anyone—well, anyone with functional taste buds, that is—to object to the wonderfully innovative additions their talented new chef Juan Arelleno has made to the happy hour menu.
Note, “additions,” not “substitutions,” for still present are ever-popular items such as the $1 plump Gulf oysters on the half shell or the peel-and-eat-shrimp served by the quarter pound. Much of the appeal of these high-quality crustaceans is due to their purity and simplicity; all the more reason, then, to pair them with Arelleno’s more complicated creations, such as the borderline addictive pork carnitas wontons, crispy dumplings filled with well-seasoned shredded porcine flesh, cilantro and salsa verde, and dressed with a mouth-warming ginger tomatillo sauce.
Milder in flavor but equally rich were the lobster deviled eggs, whose deep sunny yolks were speckled with sweet bits of lobster meat and thickened with remoulade. Tempering this otherwise very decadent ova confection was a pleasant twang from some lemon zest and a light dressing of piquant sweet chili sauce.
In theory, I was supposed to share the shrimp empanadas with my dining companions. In practice, I wanted all three of these deep-fried half-moons of dough to myself. Stuffed with prawns in a tomato sauce and heavily garnished with thick crema fresca, the empanadas paid delicious homage to the blend of the ethnic influences manifested in much of Texas and Gulf Coast cooking.
Arelleno’s pièce-de-résistance is the bruléed bone marrow, so supple it all but leaks out of its ossified casing and is so juicy that readily saturates the crispy crostini with which it is served. The side of pepper jelly that accompanies it only enhances the unctuous marrow by providing a spicy, sugary contrast. Finally, if you demand potatoes with your meat (marrow), and your happy hour partners in crime have already gobbled up all the toast, order some “XL” fried baked potato wedges. Their soft, flaky starch is well-suited for sopping up the errant liquid fat and they came with some killer jalapeno bacon jam.
Although food is clearly the star of the show during Tony Mandola’s happy hour, cocktails, such as the $5 frozen margaritas and Bellinis and the standout “Pink Panther,” made of vodka, sparkling wine and fresh lemon, are nevertheless solid in their supporting roles. But limit your libations lest you run out of room for marrow.