According to a 2017 Washington Post report, American fast-casual-restaurant sales grew from $15.7 billion in 2011 to $26 billion in 2016. But in Houston, you don’t need any stats to recognize this influx in eateries combining fast-food-style service with sit-down-style ingredients and preparation.
Just look around at the Shake Shack invasion, or the increase in micro-chains founded by the city’s longtime restaurateurs: Local Foods and Peli Peli, for starters. Fast-casual is everywhere in this town.
Which is not to say that everyone has caught on. On a Saturday evening in an Energy Corridor shopping center, as I pulled up to one of the several available parking spots at Mona Fresh Italian Food, it was hard not to notice all the cars that were snaking around the nearby Chick-fil-A. Maybe the drivers simply weren’t aware of what was on offer, steps away, at the same speed and price point.
Mona is owned by Sidney Degaine, who, quite recently, could be found serving foie gras and salmon tartine to eager patrons as chef/owner at Montrose’s Cafe Azur. Degaine and his wife, Marie, sold that restaurant in March, plotted their next steps, and opened their counter-service concept, with a menu of homemade pastas, sandwiches, and salads, in July.
It may seem surprising that the Degaines pivoted from gourmet French-contemporary to Italian fast-casual, but it’s something that’s always interested the couple. And they’re thinking expansion; plans are in place to add Mona locations, with an eye to downtown Houston.
“Nothing against fine dining—and I actually miss it a little bit—but I would love in the future to have more restaurants, maybe open a commissary kitchen and work with big quantities,” Degaine told me over the phone. “It’s good to change.”
As I stepped into Mona on that first visit, the serene surroundings quickly made me forget the weekend traffic. Luscious greenery fills the dining area: herbs sprouting in a row by the door, vines wriggling around light fixtures, tiny flowers blooming around the booths. A cheerful mural depicts a wall of windows, books, and empty wine bottles. The soundtrack that night was Italian instrumental, and for a moment, with just a little imagination, I was lounging in the Abruzzo countryside.
I came to, reminding myself that this is, after all, a fast-casual joint, as I read the sign explaining how to order. Mona offers both make-your-own and chef-recipe dishes. I decided to build my own $8.50 pasta with spinach, mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, roasted garlic, and mozzarella in alfredo sauce. There are a handful of “upgrade” ingredients on offer for a bit extra, including thinly sliced prosciutto, a giant Angus meatball, burrata, Italian sausage, chicken breast, and a poached “perfect egg.” I went for the highly addictive prosciutto.
The combo showed off all of these fresh ingredients, the soft mozzarella harmonizing perfectly with the lighter alfredo, but the star was the hand-made, undeniably delicious fettuccine, cooked to a perfect al dente.
On subsequent visits, I put myself entirely in the chef’s hands, sampling his menu items instead of building my own. Among the pasta options, the formaggio with burrata, mozzarella, blue cheese, parmesan, and alfredo sauce is an indulgence well worth the calories. And the bologna—caramelized onion, mushrooms, rosemary, roasted garlic, chicken broth, and parmesan with bolognese sauce—is irresistible, like something an Italian grandmother would make.
The chef adds fresh, creamy burrata to his salads, using it to elevate both the caprese and the “royal” (broccoli, chicken, olives). I found myself wishing he also put it on his sandwiches, which, while made with tasty grilled, crispy piadina flatbread, didn’t quite make the mark. I didn’t finish the Rosso, whose too-rich pesto seemed to take away from the prosciutto and mozzarella.
Degaine’s pistachio gelato was a favorite at Cafe Azur, and he once again brings the heavenly, nutty flavor at Mona, this time in a tantalizing Nutella panna cotta. The strawberry panna cotta, however, while refreshing, was slightly watery when I tried it, possibly an effect of being chilled in a display by the cash register. All things considered, it’s a minor issue.
As my meal came to an end on that first visit, I noticed that the parking lot was now full, and a line of parents and their kids had formed. Within five minutes of placing their orders, the families were seated at booths. Smiling servers briskly wiped settings clean and restocked olive oil bottles as children squirmed, and soon, heaping, affordable bowls of pasta were placed in front of them.
It was then that I realized: While this happy little Italian strip-mall spot might not get as packed as
the Chick-fil-A, the Degaines know exactly what they’re doing.
Like Degaine, chef Roberto Castre first made his mark in fine dining—in this case at Galleria-area staple Latin Bites, still owned by his Peruvian family. Castre left the Bayou City in 2016, spending two years in Washington, D.C., where he served up succulent pollo saltado and fiery pescado a lo macho before returning to Houston, opening the modest Chicken Station in the East End last March.
Castre, like Degaine, has dreams of expansion. “To be honest, I’ve enjoyed working as a chef and doing fine dining, but now I’m thinking about the future,” he told me. “I want to build something big. When I opened Chicken Station, my intention was not to have just one.”
Chicken Station is more utilitarian than Mona, painted in concrete-gray and yellow, with metal chairs and flat-screens tuned to soccer matches. The soundtrack here is merengue and pop; in place of pasta, the star is the poultry, arguably the finest in Houston, which you order at the counter.
The server working a whole rotisserie bird at a cutting board during my visit informed me that it had been seasoned with 27 spices and dark beer, then roasted in a charcoal spit for a full day. Options included a quarter, half, or whole chicken; I opted for a half with dark meat, and goodness, it was incredible. I started by slicing pieces off the juicy leg before forgetting my manners entirely and shredding everything by hand.
It came with three sauces—cilantro, yellow pepper, and red pepper—all made with a potato base, all delicious and lightly spicy, all unnecessary with chicken this good. I started to wonder if I could leap over the counter and drink whatever juices remained on the cutting board.
My order included two sides, though I opted to pay extra and add a few more. (You can also get picnic-style specials, which include up to two chickens, four sides, and soft drinks like Inca Cola.) Of the sides, the earthy Chinese-Peruvian chaufa rice, lightly fried with egg, chicken, and green peppers, was my favorite. I also enjoyed the paprika-spiced green beans with slivered almonds and two decadently delicious options: the creamy corn and the fried sweet plantains. The only miss for me was the powdery mashed potatoes.
If you opt for something besides the plain chicken, you’re still in good hands. The tacos beautifully marry pulled rotisserie meat with avocado aioli, onions, radish, and cilantro, tucked inside corn tortillas. And why more restaurants don’t offer salchipapas is baffling. Chicken Station’s version of salty hot dog slices in perfectly cooked fries, topped with a pretty rainbow of rosada, yellow pepper, avocado, and olive sauces, is drool-worthy snack food.
The restaurant also offers sandwiches, grilled steaks, and a few wok-fried beef dishes. Want to try the lomo saltado? Skip the sandwich version (beef loin slices with provolone, avocado aioli, roasted peppers, and shoestring fries between crunchy telera bread), which is on the greasy side and falls apart easily, and instead order the wok version, which includes fries and white rice.
Of the three dessert options, the alfajores made by Castre’s sister, filled with dulce de leche and generously coated with powdered sugar, dominate. The tres leches, I found, was too close to a rice pudding, while the chocolate cake was a little dry.
Never mind that. The place is a local gem where families come together to enjoy inexpensive picnic dinners, dining like royalty on the juiciest birds in town as servers hustle to keep up with demand. This is, without a doubt, fast-casual done right, and Houston is hip to it.