California-based sandwich and salad restaurant Mendocino Farms opened Thursday at 5510 Morningside Drive in Rice Village. But even before that first pink lady beet and goat cheese salad was tossed, before that first turkey club was sold, the chain's founders were talking about the next couple Texas locations, most of them in and around Houston.
"The whisper has gotten loud," laughed Ellen Chen, who founded Mendocino Farms (lovingly called "Mendo") with husband Mario Del Pero in 2006 in Los Angeles.
Uptown Park is next, coming around fall. Then you'll see a Mendo at a development at 609 Main St. downtown, and finally an outpost at Heights MKT in the Heights.
But wait! That's not all!
"We'll layer in a downtown Dallas store in between our third and fourth [Houston] stores," said Del Pero. "You'll see them peppered around Houston and Dallas, and maybe two or three in Austin, but iconic locations."
Also, maybe a fifth location in Houston. Maybe.
"You're not gonna see 10 and 12 of them around town," Del Pero added. "It's gotta be pretty special."
But first was Rice Village, the chain's first concept outside of California. Chen and Del Pero first looked into Houston a little more than three years ago, and since have returned more than a dozen times, ingratiating themselves in the culture here while landing on the Morningside site, which is next to Hopdoddy Burger Bar. The location works well for Mendo, which has plenty of space for families (including a devoted kids' corner and outdoor patio space), and should be a popular lunch and dinner spot for Rice students.
Inside, Mendocino Farms has high ceilings, plenty of sunshine from tall front windows, and a rustic ranch-to-table aesthetic. You'l also see long wood tables, which promote group dining. The menu is similar to all the other Mendo menus, but you'll see some local purveyors and producers had their hands in items. Look for Pure Luck goat cheese in that aforementioned pink lady beet and goat cheese salad, while Slow Dough Bread Co. is baking all the bread. For dessert, find treats from Cake & Bacon.
Plus, Mendo will be working with local chefs to create specialty menu items. For its opening month, it has partnered with Chris Shepherd on the Charity Sandwich, which features shaved, smoked bacon sausage, Georgia James wedge slaw, and buttermilk dressing on a toasted brioche. It's available through Aug. 18 and benefits the Southern Smoke Foundation.
"Ellen and I met up with him, and we completely hit it off," said Del Pero, who hopes to with some local chefs on smoked meat sandwiches down the line.
Of course, introducing an established line of sandwiches to a city known for more than a few great ones (banh mi, anyone?) could pose a challenge. But Mendocino Farms's founders seem to understand that they're not here to step on anyone's good work; instead, they hope to complement what's already here while building on the food scene.
"We talk about that all the time: Is it relevant or has it already been done? And doing it again doesn't mean you can't do it, especially if there's a unique twist to it," said Del Pero. "But it should be comfortable and familiar. We want to make food that has a sense of discovery—just not a challenging discovery."