In 1941, the world was in the midst of World War II. America was finally climbing out of the Great Depression. The Yankees won the World Series … again. In Houston, Raul Molina Sr., who immigrated from Mexico to America in 1929 at age 18, bought the Old Monterrey Restaurant at 1919 W. Gray St.
About a decade later, Raul Sr.'s second restaurant, the Mexico City Restaurant at 3916 Main St., was renamed Molina's Mexico City Restaurant, with sons Raul Jr. and George hopping on as partners. Eventually, what the elder Molina started became Molina’s Restaurant & Cantina.
Over the years, locations have changed and names have been tweaked, but the business has thrived. Now, the still-family-owned and operated business is 80. Being all about family—Raul Jr. and his three sons, Raul III, Ricardo, and Roberto, co-own the restaurant—is what fuels Molina's even to this day.
“We’ve always been a family business, and that’s given us a lot of stability and leadership,” Ricardo Molina tells Houstonia. “Other businesses can have people come and go, but not us. I just know that my family has always got my best interest at heart. ”
When the Molinas talk about family, they’re not just talking about their shared name. The idea extends to the guests who have been a part of the restaurant’s story for eight decades.
“I tell people, jokingly, we take our guests cradle to grave, but it really is true,” Molina says. “We’ve got guests who come to our weddings and we go to theirs. It’s a family deal.”
In order for a restaurant to survive for almost a century, some things need to be done well. Along with tried-and-true Tex-Mex combos, like the Mexico City Dinner, the chili con queso, and the old-school enchiladas de Tejas, customer service has been a huge part of their success. Molina attributes that to Raul Sr., or as he is known to his grandsons, Papa.
“We focus on our guests 100 percent,” Molina says. “Papa preached to take care of guests, don’t cut corners, be quality minded, use quality ingredients.”
The work has paid off. Along with being one of Texas's pioneering Mexican restaurants, it's played host to a number of luminaries including former presidents George H.W. Bush—a regular, naturally—Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.
When Molina’s opened, it was one of a handful of Mexican restaurants in Houston. Now, it is one of thousands. But in sticking to its principles and maintaining the same high quality of food, it has remained one of the most successful restaurants in the Bayou City.
“One thing that is key is being consistent: If you come in and order a dish and then come in a week later and order the same dish, you’re going to want it to taste the same,” Molina says. “I think that is one of the biggest keys and challenges to being successful.”
To celebrate 80 years, Molina’s is offering deals throughout June. On July 1, the restaurant will celebrate Molina’s Day. For more, visit molinascantina.com.