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Restaurants / Openings

Inside Rice Village’s New Gourmet Sandwich Haven — Everything You Need to Know About Mendocino Farms

Wine Country Meets Houston as Husband and Wife Entrepreneurs Make a Big Expansion Move

BY // 07.18.19

By now, you’ve probably heard of Mendocino Farms. The one-stop shop for complex gourmet sandwiches and salads opened in Rice Village today with much fanfare after all. But you’ve likely heard it described as a “California-inspired” eatery.

And that’s not the whole picture. It’s more like a snapshot.

Mendocino Farms was indeed born in Los Angeles back in 2005, but the inspiration behind this chef-driven-yet-fast-casual concept comes from all over the country, and all over the globe.

It’s just as fair to say the dishes were inspired by Napa Valley as Mexico, by Asia as Seattle. And for the very first time, the sandwich haven is opening outside California. With Houston as the chosen spot.

And over the coming months, Mendocino Farms will continue its Houston expansion, with new shops planned for The Heights, Uptown and Downtown too.

It’s got a global-meets-local vibe, internationally skewed eats made with goods from nearby purveyors.

SHOP JEWELRY

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Think twists on the classic Vietnamese sandwich, Mendo’s Original Pork Belly Bahn Mi with braised, caramelized pork, housemade pickle daikon and carrots and chili aioli. Or the Peruvian Steak Sandwich, composed of spicy aiji amarillo-marinated steak with Oaxacan cheese and red onions.

You’ll also find contemporary twists on classics, like a club with smashed avocado, a BLT with habanero honey and a chicken salad sandwich with jicama succotash.

“It was a lot of R&D, a lot of travel,” Mario Del Pero, one half of the husband-wife Mendocino ownership duo, laughs. His wife, Ellen Chen, smiles.

“If I was going to pull the greatest inspiration for Mendo, it’s wine country. It was always this ideal to create — if a fine-dining chef wanted to open a kind of roadside sandwich shop in wine country, what would it look and feel like?”

mendocino farms owners
Founders Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen opened the very first Mendocino Farms in Los Angeles in 2005.

Del Pero and Chen sit side-by-side against a booth at the far back wall of Rice Village’s new Mendocino Farms, to the left of the dedicated playful Kid’s Corner area.

Mendocino employees are hustling and bustling in the background, prepping. The room is all white with robin’s egg blue accents — the decor fittingly modeled after a farmhouse in Napa Valley.

Del Pero and Chen are both decked out in gingham button downs, his a dark navy with small checks, hers more of an indigo with small ones and blue jeans.

“It’s our uniform, checks, plaids,” Chen says. Each employee gets to put their own spin on the pattern and color scheme.

Mendocino’s Menu

Chen’s inspiration for the menu came from Oakville Grocery, with its huge, vibrant deli case. Del Pero points to the now-closed David Berkley’s in his hometown, Sacramento. He also points to Lardo in Portland, Oregon.

“The menu’s from kind of all over. It’s taking fine dining items, deconstructing them and putting them between a sandwich, it’s a real flavor profile,” Chen tells PaperCity.

mendocino farms chris shepherd sandwich
Mendocino Farms teamed up with legendary chef Chris Shepherd to create a signature sandwich to benefit Southern Smoke.

Before Mendocino grew to 28 restaurants, this duo played around with ingredients like duck confit.

“It’s a great way to introduce an item that most people wouldn’t eat, and make it pretty approachable,” Chen says. “I think that’s one of the things we love. It’s introducing approachably adventurous foods.

“We’re going to continue to push the envelope.”

The mission statement is simple. Mendocino Farms revolves around a happy eating ethos.

“We sell happy,” Chen laughs. “Our product is not selling good sandwiches and salads. We sell happy. It’s the whole experience, it’s how you feel. It’s important because life is way too short. You’ve got to enjoy yourself.”

They try to pass the happiness onto diners through a combo of 17 sandwiches, some of them seasonal, and eight salads.

And their philosophy is built on building partnerships with local and artisanal purveyors and vendors. So far in Houston, they’ve signed on Pure Luck for goat cheese, Slow Dough for breads and Cake and Bacon for pastries.

Lindsay Schecter of Houston Dairymaids is playing tour guide for Del Pero and Chen, connecting them with vendors.

“As we start growing roots here and finding other relationships, we want them to be real and genuine,” Chen says.

Del Pero views Mendocino Farms as a neighborhood gathering place.

“I grew up in a town that had a town square, and a main street that was actually called Main Street,” Del Pero laughs. “How do we accentuate that, that kind of gathering place? We really saw that opportunity.”

And they saw it in Houston.

“Houston — we love the foodie culture here, such a great food scene,” Chen says. “And we really wanted a place that makes sense, a place the aligns. The neighborhoods are rich, and I don’t just mean wealth, but rich in diversity and different types of people. I feel like it’s very similar to what we see in California.”

The couple has spent more time in The Bayou City this summer than their native California, and the Mendocino Farm menus right here and throughout California might just reflect that pretty soon.

One of the most popular menu items, The Impossible Taco Salad, with plant-based Impossible chorizo, was created after a previous trip to Texas.

“I’ve spent so much time in Houston, eating around Houston that I actually have some meetings with smokers. We’re thinking of doing some smoked meat sandwiches. For California, too. We’re around here, living it. Why not share that? Maybe a smoked carnitas sorta or smoked brisket club,” Del Pero says.

His dying meal would be smoked brisket, the self-declared “smoked meat geek” says, and he even has his own smokehouse in California.

“It’s the biggest smokehouse in the area. Which means it’s probably the smallest one in Houston,” Del Pero laughs.

Mendocino Farms is now open in Houston, and Del Pero and Chen hope it makes its mark.

“I think that we would be absolutely honored if new were just mentioned in the lexicon of the incredible food that exists in this town,” Del Pero says. “There are so many great chefs in this city. And if someone just kind of mentioned us in that dialogue, that would be an incredible honor.

“We want to be an iconic Houston brand.”

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