I love going out for breakfast. I mean l-o-v-e it. Fancy or down-home, resort hotel or roadside diner—it almost doesn’t matter what kind or where, as long as the food and coffee are decent. That said, my very, very favorite places have three things: an espresso machine, a pastry case, and hidden corners. That combo allows for undisturbed email checking and podcast listening, fueled by caffeine (“Hi, I think I’ll switch to cappuccino”) and carbs (“Hey, do you have any kolaches left?”). Of late, a pet place for indulging this behavior is Mastrantos, a small restaurant that quietly popped up in Houston’s Heights neighborhood five months ago and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s a welcoming spot, well designed and a bit industrial, with details like bright red ductwork and vases of dried lavender on the tables to soften its linear geometry.
It already feels like a fixture, but Mastrantos almost didn’t happen. The owners are Mari and Xavier Godoy, endlessly optimistic expat Venezuelans who have called Houston home on and off for eighteen years. They have always loved to eat and cook, and they have lived and traveled around the world—Chile, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, Colombia, France, Italy. For years they thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to open our own restaurant?” So in 2016 they left successful careers in the oil and gas business and leased a place in a new strip center. Then the fun began: Construction was delayed . . . and delayed . . . and delayed. As a result, they lost an investor. Then they lost their chef. Most people would have freaked. Their solution? Double down. They did some catering, spent a week in Paris taking pastry classes, and then lived in Italy for three months. “We learned to make pasta from real grandmothers!” says Xavier. They found a new executive chef, Tony Castillo, previously with the St. Regis Houston and Tiny Boxwoods, and in December they finally threw open the doors to their dream, a restaurant where the scope is global and experimentation is the order of the day.
Breakfast, which is ordered at the counter, features a concise lineup under the direction of pastry chef Eliu Palacios. My friend and I were tempted by the house-made treats like banana walnut bread and croissants, but when you’re at a restaurant with South American–raised owners, you’ve got to get arepas. And what are arepas, you ask? “They look like hoecakes!” said my friend, the Southern-food geek, when they arrived. I was reminded of gorditas, Mexico’s versatile masa pockets. A good description would be small, plump corn-flour pancakes. The kitchen gives them a crunchy sear and serves them mounded with scrambled eggs lusciously whisked together with mozzarella and topped with mashed avocado and a killer Venezuelan cilantro salsa: creamy, salty, limy, and vinegary all at once (the recipe is Mari’s).
If you can’t pass up a croissant, opt for one filled with sensuous passion fruit or dusky Nutella, both of which outclass the somewhat flabby pastry. There is also a very good all-American breakfast plate and a soft, kolache-like sweet roll called a cachito. But for many customers, the make-or-break item will be breakfast tacos. There were three choices on the menu; we ordered the mild guajillo-tinged carnitas and the black bean scramble. They were huge (as well they should be, at $10 for two), but both were in desperate need of salsa, and the only thing available was the arepas’ cilantro salsa. Guys! ¡Más salsas, por favor!
The owners named their restaurant after a tropical plant that goes by many names but is called mastrantos in Venezuela. The pungent flowering shrub, a relative of lantana, grows wild as far north as Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
Tragically, breakfast concludes at eleven o’clock. Lunch had not yet been launched when I visited, but several of us came back for dinner that night, finding table service and a short, promisingly eclectic menu. Chef Castillo shares the Godoys’ zeal for no-holds-barred experimentation. Impressed that there were four vegetable starters, we began there. The salt-roasted beets and ripe persimmons with Gorgonzola dolce were a lovely combo, but the table favorite was Carrots Over Carrots. We loved the nutty flavor of the za’atar-spiced roasted carrot/chickpea hummus. The one drawback? The accompanying cooked baby carrots were Bugs Bunny crunchy (in fact, we should have used them for dipping).
Seafood is another strength. The menu typically includes a crudo; on our visit it was delicate pink-fleshed snapper lightly tossed in the bracing Peruvian lime-and-chile marinade called leche de tigre. There’s also a cooked fish, this time a beautiful, precisely medium-rare salmon filet. It came with two sauces showcasing the indigenous Peruvian yellow chile called ají amarillo, a svelte beurre blanc and sharp, too-salty ají paste. But the most striking dish—the one showing Castillo at his most individualistic—was the cioppino, a rowdy, spicy, lemony, super-tomatoey take on the famous San Francisco fisherman’s stew. Intense? Totally. Delish? Definitely.
As for the pasta offerings—forget the Italian grandmothers. Have you ever heard of Thai coconut curry on squid-ink linguine? Neither had I. Actually, the squid ink was hardly noticeable; it was the curry that seemed a little problematic, a bit unfocused and way too salty. What about agnolotti filled with mashed purple sweet potato in a Gorgonzola dolce and sage butter sauce? We were split down the middle on the almost dessert-sweet filling. In the end, the pasta that had everything going for it was the spaghetti with forest mushrooms done cacio e pepe style—earthy and deeply satisfying.
At this point, I’m going to skip over our last entrée—sliced espresso-rubbed tri-tip steak with buttery roasted yuca (except to say bravo!)—so I can get to the part of the menu that gave us the most pure pleasure: the tiny, two-item dessert list. And I’m going to rush through the moist and utterly enjoyable Pavarotti cake—with its hazelnut, chocolate, and espresso—to get to the one that stole the show, the passion fruit mousse. When the plate arrived, we stopped talking and just stared. It was gorgeous, with an elongated dome of satiny golden mousse surrounded by chopped strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries looking like flower petals. Then, forks clicking, we attacked the multilayered confection, its base of almond cake and crackly almond brittle topped with a mound of milk chocolate ganache and a soft outer shell of the lovely tropical fruit mousse. Its flavor was as sharp and sweet as a spring morning.
Inevitably after I visit a restaurant, a few dishes go off the menu. With Mastrantos, almost the entire winter dinner menu has given way to a new spring lineup. Some changes are large; some are small. And in another three months, those dishes will change too. The only two things that will remain, says Xavier, are the global focus and the commitment to experimentation. Those, he promises, will be there indefinitely.
927 Studewood, Houston
B Tue-Sun. L Tue-Fri. D Tue-Sat.
Opened December 13, 2018
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Joy of Eating.” Subscribe today.