Mongoose versus Cobra’s motif is one part classic beer hall with wooden tables and benches, and one part modern bar with a hidden big screen TV that can be unveiled for important events and a small, lounge-like space upstairs. The push and pull of old versus new feeds into the name.
In this case, the analogy of the tale between two age-old enemies, an Indian grey mongoose and the king cobra, can be construed in several ways including traditional versus contemporary or mom and pop shop up against big business.
It had been vacant for 30 years when Rosenberg, the project's designer and developer, saw beauty in turning the space into a modern establishment.
It can also be interpreted as a symbol of the arduous journey owners Ian Rosenberg and Mike Sammons, whose first Midtown venture is the successful 13 celsius, have taken on: Converting the neighborhood from a struggling area to a prospering sector, one small enterprise at a time, while taking care to respect its history, architecture and people.
The building, located at 1011 McGowen, dates back to 1915 and had been a home, a grocery store, a motor company/auto repair shop, a printing and stationary shop, and a post office. It had been vacant for 30 years when Rosenberg, the project's designer and developer, saw beauty in turning the space into a modern establishment. It was a diamond in the rough, Rosenberg says, “I wanted to keep as much of the original structure intact as possible." That includes the exposed brick walls.
While Rosenberg and Sammons could have opened Mongoose versus Cobra in any part of Houston, their loyalty to Midtown made it the obvious choice. Longtime residents of the area, they have a deep appreciation for the community. As the project was underway Rosenberg notes, "Our neighbors at The Greensheet allowed us to use their power. Another neighbor allowed us to use their water. Still others leased us property and parking. We are grateful to all those who helped."
Giving back, the duo has worked on projects with the nearby Search Homeless Services, whose mission it is to engage, stabilize, educate, employ and house individuals and families who are homeless.
With Mongoose versus Cobra, Rosenberg and Sammons have managed to create a blend of comfort and chic where people can enjoy good company and cold beverage. While the bar serves craft beers, the focus is more on spirits, just as the focus of 13 celsius is wine. The drink list consists of craft beers and Mongoose’s twist on several classic cocktail favorites. Here's a sampling of Mongoose's modern take on the classics:
The drink list consists of craft beers and Mongoose’s twist on several classic cocktail favorites. Here's a sampling of Mongoose's modern take on the classics.
Consider the simple but iconic vodka tonic. Tonic dates back to the 1630s when it was used to mask the taste of the bark of a Peruvian Quinquina tree (the mixture was used as a cure for malaria). British East India Company officers started adding the "quinine," to their cocktails for its healing powers; thus, the demand became so great that the tree was facing extinction. In the 1940s, an artificial substitute was created and is still used in most grocery store brands of tonic water today.
Mongoose’s house-made tonic is based on a traditional recipe tweaked by Sammons and made with quinine bark powder and agave. While the powers that be wouldn’t tell me exactly what’s in it, the short list includes lemon, orange, lime, salt, and peppercorns.
It’s served in a "medicine" bottle, a nod to its storied past, alongside an old dime-store glass containing ice and vodka. You add as much or as little as you like. I was pleasantly surprised with its flavor, which leans heavily on the citrus side. I added it sparingly at first, but then emptied it in. I’m not a fan of tonic and usually go out of my way to avoid it. But Mongoose’s version appealed to even this tonic snob. I loved this drink.
The Americano, a classic Italian cocktail, is one of Mongoose versus Cobra’s house-made bottled carbonated cocktails. A mix of campari, sweet vermouth and angostura, it's sweet to start, but as the bitter from the campari rises, it evens out the taste.
The Americano was first served by creator Gaspare Campari at his bar, Caffè Campari, in Milan in the 1860s. Originally called the Milano-Torino, it’s believed that the name change was either a nod to the Americans who came to love the drink or derivation of the word "amaro," which means "bitter" in Italian.
The Moscow Mule
The most popular cocktail at Mongoose versus Cobra may be the Moscow Mule. In 1941, John G. Martin of Heublein and Jack Morgan invented the Moscow Mule by mixing Morgan's ginger beer (left over from the Prohibition era) with Smirnoff Vodka and lime.
Mongoose’s recipe is a combination of vodka, angostura bitters, lime, and ginger. The result is a light lemonade-like taste that makes it easy to forget this concoction is loaded. The ginger adds a bit of a kick and before I even noticed, I’d emptied my glass.
For the finale, I tried the Fernet [fɛrˈnɛt]. If you’re not familiar with Fernet, or "The Bartender's Handshake” as it’s also known, it’s an amaro with a proof of 80. Mongoose versus Cobra is one of the few establishments in the U.S. to serve it on tap.
Presented straight up in a shot glass, it goes down like liquid black licorice, although not as sweet and the taste lingers somewhat. Increasingly popular in the U.S., it’s a bitter beverage beloved in Argentina as a hangover cure. An acquired taste, it’ll certainly perk you up after a long day, or night.
The cocktail list changes from time to time, but the changes are minimal with only one or two substitutes at a go. Don’t forget to order a big-as-your-head pretzel.
A big Oktoberfest celebration takes place over the next three Sundays. The bar will tap new Oktoberfest beers and throw a grand finale party on the last day of the festival, Oct. 7.