By Terry Mathews
Making your way in the world these days takes everything you’ve got, says the theme song from “Cheers.” Making your way in the competitive restaurant world takes everything – and more.
I’m not sure you can make it as a chef unless you’ve had a life-long relationship with food. Not just eating it, but creating it, be it in your mom’s kitchen or the family business.
Executive Chef Brandon Rodriguez, 28, grew up in the business. His father was in the industry for years, moving the family from Garland to their property at Lake Cypress Springs in 2005 when he was a high school freshman.
“He operated Hubbard’s Café, where McDonald’s is now,” Chef said of his father during an afternoon lull in early September. “He took over for about a year, but then went back to Dallas to manage the five Cindi’s Delicatessens in Dallas.”
Chef stayed at the Mount Vernon location for a while, then started work at The Marina at Cypress Springs. He graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 2009.
“That’s when I figured out that’s what I wanted to do,” Chef remembered. “I toured a couple of culinary schools in Dallas, but settled on the 2-year program at Northeast Texas Community College in Mount Pleasant.”
After NTCC, Chef transferred to The Art Institute of Dallas, receiving a degree in restaurant management. He worked for Aramark, Brinker’s and a few other food services companies in the city, married and started a family.
He credits his cooking skills for helping him win wife Jessica’s hand.
“On our second date, I did a nice, full dinner – appetizers, entrée and dessert – for her,” he remembered. “We haven’t been apart since. Food is the way to awoman’s heart.”
The couple celebrated their sixth anniversary in September.
“Jessica and I then needed to figure out where we wanted to set our roots and raise our children,” Chef said. “We couldn’t imagine raising our children, Brayden – 5, Julianna- 4 and Brennan – 2, in Dallas. It’s just too much.”
So he and Jessica, who is the director of growth and marketing for Century 21 Butler Real Estate in Mount Vernon, packed up and moved their family to Lake Cypress Springs, where Chef went back to the Marina, and set about making his professional dreams come true. He also started teaching culinary classes at NTCC in the Spring of 2018.
“Last year, Cypress Springs Marina was voted Best Restaurant in County Line Magazine,” Chef noted. He was also named Best Chef in the same edition.
Nardello’s, on the square in Mount Pleasant, was also recognized by the magazine as having the area’s Best Pizza.
In late spring of this year, Chef took the job of Executive Chef and General Manager at Nardello’s, recruited by Richard Witherspoon, whose father started Herschel’s Restaurant in Mount Pleasant and who owns several Dairy Queens in the area.
“We had a very nice menu to start with,” Witherspoon said at Sunday Brunch in early November. “Brandon enhanced it and brought his creativity to it.”
Creativity wasn’t the only ace up Rodriguez’ chef jacket.
He tapped Wendy Standridge of Mount Vernon to be part of the waitstaff and Nardello’s event manager. Standridge is well known to foodies in Northeast Texas. She’s worked at ML Edwards and The Chophouse in Mount Vernon.
“I’m excited to be here and excited to work with Chef and this team,” Standridge said. “Richard is a long-time member of the Mount Pleasant community.”
Standridge, who grew up in Mount Pleasant and now lives at Lake Cypress Springs, also appreciates that several restaurants in Mount Pleasant are operating in restored buildings, like Nardello’s, which housed a title company before its current incarnation.
“I’m on the Mount Vernon Main Street committee,” she said. “It’s so fun to see people come in to an older building and remember what it used to be.”
Standridge says it takes “a very particular kind of business owner to open up in a very old building; to look at something, have a vision and be able to create it.”
The food business is Standridge’s choice.
“You either love it or you don’t,” she explained. “I have a college degree, but this is what I love.”
When Chef added Standridge to his staff, he understood food service was her chosen career.
“We couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to add her to our team,” Chef explained. “This is where she wants to be.”
Chef minds the kitchen, but tries to get out on the floor to visit with and get feedback from his customers.
Standridge works the front of the house, racing to the door when customers arrive.
“One of these days, I’m going to face plant,” she said with a laugh. “I trip over my own feet.”
Chef works hard at being a good leader. Having come up through the ranks of the restaurant business, he sees each position as crucial to success.
“I want everyone to be the best they can be,” he noted. “I see everyone on the same level.”
He has high expectations for himself and all his staff, especially when it comes to the quality of food he sends out to his customers’ tables.
“If you’re not happy sending it out, your customer is not going to be happy with it,” he said. “Sometimes, we need to take a plate back. That becomes a teaching moment for my staff and me.”
Being open to criticism, be it from a customer or staff, keeps Chef on his toes.
“You can be the best 3-star Michelin star restaurant in the world, but there’s always room for improvement,” he said, “I always want to do better than I did yesterday.”
Being willing to make adjustments is paying off for the Nardello’s team. They have recently partnered with Laura’s Cheesecake (just steps away) to host private events. They are booked for several weddings, which pleases both Chef and Standridge.
“When you think enough of a local business that you want to bring them into your special day, that’s a huge honor,” Standbridge said.
Chef wants to present the best dishes possible, using as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible.
Nardello’s relies on produce from the Comeback Creek Farm near Pittsburg, a 100-acre operation that farms “using only low impact, sustainable methods; no synthetic pesticides or herbicides nor harmful chemical fertilizers,” according to their website, www.comebackcreek.com.
“I work with them a lot,” Chef said. “I find out what’s available and work that into the menu.”
Chef is fond of Comeback Creek’s green tomatoes, which he fries, arugula when they have it, heirloom tomatoes and fresh okra, which he pickles and uses in Nardello’s killer Sake Bloody Marys, served during Sunday Brunch.
Noting the end of peach season at the beginning of September, Chef and Standridge realized they would have to come up with a replacement for their popular peach bellinis, and bourbon and peaches French toast.
“I usually have waffle batter left over,” Chef noted. “I was going to cube them up and make bread pudding.”
Then, Standridge said, “You ought to make them with pumpkin.”
“That is genius,” Chef said.
And so, a new dish was added to the ever-evolving menu.
Chef changes the dinner menu every Thursday. Past offerings included Campanelle Carbonara –roasted chicken, pancetta, fresh spinach, grana padano Parmesan, campanelle pasta in a creamy carbonara sauce ($15), Italian Chicken – lightly breaded chicken breast, lemon caper cream sauce, rosemary roasted potatoes, sautéed broccolini ($17), Grilled Salmon – char-grilled, lemon cream sauce, red quinoa salad ($18), Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo – lightly breaded or wood-fired roasted chicken, velvety Alfredo, fettuccine pasta ($14) and Filet Mignon wood-fired, Parmesan creamed kale, rosemary roasted potatoes, peppercorn reduction ($28).
For lunch, Chef recommended the G.O.A.T. burger ($12), inspired by the sports term “Greatest Of All Time.” The delicious item is topped with caramelized onions, goat cheese and a red wine reduction sauce. It might be the best burger I’ve ever eaten. And the fries? Oh, man. They are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside,thanks to a tip Chef got from one of his kitchen staff.
We also sampled the large Caesar Salad ($10), with grated Parmesan, croutons and grilled garlic dressing. We added chicken ($3.50). It was more than enough to feed two.
Nardello’s makes all its bread on premises, save their rye and brioche.
Their French bread is served warm with Fire-Roasted Three Cheese Dip ($9), which is to die for. The Roasted Red Pepper Hummus ($9) needed a bit more salt for our table, but it was creamy and delicious. It’s served with small pita chips and sliced cucumber.
Wood-fired Cheesy Bread ($6), Signature Meatballs ($9), Crispy Zucchini ($7), a Tavern Board ($20) of Parmesan, garlic bread, cured meat, artisan cheeses, house pickles, olives, figs, apricots, herb oil, focaccia and toasted baguette is on our “to be ordered list,” along with several delicious-sounding sandwiches and hand crafted pizzas.
Seven of my serious food-loving friends and I went to Brunch (10 a.m. until 2 p.m.) a couple of Sundays ago. Nardello’s did not disappoint.
We started with the previously mentioned Sake Bloody Marys ($9) and Mimosas ($7).
Just let me say this about the Bloody Marys. I did not miss the vodka. Not even a little bit. Sandridge was our bartender … not sure what all went into the concoction, but it sure was yummy – and packs a powerful punch. Chef even made some chili-infused red salt to rim our glasses. Olives and a small slab of pork belly were the garnishes. Thumbs up all around. We recommend you stop at one, especially if you’re driving. As my daddy would say, “They are honest drinks.”
We had the three-cheese hot dip and hummus for appetizers.
Then, we ordered the Avocado Toast ($9) – toasted fresh bread (made on premises), avocado, fresh spinach, bacon, eggs and fire roasted tomatoes. It got a thumbs up and several in our group took a doggie bag home to enjoy later.
One of us ordered Wood-Fired Eggs In A Nest ($10) – fresh ciabatta, eggs, bacon, smoked provolone, arugula and garlic oil, while another got Chicken Florentine Crepes ($12) – wood fired roasted chicken, spinach, mushrooms, Parmesan cream sauce. I opted for Egg & Chorizo Hash ($11) – mild chorizo, pan fried potatoes, red pepper,onions, smoked provolone, fried egg (note: there is some heat in this dish, but it’s not overpowering.)
Once our entrees arrived, it got really quiet around our table. With good reason. Everyone was savoring their first, second, third and fourth bites. Delicious.
Added to our brunch enjoyment were the piano stylings of John Nedlo, of Pittsburg, a retired music teacher who can play just about anything you request. We loved his arrangements of “Autumn Leaves,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” “Just the Way You Are,” “And I Love Her,” among others. Check Nardello’s Facebook page for Nedlo’s schedule. He is also available for private events and can be reached at 903-767-2841.
Because we are a group of foodies, we always weigh in with our opinions.
“Terry, thank you for the wonderful lunch pick today,” said Norma Krueger of Holly Lake. “Everything was delicious, including the company.”
“Loved the atmosphere and staff,” said Susan Payne of Sulphur Springs.“And, of course the food and our time of visiting. The music was icing on the cake!”
“Loved the restaurant, the music, the food, and the company,” offered Juneau Embry of Longview.
“Sunday Brunch at Nardello’s: good food, wonderful service, with music to enhance the whole experience,” said Jo Ann Porterfield of Winnsboro.
“I enjoyed the food, the company and the music,” offered Linda Whitley of Winnsboro.
Note: We’ve been to Nardello’s Brunch and weekday lunch, but haven’t sampled dinner, which gives us plenty of reasons to keep coming back.
Nardello’s is in good hands, guided by creative people with vision and a passion for their chosen field.
“I want to be the place that people come to, regularly and for special occasions,” Standridge said.
In other words,they want to become the place where everybody knows your name.
“In five years, I see myself here,” Chef said. “This is my long term.”
Nardellos’ – 103 North Madison Avenue, Mount Pleasant, Texas 75455
Monday-Thursday – 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.
Friday – 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.
Saturday – 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Sunday – 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Reservations appreciated for large groups
Special menus available for groups of 20 or more – Call ahead
For a full menu preview, visit nardellos.com
Follow them on Facebook at Nardello’s to check out weekly Happy Hour andDinner Specials