As a transplanted Yankee, one of the first and most difficult transitions to be made upon moving to Houston is saying goodbye to what you knew as "street food." Growing up in Philadelphia (you can pretty easily substitute "New York," "Baltimore," or "Providence," here), street food was down'n'dirty, often Italian, and simply spectacular.
Generally, we're talking about sandwiches here: cheesesteaks, hoagies, roast pork sandwiches, strombolis, grinders, etc. Philly gets some renown for inventing the cheesesteak, but that's sort of like an art historian giving Italy credit for the Mona Lisa: Sure, no doubt, but it's hardly the beginning or end of the story. It's a fair comparison. In some ways, Philly street food is the Louvre of the sandwich world. There's almost too much variety and quality to take in, from Dalessandro's Steaks to Tony Luke's to Tommy Dinic's Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market to Lee's Hoagie House.
One of the best things about eating Italian street food in Philly is the sense of an "authentic" experience -- the same thing that gets BBQ writers all bunged up when they stumble on some doublewide outside Llano with a pit in the back. Basically, it's an elevated form of tourism: the thrill of partaking in someone else's life and culture through the medium of food. You can sort of fool yourself that, for the time it takes to eat your lunch, you are Italian/Mexican/German/Texan/etc., or that you at least appreciate a delicious part of what makes that culture so interesting.
Houston is full of such thrills, especially in the areas of Mexican food, soul food, barbeque, and Salvadoran food. But not so much with your old-line "ethnic" foods. There ain't much authenticity in a visit to Olive Garden ("Hospitaliano" notwithstanding) or even Da Marco. You're in an Italian restaurant in Houston in 2006, and that's exactly what it feels like. The over-under on the number of actual, genuine Italians working at the joint is 1. Take the under.
That's what makes Mandola's Deli, at 4105 Leeland in Eastwood, so much fun. Mandola's Deli is not in Houston in 2006. It exists in some sort of weird parallel dimension that appears to be Philadelphia, circa 1977. The atmosphere is uncanny: there has been simply no effort to dress it up and make it look like a modern food establishment. It's dark. There are almost no windows (good thing, considering the neighborhood). You stand in an un-reconstructed deli line, and the ladies behind the counter know every customer, and every customer's order (except yours, since you haven't been here before). You seem to be in line with an Italian-American chick you could swear you met on the boardwalk last summer down in Wildwood.
The food sustains the illusion. The meatball po-boy (can we get them to change the name? the dissonance is jarring) is easily the best in Houston, if not Texas. Finely-textured and well-seasoned meatballs with just enough red sauce to moisten the sandwich. Melted mozzarella that doesn't remind you of bathroom caulk. Good, chewy french bread (not quite Amoroso's, but still). There's a fantastic side dish called "Funeral Beans" (green beans with butter, bread crumbs and garlic) and slices of fresh pie. The red sauce is good, as it has to be at a place like this: tart, tomato-y, and distinctive, and (thank you Lord) not too sweet. Go to Mandola's Deli the next time you need a reality check. It's considerably more convenient than traveling to late-seventies South Philadelphia.