by Marene Gustin

At Ragin’ Cajun it’s all about family.

It’s family owned and operated and they want you to feel just like family when you visit. And you will.

The building on Richmond Avenue with the giant mudbug on the roof was once home to a U-Tot-Em convenience store. The Mandola liquor store was next door and when U- Tote-Em went out of business the Mandolas took over the space and opened a little place called Ray Hay’s Cajun Poboys.

“Ray Hay, and me and Frankie B. Mandola opened it on June 17th Mandola Sr. “I’d worked at a poboy shop in Louisiana in college and when I came back to Houston there weren’t any poboy places so we decided to open one.”

Mandola’s son Dominic wasn’t even born then. But he knows the story well.

“About 1976 they started having crawfish boils in the parking lot during the season,” he says. “They were so popular they put crawfish on the restaurant menu two years later.” The first restaurant locally to offer them, and today the largest restaurant server of crawfish in the country, the humble but spicy mud bug put the place on the map.

And while the low country boil crawfish are wildly popular — during Lent the restaurant goes through 12,000 to 16,000 pounds a week — there’s also a full menu of Cajun delights, from fried shrimp to muffalottas and Hurricanes to bread pudding.rc13

During the 80’s oil boom, as more folks from Louisiana moved to Houston, the restaurant became even more popular. In 1981 Mandola partnered with Frank Messina to buy out Frankie B. and Hays and changed the name to Ragin’ Cajun, a nod to his alma mater. The rest is local food history.

Dominic, worked as a busboy during summers in high school, and joined his father as an owner in 2000. He worked at expanding the brand and the family now owns five Ragin’ Cajun locations including one recently opened in The Woodlands. A little over two years ago the liquor store closed and the Mandolas started to build the space out for special events.

“But then we saw that it could be a really nice restaurant with a bar and everything, so we turned it into LA Bar & Restaurant,” Mandola explains. It’s like the fancy sister of Ragin’ Cajun. Connected by an open doorway, the original is kitschy and comfy with counter style service and communal tables while the LA side offers table clothes and booths with table service and a full bar.

rc14“We have second and third generation guests coming in,” says Mandola. “Little kids that came in here at the beginning with their parents are still coming in now with their kids and their kids’ kids.”

Dominic attributes the success to great customer service and quality ingredients. “Even during the oil spill in the gulf, when a lot of restaurants started serving shrimp from China, we were still serving only Gulf Coast seafood,” he says. “We use the best ingredients and put all our spices right into the boil instead of just dusting the shrimp and crawfish after they’re cooked.”

So what’s ahead for the next 40 years?

“I’d like to be here in 40 years,” laughs the jovial senior Mandola, “but I don’t think I’ll make it!”rc12

So the future maybe left to Dominic, who just wants to keep serving the best Cajun food and adding a few more locations. Oh, and if you get there before the end of the crawfish and soft shell crab season, do enjoy. But leave some room for the bread pudding from Mandola Sr.’s wife’s recipe. It’s pretty amazing, too.