Mongoose Versus Cobra is a violent sort of name for a bar, but the reasoning behind it is rather zen. “It has a lot of meanings,” said co-owner Mike Sammons. “Perhaps the mongoose is beer, while the cobra represents spirits. I think it also stands for the little guy standing up to the big guy and winning, because the mongoose always wins.”
Sammons, who is also a co-owner of the well-regarded wine bar 13 Celsius along with partner Ian Rosenberg, used to ride his bike from his home near Washington Avenue to work. On his route, he’d stop and admire an ivy-covered brick building on McGowen.
One day, a “for sale” sign appeared in front of the building and Sammons knew he’d found his next bar location. He immediately dialed the number on the sign.
The partners had to come up with a name for the new place. “It has to be the most hardcore name we can think of, like scorpions fighting scorpions!” exclaimed Sammons. Eventually, the concept of a mongoose fighting a cobra came up, thus the name Mongoose Versus Cobra evolved.
Eventually, the partners went to their attorney to have the paperwork drawn up, “What’s the name of your new business?” asked the attorney.
“Um, MVSC,” replied the partners.
“What does that mean?” asked the lawyer.
“Well … Mongoose Versus Cobra,” replied the partners, a little concerned about what the attorney might have to say.
“Hold on a minute,” replied the attorney. He went to the back and returned with a taxidermy sculpture of a mongoose, fighting, in the coils of a cobra. Obviously, the name was simply meant to be. A similar sculpture now resides in a nook in the wall at the bar.
Sammons’ friend Shafer Hall returned to Houston from New York to run Mongoose. He ran The Four Faced Liar for 12 years in New York. He is often behind the bar or running around on the floor checking on patrons (something that is too seldom seen, even in the better establishments).
So, what is Mongoose Versus Cobra? It’s an utterly charming, comfortable place that serves quality cocktails, beer and food. The building, built in 1915, originally housed Auditorium Grocery. The grocery store lasted until the 1940s. It was a few other businesses after that: an auto-repair shop, a printing and stationery company, and a post office. The building mostly sat vacant after the 1980s. The building has been carefully cleaned and restored to house Mongoose Versus Cobra, with some thoughtful accents, such as the hardwood wall near the bar.
After two visits, I have yet to have anything I didn’t like quite a bit, and that includes food, drink and atmosphere. The building is reminiscent of elegant era. An upstairs loft would be the perfect place for an informal gathering of friends. Ivy climbs the exterior walls, making it seem like a relic from the Victorian age became displaced and dropped into the southern outskirts of downtown.
I really enjoy the cocktails here, such as the Negroni Spagliato, a slightly bitter, sweet and bubbly cocktail that includes gin, Campari, vermouth, prosecco and orange peel. The Sidecar, a definitive classic cocktail, was just right, with enough lemon to keep the Cointreau and cognac from taking over.
The KeyKeg beer system mounted in clear view behind the bar makes it look like aliens briefly inhabited the place. The futuristic-looking system is comprised of several clear plastic bubbles. Inside each bubble is a white bag that preserves the beer by preventing oxidation from air contact. As the beer is dispensed, the bag shrinks down accordingly. Once the key is empty, it is recycled and replaced with a fresh one.
Some beer aficionados who were dazzled by Hay Merchant’s initial rollout of five casks and over 80 beers on tap were disappointed by the more modest rollout at Mongoose Versus Cobra. On my most recent visit, there were 42 beers on the list, including several offerings from Clown Shoes, as well as Southern Star, No Label, Laughing Dog and Van Steenberge. I’d rather see a well-curated list than a mind-boggling one. For those for whom this is not enough, I recommend you just be patient.
Sammons says that a new, more extensive menu will roll out next week. I sure hope they retain the Ploughman’s Pail, because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had with food at a bar. The $26 bucket is meant to be shared and consists of cured
meats, sausages, beef jerky, various cheeses, roasted nuts, pickles and black bread. Some of the items are carefully wrapped in butcher paper, and it felt a little like Christmas morning as I carefully unwrapped each present to find out what was inside.
The Red Pickled Eggs are very firm in texture and are wrapped in paper along with pickled beets and onions. Biting into the hard-boiled eggs reveals a lemon-colored, creamy yolk. There are no forks at Mongoose Versus Cobra. Just pick up those pickles and eat them after each bite of egg. Never mind the stains on your fingers. It’s worth it.
I have one complaint about the food offerings that I hope will be remedied with the new menu rollout. There is only one hot dish, which is the very tasty bratwurst sandwich. I’d like to see a few more cooked items, like perhaps some type of fried finger food.
I love the trend of bars offering quality coffee. It’s about time it returned to taverns and regained respect as a thinking person’s beverage. Mongoose Versus Cobra has French press coffee available, thank you very much.
Simply put, Mongoose Versus Cobra is already one of my favorite places, and I’m not alone. Last Monday night, it seemed like practically every bartender in the city showed up over there, including people from Anvil, Double Trouble and Fitzgerald’s. That should be testament enough for anyone to go give it a try.
MONGOOSE VERSUS COBRA, 1011 McGowen bet. Fannin & Main, 713-650-MVSC, mongooseversuscobra.com