6 Secret Weapons Behind Houston’s Restaurant Scene

Meet the unsung heroes driving the success of Underbelly, Pappas and more
March 16, 2015
by Marcy de Luna

In the restaurant world, the spotlight tends to shine on certain big-name chefs and restaurateurs. While there's no question that Chris Shepherd, Mark Holley and Bryan Caswell deserve all that praise, even they will tell you that the success of their restaurants rests on the shoulders of standout supporting team members: the sous-chefs, barbacks and butchers who ensure that things run smoothly every single night. Today, we're tipping a hat to six of those unsung heroes, all with solid cred and skills and all worthy of acknowledgment.

Name: Maria Luganas

​Title: Tortilla maker at Ninfa's on Navigation

Stats: Luganas, who works full time at the East End Tex-Mex restaurant, makes a whopping 700 tortillas per day. While there are four other tortilla chefs, she’s the only one that can move that quickly.

Secrets to success: She's committed to keeping Ninfa's traditional recipes alive.

Future plans: To continue providing diners with high-quality tortillas.

2704 Navigation Blvd.; 713-228-1175

Name: Isaias Praxedes

​Title: Head barback at Anvil Bar and Refuge

Stats: Praxedes — who works 50 to 55 hours per week — cranks out as much 20 liters of juice per night and picks and sorts up 30 lbs of mint per week. A jack-of-all-trades, he also doubles as Anvil's IT guy, plumber, ice-machine tech and food runner. As if that’s not enough, he cleans, helps out with general construction and has the foresight to replace essentials (liquor, juices, syrups, etc.) before they run out.

Secrets to success: "I think Izzy's value can be summed up in this example. The man brings his leaf blower from home every Saturday. He cleans the grounds of Anvil before he ever clocks in. He loves this bar as much, if not more, than anyone else who works here. He’s the heart and soul, ” says general manager Terry Williams.

Future plans: Retire with his wife, two kids and dogs.

1424 Westheimer Rd.; 713-523-1622

Name: Daniel Tapley

​Title: Kitchen projects manager at Pax Americana

Stats: With only two years of kitchen experience under his belt, Tapley has already proven to be a crucial member of the Pax Am family. He helps executive chef, Adam Dorris, devise the unique daily menu and helps the high-energy spot keep up with current demand. Along with monitoring orders and inventories and maintaining prep stations, Tapley is also responsible for the fermentation, pickling, curing and smoking of 1,500 lbs of proteins and 1,000 lbs of local, organic vegetables on a weekly basis. And he can handle any kitchen station when necessary, including one of the toughest: expediting.

Secrets to success: Nothing ever slips through the cracks under Tapley's watch, who keeps a hawk-eyed watch over all the stations.

Future plans: He'd love to open an upscale, fine-dining venue that embraces old-school traditions.

4319 Montrose Blvd.; 713-239-0228

Name: Gary Ly

​Title: Sous-chef at Underbelly

Stats: As chef-owner Chris Shepherd's second-in-command, it's Ly's job to run the restaurant when his boss isn't around. That means writing the innovative menu (which changes daily and features 20 items for an average of 350 covers per day), training the cooks, being willing and able to work every station, and furthering Shepherd’s vision and management style.

Secrets to success: A fantastic attitude — before it gets too busy, you'll often catch him dancing behind the line. He also has a strong desire to learn all aspects of the business.

Future plans: He wants to learn more about whole-animal cookery at Underbelly and eventually open his own restaurant.

1100 Westheimer Rd.; 713-528-9800

Name: Jose Sanchez-Diaz

Title: Lead butcher at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Stats: On a yearly basis, Sanchez-Diaz — who worked his way up from a fish guy at Pappadeaux — is responsible for butchering 23,000 lbs of strip loin, 25,000 lbs of rib-eye, 84,000 lbs of tenderloin and 200 cases of short loin. He band-saws all the cuts on-premise, and on top of all he does for the Steakhouse, Sanchez-Diaz grinds over 150,000 lbs of beef per year for all of the Pappas Burgers restaurants in Houston.

Secrets to success: The pro is not only efficient, but has a strong working knowledge of all the different cuts of meat, plus the various species of whole fish featured at the Steakhouse.

Future plans: Mentoring a new butcher for the Pappas Bros. Downtown Houston location.

5839 Westheimer Rd.; 713-780-7352

Name: Gamiel “Gamma” Hernandez

Title: Oyster shucker at Caracol

Stats: On a busy night at the Galleria-area hot spot, Hernandez shucks 12-15 cases of oysters (each case contains 70-100 oysters), and preps 25 whole fish and 25 to 30 lobsters.

Secrets to success: He checks the reservation numbers ahead of time so he can be prepared for a busier shift.

Future plans: To keep doing a good job and help maintain Caracol as one of the best restaurants in town.

2200 Post Oak Blvd.; 713-622-9996

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