Design + Suds, History + Community

A Toast to the Design Acumen of Mongoose Versus Cobra

Steven Hempel and Will Walsh. Photography Jack Thompson. Art direction Michelle AviƱa.
November 30, 2012

Steven Hempel and Will Walsh delve into Midtown’s surprising — and inspiring — redux of a derelict century-old former grocer, recently serving as a pigeon roost, transformed into Houston’s most authentic bar.


Steven Hempel on History Made Anew  

Mongoose versus Cobra sits in the former Auditorium Grocery Company Building, which was built between 1915 and 1917 at 1011 McGowen, in what is now jauntily termed Midtown but was, a century ago, a leafy neighborhood and community. The one-story-tall, unassuming brick building maintains much of its historic feel, thanks to the sensitive renovation work of a team led by Ian Rosenberg and Mike Sammons, founders of the lauded 13 Celsius wine bar, which sits less than half a mile away. The Auditorium building has had a number of tenants, the last being a U.S. Post Office branch that closed in the early 1980s. Vacant for decades since, the building has been on Rosenberg’s radar for some time.

A graduate of the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, Rosenberg has searched for ways to build businesses that help create a sense of community in his Midtown neighborhood. Recollecting his time in Santes, France, where he studied, he sought to create a small city-style cafe. Bringing this project to reality, however, was no small feat. The building, abandoned for almost 30 years, had no power, no water and no sewage. Yet Rosenberg saw compelling factors in preserving and rehabilitating the modest structure that, though in disrepair, maintained an historic charm. “It has redeeming factors — beautiful brick walls, original wood columns, beautiful high ceilings — that give it so much character,” he says.

The bold preservation plan was led by Rosenberg (who also made 13 Celsius happen), along with Baldemar Gonzalez and Alan Krathaus of Core Design Studio. The stalwart group made great efforts to preserve the Auditorium’s most authentic elements, including its defining feature: the original wood columns, which run floor to ceiling and demarcate the space almost like a mid-corridor. The period plumbing was also salvaged and restored, as were the windows, which are framed by vintage lights restored by Tom Delaney in London. The design and architectural team removed sheetrock walls to uncover stunning 100-year-old brick that became the design foundation of the space. Ductwork is hidden above the circa-1915 wooden studs, and the original facade was cut away to frame a steel, glass and concrete entry that also delineates a patio area.

While historic charm is evident, Rosenberg added a number of handsome and purposeful elements: A step welcoming patrons to the bar incorporates the words from “Gunga Din” by Kipling. Geometric wood tables designed
by the team lend warmth to the space. A handmade, ballpark-style menu board sits against the main wall across from the bar and lists the various Brew selections. To the back of the main hall, a flat-screen television is tucked away, rising out of a wood casing for viewing big sporting events. Another elegant detail: Simple, polished-steel tap handles subtly remind us that no beer gets precedence over another. An innovative lighting display and backsplash allows patrons to view the true color of the ale as it leaves the tap, while a large glass window above the bar shows off the network of KeyKegs housing the various brews.

That Rosenberg and his team, who received the Good Brick Award (from the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance now Historic Houston) for their initiative with 13 Celsius, have been nominated again for Mongoose versus Cobra, should come as no surprise. As Rosenberg notes, it has been truly a group effort to bring the once abandoned space back to life. Together, they have pulled off the challenging task of preserving the past while enhancing the present, a feat that connoisseurs of fine beer and cocktails will no doubt appreciate for many years to come. Salute.

Will Walsh Weighs in on Bites and Brews

In this new era of nervy mixologists rolling their eyes at every request for a simple gin and tonic, bar-goers have grown increasingly frustrated with the chaser of pretension that accompanies one’s imbibing. Mike Sammons and Ian Rosenberg have succeeded wildly in designing their approachable and thoughtful craft cocktail and beer hall, Mongoose versus Cobra.

Mongoose versus Cobra follows in the spirit of 13 Celsius by providing thirsty patrons with a selection of beers from around the world, exposing us to new global flavors and brews of the most superior quality. Mongoose
is equipped with 42 beer taps, including one reserved for the notorious Milanese digestif, Fernet. If Fernet on tap doesn’t get you in a boozy mood, the Mongoose guys went ahead and carbonated it for you. You know, because they care. Need more proof? Well let’s just say that having Four Roses Bourbon, Azul Tequila and Smith and Cross Jamaica Rum on your $6 Well Menu is not the mark of an establishment that short-pours and over-squirts. If you’ve grown weary of your Four Roses neat, don’t despair. Ask bartending wildman Shafer Hall to take you out of Bourbon County with the Buffalo Squeeze. A bourbon-based libation of Campari, lemon and egg white to make, as Sammons puts it, their “quintessential Houston Cocktail.”

Beers and spirits are not the only thing that these guys are doing right. A “Grocery” menu provides all the sustenance needed to survive your global beer and cocktail trek. With a nod to a modern saloon, there are house-made pickles, beef jerky cured with black pepper, and, oh yes, pickled eggs. The cured meats are not made in-house, but are made and seasoned specifically for the bar. For a beer-hall vibe, try the enormous Slow Dough pretzel with house-made mustard. By far the most popular item on the menu, it pairs perfectly with any glass that comes across the pass.

Most importantly, Mongoose versus Cobra has done a great job achieving its maker’s vision of a “bar” — not to transport the customer to somewhere else, but to create an environment that promotes neighborhood living, community interaction, and ignoring “good enough” only to focus on the best. “The Count would be pleased”… Don’t look at me. Ask barman Shafer Hall to tell you that one over your first Roy Orbison.