Niko’s Steakhouse: bringing the best of the best to Corpus Christi
By: Stephanie Kusy
Photos by: Paul Marshall
Step inside Niko’s Steakhouse, and it’s highly unlikely you would be able to identify the owner. He may be tucked away in the kitchen donning a chef’s hat while perfecting a family recipe. He may be behind the bar whipping up a tasty margarita for patrons. Either way, Niko Sissamis prefers the hands-on approach when it comes to managing restaurants. Many residents may know that for three generations, this Greek family has founded a string of more than a dozen successful eateries in Corpus Christi. What they may not know, though, is the rags-to-riches story behind it.
Niko’s Steakhouse will celebrate 10 years of business soon, but the real story takes us way back before World War II when Niko’s grandfather immigrated from a poor village named Spoa located on island of Karpathos in Greece. He left his wife and three children behind in search of a better way of life in the United States. Once the war started, though, he lost communication with his family back home.
Niko’s father, the oldest of three, stepped up to support the family and dropped out of school after seventh grade. After several years, they finally heard from their father; he was alive and well working in New York and would soon make his way down to Texas. When Niko’s father, Paul, turned 18, he set out to journey across the Atlantic Ocean to find work and earn a better income for his family. However, he quickly encountered issues.
“When he first got to Athens, they wouldn’t let him board the ship because he didn’t have any shoes,” Niko says of his father, who was too poor to own a pair. “So he had to go back to the island, literally borrow a pair of shoes and wait a month for the next ship traveling to America.”
This time, he boarded the ship, sailed across the ocean and docked at Ellis Island in New York. He was 18 and did not speak English. With no money, he sought out the Greek community and found work at a restaurant washing dishes. With his first paycheck, he bought a pair of shoes, cleaned up the pair he borrowed and shipped them back to his family member in Greece.
For nearly a decade in New York City, Paul was promoted from washing dishes, to learning how to cook, to waiting tables, to managing. In the meantime, Paul’s father had already settled in Corpus Christi and opened a diner known as Hasty Tasty with his brother-in-law. The diner became popular and yielded enough money for the rest of the family to leave Greece and come to the United States. They soon opened a second location.
Back in the 1950s, Leopard Street was called Highway 9, similar to what SPID is today. Niko’s grandfather, better known as Papa Louie, spotted the possibility for growth. The family sold both diners and opened up a top-of-the-line steakhouse in 1957 called the Astor, which still operates today. “At the time, that was the main drag, so it was a popular restaurant,” Niko says. “Way ahead of its time.”
By then, Niko’s father, Paul, was married with children. The family worked hard seven days a week. Niko and his six siblings all worked in the restaurant from a young age, first refilling drinks, then gradually learning the ins and outs of the business. “From a young age, I loved the restaurant business,” Niko recalls. “I remember being 4 or 5 years old in the kitchen asking to help.”
Niko knew at a young age he wanted to open a restaurant. His father, however, insisted he go to college first. “My father was such an outgoing, pleasant, hardworking man,” he says. “He lived his life through us. He gave us everything he didn’t get growing up.”
After graduating from college, Niko opened a restaurant in Calallen, as well as the Ol’ Steakhouse Company on Alameda with his brother. After years of running those restaurants together, Niko knew he wanted to try something different and open a much larger steakhouse. In March 2006, Niko’s Steakhouse opened. “I really wanted to go back to the basics of what made my father, uncle and grandfather such a success,” Niko says. “I went back to the original New York family recipes. I wanted to use my family’s vision in today’s date.”
The causal, yet elegant dining experience will exceed any steak lover’s expectations. Patrons can smell the mesquite wood burning outside before they enter the restaurant. The wood brings out the flavor in the steaks, chicken, grilled seafood and wild game, which contributes to one of the many reasons the restaurant has acquired several Best of the Best awards over the years.
“You will see me bartending one day and cooking the next,” Niko says. “I’m in the kitchen a lot. You will see me managing and talking to tables.” Detail oriented with an entrepreneurial spirit, Niko still gives all the credit to God and his family for getting him where he is today.
“They were very brilliant people for being immigrants,” he says proudly. “They had no schooling, but they saw America as the land of opportunity. They made it here, but they weren’t given anything. They worked. They sacrificed to give us a good life. In the mix of all this, they made sure we went to school and to church.”
The Greek community is small, but prevalent in Corpus Christi. The majority maintain their Greek culture, but embrace American traditions. “I’ve never met a Greek that wasn’t hardworking,” Niko says. “They hand down traditions to their kids in addition to teaching them to work hard. They all come to church Sunday. It’s a beautiful culture.”
The majority of Greek families regularly attend the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Sundays. Niko, like his father, is currently serving as the president. He also has a hand in the renowned Greek Festival, which takes place in November. He has all of these commitments, yet he remains devoted to his family: his wife, Shermane, and son, Paul, who was named after Niko’s father. Niko hopes to instill the same beliefs he was taught and never forget his Greek heritage.