Whining, Dining, and Other Unpaid Observations

Shrimp Po-boy Standoff: Richmond Edition

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on August 14, 2009

In high school, I worked at a small-town, family-owned seafood restaurant outside of Houston. Charming, no-frills ambiance inside, stunning lakeside views outside, and to this day, the best seafood I’ve ever, ever had.

I miss it.

So many of their dishes are impossible to find elsewhere. They may be on other menus, but the taste is inevitably off, absent or just wrong.

I’ve been on the lookout for a good shrimp po-boy and cup of gumbo locally for some time now. This simple combination was my standard lunchfare for years and its memory has a way of sneaking up on me, stalking me, burrowing itself into my unsatiated, tormented taste buds. And I’m always left disappointed.

I’ll admit that maybe I haven’t exactly hunted high and low for this. I tend to dislike chain restaurants because, you know, they’re soulless, and I don’t exactly have a lot of money. So that, realistically, wipes out a huge segment of Houston seafood restaurants. I realize this. But is it too much to ask to stumble upon a hole-in-the-wall place with decent, down-home dishes and regular-folk pricing?

Apparently, yes. I’ve been disappointed over the years with chains like The Fisherman’s Wharf, Boudreaux’s, Landry’s and Willie G’s. I mean, come on. I know these places are no Capitol Grille or even Christie’s, but when you specialize in seafood, your seafood should be good. Especially basic dishes, like gumbo. And shrimp po-boys.

And the ol’ craving has been nagging me more and more persistently lately, like an old, rotting tooth, roiling and festering until you just give up and go to the dentist already.

So I took myself to just inside the loop on Richmond for a side-by-side comparison. First up was a visit to Bayou City Seafood and Pasta with my dad.

Now, I’ve seen this place a few dozen times and have always been intrigued. What delicious platters of down-home cookery exist here?, I would wonder to myself. What authentic but reasonably priced treasures might I find? I’d been imagining hot, crispy, hand-breaded jumbo shrimp, still a glistening, golden brown from the fryer, nestled atop toasted, buttery french bread and fresh lettuce and tomato.  No sauce, remoulade or otherwise, required here. The gumbo would be a rich, dark, silky but dense roux stocked with crab, shrimp, filé, tomato and okra, okra, okra…

So I stumble into this rather shabby-looking place, eyes glazed, mouth set on ‘drool,’ ready to have all my wildest expectations met.

First, it’s really quite nice inside, which I took as a bold slap in the face to people like me, in tank top, jeans and flip-flops, who misjudge the bedraggled exterior and dare to think it would be appropriate to stumble into,  optically glazed and drooling.

As it turns out, it’s a rather popular spot for the way the other half lives, all employed, with their business lunches and starched collars. Everything is served on plates. The silverware is silver. And the waitstaff is unbearably polite and stiff.

This was all quite jarring, you see, as I was hoping (quite fervently, I might add) to have my order plopped down in front of me, wrapped in grease-spotted tissue paper, in a red and white checkered paper boat. Something along the lines of “Order up!” would be yelled out as the line cook pushed the cup of gumbo forward, leaving splashes here and there on the counter.

And wouldn’t you know it, none of this happened. There wasn’t even a counter.

I started out with the gumbo. It had the dark requirement down  (my dad jokingly referred to it as “ditch water”), but it was runny and weak-tasting. It was like a bowl of water, flavored with gumbo bouillon. Gumbo-flavored water.

The seafood inside was plentiful but lacked any distinguishing characteristics; each bite of shrimp tasted like the bite of fish or crab before. Protein and vegetables were all the same, soggy consistency. Rice was served on the side, presumably because it was just so jam-packed, and turned out to be necessary just to add some density.

The taste itself wasn’t awful, but there was nothing really good about any of it. Disappointment, check.

Then arrived the half shrimp po-boy and fries. The bread, which can easily make or break a sandwich, was decidedly lackluster. French bread should always, always, have a discernible crust on the outside. This one didn’t. And the shrimp, oh dear me, the shrimp. Does Tyson Foods produce a frozen fried shrimp? Because, so help me, this was the first thing I thought when I tried it. It’s like your roommate forgot she invited guests over for a dinner party that night and pops a frozen bag of T.G.I. Friday’s breaded shrimp into the toaster oven, dresses it up with some shredded lettuce and thinks, Yes, this’ll be fine.

It’s not fine.

It was a good decision to only order the half sandwich. I couldn’t imagine boring my palate through a full foot-long of that.

Oh, and the fries? I’ll admit I didn’t want them in the first place, and although they were cooked to a perfectly crispy texture, they too tasted as if they had once been frozen. Either that, or somewhere ran down to Burger King and double-fried a few orders.

The price  ($11.99) was average and on point with at least the portion size, if not quality. Unfortunately, everything about my meal at Bayou City Seafood was decidedly unfresh-tasting. Maybe they’re better with grilled dishes (the broiled scallops sounded good), or maybe it was an off day, or maybe their cook ran off and eloped with a  waitress only hours before. Who knows. Either way, I’m done speculating and ready to dust myself off and move on.

And move on, I did. Two days later, I joined my mom, brother and dad at Ragin Cajun, a minute down the road. I’ve been hesitant to try this place because, let’s face it, it’s kind of a dumb name. It’s the kind of name that makes me think that I’ve frequented it several times before and hated it, so I repeatedly pass it off as a déception établie, or established disappointment.

I should have known better. Can you ever go wrong with a restaurant bedecked with a giant red crawfish on its roof?

While it is technically a chain with four locations, it has just enough heart and soul tucked away in its shack-like exterior (and interior!) to retain its independent feel. Long, picnic-style tables and benches that you share with strangers, of all people. Way too much crap to look at on the walls. A counter where you order, which is seafood dive 101. And red and white-checkered, plastic table cloths. Although I was wearing heels this time because I crashed and burned in the wardrobe department last time, this was a place I could get down, dirty and flat-out comfortable in.

I was tempted to go healthy and get something light and grilled, but then, there it was. The chalkboard sign, where someone had lovingly scrawled, Thursday Special: Cup of gumbo, shrimp po-boy and drink, $12.99. It was as good as done.

The gumbo was dense! It was dark! It was smokey! It had an indescernible cajun bite at the end, leaving an odd sort of kicky heat to slide down your throat! I got the shrimp and crab variety (rather than shrimp and chicken) and while it possessed several of my aforementioned gumbo requirements, it still wasn’t quite right.

Again, the seafood inside didn’t taste incredibly fresh. Even if it has simmered in a pot of liquid for awhile, fresh shrimp should retain its uniquely firm texture rather than soften and flake off at the edges. The taste of both the shrimp and crab was muddled and unapparent. For that matter, so were the vegetables. It was impossible to discern what was what.

Sigh. So while I appreciated the thickness of the base and its unique flavors, it fell short of being a really good cup of gumbo.

The po-boy, on the other hand. Hoo, boy. It doesn’t top my beloved small-town, lakeside restaurant where I earned a paycheck as a teen. But it was a respectable second.

The bread was a light, hoagie-style french loaf with a barely-there toast on it and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. In all honesty, it should not have worked.  But… it did. It worked. It was buttery, and airy, and an enjoyable, wispy little foil to the main attraction.

Fried shrimp. When it goes wrong, it’s inevitably a soul-crushing experience. When it goes right, it can be the kind of joyous occasion that sparks fist-pumping, rabid grins, even sharing.

Luckily for me, this was some degree of the latter.

Fat, plump, crispy, fresh shrimp. Golden brown. Glistening. Texture! My mouth knew I was eating shrimp.

They were good. They were very good.

Iceberg lettuce and bright slices of tomato complemented nicely. I even allowed a smidge of mayo. But I must warn you. Unless you specify otherwise, your delicious po-boy will be served with ketchup.

I truly cannot wrap my head around this. While I was waiting at the table for my number to be called (it’s no “Order up!”, but it’ll do), I scanned the menu one last time. When I saw “ketchup” in the same vicinity as “delicious po-boy,” I sprinted to the counter, hurdling chairs and tables and lunch patrons in my desperation. Time was counting down quickly, and I had to save my sandwich from ruin. It was like a Nicholas Cage movie.

So aside from that near-disaster, Ragin Cajun was a pleasant experience and I expect to have more of them in the future. And in the meantime, my nagging, painful po-boy-and-gumbo craving has been successfully sated and abated, pushed back into the dusty crevices of mind and desires, until next time.

Until next year, Rodeo Cookoff…

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on February 28, 2009

Goodbye, World Championship Houston Rodeo Once-a-Year-and-Not-Often- Enough BBQ Cookoff. We shall miss you.

Although you make our throats hurt for days to come because we must all yell over Roger Creager, James Earl Somebody, and inexplicably, Ne-Yo, we love you. Regardless of the thick, sumptious bbq smoke that permeates our country-western clothing fresh off the racks of Palais Royal and refuses to be washed out, no matter how many trips to the laundry room, we love you. Even when we show up to your gates with all the best intentions of not drinking ourselves into oblivion, your wild and reckless “open bar” culture beckons, and we indeed leave you some degree of tipsy, and all the while, we love you.

over 400 tents of gleeful debauchery

over 400 tents of gleeful debauchery

It’s easy to figure out why. Although I was out of commission all of the following day due to all things delicious and sinful, I was happy. The culprit? That fabulous barbecue. I can’t even abbreviate it this time, it’s that good.

Growing up in Houston, TX, we know good bbq. We may not have the Kansas City dry rub tomato-based craziness that’s going on up there, but we have Goode Company, and in the bbq world, that’s all you really need to know. The Pappas Brothers can make a mean chopped beef sandwich that might rival anything outside of Texas, but it’s sloppier, not as pure, as Goode Co. The tangy, peppery, vinegar-based sauce marries perfectly with the smoky, crusty-on the-outside-and-tender-on-the-inside, mouth-watering brisket. But I’m not here to talk about tried and true Houston legends.

Amateur up-and-comers are where it’s at.

Our tent at the cookoff was called Kitchen Kaboose and those boys know how to cook. Like cook with a capital C, cook. It’s amazing. Not only was the brisket fall-off-the-bone tender, but there were no bones on your plate, so it would fall off your fork until you just said “forget being sophisticated at the rodeo” and just ate with las manos. Freakin’ fantastic.

my favorite kind of meal

my favorite kind of meal

And what’s strange about it is, they served it with molasses-based sauce. My boyfriend and I are what you might refer to as sauce connoisseur-snobs and when we saw that thick glop of molasses mess, we exchanged a look, raised our eyebrows, and sighed. We schlopped it into the corner of our plates and resigned ourselves to a meal of little sauce dabs, in contrast to the sauce-drenching method we normally employ.

Then: I examine my plate more closely, and realize my jalapeño-sausage links have been majorly and permanently compromised. They are quite literally swimming in a pool, no, swamp, of said molasses sauce. And that’s when we realize, this sauce is super delicious. It’s got that sweet heat to it that I love and although it’s definitely full-flavored, it’s subtle enough to compliment my treasured smoked meat rather than overwhelm it, and it was more smooth and velvety than the gloppy, awkward goop I expected it to be. Hooray!

So the unification of vinegar-molasses sauce lovers really set the tone for the night. We had a blast/ball/good time. We spent time with good friends, reconnected with old ones, and met new ones. There was an all-time Friday record of 76,889 partygoers there, so we had plenty to choose from. We met the new girlfriend of one buddy and actually liked her, which almost never happens, and got to debate the merits of my old favorite dork-show, Heroes, with complete strangers. No one had cell service and no one could hear over the deafening music that shifted oddly from country to ’70s mo-town as the night went on, so communication was mostly limited to sign language and, naturally, smoke signals. There was some dancing, but it was not very good and plenty embarrassing, so we’ll leave it at “there was some dancing.”

Farewell, kind stranger

Farewell, kind stranger

You’ve left a lot of casualties in your wake as you ride off into the sunset, 2009 Houston Rodeo Cookoff, but for those of us who made it out to the other side, we’re left with fond memories, tingling taste buds, and the kind of satisfaction that only comes from looking the Rodeo full in the face and living to tell about it.

In anticipation of next year,

Kristin

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