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.

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America’s Favorite Restaurant does NOT equate to Favorite Tablemates

Posted in Culinary Experiences by KP on March 7, 2009

The Benihana concept is fun, right? A large, community table where you can sit with people from all walks of life and enjoy a fantastic meal prepared by a skilled, entertaining chef right in front of you? Count me in!

Except for the sitting by other people part. Count me out.

Mark and I (the aforementioned SO) eat out much too often, and Benihana’s works itself into our diets probably more than it should. We always have an amazing time, but our Benihana trips are infamous — INFAMOUS — for being marred by some form of irritating personality at our table.

It’s probably our fault, because we always have such stupidly high expectations of meeting our new best friends or something, and we also make it a point to eat at a Benihana every time we’re on vacation in a new city. For example: San Antonio Benihana is not ever recommended because of the poor service and stripper customers. Orlando Benihana is very much recommended because we had our own personal chef who was awesome, and probably the best friend-type we were looking for.

best friend chef

best friend chef

But usually, we end up sitting with the Boys and Girls Club of America who dislike imbibing in conversation, adult beverages, and society, for that matter. (No offense to the actual BGCA intended.) Sometimes we get the loud-mouth out-of-towners who secretly, or quite openly, take pictures of the two of us with their camera phones. Weird. Then there’s the couples who fight with each other, the guy who shouts about jager bombs with a baby in his lap, the girl who pitches a fit because Tuaca is not served here, and the prim, quiet families who just pick at their plates, looking miserable in wool.

Like I said, we always have unappealing tablemates, but whether they’re bland or just crazy, we manage to have a great, fun experience. But last night’s visit took the cake — in fact, it took the whole hibachi grill.

We’re the first ones seated at our table. I’m leafing through the menu like an amateur because I want something a little different. I usually stick with some combination of shrimp, scallops, and/or filet unless I’m getting sushi. I had the lobster once and was not impressed; the grill is obviously way too intense for a shellfish this delicate, and it came out overcooked and missing most of the buttery sweetness that makes lobster lobster. It honestly tasted closer to shrimp; I’ll be sticking to steamed from now on.

So I decided on the seafood diablo dish, which is “seafoods and vegetables with Japanese udon noodles and a spicy sauce.” Sounds delish, and it was. Shrimp, the always flawless scallops, and calamari, which I’ve somehow managed to never have grilled; after last night, I don’t know if I can go back to fried and dunked in marinara sauce. The flavor was just so… ah, everything you can think of. It was distinctive yet subtle, sweet yet savory, and even though it looked exactly like an udon noodle, the distinctive texture was a reminder that you were eating a delicious sea creature. The flavor just jumped out at you, well over everything else going on in your mouth. Phenomenal. The noodles were tasty as well. They’re not my favorite because they’re rather thick and can be gummy and even a little slimy, but in the hands of my hibachi chef, they were mellow and complimented the sauce well. And the secret sauce: Even though the color was off, it was obviously a simple sriracha-based sauce, which is fine with me. I got the heat I was looking for and all the ingredients were very well-balanced. It’s definitely not your typical hibachi fare but it hit the spot and I’d recommend it to those in the mood for a real dish.

But from the very beginning, it was obvious that the soon-to-be-sitting-next-to-me whack-job was going to ruin everything. So let me paint this picture: we’ve just been seated at the table when a nice-looking, well-dressed couple, probably in their late 20’s, are seated across from us. They look normal and we breathe a sigh of relief, but they’re too far away to really interact with.

You know who is not too far away to interact with? This next lady.

An older woman wearing a jacket, scarf, sunglasses, and floppy hat sits next to us and is joined by her husband shortly. Her first order of business is to complain about the temperature, which is fine, because we were sitting under a vent and it was a little chilly. Then I get lambasted with this deadly, disapproving glare when the waitress sits my Kirin Ichiban down in front of me. Whatever, I was raised by teetotalers. I am immune to that look. Then she sends her glass of water back an alarming 3 TIMES because it was not room-temperature enough. At this point, Mark and I are actively playing the part of the bland and are absorbed in our soups and salads because this lady is very openly a nut job and we don’t want any part of that.

Then, she and her husband berate the chef for only working there for a year and being a “rookie.” I’m close to snapping, and I inform them that not only is their training a grueling six months, but we’ve actually had this chef before, and he’s pretty damn great. Then, she instructs the chef where to place her lobster on the grill; she disapproves of his putting it in the middle and insists that he move it to the far right side, because she doesn’t want too much oil on it. Then when she notices that the very nice-looking, very normal couple on the other end of the table have only ordered shrimp fried rice and nothing else, she proceeds to serve them the most condescending piece of hell I have ever witnessed.

When she begins her badgering, the nice people, we’ll call them The Normals, smile and laugh and say we come here every Friday, we just wanted a light dinner, we like the ambiance, etc… Every word they uttered was as nice and normal as could be and did not even begin to venture into It’s None of Your Business territory, which would have been appropriate. But Floppy Hat insisted on continuing her tasteless verbal assault.

“I feel so bad,” she intones. “But there’s nothing on your plate,” she whines. “DO YOU WANT SOME OF OUR FOOD?”

I thought I was going to hurl. It was the single most disgusting, embarrassing, flat out rude exchange I’ve seen in a long, long time. In most circumstances, I’d like to think that I would stick my nose in there and say something. However, at a dinner? Where the whole point is to forge a sense of community with people of different cultures, generations, nationalities? I didn’t want to compound the awkwardness, and I still had a dinner to finish, so I said nothing and watched the Normals handle the situation with grace, dignity, and kindness. They did fine on their own, but I still wonder if I should have spoken up. At least it would have made me feel better.

Needless to say, the Normals bailed out of there pretty quickly, and Mark and I followed shortly after wolfing down our dinners and skipping the meal-ending green tea and ice cream (still a little sad about that). We’d both had enough, and when we stood up to leave with our two to-go boxes, Floppy Hat’s husband informed us that there were take-out bags in the front. Argh, what a rampage these two were on!

We high-tailed it out of there and capped off the night with, well, a nightcap, at Pub Fiction. Neither of us have been there in years; we’d shaken the psuedo-trendy midtown scene quite a long time ago, but it was kind of nice there. It was only about 9 o’clock so there was no half-hour line to wait in and the place was low-lit, well-air conditioned, had great TVs, and the bartender had some sort of Eastern-European accent. Just how we like it, so the night was saved after all. I only hope the Normals can say the same.

sit with caution

sit with caution

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Cheap Eats Alert #1

Posted in Cheap Eats by KP on March 4, 2009

outback-steakhouse-0908-lgSo guys. $4.95 crab-stuffed shrimp at Outback, as in steakhouse. Pretty unreal little appetizer. It’s four lightly breaded shrimp stuffed with crab, garlic, breadcrumbs, some kind of mild cheese, and topped with lemon butter, and it is GOOD! My boyfriend and I have app’d on these every day this week, then go home and make the main course. We’re always looking for some cheap eats and these absolutely deliver. Since I can’t have my beloved clam chowder there anymore (stupid seasonality), I get my fattening seafood fix from these guys. Let me know if you agree.

KP OUT

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