All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
It’s hard to imagine another restaurant that uses the honor system for paying your check. At Aw Shucks, you order at the bar, your food finds your table and, once you're done, you employ basic human trust and decency by relaying what you ordered at the front register. Shucks provides a pad of bingo card-sized menus and tiny pencils to check off your order items if you’re forgetful.
General manager Melissa Bigby says most of Shucks’ patrons, many of whom have been frequents since Aw Shucks opened its first location on Greenville late in 1982, are kind to the system. Still, a few here and there take advantage.
I’m cracking into a fried catfish po’boy. Stainless steel ledges are dotted every foot or so with Tabasco, myriad labeless hot sauces (you’ll recognize the brands if you’re a pro), malt vinegar and Lea & Perrins. My technique is to hammer the malt vinegar straight into the tartar sauce and then hit it over the fries. The bug zapper is humming electric blue on the wall. The cooks slice off 1-inch blocks of butter and stir a bubbling cauldron of something that smells delicious. Misters hiss on the patio, Corona Light buckets brim with two-packs of Lance’s Captain’s Wafers, and Aw Shucks is off and running at lunchtime.
Leaning into the stainless counter with a sixer of Gulf oysters and a pitcher of cold beer feels like a classic Dallas thing. It feels like a classic all-of-Texas thing when you’re in the maddening heat, hunched under the endless misters.
“I can’t imagine any other restaurant being here,” says Bigby, ruminating on Shucks’ original plot across the street from the Granada Theatre. Sometimes liquored-up folks wander over after shows.
There’s something comforting about knowing that Aw Shucks’ll open every day at 11 a.m., the misters hushing the traffic and crackling, cornbreaded catfish coming out of the fryer. Once you’re inside, watching seafood butter bathe and steam, you’ll get the pang of worry: Are we going to lose this place, too? Greenville’s seen its share of closures in the past year.
Still, while sitting inside, following the moves of the kitchen, a feeling clarifies: You don't want Aw Shucks to leave. Even if you're more of a casual fan, it's got a good-time spirit that feels like something you want to hold on to. Food is food at Aw Shucks, served as humbly as the pay-with-honor system.
Bigby started working shifts and moved to shift manager, working her way up to manager and then general manager. That was right around 19 years ago. What’s changed since opening about 34 years ago?
“The menu’s gotten bigger. That’s about it,” she says, “We still do everything the same way. You shouldn’t fix something that’s not broke.”
The catfish po’boy is fine, and so are the oysters and steakhouse french fries. They’re not outrageously memorable, but they’re fresh and clean and inexpensive. With a few hammers of hot sauce and malt vinegar, the swampy Texas air won’t matter. It’s don’t-think, good-time food. Aw Shucks isn’t the place where you discuss the flavor hints in your beer. It’s where you get a little mind-numbed on domestics and down way, way too many oysters. At Shucks’ prices, you can afford to; the specials are damn enticing, even in the age of the gastropub.
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Aw Shucks has been in the Peterson family since the early '80s. Robert “Bob” Peterson opened the restaurant, which was passed to his son Nick when he died. Bob Peterson also founded the local Blue Goose Cantina chain, which you’ll find just down the road on Lower Greenville. There are a few other Aw Shucks locations (some are called Big Shucks), but the atmosphere at the original is irreplaceable. There’s the diner feeling inside, like you might be able to put out a cigarette in your plastic ramekin of cocktail sauce.
Outside, on the breezy (if you’re lucky) patio, if you close your eyes, you might be able to hear the clunk of an ocean buoy or a New Orleans-style accordion when a platter of Louisiana crawfish drops down. Make sure you tear off a few sheets of paper towels for your fingers. You might need some for head sweat, too. Whatever you want — just as long as you stop in to pay your bill.
Aw Shucks Oyster Bar, 3601 Greenville Ave.