It's hard to get a sense of what The Gulf Coast is trying to be. Maybe it's a consignment store that serves free étouffée with the purchase of two pink flamingos. Or maybe it's a fried seafood hutch that lets you leave behind all the stuff that was refused on your last trip to the Goodwill drop-off point.
The Gulf Coast looks like a fern-bar parody where the ferns are replaced with a Christmas tree dressed in Mardi Gras beads. Hanging from the ceiling from fishing line are a bronzed bicycle, an accordion, a guitar and a rifle, among other things. Animal skins are stapled to the wall, and there's a goal post protector from the New Orleans Saints. "I decorated it with everything my wife wouldn't let me keep in the house," says Wade Mundinger, who operates The Gulf Coast with Dodie's Seafood Café founder Charley McGuinness.
They opened The Gulf Coast in an old Deep Ellum building on Commerce Street that was used for storage for some 50 years. Before that, it was home to a company that manufactured badges for firemen and policemen. In its first few months of operation the restaurant was called Dodie's Gulf Coast. But Mundinger says this caused a lot of confusion among the blurry-eyed who were placing takeout orders at the Deep Ellum location and attempting to pick them up at Dodie's Seafood Café on Lower Greenville. So they took the Dodie out of the name.
In addition to the assorted detritus suspended from the ceiling and stapled to the walls, there is the stuff on the floor. A pair of white, badly weathered shutters flank the kitchen area. A baby grand piano with chipped off-white paint is just to the left of the bar. "It's got that tar and nicotine color to it," Mundinger says. The table near the door is made out of a surfboard. Another table near the back of the restaurant, carved in the shape of Texas, came from the Greenville Avenue Bar and Grill.
Most of the remaining tables are even quirkier than this. Several of them are boxlike structures topped in Plexiglas that hold horizontal sculptures or paintings or whatever it is you call a work of art you can look down on while eating crawdad duffs. One depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Another is a montage of circuit boards, chips and wire strung and frozen into a kind of high-tech chaos. Mundinger says he got the tables from the deceased Flip's Wine Bar and Trattoria that later became a Flying Saucer before it became the empty hull it is now. Mundinger says he used to work at Flip's, and he took possession of the tables just as Flip was doing the postmortem on his restaurant. There are eight or so tables that Mundinger will take possession of at a later time. But there is one that won't find its way into The Gulf Coast. This table contains a particularly graphic portrayal of a nude woman. "That one made Charley a little nervous," says Mundinger, referring to McGuinness.
Mundinger says he and McGuinness set out to create a menu that is half New Orleans and half Italian, similar to menus from restaurants found in New Orleans (McGuinness hails from New Orleans while Mundinger is from Baton Rouge). The bulk of the menu is based on McGuinness family recipes. Mundinger says his only contribution to the menu is a root-beer float.
But before root-beer float time come swarms of fried foods: shrimp, oysters, catfish, crawfish tails. Fried crawfish tails are simple but effective. A grouping of tails in a blondish crispy coat is sweet, well-seasoned and greaseless. A cocktail sauce and a mustard sauce were provided for dipping.
Tomato vegetable soup was very red and very thick, almost like ketchup with zits. It was filled with tomato, onion and carrot, among other things, and it was viscous with a promiscuously peppery bite.
Raw oyster cocktail is a strange thing. This is to seafood cocktails what grain alcohol is to bar drinks. There is no lettuce, scraps of tomato, bits of celery or even a sauce in this cocktail. It's simply a glass with a large bowl--the type in which you might find scoops of sherbet--holding grayish shucked oysters in a clear viscous fluid. Our server referred to the liquid as "natural oyster juices." It was a little hard to harmonize and digest this description with the thing on the table before us. Around the base of the glass were a couple of lemon wedges and little cups of cocktail sauce and horseradish. Thankfully, the oysters were clean with a nice briny edge.
Sautéed shrimp with artichokes was perhaps some rough attempt at an Italian recipe. A boat of small shrimp and artichoke heart fragments are bathed in a sauce drafted from butter, white wine and garlic. The shrimp were plump, and the tangy sauce was thickened with breadcrumbs, creating a hearty appetizer instead of a delicate one.
Entrées come with a choice of a house salad and Italian slaw. The house salad is simple, with greens and a couple of tomato slices. The slaw looks like a collection of ravaged artichoke hearts. The red and white cabbage leaves are cut large and rough. This slaw is also peppery hot, with a mixture of celery, tiny specks of green olive and oregano contributing to the Italian part of the moniker.
Entrées are parked under the designation "supper." Blackened catfish with angel hair pasta, an entrée that mingles the New Orleans and Italian influences, arrives as a tangle of well-prepared pasta next to the two catfish fillets. The pasta is bathed in a lemon-butter sauce that sloughed off a strange sweetness--the kind that makes you wonder about the butter. The blackening on those catfish fillets seemed timid, and while portions of the fillet were sweet and flaky, the thinner stretches along the fillet's edges were rubbery.
Red beans and rice came with three pieces of juicy, chewy sausage with a skin that was grilled to an elusive crisp. The sausages were planted on a bed of red beans with a bay leaf protruding from it. The beans even had a little sweetness on the finish.
Spicy meatball and spaghetti was actually a pair of bland meatballs the size of bulldozer bearings. These massive balls were planted on a bed of spaghetti all bathed in a sticky, slightly sweet tomato sauce. The meatballs were desperately meaty (as opposed to swamped with bread fillers), and they had an evident but wimpy spice kick.
Catfish po' boy was also timid and utilitarian. This sandwich was nothing more than a pair of moist catfish fillets stuffed into a French roll smeared with mayo and cluttered with lettuce shreds. All the ingredients were moist, and they didn't taste like mud or a musty closet, but the flavors didn't do anything either. This sandwich was crying for a pestering, maybe with pepper sauce.
To conclude a meal at The Gulf Coast, it's probably best to sample Mundinger's root-beer float. Because the other option, the monster bread pudding with amaretto sauce, is too beastly for delicate taste buds. This creation is a gargantuan wedge topped with little slices of toast that are dusted with cocoa. It's dense, rubbery and doughy to the point of requiring a one-bite limit. Any more than that and the palate might rebel--and maybe the digestive plumbing, too. And no matter how alcoholic the sauce, it couldn't get any traction on this sponge-rubber heap, so there wasn't even a curtain of sweetness behind which to hide from its flagrant flaws.
Perhaps instead of retreading an Anglo-Saxon confection, The Gulf Coast might do well to stick to its New Orleans/Italian mongrel pedigree and do something deliciously rude to a tiramisu.
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