Texas oyster season is under way, and you might as well be greedy. The oysters emerging from the Gulf this year are plump and sweet, and they'll probably be gone by Christmas.
While the recent BP oil spill didn't taint Texan waters, oyster eaters in Louisiana weren't so lucky. To save the state's fishing grounds, Louisiana redirected freshwater from the Mississippi River, disrupting salinity levels in the river mouths where oysters grow. Industry insiders estimate Louisiana oystermen this year will harvest about half as many oysters as usual, leaving a 100-million-plus pound oyster deficit for Texas—still dealing with beds decimated by Hurricane Ike in 2008—to help cover. If you don't want your share of Gulf oysters, a distributor in Nebraska or New York will gladly have them.
But who bothers with magnanimity in the face of mollusks? The question is not whether you'll gorge yourself on fresh, fat oysters before the year's out, but where you'll do your devouring. Since this is my first oyster season in Texas, I polled locals for oyster bar suggestions and checked out the two places mentioned most frequently. Sixty-something oysters later, I believe I've found my oyster spot.
Half Shells Oyster Bar
Half Shells Oyster Bar & Grill
Half Shells, a cozy slip of a seafood eatery tucked into Snider Plaza, is the sort of place I always associated with college—until I was old enough to go to college and discover undergrads are more likely to eat ramen noodles than eat out. There's a rah-rah, campus-y quality to the cheerful restaurant's wooden rathskeller, even if dinner service attracts more alums with young families than current students. It's basically a college bar sanitized for the kids in soccer jerseys.
Unfortunately, the oysters have been subjected to the same scrubbing-up. Half Shells serves Gold Band Oysters, which are preshucked and cold pasteurized. Pasteurization doesn't cook oysters, but it kills them.
Glistening oysters look fairly pathetic lying in their shells: They don't appear to be on the cusp of scurrying away from the table or initiating a conversation. But a just-shucked oyster has a beating heart, working digestive system and operating nerves. In The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky quotes a 19th-century oyster expert on the topic of oysters' vitality: "A fresh oyster on the half-shell is no more dead than an ox that has been hamstrung," William K. Brooks said.
Fans of pasteurization claim the process has no bearing on taste. I disagree. I think pasteurization purges the funk and sea from oysters. And pasteurized oysters have an oddly uniform, metallic appearance: My dozen raw oysters at Half Shells—sunk into a shallow white dish larded with ice cubes, a cocktail sauce that was mostly ketchup and a thimbleful of horseradish—looked like a collection of chrome headlight covers.
Raw isn't the reigning order at Half Shells, which seems to want to bundle its customers in cream. The restaurant's menu includes chicken, fish and pastas smothered in thick sauces, and there's a surprisingly good cream of jalapeño soup to start, its heat cutting through its velvety richness.
But I stuck mainly to oysters, which Half Shells fries cleanly and well. The best way to experience them is via the oyster nachos, an irreverent dish that works. Growing up a thousand miles from the ocean, I always considered oysters as precious as Faberge eggs and hesitated to besmirch their meat with so much as a drop of hot sauce. It wasn't until I spent time in Apalachicola that I learned folks in oyster country aren't so prim about such things: They treat oysters as pizza crusts, loading them up with sauces, cheeses and bacon before popping them in the oven.
Oyster nachos are crafted in that tradition: The oysters, lightly battered in cornmeal, are perched atop corn chips lacquered with a chipotle tartar sauce that could pass for nacho cheese and then buried beneath an avalanche of diced tomatoes, red onions and jalapeños. The flavor of the sweet oysters (of which there are never enough) cuts through the clutter like a Roman candle, and the whole deal pairs awfully well with a $2 Miller Lite.
S. & D. Oyster Company
The stately bread pudding at S. & D. sweats whiskey.
Caramelized at the corners, the classical dessert is wonderfully soused, the product of a restaurant more concerned with jollity than measuring cups. Nothing's adulterated at S. & D., which was being called a Dallas institution a decade ago. The bread pudding's boozy, the gumbo's brassy and the wonderful oysters are delivered straight from Galveston.
S. & D. was a sensation when it opened in 1976, bringing serious seafood to a town that has subsisted primarily on fried catfish and tinned sardines. The restaurant's walls are hung with glowing reviews published in the late 1970s, all of which have remained eerily accurate. The restaurant still evokes New Orleans, still serves "absolutely fresh raw oysters" and still commands attention on McKinney Avenue, a street that developed around Herb Story's restaurant.
"I never wanted it to be a gourmet seafood place," Story told Southern Living in 1981. "I wanted to be very basic and do things we could do well."
The restaurant's barely mussed with its original menu: There are oysters, raw and fried; shrimp, boiled and fried; snapper, flounder, trout and grouper, broiled and fried. French fries, hushpuppies and coleslaw are served on the side. If you feel like drinking wine, you have your choice of an unspecified Chardonnay, Cabernet, White Zinfandel or Pinot Grigio. Get a carafe.
Should a new restaurant open with S. & D.'s décor, I imagine it might look a tad stagy: The tightly clustered white tile floor, banquet hall wooden chairs and servers clad in button-down white shirts, black bow ties and full-length red aprons are so deeply indebted to a New Orleans aesthetic that a young lady might be tempted to lift her shirt upon leaving. But the look's worn-in, and there's not a hint of kitsch at S. & D.
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S. & D.'s servers are expert at serving oysters. Each silver tray comes with a silver ramekin for cocktail sauce-making: Wise guests will leave that task to their servers. One of my servers told me every staff member's trained to make the sauce the same way, but they've each acquired their own tics and flourishes. Some servers squeeze a lemon wedge before shoveling in the horseradish—"Would you like it mild or spicy?" they're always sure to ask—while others start with a ketchup base, reaching next for the Worcestershire sauce. The oysters, which just now are rippling with carnality and the deep, don't need any dressing, but the sauce is good for dipping crackers until another dozen arrives.
It's easy to eat too many oysters at S. & D. But it's better still to leave room for an oyster loaf, a dainty pressed sandwich of gorgeously fried oysters and a poor man's remoulade of ketchup and mayonnaise, layered on soft buttered French bread. And, if you do as I did, it's then back to oysters again.
Half Shells Oyster Bar & Grill Dozen oysters $10.99 Cream of jalapeño soup $3.99 Oyster nachos $6.99
S. & D. Oyster Company Bread pudding $4.75 Gumbo $7.75 Dozen oysters $14.25 Oyster loaf $9.65