Forget the resorts, the swim-up bars, the umbrella drinks. If there’s any establishment that embodies the coast at its most wild and authentic, it’s the southeast Texas seafood shack. Yes, there is finer seaside cuisine to be found—local and sustainable and all that—and yes, there are worthy places to eat on the lower coast too. But nowhere will you feel like you’re getting away—to another time, to another sensibility, to another Texas—than along the stretch from Galveston to Port Arthur.
When I was growing up in Beaumont, my family frequented a place called the Boondocks, near Fannett. It was a literal shack, on stilts, that hung precariously over an unnamed bayou that supplied the kitchen with catfish. I’d edge up to the water to feed hush puppies to the alligators and scare myself with ghost stories: the occasional lights shining in the surrounding swamp, probably locals out frog giggin’, were always phantom pirates trawling the bayous for any eight-year-old boys who might get lost.
Today the Boondocks is gone, the casualty of one too many hurricanes and the robust catfish-farming industry in Louisiana and Mississippi. Shacks like it are fewer and farther between, closer to the highway and with Facebook pages now, but they still retain that sense of wildness. Here are four (actually, five) worth visiting.
1. Pine Tree Lodge, in LaBelle, is a low-slung, wood-paneled ramble of a building that overlooks Taylor Bayou, where alligators grudgingly share the murky water with jet-skiers and airboats. Order the fried catfish, cooked in oil so hot the tail curls up and the crispy skin shatters when you poke it with a fork. The canonical southeast Texas “seafood combination platter” is well represented here, with a mix of choices: fried chunks of catfish, shrimp, alligator, oysters, or crawfish tails. 3296 Pinetree Rd., LaBelle, 409-796-1600
2. Stingaree Restaurant and Marina sits on the landward side of the Bolivar Peninsula, perched high on stilts so as best to weather storm surges; you can make eye contact from up here with the tugboat captains on the Intracoastal Waterway just a few feet away. During the summer, order the boiled or fried whole blue crabs with a frosty Stingarita; during the winter, ask for the Oyster Jubilee, a colossal dish of more than thirty oysters prepared in every conceivable way (raw, fried, char-grilled, Rockefeller-style, Bienville-style). 1295 N. Stingaree Rd., Crystal Beach, 409-684-2731
3. Al-T’s, just off Interstate 10 in Winnie, may be more of a roadhouse than a seafood shack, but the menu reflects a deep Tex-Cajun influence, with a dark-rouxed (“the color of swamp water”) chicken-and-sausage gumbo and perfectly fried catfish. Other fried standbys like stuffed crabs, boudin balls, and alligator are equally good. But the crowning glory is the Dirty Herbie, a bed of dirty rice smothered in crawfish étouffée and topped with chunks of marinated ribeye. 244 Spur 5, Winnie, 409-296-9818
4. & 5. Sartin’s rose to fame in the seventies with one of the only native dishes of southeast Texas: barbecued crab. Located off Texas Highway 87 in Sabine Pass, it drew hungry visitors with its overflowing all-you-can-eat platters. When Hurricane Gilbert wiped out the highway in the eighties, Sartin’s closed, but two locations opened in its stead, in Beaumont and Nederland—and you really should try both. That spicy, salty-sweet crab is a tasty reminder of tradition. Sartin’s West, 1990 I-10, Beaumont, 409-861-3474; Sartin’s Seafood, 3520 Nederland Ave., Nederland, 409-721-9420