Seafood Special

Connie's Market Seafood makes "You buy, we fry" an invitation to something marvelous

The woman was utterly aghast. "You can't review Connie's," she cried in anguish. "The Yuppies will find out about it and ruin the place."

Of course, just what she considers her Heights-home-owning, married-to-a-lawyer self to be, I'm not sure. But Connie's Market Seafood and Oyster Bar is a place that frequent diners develop a fanatical, secretive loyalty about. Not that the peculiar ambiance of Connie's is so fragile that an invasion of trendy gourmands would somehow result in tablecloths, track lighting E perhaps even (dare I say it?) waiters and reservations.

And yet the fear remains that a moment in the spotlight might somehow gentrify one of the more remarkable examples of the multiculturalism that is Houston, and so fair warning is given to those who know the proper fork to use for oysters: at Connie's, the proper fork for the oysters is a saltine.

The jukebox, which plays constantly, features nothing but Mexican music. Loud Mexican music. The decor, to put it gently, is functional. The lighting is garish, there's more kids there on a Saturday afternoon than at Chuck E. Cheese and it's not uncommon to see rubber boots on the busboy. A peculiar ambiance, indeed.

Although the "You buy, we fry" flag flies over many of Houston's multiethnic neighborhood cafes, nowhere does it wave as proudly as it does at Connie's, which sits across the street from the Farmers Marketing Association on Airline on the extreme northeast corner of the Heights. When an Asian family runs a restaurant whose employees and customers are predominately Hispanic, the convergence of traditions can result in a rare celebration of the gustatory art.

Connie's does, of course, offer the standard deep-fried one-of-this and two-of-that combination plates -- featuring shrimp, scallops and fish fillets whose freshness and delicate golden batter do much to offset the blandness of the accompanying fries and perfunctory salads of chopped iceberg lettuce -- that are perfectly adequate.

There are, however, a pair of caveats to remember when ordering an inexpensive fried-fish plate. The first is to use the phrase "No gar." Not even the best fry cooks, I fear, are capable of transforming stringy, pre-Cambrian refugees that have to be cleaned with chain saws into something other than gar. Judicious use of those two words ensures a more evolved, and tastier, plate of fillets.

The second warning is that the stuffed crabs are boring and unremarkable. The $8.95 "Super Seafood Platter," a satisfying choice when yielding to a sudden Connie's whim, does include one of these spiny items filled with crab meat and stuffing. However, I find myself waiting until the shrimp, scallops, fish fillets and oysters have been dispensed with to douse the breaded crab with lime juice and hot sauce before eating it almost as an afterthought.

Those planning to venture to Connie's are also advised to do so with friends. Connie's, with its bright lights and high noise level, is not a place to dine alone. A crowd -- a loud, rowdy crowd for whom seafood in mass quantities at affordable prices is grounds for celebration -- is what's called for. There are no hostesses to show a party of six or eight to their table; you simply stand in a gaggle by the door until the right number of contiguous chrome-and-Naugahyde chairs open at one of the common tables. There are also no waitresses to take your order or offer suggestions; the menu is displayed on a wall behind the counter over a beer cooler, with additions and specials chalked on a small blackboard and hand written on paper signs taped at random here and there.

Order in haste, and you may regret it when a sign or a platter on the next table catches your eye. Of course, this phenomenon may also happen when you order at leisure; the parade of platters from the kitchen will invariably include an eye-catching delicacy to remember for your next trip. So it behooves diners to plan their strategy before getting in line at the cash register to order. A trip to the oyster bar that fills one corner can delay the moment of truth, and help ensure that the evening's selections will contain as few omissions as possible.

Even those leery of bivalves can find delights at the oyster bar. Those who (like me) enjoy flying in the face of reason and medical advice and eat their oysters raw have two options. At $5.95 a dozen, the oysters on the half-shell are carefully perused while being shucked, and any that appear less than perfect are quickly discarded. My personal theory, not yet disproved, is that Tabasco sauce and lime juice kills shellfish bacteria. It's a theory that I carry over to the second option, the $5.25 oyster cocktail of raw delights swimming in an ice-cream sundae glass with ketchupy pico de gallo laced with avocado, pearl onions and Spanish olives.

This same treatment is given to an eight-piece cocktail of steamed and chilled (but never frozen) shrimp and to the delightful pulpo cocktail. Pulpo is, in a word, octopus, and there is no better introduction to this maligned aquatic marvel than a saltine loaded with a couple of chilled bite-sized chunks and a piece of pimiento winking through the cocktail sauce.

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