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Fish on its Laurels

Gaido's in Galveston doesn't always live up to its storied reputation

Wade Watkins's shrimp bisque is thick and pumpkin-colored. It tastes like cream of shrimp -- which I suppose it is. I ate a cup of the comforting seafood soup at Gaido's in Galveston while a vicious thunderstorm raged and waves pounded the seawall. It was the first time I had ever visited the legendary restaurant, and I was pleasantly surprised.

The waiter recommended fresh Gulf red snapper topped with crabmeat, a trademark dish here. But that sounded a little too heavy for lunch. Instead, I ordered an appetizer called "chilled Texas jumbo white lump crabmeat." It was a mountain of fresh, juicy crab served over lettuce and tomatoes with cocktail sauce and a green sauce that tasted like avocado on the side. I shoved the cocktail sauce away and ordered an extra large bowl of the excellent green sauce. I forgot about the rain and lingered awhile in crabmeat heaven.

My lunch mate got a Gulf shrimp salad. I expected plain boiled shrimp over lettuce and tomato, but Gaido's shrimp salad is a lot more interesting than that. The shrimp is cut up and tossed with onions, celery, hard-boiled eggs and a tangy remoulade, then served over lettuce and tomatoes. Both our lunches were spectacular.

The crab cakes are a better bet than the fish of the day.
Troy Fields
The crab cakes are a better bet than the fish of the day.

Location Info

Map

Gaido's

3828 Seawall Blvd.
Galveston, TX 77550

Category: Restaurant > Seafood

Region: Galveston

Details

Hours: 11:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11:45 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Shrimp bisque: $5.99
Crab cakes: $9.99
Lump crabmeat appetizer: $23.99
Red snapper Wade: $27.99
Shrimp salad (small): $8.99

3800 Seawall Boulevard, Galveston, 409-762-9625.

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The storm had scared the tourists away, and except for two or three other tables, we had the place to ourselves. I took a walk around, admiring the articles, awards, menus and photos hanging on the walls. One of the oldest restaurants in the state, Gaido's first opened in 1911. Just inside the front door, there's a panoramic photo that was shot in 1924. It shows the original location of Gaido's in Murdoch's bathhouse at the 21st Street Pier. The restaurant is currently run by the fourth generation of the Gaido family.

There's a huge portrait of a black chef in the back dining room. Underneath it is a memorial plaque that says the chef's name is Wade Watkins, and that he worked at Gaido's for 44 years, most of the time as head of the kitchen. There's also an article on the wall memorializing a black waiter who had served at the restaurant for decades.

Gaido's arcane menu features dishes named after Wade Watkins, Rick and Michael Gaido and other names such as Sapporito and Fritz. There's a key that reveals fish à la Sapporito means encrusted with cracker crumbs and garlic and sautéed in butter, while fish Wade style means dusted with seasoned flour and finished with lemon, etc. It doesn't say who Sapporito and Fritz are, though. The bill of fare can be fully deciphered only by those with access to inside information.

Studying the old menus on the walls, it appears that some of the dishes at Gaido's predate the current location, which has only been occupied since the 1960s. The menu, the legacy of the black kitchen and dining room staff and the old photos on the walls all remind me of classic New Orleans restaurants like Antoine's and Galatoire's. And like those places, Gaido's seems to be as much a museum as a restaurant.


My friend John T. Edge contacted me a month or so ago and told me he would be visiting Texas to update his book, Southern Belly, a literary tour of Southern restaurant culture. The original version of the book didn't include Texas, but having been recently converted to the view that Texas east of I-35 is indeed part of the Old South, Edge was looking for historic Texas restaurants to include in the second edition. I recommended Gaido's, among others.

I was so impressed by my lunch at Gaido's and so eager to try some of the Gulf red snapper preparations I saw on the menu, I offered to join Edge there for dinner. We met on a Tuesday night.

According to the restaurant's Web site, the kitchen fillets and shells and shucks fresh Gulf fish and shellfish every day. The waiter I had at lunch told me that they don't serve crabs in the winter and they don't serve oysters in the summer -- they only buy what's in season. I repeated all of this to Edge as if it were gospel while I was pitching him on the place.

But sadly, that second visit to Gaido's with Edge in tow bore no resemblance whatsoever to my rainy-day reverie. To start with, it was a bright and sunny day, and there were people all over the beach. Gaido's wasn't the quiet place I had visited before; in fact, there was already a long wait for tables at 5:30 p.m. And then there was the bizarre service and wildly inconsistent food.

Every food lover I have met since I moved to Houston six years ago has warned me that the once-famous Gaido's serves terrible seafood. But after my lunch experience, I was emboldened. I figured it must be the fried seafood that everybody hated. But how could you miss if you stuck with fresh Gulf red snapper and crabmeat in the peak of the crab season?

The fish section of Gaido's menu has two columns -- fish of the day and red snapper -- and there's an entire section dedicated to crabmeat. So imagine my chagrin when our waitress announced that Gaido's wasn't serving red snapper the day of my second visit. And although there was crabmeat in the kitchen, it was available only as a topping -- not as an entrŽe, appetizer or salad.

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