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By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Last fall, while I was playing a golf course in League City, I met a golfer named Dave who lived nearby. Dave could hit the ball 300 yards, and he was also an expert on the local food scene. Thanks to his long drives, he took a couple of bucks off me that morning. But as we parted, he gave me a valuable tip. "Go to Valentino's Seafood for lunch and get the fish sandwich," he said.
Alison Cook had recently written a rave review of Valentino's Seafood as well, so it sounded like a consensus. I stopped there for lunch after golf. The little restaurant is located in a strip center along the Gulf Freeway in Webster, and it isn't much to look at. The interior is painted an aquatic but eye-stabbing shade of blue.
Another golf buddy named Paul joined me. We had just played 18 on a cold, windy day, and we were famished. For an appetizer, we split an order of two crab cakes. When they arrived, we were blown away by the size of them. After a couple of bites, Paul looked up from his plate and said, "They sure are big, but they don't taste like anything."
20801 Gulf Freeway
Webster, TX 77598
Region: Outside Houston
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Seafood gumbo: $5.95
Oyster poor boy: $7.95
Crab cakes: $18.95
Shrimp salad: $9.95
Fish sandwich: $7.95
He was right. The crabmeat was moist and juicy and cooked right, and the crab cakes were made with lots of crab and next to no filler. But the crabmeat didn't have that sweet flavor you expect from Gulf blue crabs.
Paul got the excellent seafood gumbo for a main course. The soup was assertively spiced, the roux gave it a nice walnut color and the serving was huge. Best of all, they didn't skimp on the seafood — the bowl was loaded with succulent shrimp.
My fish sandwich on a submarine roll with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce was equally impressive. As Dave had cautioned, it came with such a monstrous battered and fried fish filet, I had to eat it with a fork. I believe the waiter said the fish was black drum that day. Whatever the fish was, it tasted wonderful.
With the exception of the crab cakes, that first lunch lived up to the rave reviews the restaurant had gotten, both from Alison Cook and from Dave the ball crusher.
Fast forward to a year later, when Paul and Dave and I met again on the same golf course in League City. Dave duck-hooked a few drives into the weeds that day. And thanks to some long putts, I managed to win exactly one dollar off of him. We settled up in the parking lot, and he asked where we were eating lunch. When I said we were going back for a second visit to Valentino's, he frowned. The restaurant had gone downhill lately, he said. I was sorry to hear it, but Paul and I went back anyway.
Valentino's is owned by Mark Valentino, who describes himself on the restaurant's menu and Web site as "a third-generation waterman who fished the waters of the Texas coast for shrimp and oysters" in everything from his grandfather's Model T-powered boat to the family's current fleet of steel and fiberglass vessels. "Mark has always had a dream. To serve the highest quality of local wild-caught seafood in a unique restaurant..."
A seafood restaurant run by a fisherman and dedicated to serving local products — this is the kind of back story that restaurant critics dream about. I was eager to eat the tasty seafood and write a rave. But first, there were a few things I needed to clear up about the "local wild-caught seafood."
"Where does your crabmeat come from?" I asked the waiter when we sat down. He said he had just started working there and didn't know, but he would ask in the kitchen.
"Mexico," he said when he came back to our table. Since Mexico has two coastlines, each with its own species of crab, this didn't really tell me anything. So I asked the waiter to bring me the container that the crabmeat came in. He returned from the kitchen in the company of a guy dressed in white.
"You have a question about the crabmeat?" asked Valentino's executive chef, Devin Corbett, who showed me a plastic container from a packing plant in Matamoros, Mexico that sells Gulf crabmeat.
"The last time I had crab cakes here, they tasted bland, like Pacific crab," I told Corbett.
He said that he bought Gulf blue crab when he could, but confessed that when it wasn't available he sometimes bought not-so-local crabmeat from Dolphin Blue, a producer on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. The first crab cakes I had were probably made with the Pacific crab, he agreed. But he suggested we try them again.
Paul ordered the gumbo again for an entrée, but this batch had been reheated once too often. The shrimp were all shriveled up into tiny curls, and they tasted like fish-flavored wood chips. We also split the shrimp salad lunch special. It was an ordinary salad topped with white shrimp that had been coated with remoulade. It wasn't bad for five bucks.