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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.
I was disappointed by the fried oyster poor boy. The oysters were small, and they had been fried until they were very dry. In my opinion, the fried oysters in a poor boy ought to be wet enough to ooze into the dressings and the bread to give the sandwich some moistness.
But the chef was right about the crab cakes. The crabmeat in the order of two we split this time was vastly superior to what we had tried before. The meat was in tiny shreds instead of big lumps, but it tasted sweet. Unfortunately, the crab cakes were ice cold in the center. They had been made in advance and refrigerated and hadn't spent enough time in the frying pan to heat them through. I sent mine back, but Paul was so hungry, he ate his cold.
The sad gumbo, dry fried oysters and cold crab cakes convinced me that Dave was right. The quality of the cooking at Valentino's has gone into serious decline over the course of a year.
But I didn't really fault them on the crab.
Thirty years ago, blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) was so plentiful that crabbers couldn't get more than three bucks a dozen for them around here. Today, nobody in Texas can afford Texas blue crab anymore.
The problem isn't a scarcity of crabs in Texas, it's a scarcity of crabs in Maryland. Failing crab harvests on the Atlantic Coast have led fishing authorities there to put limits on the crab fishery.
But at Maryland's famous old crab houses, demand is as strong as ever. Pat Kerrigan at The Barn Crab House in Carney, Maryland told me over the phone that his restaurant was paying $27 to $32 a dozen for blue crabs ($160 for a box of five to six dozen). The restaurant is charging customers up to $65 a dozen for steamed crabs. And at 50 percent food cost, they really don't make any money on the crabs, even at that price.
To meet the local demand, seafood wholesalers on the East Coast are buying up the biggest and best crabs from Texas and Louisiana. Customers at Maryland crab houses think they are eating "wild caught local seafood" too. But in fact, a significant percentage of Maryland blue crabs don't come from Maryland anymore.
Meanwhile, crab-packing plants on the Gulf Coast are going out of business. They can't compete with Maryland restaurants for the big crabs that yield jumbo lump crabmeat, and they can't compete with the cost of labor overseas, so they are closing their doors.
The high price of blue crab has also created some opportunities. Bob Walsh (no relation), who used to run a seafood restaurant called Barnacle Bob's in Houston, relocated to a small fishing village on Mexico's Baja peninsula a couple of years ago and opened a crab-packing company called Dolphin Blue. He is now selling lots of crabmeat in Houston.
The crabs that Dolphin Blue sells are called warrior crabs (Callinectes bellicosus). Warrior crabs look a lot like blue crabs, but the bodies are larger, so they produce bigger lump meat. Unfortunately, the meat is blander than blue crabmeat.
One seafood dealer told me that about half of the crabmeat he now sells to Houston restaurants is imported. About 10 percent is pasteurized crab from Asia, and the rest is from the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
We can't take blue crab for granted anymore, and soon we will be facing the same sort of crisis over shrimp. The Texas shrimp harvest for September 2007 is down almost 50 percent from September of last year. Looks like we will be eating a lot more farm-raised and imported shrimp.
It's a world market for seafood now, and the local catch goes to the highest bidder. All of which conspires against the little seafood restaurant in Webster.
On my last visit to Valentino's at dinnertime, my companion compared the sensation of eating in the all-blue interior to sitting in an empty swimming pool. She wasn't very impressed with her crawfish pie, either. It came with a nice big puffy pastry crust, but the crawfish were baked in a boringly simple tomato sauce.
The restaurant had hung up signs along the shopping center entrance advertising all-you-can-eat fried shrimp and oysters for $12, which I took as a sign of utter desperation. But I couldn't resist trying it. The little shrimp were butterflied and heavily breaded, but the waiter insisted they weren't previously frozen. The tiny oysters were as overcooked as the ones on my poor boy had been.
Valentino's celebrated its first anniversary last month. I hope they make it to their second. But sadly, Mark Valentino's dream of serving "the highest quality of local wild-caught seafood in a unique restaurant" remains a dream.