Back to the Classics

This spring, when customers wandered into the venerable Massa's in search of a fix of time-honored Gulf Coast fare, what they got instead was a shock. There on a menu that should have boasted little that wasn't fried and familiar were such items as Maqac Chow, pickled okra prepared in a mysterious, vaguely Asian-tasting manner. It was all very nice, and very interesting, but it just wasn't Massa's.

Which was, of course, the point. Brothers Joseph and Michael Massa, who run the place opened by their family a half-century ago, had grown tired of being overlooked simply because their restaurant was so well known. It can be seriously frustrating to be the proprietors of a genuine institution, something that's been around so long that it's come to be taken for granted. So the Massas invited Robert Finley, an alumnus of Grotto and Tony's, to come up with a selection of new dishes that would spark attention.

That they did, though not necessarily in the way the Massas expected. Remember the song lyric about not knowing what you've got until it's gone? Apparently some Massa's customers did. It didn't take long before the brothers and their hip young chef came to a parting of the ways, not because there was anything inherently wrong with Finley's Asian/Caribbean-influenced fusion food -- it was intriguing -- but because, well, it didn't fit tradition. As the Massas were reminded, classic is classic, and can't be altered lightly.

And now that's the point. Massa's kept some of Finley's new dishes, after Joseph and Michael adapted them to Massa's diners' tastes, but otherwise, the menu has returned to its roots, emphasizing many of the time-tested seafood specialties that have pleased diners since the brothers' grandfather got off the boat from Sicily at the beginning of this century and opened a little oyster parlor in Galveston. That same Creole-style Gulf Coast cuisine has been served in downtown Houston since World War II. It continues to attract office workers at lunch and out-of-town business people from downtown hotels, but it also deserves to be rediscovered by local diners in general.

The Massa family brings history to the job of serving traditional Houstonians the kind of atavistic seafood dishes that traditional Houstonians savor. Among these is what is arguably the city's best gumbo ($4.95) -- black-oak colored, butter-rich roux; nicely chewy crawfish; plump, fresh shrimp; complex, woody, smoked duck; and savory, secret seasonings from deepest Acadia, it's a paradigm of the restaurant's mindset. This is not cutting-edge food. It was never meant to be. It's simply good.

Oysters Buccaneer ($6.95 for six; $12.95 for a dozen) is a typically retro appetizer: simple, broiled mollusks, still in their half shells, topped with just enough sweet crabmeat, herby bread crumbs and satisfyingly sharp Parmesan cheese to make the eating memorable. This is damn-the-calories comfort food at its most satisfying. So is the longtime house signature dish, grilled red snapper Ponchartrain ($18.95), the title of which is pure nostalgia, and a touch misleading. Once ubiquitous, the delicately flavored red snapper has been so decimated by overharvesting that it's now off-limits commercially. So instead of actual snapper, Massa's uses farm-raised redfish. But not to worry. Once the substantial fish fillet has been cosseted beneath a generous ladle's worth of the restaurant's dark, buttery, wine-rich Ponchartrain melange, a sauce chock-a-block with shrimp, scallops, crab and mushrooms, there's no room for snapper sentimentality. The accompanying stir-fried vegetables (onion, broccoli, carrot, cauliflower and tomatoes), all nicely crisp, are virtually guilt free. But the side dish of traditional, 1950s-style au gratin potatoes is so Cheddary and buttery that it'd probably take six supercomputers to calculate the resulting cholesterol.

While you have your cardiologist's number handy, remember to try the gorgeously satin shrimp bisque with Amontillado ($4.95). It is, as Michael Massa readily admits, made with "heavy cream, butter and more heavy cream." The soup's delicate, pink color is enhanced by a contrasting scatter of deeply green chive snippets, while its luxe quotient is pushed over the top by the presence of several large, toasty, very buttery croutons.

Those with more willpower might consider Massa's dinner salad ($4.95). Elegantly simple, it's composed of mixed greens, some crunchy-cool carrot sticks, a sprinkling of fresh-shaved Parmesan and a dusting of just-cracked black pepper dressed in a sassy, Creole-mustard spiked vinaigrette. Also a light option: the spring greens in walnut vinaigrette ($4.95). This generous serving of nicely pungent fresh greens is enlivened by the contrasting snap of crisp macintosh apples and the smoothness of several clever Gorgonzola/cornmeal/corn stars. With a cup of the bisque and samples from the basket of warm, rosemary-herb focaccia and other breads, either salad makes a perfect small meal. Other luncheon entree salads, such as the shrimp remoulade ($9.95) and the smoked salmon salad ($10.95), are okay, but not worth leaving home for.

The unashamedly fried specialties are. These delectables anchor the lunch menu, but can be requested at dinner -- provided, of course, you don't mind waiting. They are cooked to order in mild-flavored peanut oil, and generally give fried foods back their good name. Massa's has been frying fish for a very long time, and they know how to do it right. Every time I've tried them, the shrimp stuffed with seafood dressing ($12.95 for six), the soft-shell blue crabs in Cajun-spicy bread crumbs ($15.95 for two) and the seafood platter, which includes catfish, scallops, oysters, crab claws and calamari ($17.95), have been wonderfully satisfying. All of the fried dishes come topped with one of Massa's thick, sweet onion rings and accompanied by a vat of zesty, homemade Louisiana red sauce -- both of which helped one dining companion to overlook the nuisance of having to trim the way-too-crispy-around-the-edges catfish fillets ($9.95).

That minor annoyance notwithstanding, the traditional offerings are consistently among the menu's strengths. At dinnertime, one of the brothers is almost always in evidence and happy to suggest dishes to suit your taste. Some are traditional, but others are, in fact, the fusion food recipes that originated with Robert Finley.

The stir-fried gulf shrimp ($14.95 for eight) is one example. These plump crustaceans are woked to just the right degree of tenderness without being allowed to become gummy, and are then served atop a nest of Japanese-style buckwheat soba noodles. The malty, almost earthy taste of this unusual brown pasta provides a nice contrast to the subtle shrimp and to the piquant flavor of the accompanying stir-fried vegetables in aromatic ginger sauce. The improbable sounding seafood strudel ($15.95) is lovely to look at -- a mini-tower of tissue-fine, multilayered pastry stuffed with a satisfyingly savory mixture of broiled salmon, scallops, shrimp, mushrooms and sweet peppers. Presented with intensely green fresh spinach in chipotle aioli, and a surprising taste contrast in the form of spiced rum/mango compote, it's cause for exultation.

Of course, experimentation is all well and good, but there's a lot to be said for dining at a place that's remained true to itself all these years. The traditional regional dishes are comfortingly familiar. The newer variations interesting. And, if you'd prefer to create your own by mixing and matching menu items, it can be arranged. Broil a fried item? No problem. Risotto on the side instead of pasta? They can do it. Massa's treats regular customers like relatives, which fits. After all, they have a family tradition to maintain.

Massa's, 1160 Smith, 650-0837.


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