Bigger and Battered
The pile of fried shrimp looks like a mountain of corn flakes. I pick one up and admire how the golden batter has formed a crunchy, irregular crust. The fried jumbo shrimp at Baytown Seafood are the biggest I've ever seen in a restaurant. The shrimp are unusually mild, so my dining companion and I ask for extra horseradish and add it to the cocktail sauce. Then we take turns counting the number of bites it takes to wolf one down. It takes me three and a half, but she needs a full four. These have to be the biggest fried shrimp in Houston.
There are nine of these sea monsters on my plate, more than I can eat. Which is a good thing since my dining companion is not too thrilled by her overcooked catfish and fried oysters. She eats from my plate instead. I should have told her to order the shrimp in the first place.
The first time I tried to eat at Baytown Seafood was last Sunday night at a little after eight. The place had just closed. Another frustrated would-be patron and I banged on the glass door and begged the manager for an order to go, but he wouldn't relent.
"Man, I was looking forward to some of that shrimp," the large man said ruefully as we walked back to our cars.
"I've heard the shrimp are big," I replied. "What else do you get here?"
"Their fried fish is nothing special," he said leaning on his car door. "But this place has the best shrimp I've ever eaten."
Reading the menu for the first time, I suspect that maybe Forrest Gump's buddy Bubba owns the place. For appetizers, there's shrimp cocktail, popcorn shrimp, shrimp wrapped with bacon and buffalo shrimp (seasoned like buffalo chicken wings). The salad section lists shrimp salad, large shrimp salad and jumbo shrimp salad. There's fried shrimp, grilled shrimp, cold boiled shrimp and hot boiled shrimp -- all in your choice of medium, large or jumbo. For Louisiana shrimp dishes they've got shrimp poor boys, shrimp étouffée and shrimp gumbo. If you aren't in the mood for a steak-and-shrimp dinner (choose from four steaks and several sizes of shrimp), then maybe some ethnic food would hit the spot: How about cóctel de camarón, caldo de camarón or shrimp fried rice? And for the kiddies, there's a mini fried shrimp dinner.
Nearly every entrée comes with a salad and french fries. The salad is iceberg and sliced tomato with your choice of dressing, and the fries are just average. Sauces include tartar, cocktail and, well, that's about it. The bacon-wrapped shrimp does come with a marinara. And, of course, there are plenty of lemons and bottled pepper sauces.
Baytown Seafood Restaurant serves lots of other things besides shrimp. But as my friend in the parking lot tried to tell me, you just don't want to make the mistake of ordering them. They might as well call it Baytown Shrimp Restaurant.
On my second visit, I start off with a pint of shrimp gumbo in a small bowl. The gumbo is good and peppery, with lots of shrimp floating around in it. I give it an extra dash of Louisiana hot sauce for good measure. A full quart is only a dollar more, but I'm afraid the larger size would leave me too full to enjoy my grilled shrimp platter. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't order a shrimp appetizer followed by a shrimp entrée, but this is Baytown.
I encourage my lunch partner to get the jumbo fried shrimp because I want to see her reaction. She is suitably stunned. With the heavy coating of batter and lots of dipping sauces, she barely notices the flavor of the huge shrimp. But I'm intent on a little taste test: The grilled shrimp are smaller and more orange in color, and they have that wonderful Gulf shrimp sweetness. The jumbo fried shrimp are big, all right, but they taste washed out by comparison. And thanks to a little casual inspection, I know why.
When I arrived at the restaurant, I took a walk around. In the refrigerated display case at the front, I saw a bowl of enormous shrimp that had the black stripes and bright dots of Asian tiger shrimp. The manager, a Cambodian man named Sonny Preap, came over and we talked shrimp for a while. I remarked on the huge size of the tigers. Preap scoffed. "In Cambodia, we have blue-headed prawns that get as big around as this!" he said, holding one hand around his other wrist.
Tiger shrimp are the largest of the world's 300 commercially available saltwater shrimp, I read later in the online version of the Seafood Handbook, a chef's reference book published by Seafood Business magazine. Some tiger shrimp are still harvested by trawlers, but most are now farm-raised. They can easily get as big as 13 inches long but are usually harvested at nine to 11 inches. Baytown Seafood imports its tiger shrimp from Thailand.
According to the handbook, "Farmed black tiger shrimp have a mild, almost bland flavor compared to the pronounced taste of ocean-harvested Gulf shrimp." Some people are crazy about the innocuous flavor and soft flesh of tiger shrimp. Personally, I find myself dipping every bite in cocktail sauce, tartar sauce, hot sauce or something. Give me Gulf shrimp any day. Gulf shrimp, Preap tells me, are used in Baytown's boiled and grilled dishes.
Once I realized that the jumbo shrimp were imported from Asia, I started getting suspicious about the rest of the menu. "Where is your catfish from?" I asked Preap, suspecting that the restaurant might be using Vietnamese catfish, a cheaper cousin to the American channel cat.
"It's farm-raised in the United States," he said. But Vietnamese catfish often comes in boxes that have words like "farm-raised" and "Cajun" printed on the top with "Product of Vietnam" in small letters on the side.
"I'll bet you a dollar it's from Vietnam," I said. "Let's go look at a box." Preap led me back to the walk-in freezer and showed me the catfish box with "God Bless America" and "Product of USA" emblazoned on it in huge type. I stood corrected: Baytown Seafood proudly serves top-quality American farm-raised catfish.
But on the way back to the dining room, I noticed Asian-labeled bags of frozen tilapia thawing in the sink. There is no tilapia on Baytown's menu, just catfish and "redsnapper."
"Are you calling tilapia 'redsnapper'?" I asked Preap on the phone later.
"Yes, sir," he responded.
I had no intention of ordering "redsnapper" at Baytown Seafood, nor did I set out to bust the restaurant for this always dubious menu item. But having noticed the substitution, I am obliged to report it. Substituting a farm-raised freshwater perch like tilapia for a saltwater species like snapper is especially cynical, not to mention illegal. But Houston restaurants large and small do it every day (see "Fish Fraud," November 1, 2001). One clueless restaurant owner confessed to me that his fish purveyor had convinced him that tilapia was a variety of snapper. If you stopped eating at every restaurant that was guilty of this fraud, you'd have to stay home. (Call 713-794-9200 if you'd like to see the Houston health department enforce existing truth-in-menu laws.)
Meanwhile, my advice is to stick with the shrimp at Baytown Seafood. If you want to try the outrageous jumbo shrimp, go for it, but be advised that the big tiger species can be a bit bland. If you prefer the full flavor of Gulf shrimp, try Baytown's boiled shrimp and grilled shrimp dishes. There's lots to love here -- you just have to know what you're getting into.
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