Just past the San Luis Pass toll bridge that joins the western tip of Galveston Island to the mainland was a billboard for the Red Snapper Inn. The good news the sign signaled was that our long road trip along the grievously potholed Blue Water Highway was almost over; the yellow frame cafe established a dozen years ago by Greek-born Ivan Stathopoulos and his family was only a bumpy mile and a half farther. The slightly disturbing news was its boast that the fish waiting to grace your dinner plate "slept in the Gulf last night." Oh, dear, did we have to wake them so rudely? Perhaps I'm not completely comfortable with my place in the food chain; the notice made me a little sad.
Predictably, I perked up as soon as I crossed the threshold. On a recent rainy weekday night, the Red Snapper was crowded with cheerful Lake Jackson families, laughing and talking with their mouths full, jammed elbow to elbow over heaping platters of seafood. The decor was basic bait camp, of course, thin, murky green carpeting spread over a creaking floor; ship wheels, harbor lights, and improbably painted marlin and sailfish trophies ranged about the plywood-paneled walls. A small aquarium housed a couple of nervous-looking live fish -- twinge went the conscience again -- but there was also a reassuringly well stocked wine rack just past the cashier's counter and a glistening fan of clear-eyed red snappers displayed gape-mouthed on a bed of ice beneath.
We crammed ourselves around a too-small table at the back of the dining room and dug into some starters. By far the best of the appetizer list was the unabashedly retro oyster brochette ($9.95), thick strips of sweet, smoky bacon wrapped around fat, flour-dashed Gulf oysters and grilled, basted with a buttery brown meunière sauce. "I like to recommend these to customers who want oysters on the half shell, which we don't serve," Stathopoulos told me. "Our local oysters are good and tasty, but raw? I just don't trust them anymore." Piranhalike, we cleaned that plate in seconds.
Speaking of retro, the Red Snapper's shrimp rémoulade ($6.25) was a sentimental flashback to the old Sakowitz tearoom days. No, there weren't poppy seeds in the creamy, sharp dressing, but it was fresh and perky enough to grace any bridge club's luncheon plate. Over on the island, all we ever seem to get with cold boiled shrimp is cold bottled red cocktail sauce, so this made-from-scratch rémoulade made for a pleasant change. "I don't believe in powdered anything, so we squeeze all our own lemons, press all our own garlic, everything fresh," Stathopoulos explained, proudly. "Sure, it takes longer, but I think it's worth it."
Call me Kreskin, but I knew there would be a fried seafood platter ($14.95) on the menu; I don't think local banks will lend a dime to coastal restaurants without a deep fryer in the kitchen. Anybody who has spent time seafood-scrounging along the Gulf Coast can describe this assemblage blindfolded: a trio of fried shrimp and fried oysters, some boiled shrimp, a "deviled" crab in a tin shell, and a throw-down anonymous fish fillet. Sure, it was good, but enough said, yes? There were more imaginative contenders on the dinner menu.
For folk who like their fresh fish uncomplicated, for example, there was the charbroiled whole baby red snapper ($15.95). Its skin was crisp and spicy, and the meat within white, firm and flaky. It may have looked simple, but kitchen-wise it was no mean feat to keep the thinner ends moist while fully cooking the fat midsection. All this heavenly fish needed was a judicious application of the lemon wedge -- and perhaps a sprig of parsley to hide its eye socket from the squeamish.
That snapper might have been my favorite if I hadn't also tried the sautéed fillet of flounder with fresh mushrooms and artichoke hearts ($13.95), which was labeled as one of "Ivan's favorites." At first I was skeptical of so much stuff piled onto a good fresh fish -- it sounded suspiciously like overkill -- but the topping, an astoundingly rich and lemony concoction laced with white wine, really did complement the lightly floured pan-fried flounder without overwhelming its delicate flavor.
We were equally pleased with another flatfish dish: The grilled fillet stuffed with crabmeat dressing ($14.95) lay halfway between the Spartan snapper and Ivan's flashier flounder on the richness Richter scale. The moist bread stuffing was thick with bits of sweet crabmeat, and the fillet was blessedly boneless. You can sneak-preview the crab stuffing as an appetizer, squeezed into glossy green jalapeño peppers ($4.95). "The oyster brochette is elegant, but those stuffed jalapeños are really everybody's favorite," said Stathopoulos.
All these entrées came with your choice of home fries or baked potato, veggie o' the day and a simple green salad. I admit I preferred to order the baked potato just for the old-fashioned metal lazy Susan of toppings that came with it, including real -- I repeat, real -- bacon crumbles. The only difficulty was finding room for the thing on an already crowded tabletop. (We thought about pulling up another chair for it, since we weren't willing to move the faux marble cooler of sweet Piersporter out of arm's reach.) Another good bet was to substitute the Greek salad for the standard house salad; the thick sprinkling of briny chunks of feta cheese alone was worth the $2.75 surcharge. This was a top-notch feta, creamy and not too aggressive. (The family buys it from a wholesaler who supplies Greek ships, Stathopoulos told me.) A half dozen purplish kalamata olives, plump and mild, an oregano-heavy vinaigrette and crisp greens completed the pretty picture.
I suppose the whole idea behind dining at the Red Snapper was to eat to the point of popping and then groan all the way home. Since I was already wishing for an elastic waistband by dessert time, I was perfectly satisfied with a tiny diamond-shaped serving of baklava ($2.50), honey-sweet, nutty and crisp. My companions valiantly tried to polish off a thick wedge of cheesecake ($3.25) topped with some sort of gooey red strawberry syrup; we ignored the hot apple pie $agrave; la mode completely, though it too appeared to be a local favorite. I'll save that for my next visit, along with the Saturdays-only version of snapper Pontchartrain that I missed this trip.
Oh, and next time I'll bring my checkbook: The Stathopoulos clan holds no truck with plastic. "Don't worry," Stathopoulos told me kindly, when I blanched in horror at this unexpected bit of news. "You can always mail me your check." Too late, though, we'd already panicked and sent a volunteer dashing down the road to the convenience store cash machine. FYI: The closest ATM is just on the other side of the Freeport Bridge, in case you're similarly embarrassed and disinclined to wash dishes.
Red Snapper Inn, 402 Blue Water Highway, Surfside Beach, (409)239-3226.
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