Bombay Salad and Colossal Shrimp at King's Inn
Every meal at the King's Inn on Loyola Beach starts with a plate of sliced tomatoes and a dish of the restaurant's mysterious "tartar sauce." I usually eat huge gobs of the stuff on the tomatoes. It's not really tartar sauce; it's more of a stiff, zesty spread with a lot of chili peppers in it along with some mayo. I think it's thickened with crackers. It tastes weirdly wonderful, but very old-fashioned — I wouldn't be surprised if the recipe came from the back of a Ritz cracker box.
Proprietor Randy Ware says his father, Cottle Ware, concocted the sauce and that he used to make it with local chile pequins, but now Randy uses serranos. I've heard that the secret ingredients also include Miracle Whip and anchovy paste. The recipe is such a well-kept secret that when Ware makes the stuff, everyone else has to leave the kitchen.
I visited King's Inn last spring with a fish-etarian who had never been there before. There are no menus at the King's Inn, so I ordered all of my favorites. We started with a dozen fat oysters on the half shell served with lemons and cocktail sauce. For entrées, we got the restaurant's signature dish, six enormous lightly floured and perfectly deep-fried colossal Texas shrimp. We also got the fish of the day, which was grilled black drum, a huge filet of fish lightly coated with seasoned flour and griddle-cooked until the outside was crispy, but the middle was still moist. The big platter of crunchy onion rings is pretty much de rigueur. An extra dish of "tartar sauce" came in handy.
The most unusual dish I ordered was a large Bombay salad, a cold pool of creamy curried avocado puree in a cup-shaped wedge of iceberg with sliced tomatoes along the side and a pickled pepper on top. Like the tartar sauce, this appealing salad seems to be part of a time capsule cuisine that lives on at the King's Inn. It reminds me of those curried egg salads and curried chicken salads that used to be common in Southern cooking. I add some Tabasco to the curried avocado puree and then use it as a dip for my fried shrimp.
The fish-etarian said it was the best fried shrimp he ever had. As always, I bought an extra pint of tartar sauce to go as I paid the check at the register.
King's Inn is about four hours south of Houston. It overlooks Baffin Bay at the end of Highway 628 near Riviera. A friend of mine from Brownsville told me that when he was growing up, his family always left on car trips to Houston early in the morning in order to make it to the King's Inn for lunch. You wouldn't think you'd need to make a reservation at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere that seats more than a hundred people, but the lobby is always full of forlorn folks who didn't call ahead.
Like legions of fellow Texans, I count King's Inn as one of my favorite restaurants. Perched on a lonely bluff overlooking the sea many miles from any major population center, the place sucked me in with its air of romantic tragedy. The saga began three quarters of a century ago, with Orlando Underbrink's dreams of grandeur.
In 1935, Underbrink, who was a local farmer, bought up the waterfront property and built a boardwalk, a fishing pier, rental cottages and a restaurant he called Orlando's Café. The seaside resort got off to a good start with lots of vacationers and fishermen. The town of Riviera was to be the gateway to the Texas version of a coastal paradise. But the would-be resort area was slammed by a pair of hurricanes — and then came World War II. Loyola Beach never recovered.
The clapboard cafe was the only business that continued to thrive after the war. It was run by a French war bride named Blanche "Mom" Wright. She hired a cook named Cottle Ware who had previously worked all over the state, including in the cafeteria at Texas A&M. When Mom Wright died in 1945, Cottle Ware and his wife Alta Faye inherited the business and renamed it "The King's Inn." They made the restaurant a legend and ran it until their deaths. Their son Randy Ware took over in 1978. He changed the name over the entrance to "The Famous King's Inn."
There is an air of quirkiness about the place that gets under your skin. Consider, for instance, the sign at the front door that demands that men remove their hats "as a sign of respect." This fine point of Southern manners is usually overlooked in the case of expensive cowboy hats worn by oil tycoons, but not at the King's Inn. Alta Faye Ware was so adamant about the policy that in her later years, she would drive her wheelchair up to the offending party and browbeat them until they left the restaurant. No male dares wear a hat inside the dining room to this day.
The King's Inn looks like a decrepit wooden beach house. The interior decor is appalling. The carpets are industrial gray, and the acoustic ceiling tiles are stained and ill-fitting. The trim near the bathroom is painted about as far as you can reach, and then the paint job ends. It seems like I am usually there during the holiday season when a fake Christmas tree is set up in a corner of the main dining room with two weird, oversize robotic dolls underneath. The boy and the girl dolls are wearing some kind of old-fashioned costumes. They mechanically nod their heads in time to unheard Christmas carols.
It could be an incredibly depressing atmosphere if it wasn't for the crowds of enthusiastic seafood eaters. The last time I visited, we were seated right next to a huge Christmas party. The participants were members of the train engineers' union, and it seems that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and their significant others know how to party. There were over a hundred people sitting at the long tables, drinking pitchers of beer, laughing loudly and eating platter after platter of shrimp. One of the organizers stopped by our table to shoot the breeze. We felt like we were part of the festivities.
We ordered oysters on the half shell and a Bombay salad to start, but the waiter dropped a bombshell. He said Randy Ware had decided not to serve raw oysters anymore. I was astonished.
Since I had decided to review the place, I ordered a lot of dishes I hadn't tried before — the fried oysters, the crab cakes and the "u peel 'em" shrimp. And sadly, I was underwhelmed by each item.
The oysters were tiny — there were more than 40 of them — and they were fried with a cornmeal coating. I wish I had specified the flour-coated version. There was too much gritty cornmeal. It was a chore to chew, and the flavor overwhelmed the tiny oysters.
The crab cakes were gummy. Old-fashioned isn't always better, I reflected, as I tried to eat one of these big crab-flavored bread balls. Houston chefs have spoiled us with rich crab cakes made with a thin coating of batter encasing a huge serving of solid crabmeat. And I'll stick with the newfangled variety, thanks very much. The crack-and-peel shrimp were drastically underseasoned, if you're used to Cajun seafood boils common in Houston.
Putting restaurants you love under a magnifying glass and looking for flaws is the downside of the critic biz. I would have been perfectly content to eat fried shrimp and Bombay salad at the King's Inn for the rest of my life. But for the sake of an honest review, I had to work my way down the menu and write about some stuff I didn't like.
It didn't kill me, although it took a little shine off the King's crown. But it was the news about dropping half shell oysters that really concerned me.
The most recent Texas Monthly has a cover story about small-town cafes. Among the recommendations, I found an item about the Baffin Bay Cafe, a restaurant right down the road from King's Inn. When I got in my car after dinner, I called the Baffin Bay Cafe and asked them if they had oysters on the half shell. They said they did. So on my return trip to Houston the next day, I stopped in.
The cafe's menu was more low-key than the King's Inn's — it included lots of sandwiches. We got a pound of colossal fried shrimp there that were every bit as good as what you get at the King's Inn. They even had their own homemade tartar sauce. I'll gladly visit the tiny Baffin Bay Cafe again. I loved the bait camp atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the oysters were terrible. They were from Galveston Bay. Of the dozen, ten were skinny and bland. I picked up one of the fat ones and sucked it down. It was disgusting — the oyster I had selected was spawning. I have never seen a spawning oyster in the winter before; oysters usually spawn in the summer. But then I remembered what oysterman Misho Ivic told me after Ike. He said that oysters react to violent storms by immediately going into a reproductive frenzy to ensure their survival. I guess I'll avoid Galveston Bay oysters for another couple of months.
When I got home, I called Randy Ware to ask why he stopped serving oysters. He said the King's Inn hasn't stopped serving oysters, he just hasn't been able to find any good ones lately. When he finds some quality oysters to serve, he will start selling them again, he assured me. I asked him if he had any plans for the future of the vintage Texas seafood restaurant.
"I'm just going to try and keep it open," he said.
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