Fish on its Laurels
Wade Watkins's shrimp bisque is thick and pumpkin-colored. It tastes like cream of shrimp -- which I suppose it is. I ate a cup of the comforting seafood soup at Gaido's in Galveston while a vicious thunderstorm raged and waves pounded the seawall. It was the first time I had ever visited the legendary restaurant, and I was pleasantly surprised.
The waiter recommended fresh Gulf red snapper topped with crabmeat, a trademark dish here. But that sounded a little too heavy for lunch. Instead, I ordered an appetizer called "chilled Texas jumbo white lump crabmeat." It was a mountain of fresh, juicy crab served over lettuce and tomatoes with cocktail sauce and a green sauce that tasted like avocado on the side. I shoved the cocktail sauce away and ordered an extra large bowl of the excellent green sauce. I forgot about the rain and lingered awhile in crabmeat heaven.
My lunch mate got a Gulf shrimp salad. I expected plain boiled shrimp over lettuce and tomato, but Gaido's shrimp salad is a lot more interesting than that. The shrimp is cut up and tossed with onions, celery, hard-boiled eggs and a tangy remoulade, then served over lettuce and tomatoes. Both our lunches were spectacular.
The storm had scared the tourists away, and except for two or three other tables, we had the place to ourselves. I took a walk around, admiring the articles, awards, menus and photos hanging on the walls. One of the oldest restaurants in the state, Gaido's first opened in 1911. Just inside the front door, there's a panoramic photo that was shot in 1924. It shows the original location of Gaido's in Murdoch's bathhouse at the 21st Street Pier. The restaurant is currently run by the fourth generation of the Gaido family.
There's a huge portrait of a black chef in the back dining room. Underneath it is a memorial plaque that says the chef's name is Wade Watkins, and that he worked at Gaido's for 44 years, most of the time as head of the kitchen. There's also an article on the wall memorializing a black waiter who had served at the restaurant for decades.
Gaido's arcane menu features dishes named after Wade Watkins, Rick and Michael Gaido and other names such as Sapporito and Fritz. There's a key that reveals fish à la Sapporito means encrusted with cracker crumbs and garlic and sautéed in butter, while fish Wade style means dusted with seasoned flour and finished with lemon, etc. It doesn't say who Sapporito and Fritz are, though. The bill of fare can be fully deciphered only by those with access to inside information.
Studying the old menus on the walls, it appears that some of the dishes at Gaido's predate the current location, which has only been occupied since the 1960s. The menu, the legacy of the black kitchen and dining room staff and the old photos on the walls all remind me of classic New Orleans restaurants like Antoine's and Galatoire's. And like those places, Gaido's seems to be as much a museum as a restaurant.
My friend John T. Edge contacted me a month or so ago and told me he would be visiting Texas to update his book, Southern Belly, a literary tour of Southern restaurant culture. The original version of the book didn't include Texas, but having been recently converted to the view that Texas east of I-35 is indeed part of the Old South, Edge was looking for historic Texas restaurants to include in the second edition. I recommended Gaido's, among others.
I was so impressed by my lunch at Gaido's and so eager to try some of the Gulf red snapper preparations I saw on the menu, I offered to join Edge there for dinner. We met on a Tuesday night.
According to the restaurant's Web site, the kitchen fillets and shells and shucks fresh Gulf fish and shellfish every day. The waiter I had at lunch told me that they don't serve crabs in the winter and they don't serve oysters in the summer -- they only buy what's in season. I repeated all of this to Edge as if it were gospel while I was pitching him on the place.
But sadly, that second visit to Gaido's with Edge in tow bore no resemblance whatsoever to my rainy-day reverie. To start with, it was a bright and sunny day, and there were people all over the beach. Gaido's wasn't the quiet place I had visited before; in fact, there was already a long wait for tables at 5:30 p.m. And then there was the bizarre service and wildly inconsistent food.
Every food lover I have met since I moved to Houston six years ago has warned me that the once-famous Gaido's serves terrible seafood. But after my lunch experience, I was emboldened. I figured it must be the fried seafood that everybody hated. But how could you miss if you stuck with fresh Gulf red snapper and crabmeat in the peak of the crab season?
The fish section of Gaido's menu has two columns -- fish of the day and red snapper -- and there's an entire section dedicated to crabmeat. So imagine my chagrin when our waitress announced that Gaido's wasn't serving red snapper the day of my second visit. And although there was crabmeat in the kitchen, it was available only as a topping -- not as an entre, appetizer or salad.
Tampico never runs out of red snapper, so what's Gaido's problem? And no crabmeat entrées in the middle of crab season at a seafood restaurant that specializes in the stuff? That's like a steak house telling you they are out of steak. I wanted to get up and leave. But Edge had traveled too far to give up.
He asked what fish was available today.
Salmon, halibut, swordfish, mahimahi and tuna, the waitress told us. So much for the local seafood gospel. Gaido's is evidently getting their groceries from the same Sysco truck as everybody else.
"Is that salmon from around here?" Edge wisecracked.
The waitress didn't get the joke. She seemed to have no idea where salmon and halibut come from. When we asked her if any of the fish were local, she didn't know. So we sent her to the kitchen. When she came back, she said the swordfish, tuna, and mahimahi (known around here as dolphinfish) were from the Gulf.
Then we asked her about the various preparations. She was clueless. She didn't know which dishes contained which ingredients, and she didn't know who Wade Watkins or any of the other namesake chefs were. When we pointed to the portrait of Watkins hanging on the wall, she confessed that she had been at the restaurant for only three weeks. She lived in Texas City and hoped to escape to Austin someday soon, never to return.
When I asked her if she recommended the St. Veran or the Meursault on the White Burgundy section of the wine list, she admitted she had never heard of White Burgundy before. I asked if there was someone in the restaurant who could recommend wines; she didn't know who that would be.
We got the Meursault, and at $38 it was quite a bargain. For appetizers, we sampled some shrimp Sapporito. The cracker crumbs didn't get very crispy in the butter, and the whole thing had a soggy consistency that wasn't very appealing. We also tried the crab cakes, and they were outstanding. The two large inch-high patties had very little besides crabmeat inside; they were covered with bread crumbs, fried and served piping hot.
Edge ordered the dolphinfish cooked Wade-style with a crabmeat topping, and it was wonderful. The fish was very fresh and much milder and flakier than any mahimahi I remember, and the unobtrusive seasoned flour coating and lemon juice spritz let the flavors of the seafood shine through. But it was the huge pile of succulent butter-soaked crabmeat on top of the fish that was the real star.
I got swordfish on a grilled seafood platter that also included scallops and shrimp. Swordfish is one of my favorites, especially when it's grilled so that the interior remains juicy and the edges are a little crisp. The thin swordfish steak I was served at Gaido's wasn't overcooked -- in fact, it was pink in the middle. But around the edges, the fish was dry. It had none of the juiciness I expect from swordfish. As I chewed, it took on the texture of wood pulp. I would guess that it was previously frozen. It wasn't worth eating.
The scallops were awful. Instead of the expensive dry-pack scallops that taste nutty and have a firm texture, Gaido's appears to be serving scallops that are soaked in chemicals to extend shelf life and retain moisture. They cook these on a grill so thick with char that the scallops develop a dingy gray color and taste like old barbecue pit grease. The shrimp were overdone and dry. I pushed the platter away uneaten.
At the table across from us, three women had attempted to eat their dinners while keeping two small children entertained. When they left, the carpet was thick with cracker crumbs that never got swept up. As we looked over the desserts, three beer-drinking guys in golf shirts and blue jeans took over the table. They each loudly described their marital situations to the waitress -- evidently they hoped she would care.
Edge had his notebook out and his pen in hand. He looked over the scene and commented on the cracker crumbs on the carpet and the loud-mouthed old boys in the polo shirts at the next table.
"It feels like a gone-to-seed country club," he said of Gaido's atmosphere. And as for the food, the cooks in this kitchen are just "going through the motions," he observed.
Is Gaido's a restaurant that specializes in local Gulf seafood as claimed on its Web site? Or is it another generic seafood restaurant that serves the same frozen halibut and swordfish they eat in Peoria? Is it a classic with traditions like the old restaurants in New Orleans? Or is it a bad imitation of Landry's?
Evidently, everything depends on which day you stop by.
I wish I could have eaten at Gaido's in its golden era, when Wade Watkins was in charge of the kitchen. I bet the restaurant had some standards back then.
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