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Gulf Coast Fried

It's impossible to conduct a civilized existence on the Texas Gulf Coast without convenient access to a good fried seafood dive. Mine is Floyd's Cajun Shack, a northside joint that has all the prerequisites of the genre: wooden deck, rolls of paper towels on the tables, colorful owner, cold bottled beer wrapped in clammy tissue, proudly raffish air. Plus the sine qua non, of course -- the kind of battered aquatic creatures whose voyage through boiling oil transforms them into sacramental objects.

For eating fried seafood is indeed a coastal sacrament of sorts, a reassuring ritual that makes the universe seem, for the moment, a benign and orderly place. Until the guilt kicks in, anyway: these days it's hard to indulge in a major fried-seafood fest without feeling slightly ashamed of yourself the morning after. Surely that is part of the pleasure. I don't come to Floyd's to feel virtuous; I come to feel soothed and faintly wicked.

Here in the domain of Floyd Landry, the saltiest of the Landry restaurant partners who migrated to Houston from Lafayette during the boom, frying is king. Simmered and stewed Cajun dishes inhabit the menu, too, and they're okay, but they're nowhere near as convincing as the moist, molten catfish coated with a crunch of cornmeal, for instance; or the curled crawfish tails barely filmed with a flour wash, so that you can still taste their natural sweetness. It's difficult to get fried crawfish tails right, but Floyd's tails do honor to the frying legacy of the late Don's, the Landry clan's seminal Houston restaurant.

If frying is king here, Floyd himself, prowling the premises in apron, T-shirt and inevitable baseball cap, is its growly prince of funk. His place suits him perfectly, from the rotted-out bottom step of a side stairway to the rickety ramp that serves as an entrance. Inside, amid rough planking and paneling, a bait-camp camaraderie reigns. Party animal Floyd has long had a following of oil field types, assorted Bandidos and displaced Louisianans, all of whom can conspire to make the shack feel (and sound) as if it had been transported intact from the Bolivar Peninsula's wilder-and-woolier reaches. Sometimes, all that seems to anchor Floyd's to the city is the dress shirts and neckties of certain bar regulars, who come directly from work.

From the picnic tables on the wooden deck, you can watch automobiles shooting the Durham Street curl as they crest over the nearby railroad tracks and plummet toward Floyd's. It is a strangely gratifying spectacle. So are the plastic, paper-lined baskets full of fried stuff, all mounded over a mess of soul-satisfying French fries of the sort no proper seafood dive can do without. These are long and skinny and manage to be simultaneously glazed and limp, a provocative contradiction in terms. They are worthy adjuncts to crackly crusted oysters or shrimp that have been butterflied and sheathed in a thin, deep brown shell that seems to have been composed of well-pulverized cracker meal. It works, even on the odd occasion when the shrimp themselves taste a bit pale or iodiney.

This coating also holds together the deliciously nasty stuffed fried shrimp, baroque objects that involve a great deal of peppery breaded crabmeat packed between and around the shrimp's butterflied wings. They are excessive and nonsensical, which is why they're so appealing. It's insane to eat a lot of them, though; the four stuffed shrimp that comprise an order are about two too many. Divide them up, or get them as part of an all-encompassing seafood platter-in-a-basket.

True frying connoisseurs tend to avoid seafood assortments on the theory that you want your frying job custom-tuned to the specific creature being fried, rather than averaged out in an attempt to strike a balance among a lot of different things. They're probably right. Not that I care: there are times when I want only to graze among a varied batch of surfaces and textures and flavors. Floyd's seafood platter lets me do this in a highly acceptable way, with all of the items mentioned above present and accounted for, plus a decadent "crab patty" (read: shell-less stuffed crab) and a decent but unmemorable frog's leg.

The only fried totems you don't get on Floyd's platter are worth ordering individually. One is the soft-shell crab, light golden and juicy (as opposed to watery -- a crucial difference). The other is the utterly swell onion rings, medium-sized circles wearing a thin gold coat that shatters apart just the way it's supposed to. Eat these classics, and you'll write off other folks' behemoth rings as clumsy and other folks' onion strings as pathetically insubstantial.

All of the fried things come broiled, too, but I can't vouch for them. That's because the one time I ordered broiled here, the waitress brought me fried -- so I surrendered to my Floyd's karma, secretly pleased. In my heart of hearts, I wanted broiled instead of fried about as much as I wanted Floyd's nicely sauteed vegetables (livelier than most of their breed) instead of French fries and onion rings.

Among the various Cajun specialties, though, I can vouch for the crawfish etouffee -- sneakily red-peppered and very, very simple in its thinnish red-brown sauce, a good counterpart to the fried crawfish tails that you can order along with it as part of a combination. The crawfish bisque is passable, but you have to ask if you want a stuffed head with it, which marks a sorry turn in the devolution of this dish.

Seafood courtbouillon turns out to be more of an indifferent stew stocked with iodiney shrimp, fat scallops and crawfish tails. Jambalaya laced with smoky sausage slices and chicken resembles Jambalaya Quik -- the rice involved seems to have been precooked and stirred together with the rest of the ingredients and a sauce. Not bad, but not painstakingly authentic, either. Of Floyd's curious "Oyster Bar Trash" sauteed with butter and lots of aggressive Cajun spices, what can you say but that it's a violent thing to do to a bunch of helpless shrimp and innocent lump crabmeat?

I'd rather have the hot crab fingers marinated in garlicked-and-onioned olive salad, which call for some of Floyd's wonderfully retrograde garlic bread to mop up with. I'd rather not have the boiled crawfish -- not after a recent batch showed up with so much dried seasoning coating their shells that all you could taste was salt and red pepper. If there's an argument against showering your boiled shellfish with seasoning after the fact instead of simply letting their seasoned boiling liquid suffice, these crawfish made it.

Dessert? Don't ask, unless you fancy gummy, woefully artificial-tasting key lime pie. Coffee? Definitely on the evil side. Service by T-shirted waitresses in cutoffs is bait-camp brusque and matter-of-fact. But you're not here for niceties, anyway; you're here for a fix of fried seafood and raucous seashore bonhomie, both of which are second nature to the redoubtable Floyd Landry. As are certain Cajun verbal liberties: explaining that he fries everything in cottonseed oil, Floyd ends his spiel with the grand (and slightly skewed) pronouncement, "No fat!" Would that it were true.

Floyd's Cajun Shack, 1200 Durham, 862-3326.

Floyd's Cajun Shack:
onion rings, $2.75;
fried crawfish tails and etouffee, $9.95;
seafood platter $10.95.


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