When I glanced up from the mound of pure jumbo lump crabmeat and the complimentary bowl of boiled shrimp on our table at Clary's Seafood Restaurant, I was looking out a picture window at a scene so perfect, you could cut it up and make a jigsaw puzzle out of it.
A brightly painted shrimp boat called the Gail Anne was tied up at the dock with her nets glistening in the sun. Nearby was a dull gray oyster boat called the Sug. While we ate our salads, pelicans and seagulls flew in and out of the picture. Just beyond the pocket fishing fleet, a luxury boathouse hid somebody's yacht. A stand of tall palm trees on a manicured lawn made up the background.
Before the food even arrived, the view from Clary's dining room made all those nautically themed seafood restaurants on the mainland look pathetic. Then we tasted the awesome crabmeat cocktail, and we were ruined forever.
There is no secret recipe for the cocktail. When you start out with just-picked jumbo lump crabmeat, each piece is the size of a lima bean; good cooking consists of piling it extra-high on a bed of salad greens and setting a dish of homemade Creole rémoulade beside it. That and a couple of crackers are all you need.
Neither the flame-broiled shrimp nor the spicy boiled shrimp I've sampled here during two visits to Clary's tastes anything like the Red Lobster versions so many Houston restaurants serve in hopes of not offending anybody. Clary's actually puts some spicy seasonings on the shrimp. And the plump and juicy fried oysters, which are served on toast so you can sop up the juices, are way better than fried oysters I've had anywhere else.
All the fried foods here are stellar. In fact, it was the fried shrimp that brought me to Clary's in the first place. A friend's dad told me it was the best fried shrimp on the Texas Gulf Coast and that if I didn't believe him, I should see for myself. I got a whole plate of it on my first visit and was duly impressed.
First of all, it's jumbo, never-been-frozen Gulf shrimp, not the huge and tasteless tiger shrimp from Thailand so many restaurants are calling jumbo shrimp these days. Second, it's served in one whole piece, not butterflied into two skinny wings that get dried out in the fryer. And third, it's nicely seasoned with a spicy batter and deep-fried just enough to make it crisp and golden, but not enough to dry it out. It's so good, I hesitate to ruin the flavor with a dipping sauce.
The Clary's platter, an appetizer recommended for four people, is an interesting sampler for fried seafood lovers. It includes a couple of unique items, like deep-fried crab claws that are dried out and so-so, and spicy fried crab balls, which are spectacular. The fried fish fingers, made from fresh Gulf fish, will cure you of your frozen-fish-finger aversions. Charbroiled shrimp and fried oysters round out the assortment.
The only time Clary's comes up short is when it does too much cooking. The entrée called butter lump crabmeat is a ceramic crock filled with fresh lump crabmeat that's been lightly sautéed in butter and sprinkled with bacon and chopped green onions. The crabmeat is then topped with melted cheddar cheese, which, to my taste, ruins the dish. Try ordering it without the cheddar.
The "shrimp au seasoned," a mélange of butter-sautéed shrimp and vegetables served on a mound of rice, is advertised as an old family recipe, but it looks like a Southern stir-fry. And while it's seasoned with a dash of cayenne, it still tastes bland. The vegetables, which include carrots, green peppers, onions, cauliflower and broccoli, are mushy and overcooked.
I have no suggestions for improving the gumbo. The spicy, dark, roux-thickened seafood soup is loaded with Clary's signature ingredients, lump crabmeat and jumbo shrimp. Okay, so maybe it tastes better with a dash or two of hot sauce. What doesn't?
Clary's is quasi-formal in a Grandma's-dining-room kind of way. The dated interior is dark and stuffy, with decorations that tend toward artificial flowers. The lower parts of the walls are padded with carpeting. But the tables are set with linen, and when I visit on a weekday at lunchtime, most of the clientele is dressed in business clothes. Jackets are recommended in the evenings, but Hawaiian aloha shirts seem to be popular in the summer.
The walls of Clary's long entrance hall are covered with photos of celebrities who have dined here over the years, including television stars, football and basketball greats and, of course, Nolan Ryan. Many of them pose with the restaurant's ever-smiling owner, Clary Milburn.
Having been told that Clary Milburn is a popular Galveston personality and that he launched his restaurant career at Gaido's, I call him to get the story straight. He started at Gaido's as a waiter in 1961, he tells me, which is how he got to know so many people in Galveston. He left the famous seafood restaurant on the seawall in 1974.
Clary's opened in August 1977. The original restaurant seated 45 and didn't have a view. In 1983, he expanded the place and put in the picture windows. No, he says, the picturesque boats in the window, the Gail Anne and the Sug don't supply him with seafood, although they are working boats. He shops for his shrimp and crabmeat at the Galveston Shrimp Company and other wholesale seafood exchanges, buying from whichever vendor offers the best seafood for the money on a given day.
Clary Milburn isn't the chef -- he has three cooks he's very happy with. But he does putter in the kitchen a little, and he takes special pride in the gumbo. "Our gumbo recipe started with a cook we used to have. She made gumbo from five different recipes one time, and we tasted them all to see which one came out best. Then I picked one, and I worked on it some more to make it our own signature gumbo."
Because of its hard-to-get-to location off the causeway near 81st Street, and its reputation as a hangout for locals rather than a tourist attraction, the restaurant used to advertise itself as Galveston's best-kept secret. But that slogan is dated. It isn't much of a secret anymore that Clary's is the best seafood restaurant on Galveston Island.
When we go to the beach these days, we all hang a change of clothes in the back of the car so we can stop at Clary's for lunch or dinner. And I highly recommend you try it yourself. Once you find the place, you'll never forget it.
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