On the Waterfront

Rory Miggins: Knows all the best places to drop anchor along the Ship Channel.
Deron Neblett

The only heater in The Point Bar and Restaurant is a welded steel contraption that looks more like a barbecue smoker than a device designed to warm up a room. The makeshift fireplace is in the middle of the joint, and that's where Rory Miggins and I are sitting on a cold winter day, drinking coffee and watching the ships go by. "This is the coolest spot in the county," declares Rory, referring to the bar's location. It's very cool indeed, I muse, holding my hands to the heater.

The Point is situated on a spit of land owned by the Port of Houston; it overlooks a tight lane in the Houston Ship Channel. The ships that pass by every few minutes grow to an enormous size as they come within a few hundred yards of the picnic tables where we sit. There is a commotion out on the little wooden pier in front of the restaurant. A fisherman named Dexter Bazile has just hauled in a 40-pound redfish. Rory and I go out to take a look. Dexter tells us he caught an even bigger redfish here last week.

"Too bad you can't eat them," Rory says. Why not? I am about to ask.

Right here, across the Ship Channel from Atkinson Island, the sand dunes and scrub give the illusion of wilderness. But it doesn't take an environmental science degree to figure out that the water is a little polluted. The industrial corridor that surrounds the Houston Ship Channel is a gargantuan maze of refineries, chemical plants and storage facilities for all manner of noxious substances. In fact, it's amazing that Dexter's redfish doesn't have three eyes.

Rory is a member of the International Longshoremen's Association, Local 1351, and down here on the waterfront, his colorful manner seems as natural as a rainbow reflection on an oil slick. I asked him to show me around the Port of Houston and to direct me to the interesting places to hang out. I will definitely bring my kids to The Point some sunny afternoon to eat burgers and watch the tankers go by. But for lunch today, Rory wants to take me to a restaurant called Baytown Seafood.

At least it used to be called Baytown Seafood. That's what it says on the sign out front. But the menu says West Main Seafood. The name was changed several months ago, the waitress says. There is community-style seating at three long booths and several smaller tables along the walls. We sit in the middle of a booth. The Naugahyde and Formica of our booth shine weirdly in the red and blue neon light. The restaurant is popular with refinery workers, longshoremen and truck drivers, Rory says. I look around. At a nearby table, a bearded guy in a turtleneck pecks daintily on his Palm Pilot with the little stylus. He looks more like a movie producer than a longshoreman.

"This place has great seafood," Rory says. The slogan on the menu says, "Just off the boat," but I couldn't help notice the Sysco truck unloading in the parking lot. I quiz the waitress unmercifully about where each item on the menu comes from. She admits that a lot of it comes frozen from Sysco. If I want fresh local seafood, she suggests I get the whole flounder or the Smith Point oysters. A gruff-looking man with very long hair and a blue jean jacket joins us at the communal booth, along with his girlfriend. They order the gumbo, which is very dark with lots of shrimp.

Rory gets fried oysters, which are fresh-tasting but kind of puny. I go for the flounder. It's a smallish fish slashed three times to the bone on each side and dipped in a spiced flour mixture then fried whole. It has a dense texture and nutty flavor with lots of cayenne zippiness. The flesh is very firm; in fact, it's hard to tear the meat off the bones. I wonder if it has been frozen awhile. "What kind of spices do you dip the flounder in?" I ask the waitress.

"I can't tell you. It's a secret," she says. "The owner bought a whole lot of flounder, and we have had it on special every day this week."

I've certainly had better seafood in Houston. The whole fish and seafood cocktails at Tampico Seafood and Restaurant [2115 Airline Drive, (713)862-8425] are a lot more exciting than the stuff on this menu. But I was looking for local color in the port area, and the neon-lit West Main Seafood certainly has plenty of that. It does a good job of frying up oysters, and I'd bet it's pretty good at frying catfish and shrimp, too. But the lunch is kind of a letdown after some of the other stuff we've eaten today.

I had told Rory that our "Lunch with" interview would be done over such a meal at the restaurant of his choice, but that I would ask him to tell me about other restaurants in the area. But Rory insisted on driving me around so I could visit the places for myself. We started at 10:30 a.m. at Villa Arcos Taquitos with some of the best breakfast tacos I've had in Houston. The fresh flour tortillas are made to order and stuffed with your choice of ingredients. I had the bacon-and-egg taco, which featured a thick, chunky cut of bacon; I seasoned the thing with the incendiary homemade green sauce on the table. The place is across the street from the original Ninfa's [2704 Navigation, (713)228-1175] -- just look for the giant antennae. Rory says there's usually a long line at breakfast. The tacos are worth a special trip, but I suggest you bring your own coffee, unless you like it weak.

After breakfast, we go immediately into Lunch No. 1 at a lovable little hole-in-the-wall called Xack's Barbecue. We are the only customers, and the proprietors seem engrossed in a TV talk show on the little set at the end of the bar. The brisket is tender but a little dry, and the ribs are so soft they fall apart at a touch. It's the kind of barbecue that works best on a sandwich. The place is charmingly scruffy. At the stroke of noon, the door slams open and a gang of workers in greasy coveralls lines up at the counter. Suddenly the atmosphere goes from silent to raucous. And everybody seems to know Rory.

As well known as Rory Miggins is around the Houston Ship Channel, he may be more familiar to Houstonians as the urban pioneer who used to run a bar called Local Charm on Telephone Road. From 1985 until 1995, Rory's corner bar was not only a favorite watering hole for the East Side's art student set, it was also a favorite venue for many of Houston's roots music groups. Local Charm became such an institution that people gathered once a year to celebrate its birthday, even after it closed. Such well-wishers will be happy to know that they can join Rory Miggins in celebrating the revival of their beloved bar. Local Charm reopens on Friday, January 5, at its new location on Washington Avenue. (See "Staying Alive," by Aaron Howard, on page 75.)

Myself, I'm happy for the whirlwind tour of the waterfront. I got some excellent breakfast tacos, some decent barbecue and a tasty fried flounder out of the deal. But the real mission was to find a "dock of the bay" restaurant where I can drink beer and "watch the ships roll in." And The Point is just the place to whistle that old Otis Redding tune. Not a bad fishing spot either, as long as you don't eat what you catch.

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