The woman was utterly aghast. "You can't review Connie's," she cried in anguish. "The Yuppies will find out about it and ruin the place."
Of course, just what she considers her Heights-home-owning, married-to-a-lawyer self to be, I'm not sure. But Connie's Market Seafood and Oyster Bar is a place that frequent diners develop a fanatical, secretive loyalty about. Not that the peculiar ambiance of Connie's is so fragile that an invasion of trendy gourmands would somehow result in tablecloths, track lighting E perhaps even (dare I say it?) waiters and reservations.
And yet the fear remains that a moment in the spotlight might somehow gentrify one of the more remarkable examples of the multiculturalism that is Houston, and so fair warning is given to those who know the proper fork to use for oysters: at Connie's, the proper fork for the oysters is a saltine.
The jukebox, which plays constantly, features nothing but Mexican music. Loud Mexican music. The decor, to put it gently, is functional. The lighting is garish, there's more kids there on a Saturday afternoon than at Chuck E. Cheese and it's not uncommon to see rubber boots on the busboy. A peculiar ambiance, indeed.
Although the "You buy, we fry" flag flies over many of Houston's multiethnic neighborhood cafes, nowhere does it wave as proudly as it does at Connie's, which sits across the street from the Farmers Marketing Association on Airline on the extreme northeast corner of the Heights. When an Asian family runs a restaurant whose employees and customers are predominately Hispanic, the convergence of traditions can result in a rare celebration of the gustatory art.
Connie's does, of course, offer the standard deep-fried one-of-this and two-of-that combination plates -- featuring shrimp, scallops and fish fillets whose freshness and delicate golden batter do much to offset the blandness of the accompanying fries and perfunctory salads of chopped iceberg lettuce -- that are perfectly adequate.
There are, however, a pair of caveats to remember when ordering an inexpensive fried-fish plate. The first is to use the phrase "No gar." Not even the best fry cooks, I fear, are capable of transforming stringy, pre-Cambrian refugees that have to be cleaned with chain saws into something other than gar. Judicious use of those two words ensures a more evolved, and tastier, plate of fillets.
The second warning is that the stuffed crabs are boring and unremarkable. The $8.95 "Super Seafood Platter," a satisfying choice when yielding to a sudden Connie's whim, does include one of these spiny items filled with crab meat and stuffing. However, I find myself waiting until the shrimp, scallops, fish fillets and oysters have been dispensed with to douse the breaded crab with lime juice and hot sauce before eating it almost as an afterthought.
Those planning to venture to Connie's are also advised to do so with friends. Connie's, with its bright lights and high noise level, is not a place to dine alone. A crowd -- a loud, rowdy crowd for whom seafood in mass quantities at affordable prices is grounds for celebration -- is what's called for. There are no hostesses to show a party of six or eight to their table; you simply stand in a gaggle by the door until the right number of contiguous chrome-and-Naugahyde chairs open at one of the common tables. There are also no waitresses to take your order or offer suggestions; the menu is displayed on a wall behind the counter over a beer cooler, with additions and specials chalked on a small blackboard and hand written on paper signs taped at random here and there.
Order in haste, and you may regret it when a sign or a platter on the next table catches your eye. Of course, this phenomenon may also happen when you order at leisure; the parade of platters from the kitchen will invariably include an eye-catching delicacy to remember for your next trip. So it behooves diners to plan their strategy before getting in line at the cash register to order. A trip to the oyster bar that fills one corner can delay the moment of truth, and help ensure that the evening's selections will contain as few omissions as possible.
Even those leery of bivalves can find delights at the oyster bar. Those who (like me) enjoy flying in the face of reason and medical advice and eat their oysters raw have two options. At $5.95 a dozen, the oysters on the half-shell are carefully perused while being shucked, and any that appear less than perfect are quickly discarded. My personal theory, not yet disproved, is that Tabasco sauce and lime juice kills shellfish bacteria. It's a theory that I carry over to the second option, the $5.25 oyster cocktail of raw delights swimming in an ice-cream sundae glass with ketchupy pico de gallo laced with avocado, pearl onions and Spanish olives.
This same treatment is given to an eight-piece cocktail of steamed and chilled (but never frozen) shrimp and to the delightful pulpo cocktail. Pulpo is, in a word, octopus, and there is no better introduction to this maligned aquatic marvel than a saltine loaded with a couple of chilled bite-sized chunks and a piece of pimiento winking through the cocktail sauce.
Perusing surrounding tables while the cracker baskets and cocktail goblets make the rounds of your party leads to one undeniable observation: the people who are familiar with Connie's menu always order the fried rice. The towering mounds on standard dinner plates are sold as pints and quarts in ham, beef, chicken, pork and shrimp varieties. The near-universal choice, however, is the five-flavor, you-can-have-it-all "special" variety, with its tender tidbits of meat and shrimp hidden among the scallions and golden-brown grains. The fried rice is essential to the Connie's experience; a popular option for couples is a "small" special rice with a shared entree.
The selection of entrees and side orders is overwhelming; in this instance, you can't have it all, no matter how hard you try. The register where orders are taken is flanked by coolers filled with tubs of shellfish and hundreds of redfish, trout and catfish staring with icy eyes through the Plexiglas. Years back, I was given the advice at this register that a pound of fried shrimp was a much wiser choice than the 12-piece shrimp dinner. That's still a sound suggestion; even the medium shrimp, at $10.50 a pound, provide a couple of dozen tender, tasty exorcisms of the memories of frozen lumps of batter that too often pass for fried shrimp elsewhere. Another tender by-the-pound fried delight is the squid. It's been many years and tentacles since, as a young sailor on liberty in Spain, I took my first tentative bite of calamaries frito; nowhere since have I found a more consistent understanding of how to successfully cook squid than at Connie's, where the calamari are fried so adroitly and rushed to the table so swiftly that the inevitable rubberiness sets in only if you deliberately dawdle.
Not all that is delicious here is deep fried, however. Setting Connie's above the standard "You buy, we fry" outlet is the ranchero menu detailed on an unobtrusive blackboard. Shrimp, scallops, squid and fish are all offered pan-broiled with fresh tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and served with steamed rice. These selections, especially the scallops, provide an antipasto-like contrast to the onslaught of fried shrimp and squid, and satisfy those unwilling to suspend their fear of frying even in these surroundings.
Other non-fried alternatives lurk cold-eyed in the ice beds, where the diner can personally select the redfish or speckled trout that will serve as a cooked-to-order edible centerpiece. Although the tradition here is frito entiro -- breaded and fried with head, tail and dorsal fin in place (the sight of which has an amusing effect on small children) -- your choice can also be broiled with butter, lemons and scallions to tender, flaky perfection. Jumbo shrimp -- which, in this context, is nowhere near being an oxymoron -- is also offered in this manner.
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Two tidbits that underline Connie's ability to turn mundane standards into essential delicacies are tucked away among the egg rolls and gumbo on the side-order section of the menu. Six bits buys four tiny, delectable fried balls of cornmeal; even such simple items as hush puppies achieve their celestial potential in Connie's fryer. It's the same with the dollar-apiece stuffed jalapeos; anyone who has ever suffered the frozen, cream-cheese-filled "armadillo eggs" that appear on many appetizer menus owes himself or herself a few of the largest, freshest jalapeos that the nearby Farmers Marketing Association has to offer, which are stuffed with crab meat and bits of popcorn shrimp and fried to perfection without losing a hint of their crispness.
The real delight of Connie's is not that the preparation is so consistently excellent; it's that such skillfully prepared food comes so cheaply in such large quantities. Have a few friends that you want to do something nice for, but $15 a head is absolute tops? At Connie's, when the table is littered with empty plates and Bohemia bottles and the "brain-food" effect of protein-rich seafood fuels the after-dinner dialogue, you'll find your goal has been exquisitely met. And if the Yuppies do ruin Connie's No. 1 E well, we just won't tell them about No. 2 by the Ship Channel and No. 3 on I-45 North.
Connie's Market Seafood and Oyster Bar, 2525 Airline Drive, 868-2144.
Connie's Seafood: scallops ranchero, $8.95; fried squid, $5.29 a pound; pulpo cocktail, $5.25; oysters, $5.95 a dozen; super seafood platter, $8.95; special fried rice, $6.95 a quart.