Igor and I are intently eyeing the last shrimp. The succulent shellfish came tossed with avocado slices and slathered in a thick and creamy curry sauce. It is one of several spectacular dishes at Merlion Restaurant, a Thai eatery in Seabrook.
The golden-colored phanang curry sauce is rich with coconut milk and, by our request, seasoned Thai hot. Although the combination of shrimp and hot avocado didn't sound so great, it has proved to be magnificent. Each flavor is clear and bright, and yet they harmonize brilliantly.
The shrimp are huge, meticulously deveined and perfectly cooked so that they retain a moist and springy texture. Unfortunately, there's an odd number of them, so we cut the last one in half. Two grown men fighting over a shrimp may sound a little ridiculous. But this is the best Thai seafood I've eaten outside of Thailand, and I intend to savor every morsel I can politely lay my lips on.
The fishmongers' stores in Old Seabrook, a few blocks away, are the reason that the shrimp dishes at Merlion are transcendental. While the former shrimping town of Kemah, right across the channel, has been converted into an amusement park, crusty Old Seabrook is still the home port of a small fleet of shrimp boats. There are seafood delivery trucks parked along the streets waiting to take the fresh catch to Houston. And the price of the glistening, never-been-frozen, heads-on shrimp in the Vietnamese-owned markets along the waterfront is a fraction of what you pay in the city.
We had set off for Old Seabrook on a Friday afternoon with an ice chest in the backseat of the car and gumbo on our minds. Igor had a visiting artist with an entourage to cook for, and I had relatives coming to town. I got a dozen live crabs, a half-gallon of shucked oysters and five pounds of fresh shrimp for around 40 bucks -- about what I would've paid for three pounds of shrimp at my favorite Houston supermarket. Igor got a similar haul. By the time we'd stuffed the cooler and packed it with ice, it was just after five on a glorious sunny evening with a cool breeze blowing in from the bay. Back in Houston, the traffic helicopters would already be hovering. So we considered our alternatives.
A few months ago, a reader named Monica Burke sent me an e-mail recommending Merlion. So I suggested we duck the traffic in favor of an early dinner. The restaurant opened at five, and when we got there around five-thirty, we were the only customers. Judging by the illustration on the cover of the menu, a merlion is half lion and half fish.
This Merlion is a charming little establishment in a pink house located across the street from a man-made lagoon and a park. There are something like a dozen tables in the two dining rooms. The walls are painted an unfortunate shade of maroon. The tablecloths are the same maroon with smaller gold tablecloths on top. The chairs are mismatched. But the view out over the blue water makes up for a lot of decorating sins.
I asked the waiter where Merlion got its seafood, just to be sure. It may seem like a stupid question, given that we were a few blocks away from the shrimp boats -- that is, until you realize how many waterfront restaurant chains serve you frozen stuff off the Sysco truck. At some of these places, you may be sitting at a table overlooking the Gulf of Mexico but eating the same frozen shrimp, mahimahi and Alaskan king crab legs you can get at Red Lobster in Sioux Falls.
"We buy our seafood right down the street at the Seabrook seafood markets," the waiter assured me. "We get it fresh every day."
With that in mind, we ordered an array of seafood dishes. For starters, we split an order of tom yum gung, a light yet spicy rendition of that fresh shrimp-and-straw-mushroom soup, amply seasoned with lemongrass and lots of green chiles. We also got an excellent crunchy fried red snapper fillet covered with a delicate Thai curry and seasoned with fresh herbs, including Thai basil.
A soft-shell crab was cut into pieces and fried in a light cornstarch batter, then coated with garlic and chiles and a sauce that included beaten egg whites, ground pork and scallions. The dish was tasty, but it didn't make my soft-shell-crab hit parade.
On my second visit to Merlion, I take my brother Dave, who works for a restaurant purveyor in San Antonio. Like most restaurant-industry pros, Dave is hard to impress. (He gave me a stinging critique of my gumbo.) But Merlion blows him away.
We start off with an improbable appetizer called corn cakes, made of fresh corn, scallions and chiles fried in a batter like a big fritter. There are five of them, and they come with two dipping sauces, one sweet and one hot. We power down the first four with lots of sauce and some cold beer. Then, without any discussion, Dave reaches for the fifth crunchy corn fritter, divides it neatly in half and eats his portion. Cutting things in half is getting to be a recurrent theme here.
For one of our entrées, Dave and I get kang kua supparos with shrimp. It's a yellow curry with pineapple pieces that's both spicy and sweet, not to mention decadently rich, with lots of thick coconut cream coating each piece of shrimp. We also sample a tart and spicy seafood medley called phad bai gaprao with shrimp, crawfish and calamari tossed with garlic, chile peppers, onions, scallions and whole Thai basil leaves. And plenty of lime juice.
Dave and I go back and forth trying to decide which dish we like more. While the shrimp curry with pineapple is outstanding, it might be too rich. Meanwhile, the tartness of the lime juice in the mixed seafood gets a little intense. But interestingly, these dishes balance each other perfectly. So we take turns eating a few bites of one and then a few bites of the other.
We take an order of pad thai back home to a hungry teenager, who declares it just average. With a few bites off her plate, I confirm her judgment. The pad thai is a meager amalgamation of noodles, lime juice and sprouts with little in the way of flavor.
The Thai spring rolls I sampled at Merlion came to the table still frozen in the center. The rolls were garnished with a piece of lettuce that was black and slimy along the edges. And a Thai salad turned out to be nothing but romaine, cukes, tomatoes and scallions with some shrimp tossed in. The menu also includes a lot of things I would never order, like crabmeat-and-cream-cheese rolls and stuffed chicken breast.
Merlion is not an exceptional Thai restaurant. It is a good, solid Thai restaurant with exceptional seafood dishes, thanks to its proximity to the fishing fleet. The chef has the good sense not to overcook the shrimp and to buy it fresh every day. And when you combine perfectly cooked seafood with even average Thai curries and garlic chile sauces, you get something very special.
Freshly caught, never-been-frozen shrimp is a culinary treat few Americans will ever experience. It's available only to those who live within an easy drive of a shrimp boat. Whether you go down to Seabrook and buy some at the seafood market, or stop by a restaurant like Merlion that uses it in its cooking, you should take advantage of this local delicacy.
Of course, the best idea is to stick a cooler in the backseat of your car, stop by the seafood market and pick up some shrimp in the afternoon, and then go to Merlion for dinner. That way you get twice the shrimp and half the traffic.
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