The Packed Shack

The Raven's desserts: Not a clunker in the bunch.
Daniel Perlaky

I never should have gone to the Seafood Shack on a Friday night.

It's a restaurant I've wanted to go to for a while, having read several rave letters in the Houston Chronicle's "moan and groan" restaurant column (or whatever it's called). Unanimous, unstinting raves — best seafood in town, crisp catfish fillets as big as your head, gumbo better than your mama's, and on and on.

Could this place serve the fried seafood of my dreams? I had the highest hopes as we pulled into the parking lot, but they started sagging as I entered the restaurant and saw the line, which snaked along the length of the counter all the way to the register, where you place your order. After about ten minutes in line, we placed our order (a large one) and waited another five minutes to snare a table. Unfortunately, it was about 15 minutes before anyone was able to clear said table.

It was obvious that there was going to be a major delay in getting our food when, on a return trip to the register for refills on beverages, we heard one guy complaining, "Look, I've had three beers already waiting for my food — any idea how long it will be?" The manager could only respond (politely, I might add), "You see how busy we are. It will be ready when it's ready."

Everything is fried to order, which, given the size of the crowds, explains the hour we waited for our food. And, although when we entered the restaurant it was remarkably free of the smell of frying food (especially given the open kitchen), by the time the food arrived, there were obviously problems with one of the fryers. The scent of burned oil wafted through the restaurant.

But when the food finally did arrive, it was pretty good — if not up to my parking-lot hopes, at least an excellent value for the money. For example, the seafood gumbo ($3.95 small, $6.95 large) was in fact better than my mama's (of course, my mama don't make gumbo). But seriously, we're talking good gumbo: rich, dark and murky, and thick with seafood.

Of the fried seafood, my favorites were the oysters (six for $5.95, 12 for $8.95) and the stuffed crabs ($6.95 for three, $10.95 for six). A hand-lettered sign on the refrigerator case holding the oysters states, "They slept in the Gulf last night," and they taste it. Plump and juicy, they came sheathed in a delicate crust. (They were so good, in fact, that when the owner came out to tell us that they had run out of the crawfish tails and crab fingers we'd ordered, we replaced them with more oysters.) Equally good were the stuffed crabs, boasting a remarkably light stuffing, gently spiced and rich with crab.

A bit more problematic was the fried catfish ($5.95 for three fillets, $9.95 for six). Although the menu brags, "To get it fresher, you have to be on the boat," of our three-piece order, one tasted distinctly off, one was more than slightly greasy and tasted like it had somehow been involved in the burned oil incident, and the third was excellent — crisp and delicious. Not the best of batting averages, but given the kitchen's otherwise high marks, you suspect the catfish were an anomaly.

If for some reason you object to fried food, the restaurant is happy to grill shrimp for you ($7.95 for eight, $10.95 for 12). They were juicy and fresh-tasting, served in a light, buttery sauce with surely enough fat to make up for the shrimp's not being fried.

Accompanying nearly anything you order are french fries, coleslaw and hush puppies. Of these, the fries were good but could have been crisper. The hush puppies were excellent little bite-size nuggets, crisp on the outside, steaming on the inside, with chunks of onion and corn. Best of all was the fantastic coleslaw: light, crunchy and refreshing, cabbagey without a hint of sweetness. It is, in fact, good enough to restore your faith in coleslaw.

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