DEFCON Dining: A Bowl of Gumbo and a Protégé

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I thought we'd try a little something different this time. My ten-year-old daughter, a frequent subject of these articles, got an iPod for her birthday. She'd been begging for months and months, and I'd been resisting. Ever since she's had it, though, she's been proving all of my reasoning wrong. I helped that along a little, disabling Internet access and restricting pretty much everything else to the point that it's really a glorified digital camera. Still, the uses she's been finding for it have surprised and delighted me, from filming herself practicing her violin as an aide to her younger sister, to jotting down all sorts of interesting musings in the notes feature. One of those notes gave me an idea.

We'd sat down to dinner a few months back, when she announced that she wanted to write something about it, like I did. She pulled out her iPod and began tapping out a story. I started to interrupt, offering her advice on how to go about it. She became annoyed, I came to my senses and this is what came of it. Her words appear below in italics, with my commentary in plain text. I think she did okay.

The Gumbo Diner By Cecilia Hall So, today we went to Galveston to see the meteor shower, and got hungry. So to solve the problem, we decided to visit The Gumbo Diner, a cute little place right off the gulf. The first thing that caught my eye was the furniture. The booths were cute, and the old-fashioned chairs were adorable.

The former site of the Dutch Kettle, Gumbo Diner feels a bit like a retrofitted Waffle House, though it does have a homey feel, with a slightly prefab modern sensibility combined with some thrift-store chic (see: adorable old-fashioned chairs).

In just a few minutes, our apitizer (sic, she is a ten-year-old) arrived. I tried one of the fried pickles on the plate. The dark-green little delicacy was the best thing I had eaten in a while! The crunch of the fried covering and the tangy taste of the pickle went perfectly together! They were a bit over salted though.

Normally, fried pickles aren't my thing. Something about cold, garnish-type foods served hot just doesn't sit well with me; I feel the same way, generally, about hot avocado applications. These, however, might have been the best fried pickles I've ever had. Their coating was flaky and light, with not a soggy specimen in the bowl. They were, as Cecilia mentions above, significantly oversalted. After a few pieces, I had to drink a good half of my pint of Karbach, one of a handful of beers on tap. If they tone down the salt, I'd put these on my must-order list.

This was one of the points at which I interrupted her. See, I ordered a half dozen barbecued oysters, and convinced everyone else at the table to try one. None of them had ever eaten an oyster before, and all of them tend to get a little grossed out at the thought. When she gamely offered to give one a try, then snagged two more from my plate, I suggested that this act of discovery and broadened horizons was just the sort of thing she should mention. She scowled at me, popped another oyster into her mouth and reminded me that SHE was doing the writing, thankyouverymuch.

The deep-fried specimens that arrived were delicately crispy (if you ate them quickly), and had just enough of a peppery kick to underline their briny sweetness. They were the second indication that someone in the kitchen knows his or her way around a fryer.

Then, our food came out. The delicious smells wafted out of each dish. As the plates were set down, I could almost taste my wonderful wedge salad. I then decided that taste is 99 percent smell, and that I would have to eat some to get the other 1 percent. After a bite of salad, I could tell that the homemade buttermilk ranch dressing was the most delicious dip of its kind.

I have a love/hate relationship with ranch dressing. The real deal is one of the great sauces of the American culinary canon, and I will happily use it as a dressing, a sandwich spread or a dip for pretty much every dippable food. This was the real deal. Creamy but not stiff, full-flavored but not cloying, it boasted the delightful tang of real buttermilk, and a garden's worth of fresh herbs. It was light, lively and delicious. I have no idea how her salad was (a wedge, bargained away from her mother, who gamely took the chopped salad Cecilia had ordered, having been told it was like a Cobb salad, which she'd somehow thought was the wedge salad she'd actually wanted, despite numerous descriptions from myself, my wife and the menu), but the dressing was great.

My father's gumbo was good, but I'd only recommend it to people who who like very rich dark stuff with a few shrimp and oysters hidden somewhere inside.

I'm not really sure what she's talking about here, as the gumbo was actually flush with seafood. It was very rich, though, and served in enormous portions. I ordered a "Lil Daddy," and was hard pressed to finish it.

Then, I ate a bite of shrimp from the platter my mother and I shared. It was very tasty, and perfectly cooked.

Hey, at least she didn't say it was cooked to perfection. At any rate, she's right about the shrimp. They were easily the best thing on the table, and I was glad that we'd all over-ordered, as it meant that I didn't have a whole lot of competition for the shrimp. Again, the fry cook proved his/her mettle. I'd come back for those shrimp alone.

I next tried an oyster. The rich dark flavor and soft, silky, superior texture told me that it was the best (and first!) oyster I'd ever had.

So she took my advice anyway. When I saw that she'd included it at the end, I questioned the continuity of her narrative and asked how, if this was her first oyster, she could be assured of its textural superiority. This earned me another scowl.

Last, but definitely not least, I munched on my sister's scrumptious waffle. The waffle tasted like a cupcake (good), and the syrup tasted like vanilla (also good!).

Here's where I must quibble. The waffle was bad. Undercooked, and overly sweet, it was too soft and too much a dessert for the merely passable fried chicken tenders (you hurt me, fry cook) astride it.

So whenever you're in Galveston, be sure to grab a bite at one of the best places in town: The Gumbo Diner.