Restaurant Reviews

Bombay Salad and Colossal Shrimp at King's Inn

Every meal at the King's Inn on Loyola Beach starts with a plate of sliced tomatoes and a dish of the restaurant's mysterious "tartar sauce." I usually eat huge gobs of the stuff on the tomatoes. It's not really tartar sauce; it's more of a stiff, zesty spread with a lot of chili peppers in it along with some mayo. I think it's thickened with crackers. It tastes weirdly wonderful, but very old-fashioned — I wouldn't be surprised if the recipe came from the back of a Ritz cracker box.

Proprietor Randy Ware says his father, Cottle Ware, concocted the sauce and that he used to make it with local chile pequins, but now Randy uses serranos. I've heard that the secret ingredients also include Miracle Whip and anchovy paste. The recipe is such a well-kept secret that when Ware makes the stuff, everyone else has to leave the kitchen.

I visited King's Inn last spring with a fish-etarian who had never been there before. There are no menus at the King's Inn, so I ordered all of my favorites. We started with a dozen fat oysters on the half shell served with lemons and cocktail sauce. For entrées, we got the restaurant's signature dish, six enormous lightly floured and perfectly deep-fried colossal Texas shrimp. We also got the fish of the day, which was grilled black drum, a huge filet of fish lightly coated with seasoned flour and griddle-cooked until the outside was crispy, but the middle was still moist. The big platter of crunchy onion rings is pretty much de rigueur. An extra dish of "tartar sauce" came in handy.

The most unusual dish I ordered was a large Bombay salad, a cold pool of creamy curried avocado puree in a cup-shaped wedge of iceberg with sliced tomatoes along the side and a pickled pepper on top. Like the tartar sauce, this appealing salad seems to be part of a time capsule cuisine that lives on at the King's Inn. It reminds me of those curried egg salads and curried chicken salads that used to be common in Southern cooking. I add some Tabasco to the curried avocado puree and then use it as a dip for my fried shrimp.

The fish-etarian said it was the best fried shrimp he ever had. As always, I bought an extra pint of tartar sauce to go as I paid the check at the register.

King's Inn is about four hours south of Houston. It overlooks Baffin Bay at the end of Highway 628 near Riviera. A friend of mine from Brownsville told me that when he was growing up, his family always left on car trips to Houston early in the morning in order to make it to the King's Inn for lunch. You wouldn't think you'd need to make a reservation at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere that seats more than a hundred people, but the lobby is always full of forlorn folks who didn't call ahead.

Like legions of fellow Texans, I count King's Inn as one of my favorite restaurants. Perched on a lonely bluff overlooking the sea many miles from any major population center, the place sucked me in with its air of romantic tragedy. The saga began three quarters of a century ago, with Orlando Underbrink's dreams of grandeur.

In 1935, Underbrink, who was a local farmer, bought up the waterfront property and built a boardwalk, a fishing pier, rental cottages and a restaurant he called Orlando's Café. The seaside resort got off to a good start with lots of vacationers and fishermen. The town of Riviera was to be the gateway to the Texas version of a coastal paradise. But the would-be resort area was slammed by a pair of hurricanes — and then came World War II. Loyola Beach never recovered.

The clapboard cafe was the only business that continued to thrive after the war. It was run by a French war bride named Blanche "Mom" Wright. She hired a cook named Cottle Ware who had previously worked all over the state, including in the cafeteria at Texas A&M. When Mom Wright died in 1945, Cottle Ware and his wife Alta Faye inherited the business and renamed it "The King's Inn." They made the restaurant a legend and ran it until their deaths. Their son Randy Ware took over in 1978. He changed the name over the entrance to "The Famous King's Inn."

There is an air of quirkiness about the place that gets under your skin. Consider, for instance, the sign at the front door that demands that men remove their hats "as a sign of respect." This fine point of Southern manners is usually overlooked in the case of expensive cowboy hats worn by oil tycoons, but not at the King's Inn. Alta Faye Ware was so adamant about the policy that in her later years, she would drive her wheelchair up to the offending party and browbeat them until they left the restaurant. No male dares wear a hat inside the dining room to this day.