The King's Inn looks like a decrepit wooden beach house. The interior decor is appalling. The carpets are industrial gray, and the acoustic ceiling tiles are stained and ill-fitting. The trim near the bathroom is painted about as far as you can reach, and then the paint job ends. It seems like I am usually there during the holiday season when a fake Christmas tree is set up in a corner of the main dining room with two weird, oversize robotic dolls underneath. The boy and the girl dolls are wearing some kind of old-fashioned costumes. They mechanically nod their heads in time to unheard Christmas carols.
It could be an incredibly depressing atmosphere if it wasn't for the crowds of enthusiastic seafood eaters. The last time I visited, we were seated right next to a huge Christmas party. The participants were members of the train engineers' union, and it seems that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and their significant others know how to party. There were over a hundred people sitting at the long tables, drinking pitchers of beer, laughing loudly and eating platter after platter of shrimp. One of the organizers stopped by our table to shoot the breeze. We felt like we were part of the festivities.
We ordered oysters on the half shell and a Bombay salad to start, but the waiter dropped a bombshell. He said Randy Ware had decided not to serve raw oysters anymore. I was astonished.
Since I had decided to review the place, I ordered a lot of dishes I hadn't tried before — the fried oysters, the crab cakes and the "u peel 'em" shrimp. And sadly, I was underwhelmed by each item.
The oysters were tiny — there were more than 40 of them — and they were fried with a cornmeal coating. I wish I had specified the flour-coated version. There was too much gritty cornmeal. It was a chore to chew, and the flavor overwhelmed the tiny oysters.
The crab cakes were gummy. Old-fashioned isn't always better, I reflected, as I tried to eat one of these big crab-flavored bread balls. Houston chefs have spoiled us with rich crab cakes made with a thin coating of batter encasing a huge serving of solid crabmeat. And I'll stick with the newfangled variety, thanks very much. The crack-and-peel shrimp were drastically underseasoned, if you're used to Cajun seafood boils common in Houston.
Putting restaurants you love under a magnifying glass and looking for flaws is the downside of the critic biz. I would have been perfectly content to eat fried shrimp and Bombay salad at the King's Inn for the rest of my life. But for the sake of an honest review, I had to work my way down the menu and write about some stuff I didn't like.
It didn't kill me, although it took a little shine off the King's crown. But it was the news about dropping half shell oysters that really concerned me.
The most recent Texas Monthly has a cover story about small-town cafes. Among the recommendations, I found an item about the Baffin Bay Cafe, a restaurant right down the road from King's Inn. When I got in my car after dinner, I called the Baffin Bay Cafe and asked them if they had oysters on the half shell. They said they did. So on my return trip to Houston the next day, I stopped in.
The cafe's menu was more low-key than the King's Inn's — it included lots of sandwiches. We got a pound of colossal fried shrimp there that were every bit as good as what you get at the King's Inn. They even had their own homemade tartar sauce. I'll gladly visit the tiny Baffin Bay Cafe again. I loved the bait camp atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the oysters were terrible. They were from Galveston Bay. Of the dozen, ten were skinny and bland. I picked up one of the fat ones and sucked it down. It was disgusting — the oyster I had selected was spawning. I have never seen a spawning oyster in the winter before; oysters usually spawn in the summer. But then I remembered what oysterman Misho Ivic told me after Ike. He said that oysters react to violent storms by immediately going into a reproductive frenzy to ensure their survival. I guess I'll avoid Galveston Bay oysters for another couple of months.
When I got home, I called Randy Ware to ask why he stopped serving oysters. He said the King's Inn hasn't stopped serving oysters, he just hasn't been able to find any good ones lately. When he finds some quality oysters to serve, he will start selling them again, he assured me. I asked him if he had any plans for the future of the vintage Texas seafood restaurant.