One of the best things about grand tasting events like the Rodeo's Best Bites competition or our own upcoming Menu of Menus is the opportunity to sample food from restaurants you may have never heard of, or restaurants you've always meant to try but never got around to. Joyce's Seafood and Steaks falls in the latter category.
During the final round of judging Best Bites this past Sunday night, I became obsessed with a cup of bread pudding that featured everything I love about the difficult-to-perfect dessert: slightly crunchy, caramelized pieces of soft, challah-like bread soaked in a creamy sauce that was almost like vanilla custard. I had to know where it came from. The answer was Joyce's, which won two awards for its dessert that night: the Tasty Traditions Award and second place in the Two-Stepping Bread/Cheese/Dessert category.
At one point long ago, I used to drive past Joyce's twice a day during my commute to and from the Galleria. I never thought much of the little seafood place tucked away in a 1960's-era strip center, and nothing about its rather charmless exterior ever encouraged me to stop over for dinner on my way home. I should have known better. A lifetime spent in Houston has taught me not to judge a book -- or a restaurant -- by its cover.
Former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh called Joyce's "one of the best seafood restaurants in the city" in a 2004 review. We gave the place a Best of Houston® award in 2003 for Best Cajun Restaurant. It's garnered plenty of other compliments over the years, even after it changed its name from Joyce's Oyster Resort roughly 10 years ago and founder Joyce Gilbert retired.
Joyce's Seafood and Steaks is run now by her former partners, the brother-and-sister team of Francisco Ruiz and Martha Lopez. Ruiz walks the floor in the evenings in a button-up shirt and tidy slacks, greeting customers by name. When I mentioned to our waiter that the fantastic bread pudding at Best Bites had encouraged us to come in, Ruiz came over a few minutes later to find out more.
"You know, we've entered that competition for 10 years and never won before," Ruiz laughed. My friend and I weren't the only ones there that night after trying the bread pudding, either. I overheard a table nearby discussing the very same decision-making process that had led me to Joyce's that night.
"We normally enter our enchiladas," Ruiz told us, but the gamble of entering a dessert instead this year paid off. The enchiladas simply take too much time to prepare for such a large group, Ruiz explained.
If those enchiladas had been at Best Bites, however, I think they would have stood a chance at winning too.
The most interesting thing to me about Joyce's is how Ruiz and Lopez have kept the Gulf Coast and Cajun roots of the restaurant intact while adding their own, very Tex-Mex twist. Where else in town can you get blackened catfish enchiladas, for example?
Those enchiladas are served with two of Ruiz and Lopez's house specialties: black beans with a sweetly smoky tinge to them and "six pack sauce," which Ruiz told us is six different packs of chiles, reduced down and thickened back up with a spot of cream. And the smoky flavor to those black beans?
"Bacon," Ruiz smiled. The kitchen chops it roughly, fries it up and cooks the beans down with the smoky pork belly. The only other ingredients are salt and pepper, making for what are possibly the best black beans anywhere in town.
The Cajun and Gulf Coast standards are still on the menu too, and we tried a mix of them all this past Monday night.
The half-dozen oysters we ordered were smaller than many of the bivalves I've seen this season, but I thought that they would have made a good argument for the Gulf specimens my East and West Coast friends normally find so repellent. Not only were they more "appropriately" sized for those tastes, they were brinier and less buttery than the voluptuous, three-bite oysters that make my friends gag so. I washed them down with a lovely glass of wine, a Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend with a honey sweetness cut by astringent notes of grapefruit.
My dining companion that night went full-tilt Cajun and ordered the gumbo, crawfish etouffee and fried crawfish tails. While the gumbo was a little thin and too heavy on the file for me, I couldn't find fault with the crawfish in either iteration. The little puffs of crawfish tails were fried so lightly and in such a pleasantly thin batter that the sweetness of the meat still came through. And although my friend found the etouffee too subtle, I liked the softness of the buttery blond roux.
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Equally enchanting to me was the incongruous nautical decor, which looks leftover from a Joe's Crab Shack remodel, set against an otherwise calm and elegant dining room. The service and food are on par with far more expensive restaurants, yet there's still a touch of the curiously whimsical to be found here.
More than anything, I loved being reminded that the homegrown fusion cuisines found at flashier, newer restaurants such as Underbelly, Roost or Eatsie Boys has also been brewing organically in quieter places like Joyce's for many years, where you can find Gulf Coast, Cajun, Mexican and Tex-Mex all ebbing and flowing together as one.