People are going to have to start thinking of Ricky Craig as a restaurateur, not just as Houston’s famous burger man.
His new endeavor, Harborside Mercantile in Galveston, the first restaurant that is not an expansion of nationally-renowned burger chain Hubcap Grill, is now open. The restaurant is at 2021 Strand near the harbor, just a few blocks from where giant cruise ships anchor.
Do show up hungry, because chef Allen Duhon’s Creole- and Gulf seafood-focused menu is every bit equal to the drop-dead gorgeous setting. (The initial general manager, Joshua Martinez of The Modular food truck and defunct The Chicken Ranch, is no longer involved.)
Craig is a famously hands-on owner and already has three Hubcap Grill locations in downtown, The Heights and Kemah and another on the way at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Now there’s Harborside Mercantile, and in order to manage them all, Craig alternates where he spends the night, driving from The Heights to Galveston one day and then turning around and trekking the other direction the next. (Can someone please install a bullet train for Mr. Craig?) Why would he add an ambitious Galveston restaurant to an already-crammed schedule?
“One of the main reasons is I wanted to see if I could do something besides burgers and do a concept that Galveston needs—not only Galveston, but Houston as well," he explained. "I got a second residence in Galveston and this was where I’d get away on the weekends, to get away from the crazy business with the Hubcap Grills and the city life in Houston. Well, after being on the island for six months, I just fell in love with the history and architecture of Galveston. I told my dad, ‘I’d love to have a little place down here.’”
His “little place,” all done up with crystal chandeliers, solid wood cornices and tall, glass windows that let in a lot of light, has a whole lot of history to it. According to Daryl Olson, who owns the building along with his wife, Diane, it was built in 1894 by wealthy Galveston businessman John (“J.D.”) Rogers. Half the building was wholesale feed. The other half was wholesale liquor.
It caught fire and was severely damaged after the great Galveston hurricane of 1900. (Hurricanes didn’t get people-names until 1950.) The damage was repaired and in the early 1980s there was a complete restoration. There’s still a tiny remainder of the fire in 1900. “I could show you in the crawl spaces in the attic where there’s still evidence of char,” said Olson. The building passed through a few different owners and was several different types of businesses through the decades before Harborside Mercantile. Fun fact: the building is widely considered haunted by ghost hunters.
As far as what can be seen though, nothing more than exquisite seafood dishes and other delicacies are haunting the new place. Based on a first look at the food, diners are going to fall in love repeatedly with the dishes that Duhon is as familiar with as the back of his own hand. These are simply part of his heritage. Take, for example, the luxurious Smoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo. "It’s based on how my grandma and dad told me how to make gumbo. You can add a little hot sauce to brighten it up," said Duhon, "but don't tell my dad that, though."
Then, there’s the remarkable Creole-style, head-on barbecued Gulf shrimp in an addictive sauce with shrimp stock, garlic, shallots, butter, black pepper and some house made Worcestershire sauce Duhon learned from his former boss, chef Randy Evans formerly of Brennan’s of Houston and Haven. Charred lemons and crusty garlic bread are served on the side. The bread is important, for diners will want to mop up every drop of sauce after the shrimp are gone.
The crustaceans are huge and the staff is keeping where they come from a secret, because then they’d have a lot of competition for the product. “These just came in today,” said Craig. “Today? These came in 30 minutes ago!” said Duhon in mock protest. “You’ve got to suck the heads. You’re going to freak out,” promised Craig. “They taste of seawater.” They do, if the salt water was made into a hot, buttery, spicy broth.
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Right out of the gate, it’s impossible to compare the dishes and say one is superior to the other. It’s a matter of mood and taste. How could we discount the traditional (and huge) muffaletta, with the toasty, lighter-than-air bread, filled with provolone, mortadella and ham and lightly dressed with Duke's Mayonnaise? There’s cornmeal-crusted catfish, oysters, dirty rice with smoked duck stock, ground chicken hearts, turkey neck meat and chicken livers.
Harborside Mercantile is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. On Mondays, Craig says they’re “closed. Gone fishing.”
Houstonians, if you’ve been considering making a road trip to Galveston, now is the time.
As for Galvestonians: this is a good era of dining for you, you lucky, lucky people.