Restaurant Reviews

Gators and Gumbo

The first thing you notice about the chicken and sausage gumbo at Al-T's Seafood & Steakhouse is the thin sheen of rich liquid fat that coats the surface. That's usually a tell-tale sign of a flavorful gumbo. Then your eyes take in the generous chunks of chicken and plump andouille sausage that crest just above the surface. You can smell the gumbo too — the deep smokiness of the milk chocolate-colored soup combined with the tangy earthiness of the ever-­present filé powder. For anyone who loves Cajun food, it's a mouthwatering sensory experience. And you haven't even tasted it yet.

Flavor-wise, this isn't a quiet, light-roux, okra-based gumbo of Creole origins. This is a full-throated, dark-roux gumbo of Tex-Cajun descent, rooted in Southeast Texas, that assails the palate with a flood of spices, salt and fat. But mostly, delicious fat. The chicken and sausage are stewed for what must be hours until they surrender their fat and spices into the gumbo soup. What's left literally falls apart when touched with a spoon. I have spent many years sampling gumbo from all over Southeast Texas, and Al-T's makes some of the best chicken and sausage gumbo I've ever tasted.

Al-T's is located in Winnie, Texas, an hour east of Houston, where Interstate 10 bends north towards Beaumont. Traditionally populated by generations of rice-farming families, Winnie also gets a seasonal population of farmworkers as well as itinerant roughnecks who work the stripper wells of a local oil industry that peaked many years ago.

It's a colorful place, and Al-T's sits at the center of Winnie society, such as it is. Lunch on a recent Saturday brings local families talking among themselves, catching up with local news and gossip. In the fall, a corner table is commanded by local patriarchs armchair-quarterbacking last night's high school football game over two Cajun cuppas, one filled with black coffee and the other with gumbo. And that quarterback they're not-so-gently maligning may be within earshot — some of the staff at Al-T's come from the local East Chambers High School. The walls are adorned with stuffed alligators wrapped in Mardi Gras beads and framed alligator skins measuring ten feet long.

Like at other Tex-Cajun joints, the menu at Al-T's is heavy on the fried stuff — shrimp, oysters, alligator and frogs' legs, to name a few. But what Al-T's is mainly known for is the fried catfish that's a staple of this region. Although the catfish-farming operations that supply most of the seafood restaurants in Southeast Texas have moved east to Louisiana and Mississippi, the catfish at Al-T's is always unfailingly fresh and, in my opinion, indistinguishable from the wild catfish that can still be caught in limited numbers in the surrounding bayous and lakes.

The best way to sample the menu at Al-T's is to order the Al-T's Special. It's a huge seafood platter encompassing many of the restaurant's specialties, including fried foods, gumbos, étouffée and boudin.

The first course is a triumvirate of Tex-Cajun specialties — a cup each of chicken and sausage gumbo, shrimp gumbo and red beans and rice. As good as the chicken and sausage gumbo is, the shrimp gumbo disappoints. The gumbo soup itself is bland, lacking the spices and depth of flavor of the chicken and sausage version. And the long simmer that tenderizes the latter is actually a negative for the shrimp gumbo — the shrimp is mushy and lacks the bite that properly cooked shrimp demands. Tossing in some filé powder or crushed-up crackers will add much-needed texture to this gumbo, but even a few shots of hot sauce can't help the blandness.

The second course is a medley of fried seafood — catfish, shrimp, oysters, alligator, frogs' legs and stuffed crab. The first thing you notice is the breading. The traditional breading on Cajun fried food is a gritty, coarse corn meal. Perfectly acceptable. But Al-T's breading has a much finer consistency created by a combination of cornmeal and masa-like corn flour. It is subtle and refined in both texture and flavor — a great foundation for Al-T's diverse fried seafood dishes.

There are hits and misses with the fried dishes. The alligator, frogs' legs and oysters are all serviceable, if similar-tasting after the frying preparation. The stuffed crab, usually a specialty of Tex-Cajun joints, is surprisingly flavorless, with a filling that my dining companion compares to "bad Stove Top stuffing." The expected chunks of lump crabmeat are missing in action.

The best dish of the Al-T's Special, and possibly of the entire menu, is the fried catfish. The refined corn breading that clings to the filets perfectly complements the mellow flavor that is the hallmark of good, fresh catfish. Inquiries as to the source of the catfish were met with puzzled looks, and answers ranged from "It's local" to "Maybe Sysco." In any case, every time I've visited Al-T's, the catfish has been expertly prepared — crisp and nongreasy on the outside; flaky, steaming and moist on the inside.

Topping off the whole platter is a giant boudin sausage. Twelve inches long, it's made in-house and does not disappoint. A crisp, snappy casing gives way to a moist filling of rice, herbs, spices and flecks of meat. It's a big Tex-Cajun exclamation point to the all-encompassing Al-T's Special.

There's a vaguely take-it-or-leave-it quality to both the food at Al-T's and the people of Winnie and the surrounding areas — either you love them or you don't, and if you don't, well, don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out. At first this attitude may appear dismissive and uncaring, but it's really the exact opposite — Al-T's will celebrate 25 years in business this year and is understandably proud of the food and service it provides to locals and visitors alike. The staff is always friendly and welcoming, but a complaint from an outsider that the food is too bland or too spicy will undoubtedly yield a polite nod and smile, but probably not much more.

This spirit of independence and irreverence is best exemplified in what many consider to be Al-T's signature dish — the Dirty Herbie. Named after the restaurant's founder, Herbert Thibodeaux, it's a riotous mishmash of all that is wonderful and good in Al-T's interpretation of Tex-Cajun cooking — a thick bedding of fragrant dirty rice smothered in a creamy layer of shrimp or crawfish étouffée, crowned by cooked-to-order chunks of marinated rib-eye steak.

It's a dish of decadent layers in both texture and flavor (not to mention culture). The whole thing is kicked up with a dusting of chile powder somewhere in one of the layers. And to top it all off, the salty/fatty juices from the rib-eye steak conveniently drench the lot of it.

If you're still hungry, then Al-T's has a full selection of homemade pies. The pecan pie is as sweet and fresh as any you'll find in a cafe in pecan-laden central Texas. A unique addition to the menu is the "Mystery Pecan Pie," which is a traditional pecan pie with a layer of cream cheese thrown in for good measure. It's a decadent fusion of pecan pie and cheesecake.

I asked our server who makes the pies. "They're made by a lady in Winnie," she replied, with a nod and a smile. I fished deeper and asked again, wanting to know how I could get a whole pie in case I needed one on the way to a family event in Beaumont or the beach at Bolivar. "They're made by a lady in Winnie," she repeated politely, as if protecting a closely guarded trade secret. She volunteered that if I needed a whole pie, I could always call ahead to Al-T's and one would be waiting for me.

And that, in a nutshell, exemplifies the visitor's experience at Al-T's in Winnie. You'll be welcomed with open arms, treated like family and served good food, but it's best not to ask too many questions. The secrets of Al-T's 25 years of success will stay in Winnie, and as an outsider, you're strictly on a need-to-know basis.

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J.C. Reid
Contact: J.C. Reid