In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike's steamroll across the Bolivar Peninsula, before-and-after aerial photos of beach communities like Caplen and Gilchrist became iconic images of the hurricane's devastating power.
The before pictures show verdant blocks of raised-on-posts beach houses; the after pictures reveal a muddy wasteland of concrete slabs and wooden posts where the whole of the house has been cleanly sheared off and its remnants carried inland as far as Winnie and Anahuac.
For those of us who grew up in Southeast Texas and spent lazy summers on Bolivar, the devastation was particularly distressing. Bolivar is inextricably linked to our youth and the rites of passage that went with it. For many of us, summers on Bolivar represented many "firsts" -- our first time driving a car, our first drink, our first kiss, our first, well...you know.
Another first, especially as youngsters, was a steady diet of Gulf Coast seafood. Big vessels of shrimp boiling on the deck, a pot of gumbo simmering in the kitchen, a saltwater catfish caught earlier in the day at Rollover Pass grilling on the fire. And on Saturday nights we'd all take a shower, put on our best shorts and Hawaiian print shirts, slather moisturizer on to our sunburnt necks, noses and shoulders, pile in to the back of a pickup truck, and drive down to the center of seafood and social life on the peninsula -- Stingaree Marina and Restaurant.
Located on the Intracoastal Waterway on the bay side of Bolivar, the Stingaree is famous for many things: the beautiful sunsets seen from its deck, the giant tug boats and barges that pass within feet of its windows, Mr. Beasley, and barbecue crabs (seasonal). A full selection of Gulf Coast seafood rounds out the restaurant's menu -- fried catfish, shrimp and oysters, Red Snapper Ponchartrain, Crabmeat Au Gratin, etouffee and gumbo.
And during the winter months the Stingaree has one of the best seasonal dishes you'll find anywhere on the Gulf Coast: Oyster Jubilee.
The Oyster Jubilee (as its name suggests) is a celebration of everything oyster. A colossal dish of over 30 oysters prepared in every conceivable way. Note that the dish is meant to be shared by two people. On a recent visit to Bolivar I found myself dining alone at the Stingaree. Comfortable and practical menu choices abounded -- barbecue crabs had just appeared on the menu, and reasonable portions of gumbo and fried catfish are always an option.
On the other hand I knew this was probably the last chance I'd get to partake of the glorious Oyster Jubilee (oyster season traditionally ends in April). But who would I share it with? No one. Sharing is for sissies -- I ate the whole thing myself.
I started things off with a tall, frosty mug of the Stingaree's signature cocktail: the Stingarita. I can never get anyone to tell me what's in it, but I think it's just a really good margarita with a kicked-up name.
Round 1 of Oyster Jubilee is a half dozen Galveston Bay oysters on the half shell, oyster gumbo, and creamy cole slaw. These oysters were definitely from the tail end of the season, not too big, but still tasty and not too briny. The oyster gumbo was a dark roux, filé style gumbo. Delicious.
Round 2 is oysters baked three ways: Rockefeller (the classic, topped with spinach, herbs, bread crumbs, butter), Bienville (herbs, breadcrumbs, butter, cheese), and José (a Stingaree special, topped with pico de gallo and monterrey jack cheese). The dish contains two servings of each preparation, with each serving containing two plump oysters.
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Round 3 is oysters prepared three ways: deep fried, grilled, and charbroiled. Each preparation contains four to five oysters. A generous portion of tartar sauce is served on the side. The fried oysters are, of course, a Gulf Coast staple. The French grilled oysters are dusted with flour and sautéed in lemon and butter on a flat grill. The skewered charbroiled oysters have a smoky, meaty flavor.
By the time I'd polished off the final charbroiled oyster, the sun had set and only three or four tables remained. At one of those tables sat the restaurant owners -- Jim Vratis and his son Brad. It's always a good sign to visit a restaurant and at the end of the night see the owners eating off their own menu. I settled up at my table and headed for the bar for a nightcap. Brad walked by and I introduced myself. Turns out both of our families are originally from Beaumont. We sat and talked past closing time about visiting and growing up on Bolivar, Gulf Coast seafood, and the future of Bolivar.
Turns out that hope for the Bolivar Peninsula is high and rising.
Stingaree Marina and Restaurant
1295 Stingaree Rd
Crystal Beach, TX 77650
Wed-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m.-7 p.m.