Ninety-nine-cent shrimp cocktails are the happy-hour special at Tom's Backyard. The shrimp are tiny, but they aren't canned, and they aren't slimy with preservatives either. T-Bone Tom's buys its shrimp fresh at the seafood stores of Old Seabrook near the shrimp boat docks. The shrimp cocktail is little more than a lot of small shrimp in a parfait glass with ketchup and hot sauce. You can't compare it to the seafood cocteles at Tampico or the campechana at Goode Company Seafood. But then again, at around a tenth of the price, you can't complain either.
The wooden deck at T-Bone Tom's is called Tom's Backyard, and it's bigger than both of the restaurant's other two dining rooms combined. The deck is built around a cluster of trees, so there's lots of tables in the shade. The building that houses the bar and the pool table has a slightly rusty corrugated metal roof. It opens to the outside by means of several garage doors. The television sets are mounted on tree trunks. There is live music seven nights a week, and the bands are a lot of fun.
I usually associate Kemah with the row of Landry's Group chain restaurants with carnival rides around them that forms Tilman Fertitta's corporate version of a seaside boardwalk. Judging by the crowds, the Kemah Boardwalk is extremely successful. People tell me that before Fertitta came along, Kemah was a funky shrimping village with its own wacky appeal.
Lately, I have started to discover the spirit of old Kemah. First, I hit the seafood stores across the canal from the boardwalk in Old Seabrook, where T-Bone Tom's and lots of other restaurants buy their fish. And while I was there, I noticed several other seafood restaurants I want to visit. I imagine that this is what Kemah used to look like.
Last month, while researching chicken-fried steaks [see "I Love CFS," June 21], I visited T-Bone Tom's for the first time.
"T-Bone" Tom Fitzmorris inherited a Kemah meat market from his father, who passed away in 1982. Like many Texas meat markets, the place smoked their own homemade sausage, along with ribs and brisket, and sold barbecue sandwiches on the side.
In the early 1980s, during the building of the Kemah-Seabrook bridge, the butcher shop was overrun with hoards of hungry construction workers looking for lunch. So the business, which was simply known as "the meat market," changed its name to T-Bone Tom's and started serving plate lunches, steaks and seafood. It eventually became one of the most popular restaurants in the area.
The front room at T-Bone Tom's looks like somebody put a bunch of tables in a butcher shop, which is essentially what happened. There's a glass display case full of steaks and chops. Signs high on the back wall advertise family packs for your home freezer. Another dining room off to the side has a mural on the wall that memorializes the meat market's founder.
The chicken-fried steak at T-Bone Tom's is legendary. Counting the thick batter, it's an inch high, and it's covered with cream gravy so thick and white, it resembles the icing on a cake. When you order a large, you get two patties. The meat is surprisingly tender, considering the thickness; it's made from cube steaks that are cut and tenderized right there in the butcher shop.
For sides, I sampled the chunky mashed potatoes and the green beans, which are cooked with bacon fat and then doused with butter. They also have spinach, fried okra, grilled tomatoes, corn and onion rings.
There are five kinds of potatoes on the list of sides. While the mashed potatoes go best with the cream gravy, you might also try the grilled potatoes with the gravy. If you're going for barbecue, you may want the potato salad made with lots of pickle relish. The hamburger comes with the big chunky steak fries, but there's also seasoned curly fries available.
The hamburger was the best thing on the menu. The meat is ground fresh daily on the premises and formed into a distinctive square patty. You get your choice of a quarter pound or half pound cooked to order.
I sampled the half-pound version cooked medium rare with the customary lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mayo and mustard on a toasted bun. It was a terrific burger. Customized versions include a cheeseburger, a jalapeño burger, a mushroom Swiss burger and a bacon Swiss burger. The menu also features a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions that has got to be heavenly with the fresh ground beef.
The barbecue is uneven. The best bet in this category is the house-made German-style sausage. It's made with coarsely ground meat and plenty of seasonings and is available on a plate or in a sandwich. The brisket I sampled was too moist, with not much smoke in the aroma. The huge ribs were cut from a tough oversize slab instead of a small tender one.
T-Bone Tom's calls itself a steak house, but the steaks aren't in the same league with the USDA Prime stuff you get in downtown steak houses. T-Bone Tom's steaks are cut from USDA Choice beef, which puts them on a par with the ones at the Saltgrass Steakhouse on the boardwalk. Both restaurants charge $20 for a 12-ounce rib eye.
I sampled something the menu calls "Tom's Choice," which is a marinated rib eye. It was a half-inch thick, very tender and full-flavored. Like most rib eyes, it had a fair amount of gristle. I am guessing there was some soy sauce in the marinade. I ate it outside on the deck with a cold beer and steak fries. The fresh air and charcoal smoke aroma reminded me of cookouts in the backyard long ago.
Now granted, a USDA Prime steak and a glass of fine wine in a plush steak house is a pleasure of a higher order. But that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a juicy cookout steak on a Styrofoam plate with a cold beer down by the sea every now and then. And besides, when was the last time you got to listen to the swampy blues of Tom "Big Daddy Gumbo" Dardar at a downtown steak house?
It really doesn't matter whether you eat a steak, one of the excellent hamburgers or the classic chicken-fried steak. The real reason to go to T-Bone Tom's is to help keep the wild spirit of old Kemah alive.