Southern coastal restaurant brings out the island’s inner Creole
On the miniature cutting board before me, cornmeal-crusted oysters spill over slabs of Texas toast, revealing lacy leaves of arugula and a deep red tomato so juicy it must have just been sliced. I try to be graceful about getting my mouth around the towering heap for a bite, but it’s no use — I realize the toothpick pierced through the top is really just for show as the back opens up and thick-cut bacon pieces shower onto my lap.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t bring a date; this is a mess,” I joke to Cheta, the bar manager, as I try to scoop everything back into place for another bite. It’s true — the Oyster BLT at Harborside Mercantile is an absolute mess to eat, but a rapturous one. The sweet Gulf oysters are fried so perfectly crunchy, I nick the roof of my mouth in my excited chomping and happily clean my cutting board anyway.
Houston’s “Godfather of Burgers,” Ricky Craig, originally came to the island as a second-home getaway to escape the chaos of running three-going-on-four locations of his well-loved Hubcap Grill. He relaxed into the trafficless streets, chill atmosphere and sea breeze for about six months before the restaurateur bug bit again.
“I just loved walking down The Strand, the historic New Orleans vibes of the buildings, and after talking to a bunch of the restaurants, I thought, it’d be nice to do more than burgers,” Craig said.
Riffing off his New Orleans inspiration, Craig’s initial idea was to do a po’boy shop. His father, an integral part of his family-based business and an island native himself, scouted out the location on the east end of The Strand. The 1849-built building has an open-style layout with a courtyard in the middle, which allows Harborside to occupy one side while sharing the space with jewelry store Mysticatz and Bomdiggidy Glass Gallery on the other.
Natural light pours through the tall glass windows, and glimpses of the palms in the courtyard lend a lively complement to the hardwood beamed ceilings and ornate cornice, stained concrete floor, steel overturned-bucket lampshades and crystal chandeliers.
Once it all came together, Craig looked around and said: “This is too pretty for sandwiches.”
The “Southern coastal food” concept that emerged instead is an unassuming blend of Creole and Deep South cuisine, featuring Smoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo, po’boys and muffuletta along with shrimp and grits, collard greens and fresh-caught local fish with seasonal veggies and cane vinaigrette, to name a few.
On my first trip to the new spot, my family came along to celebrate my birthday. We started with a sampling of the appetizers — the Creole-style head-on BBQ Shrimp is a standout, served with charred lemons and a house-made rosemary Worcestershire. The Smoked Fish Onion Dip is everything a Jewish gal raised on whitefish salad could hope for — creamy and smooth, with just enough chunk and bright pops of dill. My little brother and sister were more interested in the thick-cut, fresh-fried potato chips that came alongside, served in a cute little miniature fryer lined with checkered paper. The Crispy Gulf Oysters, served tapas-style, disappeared quickly — but next time I’ll hold the blue cheese, which didn’t quite do it for me.
My little brother, whose appetite precedes him, loved the pecan-smoked sticky ribs with cane barbecue sauce, as was evidenced by his heavily stained face and fingers. He left behind the pickled watermelon rind, sweet, sour and lightly crunchy, which I dutifully helped him with.
My favorite part of the rich, cross-culture fusion of tomatillo sauce and queso fresco served over Creole-seasoned crawfish enchiladas was the char on the pico de gallo, which typically comes raw. You’ve got to get a bite of fresh cilantro in there to balance all those big, heavy flavors.
The best entrée on the table had to be the red snapper from Katie’s Seafood, simply pan-seared without flipping for a perfect crust and served over a confit fennel purée. It was my dad’s second time ordering it — the first, the roasted carrots were so caramelized and sweet he and my stepmom couldn’t figure out what they were.
Like the Mason jar tea lights on the table, the presentation at Harborside Mercantile is simple and nostalgic. The hot chocolate chip cookies came out with school-lunch style cardboard milk cartons, and my birthday banana split seemed to make the whole room stop with a lit sparkler on top, crackling and spitting sparks. The effect is enough that after serving it that way once for a birthday, Craig declared, “Every banana split deserves a sparkler!”
It was probably the best I’ve ever had. Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream from Hey Mikey’s (2120 Postoffice St. in the island’s downtown) drizzled with all of the usual fixings, along with the unusual addition of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, a touch from former chef Allen Duhon.
While the Harborside Mercantile menu is a home run, Craig has had more than his share of false starts with staffing. Josh Martinez of the now defunct Chicken Ranch, and Duhon didn’t make it too far past opening. So, Craig is down to running the whole show hands-on, with a little help from Cheta and a kitchen lead. If you happen to stop by on a day when the regular hours have shifted, make sure to return — it’s one of the best meals you’ll find on the island.
2021 Strand, Galveston