Diverse dining scene on Texas Coast offers a world tour of Gulf seafood
People from around the world call the upper Texas Coast home, bringing with them cultural influences and culinary traditions. Most gravitate to the area for the sea breeze, beach front and fishing they recognize from their homelands. We’re especially lucky in these parts for the wide array of coastal cuisines.
Here are just some of the cultures cooking up traditional dishes, often with a Texas Gulf Coast twist.
Galveston resident Geraldo Schaun grew up in the port city of Salvador, Brazil, the capital of Bahia. Salvador, nearly 500 years old, is one of the oldest cities in the Americas.
“Salvador was a main port for slave trade around the world, so there’s a very strong African culture there, especially in the foods,” Schaun said.
Schaun describes the preparation of caruru, an okra stew, as a ceremonial process in reverence to the Catholic twin saints Cosme and Damião, typically honored on Sept. 27.
“The okra must be cut in a specific way, not in rings, but crossed and then cut,” Schaun said. “The cook cannot try the food during the cooking process, and cannot put salt in when it is given to the gods,” he said. “The first two little plates are placed on an altar for the saints. Then you go to the streets and find seven kids and put a big plate in the center of the ground for them to sit around and eat with their hands.”
Interestingly, the caruru ritual has strong roots in West Africa. Enslaved Africans likely continued their outlawed religious practices discreetly by adopting the Catholic icons available to them.
The Brazilian dish Schaun prepares includes ginger, peanuts, acacia nuts, garlic, onion, cilantro, olive oil and coconut milk. In Brazil, it’s traditionally prepared with dried shrimp, but many recipes can be found using fresh shrimp.
Miguel Lopez, whose family owns Apache Mexican Cuisine in downtown Galveston, grew up inland in Guanajuato, Mexico, but spent a lot of time on the island of Cozumel in the Caribbean Sea. One of his most popular dishes is shrimp “fajitas,” which he serves along with the beef and chicken variety. The word “fajita” refers to a particular cut of beef. Neither chicken nor shrimp is actual fajitas, but shrimp is an especially coastal version.
Because shrimp cooks so quickly, Lopez starts the bell pepper and onion cooking first and adds tomato at the end. By the time everything is finished, the flavors and spices have had a lot more time to mingle than with beef or chicken fajitas.
Lopez also uses shrimp to stuff chile rellenos, a recipe he created using inspiration from a restaurant in his hometown. He sautés deveined shrimp with cilantro and onion and mixes them with cream cheese, breadcrumbs, roasted tomato sauce, garlic and spices. The stuffing fills a roasted — but not battered — poblano pepper covered in ranchero sauce and asadero, a white, Mexican cheese.
“It’s made as fresh as possible,” said Lopez, who sources all the fish and shrimp he’s able to from island seafood markets Katie’s and Sampson & Sons.
His ceviche, a coastal dish found in many different cultures, made of raw seafood “cooked” by marinating in citrus juice, is an interesting hybrid with the also popular coctele, or shrimp cocktail.
Lopez marinates shrimp and tilapia in lemon juice instead of the typical lime, which he says makes a big difference in the flavor; gentler and not as sour. He then mixes them with a lemon/lime juice combination and a splash of ketchup and serves it with cubes of avocado.
Besides what’s on the menu, Lopez also creates dishes such as local flounder tacos for Lent, lightly breaded with a special seasoning and served with chipotle mayonnaise, lettuce and caramelized onions.
Salsas Mexican Restaurant in Galveston has added seafood nachos to the menu, a coastal spin on an old favorite.
“We try to keep plenty of seafood on the menu because people tend to come to the island for it,” owner Frank Diaz said.
Inspired by a customer’s special request, the seafood nachos are prepared with grilled shrimp and crawfish, chives, tomato and Salsas’ special seafood sauce.
Along with several fish dishes, Salsas also serves shrimp stuffed jalapeños, ceviche and cocteles.
La Brisa Mexican Restaurant in League City has an extensive seafood menu, including shrimp enchiladas and several fish dishes named after various coastal locales in Mexico. The Huatulco, for instance, features either yellow fin tuna or red snapper topped with Texas Gulf shrimp and sautéed vegetables in a creamy cilantro sauce.
La Brisa also serves shrimp fajitas, and a tropical shrimp cocktail with local shrimp, pico de gallo, mango and citrus-tomato sauce.
The Spanish word for snapper is “pargo,” and at Rudy & Paco in Galveston, you’ll find it served in many styles, including the especially South American Filete de Pargo Simpatico, in which a red snapper fillet is encrusted with crunchy fried green plantain and served over raspberry chipotle sauce with lump crab meat on top.
“When you use plantain for the crust, it adds a crispy texture but doesn’t impart any change or take away from the flavor of the fish, which is important when you’re working with a fish like snapper,” manager Juan Vargas said.
The K.T. Delicias del Mar appetizer at Rudy & Paco is a cold seafood sampler featuring red snapper Ceviche Corinto, along with an avocado topped with lump crab meat and rémoulade and a beefsteak tomato topped with boiled shrimp and raspberry chipotle.
Rudy & Paco also sources its fish locally.
Vietnamese restaurants are popular in Galveston, where you’ll find several options for pho — Pho Tai, Pho 18 and Pho 20 all offer a seafood pho, which usually includes shrimp, squid and imitation crab.
At Pho 20, owner Tommy Ngo also offers skewered shrimp, among other items.
California native Andy Nguyen said many people have thanked him for bringing authentic Vietnamese food to the outer Houston “’burbs.” Nguyen and his family are behind Nobi Public House in Webster and Nobi Asian Grill in Friendswood, which were some of the first Vietnamese restaurants in the area. Nguyen attributes their success to a growing national curiosity about ethnic foods not typically available in grocery stores.
Nobi has a shrimp bánh mì on its sandwich menu, an interesting cross between the popular Vietnamese sandwich served on French bread — typically with pork belly or grilled pork and pâté — and a Cajun po’boy.
“We use banana flour to batter the shrimp, which is used in Vietnamese kitchens a lot; it’s like our version of tempura,” Nguyen said.
The fried shrimp is then paired with all of the typical bánh mì ingredients: buttered bread, pickled onion and daikon radish, cilantro, jalapeño and cucumber. And garlic aioli just goes so well with the sandwich, Nguyen said.
“It’s traditionally not something you can find at a Vietnamese sandwich shop, but I knew I needed to do something as far as seafood to add to the sandwich menu, and battered shrimp is very popular in Vietnamese kitchens,” he said.
Nobi has seen such a spike in popularity, it’s expanding the Asian Grill in Friendswood into the space next door.
Sicily is the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea. As Italian immigration to Texas swelled in the late 1880s through the 1920s, Sicilians largely settled in Galveston County, perhaps the source of some of our olive trees.
Brothers Nunzio and Rosario Incorvaia arrived in Galveston in the 1970s and owned The Godfather and Nunzio’s Pizzeria, before a few years ago opening Sapori Ristorante on the island’s West End.
The menu features a number of seafood pasta dishes, including Gamberi Alla Marinara or Panna — shrimp in a marinara or cream sauce — and Sapori Di Mare, seafood spaghetti in a white wine broth.
Although the Mediterranean Sea and Texas Gulf are very different, the seafood traditions the family brings from Sicily translate well to the types of fish and flavors available here, said Silvia Incorvaia, who is married to Nunzio.
She shared this family history about Sapori’s fisherman’s stew served over spaghetti — Zuppa del Pescatore:
“The tradition started in the late 1900s,” she said. “Our grandfather owned a fishing boat that transported goods between Sicily and Northern Italy. The variety of seafood caught that day was used to make a soup. The Zuppa del Pescatore served at Sapori is an homage to his memory and our history. In this dish, there are shrimp, mussels, clams and fish in a marinara broth served with spaghetti.”
It isn’t too hard to see why the Cajun culture and cuisine fit right in on the island. Many visitors to Galveston remark that the historic buildings, racial diversity and friendly, quirky Southern vibe remind them of New Orleans.
Leo and Susan Marcantel loved vacationing in Galveston so much they decided to move their smoked meat market, Leo’s Cajun Corner, to the island. The Marcantels’ authentic Louisiana recipes have been passed down for four generations, and they make their sausages, boudin, seafood gumbo and crispy fried crabcakes from fresh ingredients.
Meanwhile, The Cajun Greek on 61st Street has an interesting history blending two of Galveston’s coastal cultures. The Cajun Greek was born after Sonny Martini sold his original Seafood Depot to a half-Greek, half-American fellow known affectionately as “The Cajun Greek,” who used his knowledge of Greek and Cajun seafood to create a hybrid menu that features such fare as a catfish and oyster po’boy, gyros, Cajun snapper, fried and boiled crab claws, crawfish mac and cheese and a whole flounder plate.
Larry Kriticos and his brother Tikie own Greek restaurants Olympia The Grill at Pier 21 and another on Seawall Boulevard. They grew up on the island, but often visit family in Greece. Greek food works well in Galveston, Larry Kriticos said.
“Greece is a very coastal country, the major diet is seafood, so we grew up that way,” Kriticos said. “It’s made up of some 4,500 islands … Galveston is an island. So it was an easy fit.”
Olympia restaurants try to stay true to the Mediterranean diet, cooking most of the seafood dishes with olive oil instead of butter or other oils.
Along with chicken, sliced pork, vegetarian and the traditional lamb gyro meat, Olympia offers a falafel pita and a shrimp pita, the latter of which Kriticos says he invented with his brother.
“The shrimp are grilled in olive oil with a pinch of salt and white pepper — which is easier to digest than black pepper — garlic and a spritz of lemon juice,” Kriticos said. “You put them in a warm pita with a little feta cheese, tzatziki, lettuce and tomato.”
Olympia also offers “Greek Boy” sandwiches, their spin on the Cajun Po’boy, which come with fried fish, fried shrimp, crab balls, or a combo. The restaurants serve Texas Gulf shrimp grilled, baked and stuffed, or in a cocktail.
A lot of the marine life available in the Texas Gulf is similar to what’s native to Greece, he said.
“The Gulf of Mexico is warmer than any other place in the world, but the Mediterranean is not a very cold ocean,” he said. “The water temperature here is similar, so a lot of the seafood is similar.”