By Jesse Griffiths
Photography by Marla Camp
By Jesse Griffiths
There’s nothing better than a special eatery that reflects the soul of a place—from the soba stands of Japan, to Basque cider houses, to hillside ceviche counters in Costa Rica. The food at these humble locations says as much about local agriculture and environment as it does about the regular diners. But these days, in these parts, such places are few and far between. I blame it on our feeble collective memory of what our own food actually is.
I found the unexpected exception to this rule about four hours southeast of Austin, in the very sleepy town of Port O’Connor. The town is sleepy for one reason only: everybody wakes up at three a.m. to go fishing. If you arrive here without fishing poles, locals assume you’re lost, or maybe a birdwatcher.
Port O’Connor is practically surrounded by water—Matagorda and Espiritu Santo Bays, as well as numerous marshes and bayous—all teeming with redfish, trout and flounder. These are the three reasons my father and I traveled to this lonely section of the Texas coast a few years ago. We were taken not just with the quiet beauty of the bays, but with the food at a very nondescript restaurant known as Carmine’s Cajun Kitchen.
We hadn’t exactly been inundated with eating choices. Port O’Connor has only about a half-dozen restaurants, three of which are usually closed for some mysterious reason—or because their owners are gone, as in gone fishin’.
After taking a pass on a Mexican buffet, we settled on Carmine’s because of the inviting “BYOB” sign out front. We knew we had chosen well when we were warmly greeted by Carmine herself, whom I would soon come to know as a genuine and generous person, proud of her kitchen skills and pleased to share food and conversation with all who walked through her screen door. Her stained apron spoke of hard, hot work on warm nights.
We seated ourselves in a corner of the dimly lit screened-in porch with its requisite nautical decor and “Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico” poster. After employing a well-used, wall-mounted bottle opener, we relaxed at a plastic table adorned with two kinds of hot sauce, cocktail sauce in a squeeze bottle, and plastic tubs destined to collect spent crawfish shells and destroyed paper towels.
Then we ordered fried oysters. We went on to eat a bit of everything during that first meal: peppery oyster stew, boiled crawfish, fried frog legs, catfish and flounder. You could call it a simple dinner, but the care put into its creation was unusually tangible, with seasoning that proved someone was tasting the food, not just heating it. The cornmeal batter on the oysters was perfect—thin and crisp—the oysters themselves sweet, briny, and delivered in a pile that easily exceeded the dozen we’d ordered. Each dish was cooked either by Carmine or her husband Larry, a New Orleans native. Perhaps more importantly, the ingredients of everything we ate came from where we were.
A few hours later, we returned for a second round of dinner! A stranger at the next table offered us some blackened trout that he had caught that day—Carmine will cook your catch—because, he said, he just couldn’t eat anymore. We could, and did.
During later visits to Carmine’s, I learned to love the restaurant’s slow pace and genial service, the endless stream of sunburnt anglers drinking Coors Light and iced tea, and the sight of Carmine and Larry sitting down to a meal of boiled crabs at the end of the night. A background in restaurant work had taught me to appreciate scenes like that.
The relaxed energy of the un-air-conditioned enclosure, the spicy smell of boiled crawfish, the Zydeco issuing from trebly speakers, an ambience fueled by Tecate and Chenin Blanc—all induced a feeling that was profoundly coastal, but not in a Jimmy Buffett way. Coastal Texas may not be far from Louisiana, but it’s still very much its own place. People still smoke in restaurants, everybody seems to drive a Chevy, and croaker and mullet still provide serious baitfish business.
I was a little anxious before my most recent visit to Carmine’s. I was bringing friends, and I hadn’t been in a year. Was it still good?
Yes. The fried oysters were exactly what I remembered; the crab-stuffed flounder was impeccably fresh, salty and redolent of Carmine’s proprietary spice mix. Crisp new potatoes and vinegary cole slaw complemented fried shrimp trawled from the bay one mile away. I fell, again, for an oyster stew swimming in milk and black pepper, and served with sliced French bread and Carmine’s homemade habanero sauce. It made us sweat, and that made us drink beer at an even faster pace. We stayed late.
After the customers left, Carmine sat down to smoke a cigarette with Larry, who turned out to be as generous with fishing tips as he is with oyster portions.
“Try Boggy Bayou,” he suggested. “I got a 14-foot boat I put up there. It’s this deep up the creek,” he said, pointing to his chin. “Got my limit of reds yesterday on live mullet. Left ‘em biting.”
By no means will Carmine’s ever be featured in a glossy travel brochure, let alone have a star rating, but it will always be busy on a Friday night. The mood and menu will change with the seasons, and soon the flounder will make their annual run to the Gulf, the wind-bent oaks will drop their leaves and the Matagorda Bay oysters will be perfect for eating raw, with lemon and a beer. The crowds will thin a bit more, and the gusts will shift to the north. Teal hunters will replace fisherman, and the big trout will move onto the mud flats, basking in as much warmth from the sun as they can absorb, and I’ll be there.
Thankfully, I won’t have to catch anything to eat well.
Carmine's Cajun Kitchen
704 W Adams Ave
Port O Connor, TX