Adventuring in Port A

Along with visiting San Jose Island, my sister, nephew and I ventured beyond the beaches and into Port A last week. One afternoon when the heat index was between 105 and 109 degrees, we opted to stay out of the sun and went into town to check out some Port A history. Visiting the Port Aransas Museum and the Farley Boat Works have been on my to do list for a long time, but it’s hard to convince a pack of teen girls to leave the beach! Happily, my sister and her 10 year old son were more than game, so we went into town. The Port Aransas Museum is open Thursday – Saturday 1:00pm – 5:00pm so unfortunately, we weren’t able to see it this trip. We did make it to the Farley Boat Works (open 8:30 am – 5:00 pm Tuesday – Saturday) and had a great tour by the shop manager, Frank. The Farley Boat Works opened in 1915 and was run by various family members until it closed in 1973. The original Farley Boat was crafted specifically for the tarpon fishing in Port Aransas.  The Farley Boat Works was re-established in 2011 when the site of the last shop was purchased by the Port Aransas Preservation and Historical Association (PAPHA) and is now part of the museum. Boat building classes are taught at FBW and this summer a camp was held for folks 12-21 to build a Surf Rider boat, which is like a cross between a kayak and a paddle board. While we were there, we saw one in mid-progress. Frank talked to us about a 12 year old boy who had recently completed his own boat. My nephew thought that was pretty cool.

Farley Boat Works

Farley Boat Works – antique boat restoration

Frank asked what else we were doing that afternoon and recommended that we head over to The Back Porch. I’d never been there so we thought we’d continue our exploration of Port A for some refreshment at the dock.

The Back Porch Bar

The Back Porch Bar

We were hooked from the moment we got there – what a great location! Right next to the marina and Woody’s Sports Center. The bar is in the middle of a large deck. The deck had plenty of covered seating, so even on this hottest of days, the temperature was great. We sat at a table, had ice cold and delicious virgin Pina Coladas and enjoyed watching the people and the boats.

Hanging out at The Back Porch

Hanging out at The Back Porch

While there I noticed a little window on the side of Woody’s selling food. The Harbour Lights Grill sells awesome nachos (BBQ, grilled chicken, blackened shrimp, etc) among other items. My family is partial to late night nacho runs to Cancun’s Mexican restaurant, but I’m allergic to soy and can’t eat much there because of the oil in the food. I’m happy to report that there’s no soy to be found at this little food joint, so I’m taking the family there next time we are in town. Can’t wait to go back!

Harbor Lights Grill

Harbor Lights Grill

Restaurant Reviews – Beach and Station Street Grill

Beach & Station Street Grill (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

Beach and Station Grill

Beach and Station Grill

Category: Seafood

5/5 Stars
Places near the beach in any tourist town are usually more miss than hit. For me, the keys to building a good place are three:- Know who you are. It’s much better to specialize than to try to be a generalist.  Decide who your customers will be. Let the rest go; there will be plenty of people.
– You want to have a few dishes that you can execute well, even when there are a bunch of people waiting.
– Don’t compromise on quality. Some beach places make the mistake of believing that there will always be customers. If you establish a bad reputation, the tourists can bail you out. But if you establish a great reputation, you’ll take your business into the off season, and that’s the secret between turning an average balance sheet into a good one.So Beach and Station Street. They know who they are. And on a Thursday morning at 11:30, their parking lot was packed. With locals and repeat customers, mostly fishermen. That’s a good sign.They had a signature dish: their gumbo. I didn’t have it, but every single customer was raving about it. I wanted to stay Gluten free, so I stayed away from it because of the flour used for thickening. But the fish I had and the shrimp appetizer broke the two iron clad Beach fare rules:- you must overcook everything so ignorant customers won’t send it back
– you must avoid flavor at all cost so the older customers won’t send it back

I had a shrimp appetizer which was probably the best shrimp I had all week. The entree was a mahi mahi tuna with a shrimp and avocado pico on top. Really, it was more of a tomato relish. Either way, it was absolutely perfectly cooked, with simple and wonderful flavor.

The place isn’t much to look at. But they know who they are. If you want a place with a soul, you have to start with a chef that has a plan. Beach and Station, you have a soul. I’ll be back.

Restaurant Reviews – Beaches Cafe and Bakery

Beaches Cafe and Bakery (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

Beer on Tap

Beer on Tap

118 Beach St
Port Aransas, TX 78373
(361) 749-2271

Categories: CafesBarbequeSeafood

3.5/5 stars
Let me first say that I rate salt water tourist places on a curve. Since there are so many people in the high season and so few at off times, the quality you’ll typically see might not be otherwise present. Good help is harder to find and keep, and you’ve got some market demographics that will steer you to safe food, which usually means beige, cooked on the well-done side, and bland.Enter Beaches. They specialize in BBQ and seafood.First impressions: nice building, clean and well decorated. I was promptly greeted with friendly staff. I have had three dishes there. One was their seafood special. This one was really well prepared. The cod, shrimp, and crab cakes were all perfectly prepared. All had decent seasoning. The only down side of this part of the meal were the condiments. Cocktail sauce and tarter sauce both tasted like they came out of the can, and a bad can at that. It’s so little effort to make your own and control the quality, that I think a place charging north of 15 bucks a plate really should endeavor to try. Mashed and gravy were very good.

The BBQ was also mixed. This place has a little geographic amnesia. You’re from Texas, Beaches! That means brisket, not pork. But the pork ribs were far and away the star of the show. Fall-off-the-bone tender. The brisket was just meh, a little on the dry side. Maybe this would be better on a night where there were more people and enough staff to cut to order. Maybe not, too.

I like the concept of having multiple sauces available, especially for the BBQ joints that are not the best of the best (those don’t need sauce). I tasted three, and they were all nice.

All in all, my Beaches meals were competently executed. I’d feel a little bit better if more of the details were right, and the place had a chef with a plan, rather than a formula.

Beach rules apply. Three and a half stars, with a half-star bump because of the competition. Four stars, and one of the better and more consistent places in Port Aransas.

Restaurant Reviews – Crazy Cajun

Crazy Cajun Seafood Restaurant (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

Yep, the Cajun is no longer hungry.

Yep, the Cajun is no longer hungry.

303 Beach Ave
Port Aransas, TX 78373
(361) 749-5069

Category: Cajun/Creole 

4/5 stars

Beach rules apply with this rating. At beach resort places, you’ll pay more for food that is not seasoned as well, is probably over (cooked/priced), and with service aimed at hurrying you out the door in the peak season, or disinterested in the offseason.That said, the Crazy Cajun is a place that knows who they are. Someone said tourist trap that does seafood boils.Yep.

But they exercise that schtick with some flair. Everyone gets the Hungry Cajun there. They dump it right on the paper-covered table, and give you a wooden hammer to crack the shells. The boil has corn, potatoes, shrimp, sausage, and crab. That’s a pretty cool environment, and one that kids dig, if they are up to braving shrimp and crawfish with the heads on. The seasoning was fine; nothing to complain about. And it was reasonably prepared. It’s hard to screw up a boil.

Stay away from the  remoulade. It tastes like doctored mayo, and probably is. Come for the boil, or don’t come. Expect to pay a little too much, just like other places in Port A.

All in all, it is a place that I would normally avoid, except it is in a beach town so beach rules apply. I’d take the kids so they could eat seafood dumped on the table.

But probably just once.

Restaurant Reviews – Cancun Mexican Restaurant

Cancun Mexican Restaurant (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

1023 State Highway 361
Port Aransas, TX 78373
(361) 749-5596

Category: Mexican

5/5 Stars

We like this place. It’s a no-nonsense cross between more traditional Mexican (with barbecoa and chilliquillis for breakfast) and Tex-mex.It’s not super sexy or dressy, but it’s probably the best you can do for a reasonably priced plate of food in Port Aransas. It’s tradition for my family to get their nachos when we come in late in the evening. We often do breakfast there too. It’s nice to have the more-traditional Mexican breakfasts, with a slice of American. The barbecoa goes great with an over-easy egg, beans, and salsa.I think they have beer and margaritas. Not sure about a full bar.

Good, simple fare for a decent price is hard to find in Port Aransas. Five stars.

Restaurant Reviews – Fish House

Fish House (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

Category: Seafood

2/5 stars
This review continues my week of reviews of places in Port A while I am stuck in town doing beach house maintenance. If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know about the beach rules which grade on the curve.What’s in a location? Well, pretty much everything. In a tourist town like Port A, there are not enough places to eat, so you’re guaranteed your slice of the pie. Throw in a downtown location mere steps from the gulf, and you should be able to coast to relative success.

What’s in a name? The fish house. It could symbolize a simple and powerful name, that says “We are fish, and that’s all you need to know. We don’t need to charm you with clever word play or kitschy metaphors. We stand by this strong, simple, direct name.”

Or it could be a lack of imagination.

Yep. I’ll take Restaurant Cliches for $1000, Alex.

You want cliches? I asked the waitress how the fish would be prepared. She said grilled.

…waiting for elaboration…

…a little panic in my eyes that this might get awkward…

…yep, it’s awkward.

Just grilled. I should have taken that as a clue. Later, she came back and said “It’s not wahoo (or whatever). It’s trout. Very fresh.” I can see why the name of the place is not so highly specialized. Fish house covers your bases. But she came back with a caesar. Fresh, but not really a caesar, with long red onion slices on top. But it was fresh and I’ve had worse.

And then the fish came. and it was…

grilled. Just grilled. Not seasoned. Not embellished in any way. Just grilled. I guess they let the sides do the talking. That would be the potatoes. Beige foods unite!

Yep. Definitely a lack of imagination. The fish was not overcooked, like you’ll usually find in Port A. But that’s the extent of the nice things I can say about the Fish House.

We’re grading on a curve here because of beach rules. A star and a half.. we’ll round up. Beach rules, you know.

Restaurant Reviews – Seafood and Spaghetti Works

Seafood and Spaghetti Works (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

Inside the new dome at Seafood and Spaghetti Works

Inside the new dome at the Seafood and Spaghetti Works

Categories: PizzaItalianSeafood

4/5 stars
If you’re familiar with my reviews, you know about my beach rules. Basically, I grade on a curve. Quality tends to suffer in beach towns due to the lack of competition and uneven seasonable customer loads. I rate against the other establishments in the area.This place has been around a long time, a block or so down, but the name is new (it used to be Jakes Seafood and Spaghetti Works, and a few other names, I think). It’s a Port Aransas institution. Everyone knows about the restaurant in the dome.I have had many of their fish dishes in the past. I don’t think they’re great, or terrible. Just meh, like most of the places in Port Aransas. I wanted to step out and try some other things on the menu.I got a margarita, rocks salt… came frozen, and was a little too sweet. Good ingredients; poor execution. OK drink.I got the salad bar. It was great before, with fresh bread and a couple of nice soups. It’s great now. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep a salad bar fresh in the off season, but they pulled it off. I didn’t partake of the bread, but it’s hot and fresh and the other patrons were raving about it.

I ordered a couple of appetizers instead of dinner. The first came out: tuna with some good sauces drizzled on and pepper slices on top. It was absolutely sunning in presentation, and I am a big tuna fan. But it was a disappointment. Tuna when prepared well is supposed to melt in your mouth. This was cooked a little too long, or at the wrong temperature, and the result showed. It was still ok.

Tuna Appetizer

Tuna Appetizer

I also ordered the oysters parmesan. This dish caught my attention. They were served over spinach and with parmesan and other cheeses on top. They were perfectly cooked and flavorful. I liked them.

Oysters Parmesean Appetizer

Oysters Parmesean Appetizer

The new digs are nice. They don’t have the quirky charm of the old slightly creaky dome, but the structure is grand and impressive, with a nice view and a very large serving room.

All in all, it’s a decent option in Port Aransas. It’s not the best, but there are lots of worse options in town. If you want to check out an institution and a cool touristy experience, or if you’re willing to do do a simple dish or a good salad bar, this is a good bet.

Three solid tunas. Beach rules round up… in Port A, you could do much worse.

Restaurant Reviews – Cafe Phoenix

Cafe Phoenix (Bruce’s Yelp Review)

Cafe Phoenix

Cafe Phoenix

229 Beach Ave
Port Aransas, TX 78373
(361) 749-9277

Category: Cafes

5/5 stars

This week, I was trapped in Port Aransas to do some beach house maintenance and took the opportunity to go some places I’ve never been. The Phoenix is one of those. This place looks like an absolute dive, and it is not on the main drags. It’s tucked away on Beach near Station Streets, with a building that only a mother could love. If you’re like me, you walked in with a little trepidation.Step inside and your first impressions won’t change much. The dining room is tiny and a little run down. It took me a little off guard when the dining room, all 9 tables, were full on a Wednesday. At 1. In mid November. Well, surely it must be coincidence…It’s only when you experience the food that you’ll know you’ve been had. This place is really fantastic. Beach food is cliche. Take a typical rating and bump it down a star. First, there’s too much volume in the main season that it’s hard not to cut corners, and the volume is too low other times to keep it fresh and keep the chefs interested. It’s also hard to get reliable help for the same reasons. Not so this place. Everything I had was excellent. The service was great. We’re not talking beach-adjusted great. Just an unqualified great.Beach food is also cliche. It’s bland. poorly presented, and well done, and I don’t really know why. But it tastes better than the same food elsewhere because of where you are.Take those cliches and throw them out the window. I had a potato soup (very well presented with a Basil oil beautifully drizzled across the top) to start, and followed that with Asian slaw with dressing that tasted like it had rice vinegar, ginger, and-gasp- red peppers, which woke me up a little bit.

The main course was probably the best seafood sandwich I’ve ever had It was a crusted Tuna, cooked-double gasp- medium rare, and with a Wasabi aoli dressing that had a wonderful kick on a beautiful, fresh artisan roll. Top it off with sweet potato fries that were airy and just about perfectly cooked. This is right up there with the best lunches I’ve ever had. All in all, my check was around 20 bucks, after adding the soup and extra side.

Tuna with wasabi dressing and sweet potato fries.

Tuna with wasabi dressing and sweet potato fries.

For the money, this is the best restaurant in Port Aransas. And maybe the best, regardless of price.

Restaurant Reviews – Castaways Seafood and Grill

Castaways Seafood and Grill

320 N. Alister
Port Aransas, TX 78373
(361) 749-5394

Category: American (New)

3/5 stars
This will be a quick review because I was in and out in a hurry. I found the service a little spotty, and waited a little too long on an off night.I had my favorite fish, tuna: I think the yellowfin. I usually like it cooked medium rare or rare. They got it right, but it was way under seasoned. The sides were just OK.In general, this is a typical tourist trap, right on the drag. I got one of the pricer items on the menu, and expected a little more.As far as beach places go, it’s ok. It’s the type of tourist spot we usually stay out of, and probably will in the future.