In the story I sometimes imagine for South Padre, all the hotels and tourist joints melt away into some future haze, and the entire island goes back to being a spit of sand. But that’s not the way it is now, and that’s not why I came here.
I saw a T-shirt at the SPI Birding and Nature Center that summed up my goals for this trip: Eat. Sleep. Bird.
The birding part is easy, since all I have to do is leave the hotel and cross the street or walk down a boardwalk.
The eating part is a little more of a challenge, since the area is not known for innovation in food. Reviewers on the Internet wonder if everything here really has to be fried, but if it’s not a requirement, you wouldn’t know it from the menus I’ve seen.
So far, though, every restaurant (visited only once, mind you) has had at least one bright spot.
At Longhorn Cattle Company on the way south from Harlingen, Texas, it was the salty, beefy, bean soup served in a white coffee mug, along with a pitcher of water that required a straw.
The briscuit was silky on the tongue but not particularly flavorful; it didn’t have much of a smoke ring, so maybe it was oven-roasted. The crunchy bits of celery in the otherwise dense scoop of potato salad provided textural relief from all the softness. The coleslaw—minced cabbage and carrots and other vegetables bathing in a sweet liquid—was rather appealing, almost a dessert.
At Yummies Bistro on South Padre, it was the sipping chocolate mixed with espresso. (And the great-tailed grackle doing its Star Trek red alert call; it wanted us to run for the shuttles so it could steal the sugar packets.) Belvedere Chocolate in Boulder makes a similar drink, called hot chocolate soup. This was better and came in three flavors: plain chocolate, Mexican (with chilis), and mocha (what I had).
Granted, it’s difficult to make eggs and bacon into anything special. When I order such a basic breakfast, all I ask is that the scrambled eggs be scrambled instead of slabbed, and that the bacon be crunchy AND fatty. Yummies delivered. Todd’s shrimp salad with dried cherries, grape tomatoes, blue cheese, and toasted pita triangles was refreshing, and the protein and cheese added flavor without overwhelming the lettuce. (It was also the first of Todd’s three meals in a row with shrimp.)
Daddy’s Seafood and Cajun Kitchen impressed me the least. I think it may have been our waiter’s first week, or maybe nobody goes to restaurants on South Padre and orders a Tanqueray and tonic or asks what kind of tuna they’re serving tonight. He was nice enough to ask the cook, who responded, “Red tuna” (maguro?), but the fish I got was not dense enough to be a tuna steak. There is a kind of tuna I’ve had only at Ooka in Broomfield, which the menu there listed as “white tuna,” but the thinness of the filet and its moist texture suggested tilapia or catfish.
In any case, the almond crust made the meal. It was light and crunchy and added just a bit of depth to the flavor of the fish. In hindsight, I wish I’d ordered the cheese sauce on the side, because a little went a long way, and I truly preferred the fish without it (and without the potatoes that come with it). Todd’s shrimp kebabs were OK. One thing I will say about South Padre restaurants: They know how to cook fish properly.
Todd had a good laugh when I wondered if this T-shirt slogan—“Big people are harder to kidnap”—could refer to drug crime in Mexico. He laughed harder when I asked the waiter if it meant anything specific and received a bemused nonresponse. “Suck Head, Eat Tail” I could figure out all by myself. At the end of the meal, the waiter got his revenge by asking us if we wanted waters to go. So we went.
(I should have known. Ruth Tobias warned that snarky T-shirt slogans might be a bad sign.)
The next day we ended up at South Padre Brewing Company for lunch. Luckily, it was easy to find by sight, because neither Google Maps nor the car’s GPS knew its exact location; the car thought the restaurant was two blocks south of where it actually was (and we had the same experience driving to Pier 19 later that night).
This place had almost all its cylinders firing. Of the five beers in the sampler, three were really good: Padre Island Pale Ale (second from left), Tidal Wave Wheat (with the lemon), and Speckled Trout Stout (front). The amber (far left), normally my favorite, tasted thin, and the blonde (second from right), although nice enough, was a get-drunk-quick light beer. I was surprised by the fleeting sweetness of the pale ale; according to a home-brewing friend of Todd’s, some yeasts can impart a smell of banana peel. But the stout went best with my pesto chicken salad sandwich-wagon with its four wheels of tomato and cucumber. It was damn good: the bread was crisp, the chicken salad had about 1,000 calories of mayo, and the pebbly dressing was sour enough to offset all that creaminess.
You’ll have to excuse me for wondering where the pesto was. I assumed it must be somewhere in the dressing, but no, the waitress said, it was in the chicken salad. Maybe it was those tiny green specks? It doesn’t matter, though: the dressing they did serve, full of garlic and oregano, was delicious; I liked it better than the pesto vinaigrette she brought me later, made with enough Thai basil to taste of anise.
Note the coleslaw here, much chunkier and less sweet than its Longhorn counterpart.
Todd ordered the shrimp wrap (shrimp meal number three), and although he complained it needed more flavor, he liked it and the hot salsa well enough to order some homemade chips and salsa to go.
So, the moral of my tale of overeating is this: if you’re hungry on South Padre, go to the Brewing Company or Yummies. Or Cafe Kranzler, which I will be visiting tonight.