Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Take My Word For It, Gilhooley’s Is The Real Deal

221 9th St.
San Leon, TX

Eight line machine and a sailor's daughter
Somethin' makes 'em crazy growin' up on the water
Playin' for my supper six nights a week
Hurricanes, Easter and New Years Eve
           -- Hayes Carll, I Got A Gig

Texas songwriting genius Hayes Carll got his start gigging in the waterfront dive bars along this hard-scrabble stretch of the Gulf Coast.

He probably wasn’t singing about Gilhooley’s specifically, but that’s exactly where my mind takes me whenever I hear that song.

It’s like I’m there. Right there in the smoke-filled low slung ramshackle dive populated by loud, long-neck swilling good ol’ boys and gals.

These folks give the term “fresh off the shrimp boat” an entirely new – and literal – meaning.

Four tin walls now there ain't much left
Lookin' like a homeless Cheers on meth
Homer's in the corner, breakin' up a fight
Good Lord, I hope I get paid tonight

I’m pretty sure Hayes was singing about some dive bar across the bay in Crystal Beach and not Gilhooley’s because this isn’t just a random smoky seaside hang-out for shrimpers, fishermen and other assorted salty ruffians to down Lone Stars beers.

I mean, Gilhooley’s is all that. But it is much more.

This dive just might be the best spot on Earth to eat oysters.

And on this chilly damp night along this narrow spit of land jutting into Galveston Bay, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than indulge in an old fashioned Gulf Coast oyster roast.

I came to the right place.

Burnt fried chicken and Lone Star beer
Cops and the kids drink free 'round here
Girl behind the bar is takin' what she's givin'
Lyin' about her past and tryin' to make a livin'

“Where do you want me to sit?”

Shaking off the chill and inhaling the second-hand smoke, I’m sure I looked like an out-of-place out-of-towner where no one knows my name as I stood in the doorway searching for a vacant seat.

“Where ever the hell you want,” barked the gravel-voiced female bartender.

Broke pool table and some hard luck cues
Go tell your mama, I done paid my dues
Every one around here knows my name
Six nights a week in the neon flame

Head swivels all around and suspicious stares from the locals did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

I was here to eat some oysters!

Roasted out back over oak and pecan wood, the oysters served at Gilhooley’s are the very pinnacle of what oysters can be.

The first time I ventured into this joint, I brought a fellow suit along from Ohio who had never had an oyster in his life.

Eating your first oyster at Gilhooley’s is like losing your virginity to Scarlett Johansson.

Thanks to that magical night at Gilhooley’s, I’m pretty sure every ensuing oyster that boy eats will be a crushing disappointment.

For me, this is at least my third venture to this classic seaside dive. Whenever Houston Hobby Airport pops up on the Suit757 itinerary, I try to fit Gilhooley’s in there – even though it is a good 45 minutes out of the way from anywhere I would ever need to be.

When the weather is nice, the place to be is on a stool at the open air bar off to the side of the oyster shell parking lot.

On a dreary winter night like this one, a dark corner inside nestled between the space heater, the men’s room and an old piano works just fine.

License plates, African tribal masks and neon beer signs set the mood as my waitress brings my first of several $1.25 Lone Star longnecks.

The “National Beer of Texas” slides down even easier when you know you can get four of ‘em for a Lincoln.

But it’s the roasted Oysters Gilhooley I came here for.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Never am.

Each oyster, varying from tiny all the way up to break-out-the-knife-and-fork humongous, is encased in a parmesan cheese crust while floating in a pool of garlic-infused melted butter and nestled in its shell charred black from the oak and pecan fire out back.

The lips of the oysters are curled up slightly, a smoky scent emanates from the roasted shells and the parmesan and butter burble from their recent liberation from the hard wood roasting.

The rich flavor of the warm butter and cheese only enhances, rather than camouflages, the taste of the oyster.

These oysters, bigger, plumper and juicier than almost any other on the Gulf Coast, yield a wonderful salty, briny taste of the ocean itself.

As another famous songwriter once sang, “Give me oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year, and I’ll feel fine.”

Just fine indeed.

But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to indulge in a few non-oyster items on Gilhooley’s extensive menu.

The gumbo was chock full of even more fresh Gulf oysters along with shrimp, sausage, chicken and lots and lots of Cajun spice. Ideal Gulf Coast comfort food on a cold winter evening.

The boudin balls were filling fried spheres of sausage and rice, perfect for dipping in the accompanying ranch sauce.

There's an old lion tamer parked behind the bar
Hundred pounds of weed in a stolen car
Oil patch boys and girls who went to college
Rules you don't break and laws that ain't acknowledged

As I tilted back the last drop of my last Lone Star and paid my tab (cash only – credit cards and kids strictly forbidden), I couldn’t help but marvel at Gilhooley’s well-earned divey credentials.

Genuine as a comfy pair of Wranglers, Gilhooley’s is the real wind-battered, gravel-parking lot, all-American deal.

And I am a lucky man.

The waterman at the bar in the cowboy hat may look like he wants to filet me with a knife, but a bit of danger and discomfort only adds to the pleasure of discovering roasted oysters this good. It’s like someone lifted the velvet rope and let me in a place I was never meant to be.

And yet, I had an urge to prove I had been there.

Which must explain why I mustered the courage to meekly ask my waitress if I could buy a Gilhooley’s T-shirt.

“T-shirt? We don’t sell no T-shirts, hon!”

And you know what? I’d have been disappointed if they did.

No 100% cotton proof for me.

I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Barefoot shrimper with a pistol up his sleeve
Some will go to Heaven, some will never leave
Pills in the tip jar, blood on the strings
Oh Lord, I never thought I'd see these things

Rating: Bought the Shirt! (Or at least I tried)

Gilhooley's Raw Bar on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Been there once, but I think I will have to go back now and try some of the items you mentioned! Thanks for the info.