Seabrook’s Best kept Seafood

Places
The whole family helped the company float

The whole family helped the company float

Sam Tran and her family crammed into the wet stinky hold of a freight ship to escape Vietnam. There were thousands there, competing for air, bouncing back and forth in“Dangerous Ground”, the South China Sea, famous for  thousand foot waves visible from space. A third of all Vietnamese refugees died crossing this sea.. It was a risky wager for Sam’s father to make but if he could get his wife and eight children to the Philippines they would get to choose; New York or Texas.

The year was 1980. Sam was eighteen months old. Today she slings flounder at Rose’s Seafood. For thirty five years her family’s business has faced turmoil with zen-like perseverance.  They’ve been mauled by the weather and threatened by the Klan. They came with no money. They spoke no English. They succeeded with the new family mantra: sell the freshest seafood available.  Everything else is background noise.

Canh Tran is Sam’s father, the consummate entrepreneur. As a younger man he fled China for Vietnam where he married Tien and started a family. Canh opened coffee shop in Vietnam despite not speaking Vietnamese. That made him a target of the communist who were confiscating the businesses of ethnic Chinese. Thousands fled persecution in the early 1980’s as part of the second Vietnamese migration to the states. When the Trans arrived in Texas they were given a home to share with five other families and a pat on the back.

The first incarnation of the family business was a van near the water. Kim Tran, Sam’s brother worked on shrimp boats where he cultivated relationships with captains and fishermen. The father and son team were doing OK until the law caught up with them and shut them down. Selling shrimp out of the back of a van is illegal. They would have to go legit.  With very little English and meager savings, they opened Seabrook Seafood later that year.  The place was a dump but it sold the freshest seafood around.

The original Roses opened in 1980

The original Roses opened in 1980

All along the gulf coast American fishermen were threatened by Vietnamese shrimpers, who now outnumbered them. They called in the Klan to scare the Vietnamese away.  The Klan burned crosses in the yards of whites who traded with the Vietnamese. They also burned Vietnamese boats and hosted fully armed boat parades in Vietnamese areas but Canh was no stranger to discrimination. He had business to run and his paltry digs were falling apart.  Rouse’s Seafood across the way however had a sturdy building and a retiring owner, a white owner.  In broken English Canh approached Rouse’s who agreed to sell his fish shack to Canh.  The “u” fell off the marquee and Rose’s Seafood was born.

Roses rebuilt after Alicia

Roses rebuilt after Alicia

Enter hurricane Alicia. In 1983 Alicia dusted the new shop off the shore like table crumbs. Rose’s rebuilt. Wind damage in the 1990’s, Rose’s rebuilt. Hurricane Ike in 2008, nothing but a wall and a cooler stood. Each time the sea reached up and slapped Rose’s down, Rose’s got a little bigger. Kim’s relationships with local fishermen got stronger and the people of Seabrook gained respect for the little shop that could.

Rebuilt after Hurricanes and tropical storms in 2000

Rebuilt after Hurricanes and tropical storms in 2000

Finding seafood like this is tough, even if you are a chef. Restaurant chefs don’t get to see what they order. They can’t hold a salmon up to tuna and make a visual judgement. At Roses whole fish cue up on  ice, head’s on, so you can see their eyes. The eyes should plump out their heads clear like silicone breast implants, the cloudier the eye, the older the fish.

These days, Rose’s carries imported fish

Gulf Redfish

Gulf Redfish

like salmon, octopus and branzino, but I like the local, unfancy fish, like sheepshead and gar, the stuff most people throw back. They’re delicious and cheap. The back row seems to be dedicated to Gulf fish, Pompano from Florida, Drum from Louisiana and

Flounder from Texas. Mountains of shrimp decorate the middle section, separated by size and color. Blue crabs fight each other in a pen in the corner and bags of live oysters, mussels and seasonal crawfish wiggle in their plastic sacks. There is no number taking system you just speak up once

Hurricane ready new digs

Hurricane ready new digs

you are ready. Likely it will be one of the Trans who helps you, telling you where your fish came from and how to cook it. They filet the fish for you while you wait, giving you time to browse the various condiments and breadings. The selection is impressive.

I’ve been coming to Roses for almost twenty years. It’s

always been my secret place for cheap, local seafood. It’s hard not to have a soft spot for their stubbornness and grit, though. I think it’s time the secret got out.

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Gilhooley’s

Places

“San Leon is a small drinking community with a large fishing problem.” Local’s love to throw the town motto into polite conversation. Built by pirates, slave traders and fishermen, this rebel reef has been destroyed by enough hurricanes to scare away the sensible people. The outlaws left behind are crusty and unpretentious. Gilhooley’s is just like that, the cultural center of a town with two main industries, oysters and rum.If you go to Gilhooley’s and you should, order the oysters, they are the best in the country.  Your waitress will put the order in before she finishes her cigarette.

Gilhooleys is a hobbit hole of a place, hidden behind overgrown vines and cottonwood trees. The ceiling hangs low like a ships galley lined with African tribal masks from some foreign plunder and license plates of every color, but don’t let the fairy-tale facade (or their facebook page) fool you into thinking this is a family place. Do not bring kids or pets, do bring cash. These are the rules. No exceptions. Even with it’s world famous food Gilhooley’s is more bar than restaurant.  Local moms call ahead, leave their kids in the car and fetch the poor-boys to-go.

If you go for the oysters, try the Oysters Gilhooley’s.  They are smoked over an open pecan and oak wood grill and slathered in garlic butter and Parmesan. The Parmesan melts and hardens lending bite and texture to the smoky dish. The Oysters Picante host a creole sauce baked into the oysters for a surprisingly meaty dish.  Pump it up a notch by ordering the Oysters Shrimp Picante, the same thing but each oyster it topped with, you guessed it, local shrimp.

Of course here’s more to Gilhooley’s than oysters. The Boudain Balls remind me of my first in Baton Rouge, hot out of the fryer, spicy and addictive. Fried Shrimp are giant, butterflied and shareable. The Everything Gumbo, while paler than a New Orleans gumbo, is chock full of chicken, sausage, oysters and shrimp, a poor man’s feast. Everything is served with saltines and various sauces in throw away cups even though the dishes stand on their own and hardly need accompaniment. Gilhooley’s is also one of the few places you can order a rare burger where the cook will oblige.

One more thing about oysters; The islet of San Leon juts out into the most prolific oyster beds in the state of Texas, between the Trinity and Galveston Bays. Seventy percent of all Texas oysters come from the series of bays and cays that make up these waterways.  The whole community of San Leon is invested in the ecology of the waterways.  While some oystermen simply dredge and take from the bounty, others lovingly build and maintain the reefs where oysters thrive.  Gilhooley’s deals only with local oysterman Mischo Ivic, who’s famous in these parts for bay water and oyster conservation. Gruff reputation aside Gilhooley’s is a rebel with a heart of gold.