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Written by Texas Highways

Vegan/vegetarian spots prove you can get your fill going meatless

Spiral Diner’s Sketti & Meat­balls, made with soy protein and topped with pesto and pine nuts, is among the many hearty entrées.  (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)By Jane Wu

I  am not a vegan, though I’m not much of a meat-eater, either. So I empathize with the challenges vegans and vegetarians face when dining out, especially in the heart of cattle country. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Spiral Diner & Bakery, a vegan café featuring classic American and Tex-Mex fare in Fort Worth—Cowtown of all places!

I meet my daughter, Lucy, who is a vegetarian, for lunch at the restaurant’s original location, in the Fairmount/Southside Historic District, a hip haven of restaurants, bars, and shops just east of Texas Christian University. (There’s a second location in Dallas’ equally hip-and-historic Oak Cliff area.) The relaxed ambiance includes brightly painted shelves stocked with organic coffees, teas, and natural foods; however, the dining area, outfitted in stylish black-and-turquoise ’50’s-retro decor, evokes anything but the granola-and-sprouts health-food-store stereotype.

Instead of ordering a typical vegetable plate, I put the multi-page, meatless menu to the test and order what a curious carnivore might: a “hamburger.” Spiral Diner offers three types of burgers: a classic patty, made from soy protein and wheat; a nut patty, which contains sunflower seeds, brown rice, and carrots; and a portobello mushroom cap.

I choose the El Paso Burger, classic style—topped with guacamole and served with chipotle mayonnaise—and add cheese. Lucy orders the Cowboy Burger, dotted with barbecue sauce—and bacon bits? I ask the server about the bacon bits, and he replies, “They’re like Bac-Os, but made with organic ingredients.”

My grilled soy-and-wheat burger has the juicy taste and texture of lean ground beef. Lucy concurs, having had her share of various vega-burgers. The generous layer of guacamole on my burger is as smooth as the chipotle mayo. In addition, pickled jalapeños give subtle-but-assertive heat to the smoky-cool combo. Usually, I’m not a burger-bun fan, but I find Spiral Diner’s whole-wheat bun exceptionally flavorful and light. Spelt-quinoa bread also is available.

Appetites satiated, we missed sampling Spiral’s tempting array of cakes, brownies, cookies, and I-Scream shakes. The Fort Worth location also serves microbrewed and organic beer and wine. 

Fort Worth and Dallas aren’t the only Texas cities where you’ll find restaurants that appeal to vegans and vegetarians. Plentiful choices abound in Austin, including longtime favorite Mother’s Cafe & Garden (I recommend the chile relleno, stuffed with currants), Veggie Heaven’s abundant Asian menu, and Mr. Natural for healthy and zesty Tex-Mex. Houston has numerous options, ranging from Pepper Tree for pan-Asian (try Peking Vegan Duck), to the venerable A Movable Feast. In San Antonio, Green Vegetarian Cuisine offers a vegan-kosher-Southern comfort-food menu, which includes a soy-based “chicken-fried steak.”

For listings in other cities and areas of the state, I found www.HappyCow.net helpful for seeking out vegan/vegetarian spots in Texas, and throughout the planet.


Who’s thrilling the great chefs of Houston?

A favorite restaurant of several Houston chefs, the London Sizzler serves British-style Indian fare, including many classic curries.  (Photo by Julie Soefer, Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau)


By Lori Moffatt

Ever since I discovered the culinary adventures to be found on Houston’s Bellaire Boulevard, Long Point Road, and other Houston streets where the city’s international influences collide, I’ve made it a point to seek out the city’s small, independent, ethnic  restaurants. Thanks to Houston’s diverse population, it’s easy to explore more than 40 world cuisines without leaving the city limits. But how do you know you’re finding the best places?

You could follow the lead of some of Houston’s most celebrated chefs—players on the national culinary stage who find inspiration from the mom-and-pop eateries of their Gulf Coast melting pot. To learn more about where they go on their days off, I joined a recent pilot tour to inaugurate the new “Where the Chefs Eat” culinary tours program. Led by seven nationally known Houston chefs and one award-winning food writer, our two-day exploration shined a spotlight on the city’s multicultural food scene.

altEach chef has a different area of interest and expertise, so the tours differ in content and style. For example, on his “Houston BBQ Trail Tour,” longtime food critic Robb Walsh, whose Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook came out in May, introduced us to the many versions of smoked meat in Texas, all differentiated by spices, wood, sauce, and time spent on (or in) the pit. First up, we visited a food trailer parked outside a discount grocery in the 5th Ward, where barbecue maestro Gregory Carter served us classic examples of African-American brisket and sausage. Sopped in sauce and smoked over red oak, both meats provided a dramatic counterpart to the delicately spiced German sausages we sampled later from Guy’s Meat Market. 

Next, we traveled west to Pierson’s to collectively swoon over mesquite-smoked pork ribs and buttery bread pudding. By the time we got to the peppery spareribs at Pizzitola’s, which has been serving barbecue since 1935, Walsh had passed along some of his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and tradition of barbecue—and how it parallels the history and culture of Texas.

Later, we paid a visit to El Hidalguense, an unassuming restaurant on Long Point Road, made especially festive thanks to tequila shots and a mariachi band. Cabrito roasted in a pit inside the open kitchen, and we sampled the tender goat along with other delicacies from the Mexican state of Hidalgo, including a smoky chicken mole, savory pork loin with cactus strips, and a fiery, dark salsa made with a Central Mexican chile called chile rayado.

The tours, with themes such as “Southern Comfort,” “Taste of Asia,” “Grocery Stores and Ethnic Markets,” and “China-town,” usually involve two chefs, who pair up to present their favorites.

“We decided we wanted to highlight what the city has to offer food-wise, and to showcase our diverse ethnic community,” says Chris Shepherd, the chef at Catalan, a Washington Avenue restaurant that presents an eclectic, locally-based menu. “I think a lot of people are afraid to get out of their comfort zones. When they do, though, it becomes more than just going out to eat; it becomes an education into another culture.” 

“As chefs, we didn’t want to focus on our restaurants, as we figured that people would find us anyway,” says Chef Monica Pope, whose dishes at T’afia and Beaver’s rely on seasonal produce. “So we thought we’d share a side of Houston that we know and love.” For her “Taste of Asia” tour, Pope teams with Bryan Caswell, executive chef at the restaurant Reef, to explore Persian grills, French-Vietnamese sandwich
spots, and Indian vegetarian restaurants.

And sometimes the chefs veer away from restaurants entirely—Pope and Chef Marcus Davis host a tour called “Momma’s House,” during which they visit their actual mothers’ houses for authentic home cooking. “My favorite place to eat is in my mom’s kitchen,” says Davis. “So we’re all going to eat the comfort food I ate on Sunday mornings, growing up.”

My group didn’t get to visit Monica Pope’s or Marcus Davis’ moms’ houses. But we did visit a diverse collection of restaurants across the city. At Vieng Thai, we dined on coconut-milk soup, fragrant with lemongrass, scallions, and ginger; refreshing green-papaya salad, pungent with fish sauce; beef in green curry; and curried chicken with potatoes and peanuts. At Himalaya, an Indian-Pakistani restaurant west of Loop 610, we sampled brilliantly spiced lamb biryani, chicken tikka masala and hara masala, and amazing naan—golden, bubbly, and yeasty, yet still light in texture and flavor. Nearby,
at the London Sizzler, a British-style Indian restaurant, we savored tandoori chicken, a complex fish masala, and a spicy, Indian version of fried okra, prepared with onion, coriander, cumin, and cilantro.

We even visited one of the chefs’ favorite supermarkets—a sprawling Asian market west of the city off I-10, where I purchased a bag of Thai red rice, a bag of wasabi peas (in case I ever felt hungry again), and a mystery bag from the vast fungus aisle that turned out to be an herb used to improve liver function.

Perhaps I was foolish to explore the fungus aisle blind. You don’t have to: On their “Grocery Stores and Ethnic Markets” tour, chefs Chris Shepherd and Randy Evans accompany groups to markets (Polish! Russian! Mediterranean! Southeast Asian!) across the city, where they’ll share their shopping secrets. “When we started serving spring rolls at Haven, I didn’t know what brand of wrapper was best,” says Evans. “So I asked one of the cooks at a place I used to frequent. She said, ‘Get the one with the two flying horses on the front.’ I’ve been using them ever since.”

 “Embracing new cuisines,” observes Chef Hugo Ortega, who brings continental polish to his interior-Mexican dishes at Hugo’s, “is what enriches a community, generates energy, and distinguishes one group from another. On these tours, I believe I have this great opportunity to present my country’s culture to the world.”

And with these tours, you’ll see a side of Houston you might not know existed.

I can’t wait for further exploration.

Houston Culinary Tours

Tickets cost $180 per person, which includes tastings at each restaurant, complimentary St. Arnold’s beer, limo-bus transportation, and a gift bag. Proceeds benefit the Houston Food Bank. See www.HoustonCulinaryTours.com.


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Bonding Over the Table

While researching the July story on Houston’s “Where the Chefs Eat” Culinary Tours, Senior Editor Lori Moffatt enjoyed the opportunity to visit with some of the city’s big names on the national culinary scene—James Beard award-winners, chefs lauded by Bon Appetit and Food and Wine magazines, and other innovative kitchen alchemists. 

“Houston has a great restaurant scene,” says Marcus Davis, the chef of The Breakfast Klub, a joint that draws raves for its chicken-and-waffles combos and other twists on classic soul food. “And there’s a definite bond between the chefs in the city. We like to feed off of one another—literally at times.  There are so many great places to go, and it’s always fun to look on someone else’s menu and see different versions of what you make in your own restaurant.

“Foodies have an appreciation for good food, period,” Davis continues. “Personally, I look for something authentic to the region or concept. Someplace that’s  nice and cozy, and serves great food. I don’t have to have the other bells and whistles. I look for a good welcoming spirit, and I like trying different spots and being able to introduce it to someone else. It’s a great compliment to whoever is in the kitchen doing all the hard work.”

"I love to listen to people talk about what they ate as children, what they ate growing up. It brings people together."

Says Chef Randy Evans of the award-winning restaurant Haven, “Houston has so much diversity, food-wise. And nationally, there’s been more interest in what the chefs are about as personalities, and more of an interest in how we come up with ideas. For example, right now I have a peanut-crusted, soft-shell crab dish on my menu that is definitely influenced by meals I’ve enjoyed at mom-and-pop Vietnamese places.

“I never grew up eating Vietnamese,” he continues. “I was born and raised in the Houston area; we lived in Willis. “My family was agrarian, blue-collar; when we ate fancy, we were eating fried oysters. I grew up with the gallon of milk on the table, the loaf of white bread. But when I discovered Vietnamese cuisine, wow. First of all, a lot of the restaurants are open late at night—a plus for chefs! And the flavors are clean and bright—it’s always about fresh herbs.

“In general, the chefs in this city get along. If we find a great farmer, we pass along a name. It’s all because we want to see the city improve its reputation as a food town. Houston is a hidden gem.”

 “I think people are afraid to get out of their comfort zones,” says Chef Chris Shepherd of Catalan. “But you never know; if it’s great, it’s great. If it sucks, well, then it’s a new experience. Houston is a port city; there are so many different cultures. When I’m not at work, I want to experience the heart and soul of food. I want to eat something I can’t do myself. I don’t really go to the high-end places; it’s not my style.”

“Foodies have an appreciation for good food, period."

“Chefs have fun cooking together,” says Monica Pope of T’afia. (Pope competed—but did not win—in a springtime episode of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters.) “It seems like the community of chefs here in Houston has grown tighter in the past 10 years. Sites like Chowhound have done a good job getting people more interested in food, gathering people for throw-downs and other fun community-oriented things.”

Chef Mark Holley, the former Chef of Brennan’s who now oversees the kitchen at Houston’s Pesce, notes, “When you train classically, you spend most of your time learning Continental cuisines. You don’t spend a lot of time grilling, or cooking on a barbecue pit.  But I grew up eating American soul food, southern food. Soul food is a whole different level of perfection. 

“People sometimes ask me where I go eat when I eat out. They expect me to do a chef-driven restaurant. But what I like most is building a conversation, talking about the food. I get really comfortable when I’m around good company and good southern cooking. It becomes more of an experience, more of an opportunity to share childhood stories and culinary history. I love to listen to people talk about what they ate as children, what they ate growing up. It brings people together. For example, I grew up in Ohio, and we always had great Northern beans. Here in the South, we eat red beans. With Andouille sausage. Different, but similar.”

“I’m from Puebla, Mexico,” says Chef Hugo Ortega of the interior-Mexican restaurant Hugo’s. “In Puebla, there is a strong culinary tradition. We grew up making mole, making chocolate. It’s a way of living over there. When you want to eat a chicken, you chase a chicken, you catch the chicken, you kill the chicken, and then you eat chicken. Everything in Mexico is around the kitchen. Because of cooking I know places I never dreamed to know.”



Slowly revolving atop Dallas’ iconic Reunion Tower, Wolfgang Puck’s Asian-influenced Five Sixty restaurant offers diners a panoramic view of the city.

By Steven Lindsay

The magnificent Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck, at the top of Reunion Tower in downtown Dallas, has been my go-to choice for fine dining and entertaining guests since it opened in February 2009—not just for the spectacular food, but also for the drama of dining 560 feet above the city.

Reunion Tower itself has been a Dallas icon since it opened in 1978, its geodesic sphere illuminated with 260 lights that shine in unison or dance in playful patterns. For nearly three decades, visitors could take an elevator to three levels within the dome, where an observation deck offered birds-eye views of the city, a revolving restaurant called Antares wowed diners, and a cocktail lounge offered spirits with an unparalleled sky-high ambiance.

In 2007, though, the Tower and adjacent  Union Station—the latter built in 1916, and which once handled as many as 80 trains daily—closed for a grand, $46 million renovation. And as a highlight of the transformation, city planners announced that chef Wolfgang Puck, the “fusion chef” famous for such trendsetting restaurants as Spago and Chinois, would open a new restaurant inside the tower. Five Sixty is Puck’s first fine-dining restaurant in Texas.

After a barely 60-second elevator ride to the top of the tower, the doors open to the comforting hum of clinking glasses and lighthearted conversations. Steely gray booths intermingle with cream-colored leather chairs, mesquite flooring gleams underfoot, and pearly white river rocks in a chain-link cage separate the host area from the bar and dining spaces.

“Given Five Sixty’s Asian-focused menu, we were inspired by a Zen sense of balance and stillness,” says Jennifer Johanson, who designed the restaurant with her team at EDG Interior Architecture + Design. “We tried to balance the motion and incredible views from this high outlook with a sense of intimacy and stillness in the social spaces.  We wanted to create a great restaurant experience, where guests can enjoy the stunning views but still maintain a focus on food and friends.”


Austin's Zocalo Cafe serves a perfect pastel de tres leches. (Photo by Randall Maxwell)By Lois M. Rodriguez

Growing up, I watched the women in my family labor over homemade tortillas every morning, and during the holiday season, they took cooking to a whole other level with the tedious process of making tamales.  So, why was it that no one in my family ever made pastel de tres leches (three milks cake), the delicate vanilla cake sopped in sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and cream?

Joe Cotten's Barbecue in Robstown reaminas a landmark cafe

Joe Cotten's Barbecue in Robstown regularly hosts a full house for lunch. (Photo by Erich Schlegel)


By Helen Bryant

At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, I find the parking lot at Joe Cotten’s Barbecue in Robstown (founded in 1947 and home of arguably the best barbecue in South Texas) crowded with pickup trucks. I smile at the nearly lifesize plastic cow and pig perched on the edge of the roof, clomp across the wooden porch, and enter next to the placard proclaiming: “No credit cards, no checks, no separate checks.”

I take a seat at a table covered in a red-and-white tablecloth, and soon my waiter, Robert Elizaldi, arrives, spiffily attired in the Joe Cotten’s uniform: black pants, white shirt, maroon coat, and a black bow tie.

“Stringy beef,” I say, and in my mind I can already taste the tender brisket, so succulent that it pulls apart in strings. “And potato salad.”

There are no menus here. If you haven’t eaten here before, your waiter will give you the rundown: brisket—lean or “stringy”—sliced pork shoulder, pork ribs, and sausage. (They won’t mention it, but if you call several hours in advance, they’ll smoke you a chicken.) You can order one, two, or three meats, and whatever you mention first, you’ll get the most of.

Today, my husband, John, accompanies me. We note the usual crowd: locals in gimme caps, tourists in sneakers, and the occasional border patrol officer and sheriff’s deputy.

Elizaldi drops a sheet of butcher paper in front of me. On it rests a pile of glistening brisket with a quarter-inch pink smoke ring and a ribbon of fat as big as a string bean. A hefty slice of pork shoulder sits beside it. The meat arrives with a cup of unadorned pinto beans, two pieces of bread (one white, one wheat), dill pickles, a jalapeño, and a slice each of tomato and sweet onion.

Elizaldi, who has been with the restaurant since 1975, tells us that some diners have mistaken the barbecue sauce—a chunky, tomatoey mixture with a tiny bit of onion and jalapeño mixed with brisket drippings—for salsa or soup. It’s nothing like the sweet or vinegary barbecue sauces elsewhere.

The late Joe Cotten founded his place in 1947 on Robstown’s Avenue A (FM 665) as a beer joint and gambling hall, adding barbecue to keep his customers from getting hungry.

“Back then, gambling was a misdemeanor,” says Joe’s son Cecil Cotten, who runs the place now. When gambling became a federal offense, Joe turned his attention to smoking barbecue with locally plentiful mesquite. Cecil says Joe tinkered with the recipes, adding “It took him eight years to get the sauce the way he wanted it.”

In 1969, Joe built the current, decidedly unfancy wooden building on the edge of US 77, the main highway to the Rio Grande Valley. Its three rooms can, and often do, seat 360 people. When Joe died and Cecil took over, he was smart enough to leave everything exactly as it was.

Only once in recent history have customers at Joe Cotten’s been distracted from the meat—when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped in on his way to a hunting trip in 2008. Diners summoned friends and relatives by cell phone, Cecil says, and soon a traffic jam formed on US 77 as folks filled the parking lot.

“The police weren’t directing traffic,” Cecil says. “They were inside getting autographs.” I’m guessing they didn’t leave without a little stringy beef.



The three food groups unite

From April 23-25, dozens of winemakers and chefs come together at the Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap for the 5th annual Wine and Food Summit. Founded by chef Tom Perini and winemakers Fess Parker and Richard Becker to cultivate the appreciation of fine food and wine, the event features seminars and wine-tastings, exclusive dinners, cooking demonstrations, a dance, and offerings by Texas restaurants and chefs.

You’ll probably discover some unexpected food-and-wine pairings. Viognier and fajitas. Pinot noir and barbecued sausage. Port and dark chocolate.

The latter makes chocolatier Pamala McCombs smile. Her business in nearby Abilene, Candies by Vletas, which occupies the restored 1936 Railway Express Building, has provided chocolates and pralines to sweets-seekers since 1912. “We’re known for our pralines, and also for our chocolate,” says McCombs. “Probably thanks to news about health benefits, we’ve seen interest in our dark chocolate increase by 75 percent.”

Of course, convivial company always yields healthful rewards. So make tracks to Buffalo Gap for the Summit. Until the news breaks that barbecued ribs, fried chicken, and the other treats served with panache here are good for your heart, you can savor them for the delight they bring to your spirit. Tickets go on sale on March 1; hotels and other accommodations are available in Buffalo Gap and Abilene. Call 800/367-1721; www.periniranch.com (Wine and Food Summit) and 800/725-6933; www.candiesbyvletas.com (Candies by Vletas).

—Lori Moffatt



Eat in. Take out.

Before Dallas’ North Central Expressway bisected the city in 1950, Greenville Avenue—now flanked with homes and businesses—served as the primary auto route from the northern reaches into downtown. The street continues to draw traffic, though now—especially in the trendy stretches of Lower Greenville Avenue—visitors are as likely to travel by foot as by car. Long known for its bars, music venues, and restaurants, the area now boasts a vibrant daytime complement to its after-dark appeal.


Neighborhood resident Chuck Cole can take some of the credit for this transformation. In 2004, Cole recognized the charm of the 1920 Belmont Pharmacy Building, and began restoring the structure’s transit glass, black-and-white terrazzo floors, and original pressed-tin ceiling. In 2006, he opened his unusual venture: a combination florist/deli shop called The Corner Market. “We had lots of nightlife and dinner-type places, but not a deli,” says Cole. “Not a place where people could get a sandwich or a muffin and read the paper.”

One half of the shop handles the floral side of the business, while the other half serves a varied clientele who stop by for pastrami paninis and Mediterranean salads, breakfast burritos and fruit tarts, Italian sodas and espressos, and any of dozens of freshly prepared takeout specials in the chef’s case.

And, with trendy clothing resaler Buffalo Exchange on one side and the restored Granada Theater—now a popular music venue—a few minutes’ walk down the street, The Corner Market’s patio might offer the best people-watching north of Deep Ellum. Call 214/826-8282.

 —Lori Moffatt


Breakfast at the stockyards: Youngblood's tops its green c hile-packed omelet with freshly made salsa. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)At first glance, Youngblood’s Stockyard Café in Amarillo appears to be your everyday rural coffee shop. If you spend a little time here, however, you realize that the unassuming café is the heart and soul of Amarillo’s legendary stockyards, where more than 300,000 head of livestock are bought and sold each year. And the food here is a cut above what you’d expect to find at a restaurant attached to an auction barn.

Learn to cook Chinese from a globe-trotting expert

Dorothy Huang enjoys boiled coral shrimp, Chinese broccoli and steamed shrimp dumplings. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)By Jane Wu

“If you blink, you’ll miss it,” chides Dorothy Huang as she tosses cellophane noodles into a sizzling wok. She’s showing her enthusiastic (and hungry) class how to make chicken in lettuce wraps in the kitchen of Hollandaze Gourmet, a cookware shop near Lake Georgetown. “You can make sauces, chop, and marinate ahead of time. Throw it in a wok, and you have ‘Chinese fast food.’”

Huang’s amiable manner keeps her students coming back for more —many are repeat customers. “Dorothy always takes the time to tell you about each ingredient as well as how to prepare it,” says Peggy Rush, a devoted fan.

Huang’s classes can be found in several Tex-as cities and towns, including Austin, Clifton, Cuero, Fort Worth, and Georgetown, as well as in Houston, where Huang resides. Word of mouth has taken her as far as McAllen. “I love going to new places,” she says. In 2001, Huang helped launch China Stars, an upscale Chinese restaurant in Bogotá, Colombia.

On February 16 at Fung’s Kitchen in Houston, Huang teams up with Martin Yan (of Yan Can Cook on PBS) and the restaurant’s owner and head chef Hoi Fung to host a nine-course Chinese New Year Feast, which includes wine pairings, a lion dance, and cooking demonstrations. For reservations and information, call 713/779-2288; e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." ' + path + '\'' + prefix + ':' + addy27383 + '\'>'+addy_text27383+'<\/a>'; //--> . For information on Huang’s classes, call 281/493-0885; e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it." ' + path + '\'' + prefix + ':' + addy63454 + '\'>'+addy_text63454+'<\/a>'; //--> .

See related: Uncovering Houston's Chinatown


Chinatown Dim Sum and Market Tour

In Houston, the tour starts at Ocean Palace restaurant, 11215 Bellaire Blvd. The Austin tour begins at Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant, 10901 N. Lamar in North Austin. Each tour meets on a Saturday in alternating months (11:30 a.m.-
2:30 p.m.). Admission: $40. For details or registration, call Dorothy Huang at 281/493-0885, or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.." href="mailto:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Classic dim sum from Ocean Palace restaurant. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)

If the essence of a culture can be discovered through its food, no ethnic cuisine fits this notion better than Chinese. The consummate guide to all flavors Chinese—at least in Texas—is Dorothy Huang, who has hosted food tours of Houston’s Chinatown, along with her legendary cooking classes, for more than 35 years.

Misho's Oyster Company, in San Leon, processes tons of oysters from Galveston Bay. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)By Robb Walsh

Galveston Bay was calm, the sky was blue, and the water temperature hovered at 60 degrees—perfect oyster weather. I stood on the deck of the Trpanj, a typical Texas oyster lug. Wide across the middle with a huge foredeck, it looked like a barge with an upturned nose. The captain steered from a wheel set up front where he could see the dredge, a five-foot metal-rake-and-net contraption that he dragged across the bottom of the shallow bay.

With a belch of exhaust and a roar like a tractor-trailer entering the highway, a powerful diesel motor spun a spool of cable that hauled up the dredge full of oysters and debris. The dredge swung on its chain, and two Mexican deckhands balanced it on a metal frame welded to the side of the deck before tipping its contents onto a worktable. The deckhands sorted the “keepers” out of the gray jumble. Then they shoved the empty shells and undersized oysters back overboard and dropped the dredge again.

altThe Trpanj is owned by oysterman Misho Ivic and named after his home village in Croatia. Misho’s son Michael had agreed to take me out on the oyster boat and show me how the dredging business worked.

Michael grabbed a dripping oyster from the pile of keepers on the deck, pried off the top shell and handed it to me. Shocked by its sudden exposure to the air, the oyster’s delicate lips contracted almost imperceptibly. I tilted it back and slurped the wet flesh into my mouth, chewing slowly. The flavor was salty, a little metallic, and surprisingly sweet.

Eating raw oysters is at once perverse and spiritual. A freshly shucked oyster enters your mouth while it is still alive and dies while giving you pleasure. I savored the wonderfully slick texture, delicate briny flavor, and marine aroma. But since oysters from the waters of Galveston Bay can carry harmful bacteria, I also found myself contemplating my mortality as I swallowed. It’s quite an exciting thing to put in your mouth, a meek and vulnerable living being brimming with bold seafood flavors and vivid fantasies—and the threat of death.

For the last 20 years, oysters have been making a comeback on the American food scene. And as a food writer living in one of the nation’s largest oyster-producing states, I was keen on learning more about them. With my camera and notebook constantly in hand, I asked a lot of questions.

Ivic and the oystermen on the Trpanj regarded me as an earnest idiot. The tried-and-true formula for writing about oysters is to go find colorful oystermen and copy down their stories. You go out on a boat or visit an oyster farm and eat some quivering mollusks on the spot, rave about your intense perception of terroir (or “merroir,” as the marine version of this poetic sense of place is sometimes known). And then you quote the oysterman on the important facts to know about oysters.

I attempted to employ this formula myself. But it didn’t work out. In the five years it [took] me to write [the] book, I asked too many questions. I never lost my passion for oysters. But I did lose my innocence. I learned that terroir, or merroir, or whatever you call it, is a very flexible concept.

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