The woman at the next table whispered something to me. “Anchovy paste,” she said.
The Famous! King’s Inn
The address is 1116 County Road 2270, Riviera, but if you rely on GPS you’ll wind up lost. Instead, drive south from Kingsville on US 77 for 13 miles, then turn east (at the King’s Inn sign) on FM 628. Drive a little more than 8 miles on FM 628, and the restaurant will be straight ahead. Reservations are recommended.
“What?” Was this a secret password or something?
“Anchovy paste,” she repeated, glancing around to see if anyone might be watching. “It’s in the tartar sauce. And grapefruit juice, and crushed-up crackers, and those little red peppers. And mayonnaise and Miracle Whip, both. And Worcestershire sauce. I saw it online.”
This sort of gossip goes on all the time at the Famous! King’s Inn, perched at the edge of Baffin Bay at Loyola Beach south of Kingsville. At this mid-coast mainstay beloved for its plump fried shrimp and flaky grilled drum, the tartar-sauce mystery remains part of the legend.
“Only a select few get to make it,” says zipped-lipped manager Susie Collier, who’s been ringing up tickets there for about a dozen years. “Just one cook, the own-er, and myself. When we started working here, we had to sign a paper saying we would not give out the recipe.”
For that matter, they won’t say how they make anything else. Understandable. As a cornerstone of Baffin Bay history, the King’s Inn has every right to protect its recipes.
It all started in the mid-’30s, when local farmer Orlando Underbrink built a fishing pier at Loyola Beach, just a few miles north of Riviera, and opened a store that sold bait, snacks, and soft drinks. Loyola Beach sits at the lip of Baffin Bay, a site beloved by anglers for its plentiful drum, redfish, and speckled trout.
Before long, a local woman named Blanche “Mom” Wright started grilling fish and burgers for the fishermen and talked Underbrink into opening a café called Orlando’s. The café, it turned out, enjoyed more success than the store, so Underbrink decided to close the store and focus on the food.
The late Idella Strubhart, one of Underbrink’s daughters, once told me about frolicking around the place.
“When my husband and I were going together, we’d go out to Loyola Beach and jump off the pier and swim, then we’d climb out and dry off and go to Orlando’s,” she recalled. “He’d spend 50 cents and get two hamburgers and two Cokes. He’d have 20 cents left and we’d play the nickelodeon and dance until midnight.”
Wright employed a cook, Cottle Ware, who, with his wife, Alta Faye, bought the place in 1945 and eventually renamed it the King’s Inn. Ware enlarged the building over the years and repaired it after several hurricanes. The dance floor where Idella Strubhart cut a rug became a big, paneled dining room with sea-themed paintings on the walls.
Cottle and Alta Faye’s son Randy Ware took over from his parents in the 1970s. Randy eventually added the word “Famous!” to the sign on the rambling restaurant. Famous it is. For decades, the restaurant has drawn droves from all over the state. Many seek seats in the cheery sunroom overlooking the bay.
The two biggest lures: plump shrimp fried with a light dusting of flour, and the succulent drum, pan-grilled with a crispy cornmeal-and-flour coating. Also topnotch are fried oysters and slightly spicy crab cakes. A side of thin fries arrives with each order. There’s no menu, and the food is served family-style.
Let’s not ignore the sublime sides: Top sellers include the pile of lightly battered, crispy onion rings and a “small” (substantial, actually) avocado salad featuring an entire sliced avocado, with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and one Italian pepper, all drizzled with a citrus-laced Italian dressing.
All these treats have built the King’s Inn into a destination restaurant worthy of the 10-minute drive from US 77 across FM 628. Many a family on the way to South Padre Island has made that detour without a peep of protest from the kids, who tend to grow up and take their own families to the King’s Inn.
“This place holds a lot of memories for people,” Susie says.
As for that tartar sauce recipe, it’s credited to Cottle Ware and will remain forever a secret. I did get a server to whisper “crackers” to me once, at great personal risk. But no amount of wheedling will dislodge the ingredients from any cook toiling in the small kitchen.
“I’ve seen dozens of recipes on the Internet, and none of ’em is right,” Susie says. “I do know that it takes a lot of work.”