“Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I am going to start with a highly abridged (Yes, this is abridged.) version of a story as told by Bill Cherry at texasescapes.com. He writes:
“I woke up this morning thinking about Galveston, the island off of the coast of Texas, where I was born and spent the majority of my life…. And that conjures a memory of its own. It’s a story about my Galveston friend Benno Deltz…
“Armed with his…education and a couple of years in the Navy, married, and with young children, Benno Deltz went to work with his life-long friend, Wayne Gaido. Together they got on-the-job training from famed Galveston restaurateur Mike Gaido, as they tried their hand at operating the old Surf Drive-In. They had renamed it Wayne’s.
“A couple of years later, Wayne’s went the way of most of the drive-in concepts, and Wayne and Benno went to work full-time at Gaido’s…
“…twenty years later…Benno opened his first restaurant. The kitchen equipment was mainly a pan or two he had scavenged, a used deep fat fryer he had scrubbed and then scrubbed again, and some kitchen utensils from Kmart. The dining room furnishings were makeshift and sparse…
“Within a few months, Benno was out of money and failure was definitely getting ready to deal him the final blow. By chance, a prominent Galveston businessman walked in with his accountant to have lunch. It was 1983.
“’How’re ya doin’?’ the man asked before lunch.
“’I’m out of money and if something doesn’t happen quickly, I’m going to have to shut the doors,’ Benno found himself admitting in a barely audible whisper, saying it for the first time, even to himself.
“The man and the accountant had a big lunch of fried shrimp and oysters, seasoned just right. It was a lunch that would have made Mr. Gaido proud of his protégé. Then the man and the accountant wished Benno well and left.
“Within the hour the man called. ‘Benno,’ he said, ‘there is $50,000 waiting for you at the bank. Go pick it up. It comes with only one string. If you make it, I want my money back. If you don’t, you won’t owe me a dime, and you won’t have to worry about ever hearing about it from me again.’
“(Today) Benno’s on the Beach, is managed by his 53-year old son, Tracy. Diners there find the original recipes and the strict attention to detail that Mike Gaido had taught to Benno…. It’s a package that presents a subtle homage to the time…when his mentor Mr. Gaido was teaching him to stretch a long string from table to table to make certain all of the plates and silverware were perfectly lined up, and, of course, to the man with the 50 thousand bucks who enjoyed standing back and watching the young man…accomplish his dreams…”
Is that a story or what?
Like most major tourist destinations, Galveston has experienced what I call the “chainafication” of America. The city has two Joe’s Crab Shacks, Bubba Gump’s, Rainforest Café, Starbucks, Jimmy John’s, numerous restaurants owned by Landry Inc. (not surprising since they are headquartered in Houston which is about an hour away), and many restaurants operated by “restaurant groups.” But a few independent souls carry on and we hope that they continue to prosper.
So we arrive in Galveston, quickly unhitch, and set forth for a mid-afternoon lunch. Benno’s is casual to the max. You order at the counter and find a seat armed with a numbered placard.
We both started with a cup of shrimp and sausage gumbo. What is a Cajun dish doing in a Texas Gulf Coast community? Well, there is a strong Cajun presence running from Houston east to the border with Louisiana. And not all of this can be attributed to post-Katrina evacuation. I remember that during our first trip to Lafayette, LA we went to the Liberty Theater in Eunice one Saturday night. One of the bands on that evening’s bill came from eastern Texas and the MC explained to us Cajun neophytes that East Texas was also “Cajun Country.”
So how did the gumbo fare on its travel westward. Pretty good. But something was lost along the way. First, Benno’s did not have the nutty flavor you get from a long-cooked roux. Second, the smoked sausage was on the mild side. Obviously this was not spicy andouille.
But we didn’t come to Benno’s for gumbo. We came because I learned that Benno’s offers one of our all time seafood favorites—deep fried soft shell crabs. I was lounging on the sofa one evening and caught the 102nd (or so it seemed) episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives where Guy Fieri was at Casamento's in New Orleans. Most know Casamento’s for their raw and fried oysters and we have enjoyed many of the latter here over the years. But Guy also showed the owner frying up a batch of soft shells. I had been craving them ever since.
So we decided to share a soft shell platter—three battered and fried crabs with fries, cole slaw, and jalapeno-studded hush puppies. And when the platter was set on our table, all I could say was “Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.” These were perfect. The little legs were all battered and crispy. And then you would bite into the body and a burst of hot and sweet crab juice would blast into your mouth. And, best of all, there was no indication that the crab and started to regrow its shell. (“A blue crab may shed [or molt] its hard outer shell 18 to 23 times during its three year life span. Each time the crab backs out of its shell, it is a soft shell for only a few hours and must be removed from the water immediately in order to prevent the shell from becoming hard” [somd.com]).
With the platter, we ordered a loaf of garlic bread. We cut each crab in half and, in my case, slathered some really good tartar sauce on the bread and then plunked the crab half on top of the bread. This is eating at its best. We were in chowhound heaven.
So while the gumbo only merits 3.0 Addies, the soft shells were the ultimate 5.0 Addie dining experience.
To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.
* Adam Richman is host of Man v Food on the Travel Channel.