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Texas with a Little Something Extra

By Lavender June 4, 2010

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Beaumont Offers Culinary Delights

Travel is broadening, they say. That’s why I’m back from Beaumont, Texas, with a suitcase of wasted waistbands and splintered zippers. But I take no personal responsibility. As a local crooner twanged across the airwaves, “Blame it on Texas/Don’t blame it on me.”

Beaumont, snuggled in the southeastern corner of the state, was a sleepy byway before the oil boom. When someone tapped a gusher atop Spindletop Hill in 1901, the boom was off and spurting, to the tune of 285 rigs before the inevitable bust.

Crawfish ready to shell from Duguet’s farm; McFaddin-Ward House: what oil money can build in Beaumont. Photos by Carla Waldemar

Today, folks can visit a recreation of the oil-rush town at Spindletop Boomtown Museum, traipsing its wooden sidewalks to peek into an old-time general store, livery stable, photography studio, barbershop, and whatnot, climaxed by a replica of the iconic derrick that produced 100,000 barrels daily! Nowadays, it gushes on demand, as Frank Henley, 81, AKA “gusher man,” pushes a button, and faux black gold erupts to spray us. Not to worry: These days, it’s just water.

Head on over to the beyond-gorgeous McFaddin-Ward House, of 1907, to gape at all the luxurious trappings oil money could buy. Even the carriage house is outfitted better than most hotels. Then, step into the shiny, new Texas Energy Museum to explore interactively how, in past eons, oil came to be, and later on, refined.

Across the plaza gleams the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, with arresting contemporary exhibits such as the folk art of homeboy Felix “Fox” Harris, who welded astounding totems out of found metal objects. He stars among the works of regional black artists collected by a local black physician.

But I’m here for the food, and Dr. Hines also owns Suga’s, a classy restaurant where further outreaches of his stunning collection accent a just-as-stunning Modern Southern menu. More later.

Beaumont is the sweet spot where ranchers’ barbecue is treated to a lagniappe of Cajun cooking—Louisiana is only 30 miles away, and Gulf crab and crawfish reign—bolstered by chilies from south of the border that fuel the city’s hearty Tex-Mex fare.

Somehow, the Italians also got into the act. Rao’s Bakery, a local fixture since 1941, is ruled by godfather Jake Tortorice, offering Sicilian tuna sandwiches and homemade gelato in flavors like stracciatella and zabaglione. But morning is prime time here, when the sausage rolls and sticky buns come out, and baker Frank Rodriguez is halfway through his daily quota of King Cakes, a Mardi Gras coffeecake that knows no season in these parts. Stop by for the cappuccino, stay on for the gossip. As Jake explains, “The city manager comes in every morning to find out what’s going on in the county.”

Or two-step on over to Carlito’s. That’s where Carlito Hernandez mans the breakfast rush, doling out menudo, chilaquiles, tamales, barbacoa, and more, along with the land’s best sopapillas—honey-dipped doughnuts—as Bill Clinton swore during his stop at this cantina.

Nothing better to settle our stomachs than a lazy ride on the bayous of the Neches River—one of the last wild rivers of Texas—as it meanders through Big Thicker National Preserve. Thanks to the trained eye, and passion, of Captain Debbie of Cardinal Neches Riverboat Excursions, we spotted gators, turtles, and snowy egrets, as we slid past the pleated knees of mighty cypress dressed in Spanish moss. Kind of makes you hungry, though, and it was high time—well, any time is—for barbecue.

Head to Fat Mac’s, where, on the screen porch under the tin roof with its printed advisory that “real people eat meat,” we became fully qualified by demolishing platters piled with pulled pork, long-simmered brisket, and crusty ribs. This is the kind of place where table decor consists of rolls of paper towels and homemade hot sauce in industrial-size containers. Sides like baked beans, corn pudding, potato salad, and dirty rice didn’t go to waste, either. Think I’ll have another Shiner Bock.

If you believe barbecued pig is the staff of life, just wait till you get to Sartin’s, where it’s barbecued blue crab that rules. They’re delivered by the platterful, hot enough to require another Shiner’s, and served with homemade red and tartar sauces. Crack ’em until you run out of room, or paper towels.

Pop on over to Gator Country Adventure Park to say hi to Big Al. The thousand-pound, 13-foot alligator has been around for 75 years, siring plenty of offspring, which you can watch, or handle—“Quick hands, or no hands” is how the drill goes—under the watchful eye of proprietor Gary, who rescues gators stranded when hurricanes rush through, and breeds others from eggs.

While Gary breeds gators, the Duguets harvest crawfish—far tastier—to the tune of 140,000 pounds of the squirmy, pinching critters a year, sold by the megasackful. Over in their nearby rice plantation—they alternate productions of the two delicacies in their waters—we put away more than our share, along with another Shiner. “Can’t have crawfish without beer,” the Duguets instruct. Infused with TexJoy seasoning, they’re mightily addictive, and worth the threat of “crawful tunnel” via the peeling exercise.

But not all the eats are down and dirty here. Scrub up, and head off to Easys for Cajun martinis fueled with Tabasco. Tapas include killer meatballs marinated in brown sugar and chili powder; black bean empanadas; crab cakes served with mango-poblano sauce; or the “trash” mélange of seafood sautéed in blackened butter. Easys is easily the hottest meet-the-boys market for Beaumont’s gay blades.

Spindletop Steakhouse, a downtown destination, stars a Texas-centric menu as refined through the eyes of Chuck Harris, a “Go Texas” certified chef who preaches the locovore gospel in the form of foie gras beignets paved with Texas agave cactus nectar; oyster muffuletta paired with a shot glass of shrimp chimichuri; and tomatoes stacked with Texas mozzarella. Next came blue crab-stuffed flounder on a bed of Texas caviar—a jumble of corn kernels, green peppers, sweet peas, and black-eyed peas—served with Becker fume blanc, the pride of Texas. Then followed Texas-raised Kobe beef aside a creamy flan of roasted shallots, and a glass of lusty Llano Viviano, the state’s premier red.

Finally, a stop at Suga’s Deep South Cuisine & Jazz Bar—sensational sax soloist tonight—for more of Dr. Hines’s avant art and equally-forward dishes from the kitchen, starting off with an app plate of okra rellenos. Keep the groove going with a salad starring crab cakes atop some zesty fried green tomatoes in peach vinaigrette. Then, choose—I dare you—from buffalo tenderloin stuffed with spinach, shiitakes, and goat cheese, served with a side of toasted grits; pork osso buco atop creamy shrimp hominy and roasted Campari tomatoes; or pork chops sauced with Maker’s Mark and Mission figs, paired with crawfish-and-sausage cornbread stuffing, plus braised greens. End with a Southern peach cobbler topped with peach ice cream, or Suga’s bread pudding.

Finally, thank your lucky stars you’ve been to Beaumont, where the eatin’s even better than the gushers.

For your shot at “Texas with a little something extra,” call (800) 392-4401, or visit www.beaumontcvb.com.

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