Not but a few short months ago I wrote a sad rambling post about how much I missed Bolivar and about my undying love for the Texas Crab Festival – so when I heard that the crab fest was back on and was going to be held jointly with Hayes Carll’s Stingaree Music Festival this year, I was ectstatic.
Bolivar’s Back indeed!
Crystal Beach and the entire Bolivar peninsula is obviously still struggling under the heavy weight of recovery. Homemade signs at the cut off to High Island implore you to call a 409 area code number to ‘save our pass’ – referencing Rollover Pass, the man-made cut at the thinnest point in the peninsula that some say helped the waters wash completely over and obliterate the community of Gilchrist and nearby Caplen Shores. Flat beach and tidal pools now abut highway 87 where 15 foot dunes used to be. Debris has for the most part been piled up everywhere, and mountains of sand ‘dumps’ are along the side of the road every few miles – the tailings of the huge operation to move what mother nature washed ashore.
In Crystal Beach and farther towards Point Bolivar, much of the first two rows of homes were pretty well damaged or destroyed, and about 50% of everything else behind it was too. Trees, grass, and most vegetation was either poisoned with salt water or covered in sand. Roadside signs are all that remain of a number of former landmarks – the True Value hardware store, Mama Rosa’s pizzeria, Sharkeys, Rancho Carribe golf course.
However, just underneath the facade of all that damage and destruction is a strong spirit of survival. The beaches at the High Island turnoff, now clearer and more accessible, are packed with campers and people having a great time. The landmark yellow house in Gilchrist – the only structure still standing on the Gulf side of the road – is being rebuilt, and the land around it reclaimed. Fisherman have put up a bait camp at Rollover and crowd the pilings on either side of the pass – just like they always have. Builders are advertising everywhere, promising to do their part to bring back Bolivar with ‘fair prices’. New construction is evident in every development, and restaurants are reopened. The ‘Big Store’, (the Gulf Coast Market) is open again, with a Texas General Land Office truck parked out front to help with recovery. The Bolivar Community Cemetery at loop 108 and 87 has been cleaned up and looks freshly mowed. The ferry landings have been dredged out and easily handled the traffic on crab fest weekend.
So, even with the devastation recovery is evident. The crab fest this past weekend served as the most poignant reminder of this combination of superficial damage over a deep survivors spirit. Gregory Park, the home of the festival was completely covered in sand by Ike. The baseball field is no more – backstops completely gone. The old 18-wheeler trailer that served as a combination crab fest storage trailer and stage was tossed aside and destroyed. However, somehow Ike spared the metal roof over the basketball court, and the steel legs holding it up amazingly didn’t get taken out by a house floating by. The park is probably 12 rows off the beach. It survived, and the crab fest did too.
So – enough pontificating – onto the food. I walked in on Saturday and made a beeline for my favorite crab fest starter – the pistollete. Some years a few vendors have them, sometimes only one, sometimes none. In this case, there was a small trailer selling crawfish pistolletes, and they also had a sign advertising ‘Real Natchitoches Meat Pies’. As one with roots in west LA and a fan of Lasyone’s in Natchitoches (their motto – “You haven’t been to Natchitoches until you’ve been to Lasyone’s” – is emblazoned on a tumbler I got there) I had to try that as well.
The pistolletes were not as right out of the fryer as I like them – this means the bread gets a little dry but it also provides for safer eating, as the filling is not hot as molten lava. Although the crawfish filling inside was a little doughy, they were spiced really nicely. The meat pies were much smaller than I remembered from Lasyone’s, and looked frighteningly like the $1.00 meat pie a friend of mine from school used to eat for lunch at our HISD school cafeteria – but one bite proved my fears misplaced. The meat was a really nicely seasoned ground beef, mixed with fresh onions and peppers, and the crust/shell was flaky and held together. It was a pretty darn good meat pie, and I ate a few of those over the course of the day.
Next, I headed over to the crab vendors in search of the legendary softshell crab sandwich. At La Playita’s booth I found what I was looking for. They fried mine up to order, and served it whole on a sesame seed hamburger bun with a not-so-generous smear of tartar sauce. I’ve had better softshell crab sandwiches. I find these are tastier on Mrs. Baird’s Texas Toast and with a lot more tartar sauce. I didn’t have too much time to piddle and ask for more sauce though because I had to wolf down the sandwich and go pick up the wife, who was waiting for me at the ferry landing.
When I returned it was back to La Playita for BBQ crabs. These were not cajun style BBQ crabs – rather, they were boiled crabs put on a smoker for a bit and slathered in BBQ sauce. I got a dozen.
Even sharing with Houston Foodie these babies took me nearly 90 minutes to finish off, and were probably the messiest food I have ever eaten. I think I still have BBQ sauce under my fingernails! However, the crab was cooked just right, and was exceptionally fresh – not a mushy part to be found. Although the BBQ sauce was nothing special, the combo of sweet tangy sauce, a little bit of smoke and fresh lump crab was excellent.
I took a little break after this – wait, who am I kidding – I went straight back to the festival food, finding a little trailer advertising it was from Woodville TX – another place I am quite familiar with in my trips into west LA. I noticed they had Frito pie and so put my order in. The older woman behind the counter told me the chili was her secret recipe – and it was pretty good, nice and meaty and lacking that anathema of Texas chili – beans. I ate it a little too quick and didn’t let the Fritos get too mushy, but it was pretty good.
Back to La Playita for crab nachos. These are an old crab festival fave of mine – basically ballpark-style nachos with a can of jumbo lump crab meat dumped on top. The canned crabmeat tastes a little fishy but you really can’t beat it as a trashy-tasty dish.
Houston Foodie had picked up some gumbo from the Lighthouse Krewe – a multiple time winner of best gumbo at the crab fest. Although I am not a fan of a dark, roasty roux, this one was pretty good. However, the cup he got was absolutely chock full of chicken bones. He joked he was ‘getting his calcium’, but it seemed like they made chicken stock and just added a roux to it without taking out the carcass. I later got some gumbo from Howard’s, and it was dark and alright – nothing special.
Unfortunately with only one day at the fest I couldn’t get crabs at every place. I missed the boiled crabs at Howard’s, which a local told me were his faves because Howard was just a crab man and didn’t even run a restaurant. The crabs from his booth were clearly the biggest ones. I also did not try the ‘cajun spicy’ crabs from coconuts, even though I think those were authentic cajun BBQ crabs.
Maybe next year.
I did get to take a little side trip over to Stingaree with Houston Foodie and have some wonderful Muggaritas and chat up the owner (Mr. Brad Vratis) regarding an upcoming Houston Chowhounds visit to his restaurant.
The music was absolutely fantastic. I was able to catch Jesse Dayton, the John Evans Band, Hayes Carll and Sisters Morales. With the sun setting over the stage, a cold beer in my hand and that music playing I really couldn’t have asked for more.
The crowds were a little smaller. There weren’t quite as many crab vendors. The carnival was scaled down – just a few moonwalks. But the big sign over the main stage proclaiming that ‘BOLIVAR’S BACK!’ said it all. A great return to the beach, and as usual some darn good eatin’!