A burble of laughter that sounds like the Pillsbury Doughboy emanates from the large man behind the bar dressed in loudly checkered golf pants. The sound belies the man who shares it with the world, a broad-chested, ponytailed former shrimper who speaks with a baritone perfectly suited for his deadpan delivery.
"I hope he’s not in trouble," he says of a regular whose freezing cold beer sipping had just been interrupted by a wife who’d arrived to retrieve him from his bar stool. The bemused lilt returned.
The source of the laugh is Sompheng Saybounkham, but you can call him "Tarzan." Everyone else does. He’s the humble king of Deckhand Oyster Bar on South Lamar Boulevard.
Maybe Tarzan’s gentle laughter is informed by his Nichiren Buddhist beliefs, or maybe you could connect the levity to the gratitude of a man who’s endured prostate cancer, leukemia and lymphoma. But if you knew nothing of his faith or health, which he has written about publicly, you could just as easily tie Tarzan’s joyful comportment to the fact that he simply seems to be a man who loves what he does. On this day, that’s feeding charbroiled Gulf oysters topped with the creamy crunch of bacon, cheese and crab ($16.99/dozen), and chilled Gulf shrimp ($13.99) to a bar full of customers. On other days, that’s playing golf.
Saybounkham, a native of Laos, immigrated to Texas in the early 1980s, and worked in Austin-area restaurants and as a masseuse for years, interspersing his time laboring for others with a hardscrabble tenure as an independent shrimper in Rockport. His love for seafood and his love for a woman, wife Tippy Saybounkham, combined to change the course of his life.
Tarzan and Tippy, also a regular presence at the restaurant, opened the original Deckhand Oyster Bar at the southern edge of Round Rock in 2010, and the tastes of Tippy’s native Thailand are interspersed throughout the menu. The mix of casual seafood restaurant vibes, Thai flavors and famously attentive Thai hospitality make Deckhand, which opened its South Lamar Boulevard location in 2016, a unique offering on the Austin culinary landscape. Houston and New Orleans have drawn attention and acclaim for wedding Southeast Asian and Gulf Coast cuisines, and Deckhand feels like it would feel right at home in that same stretch of coast.
You’ll find Thai influences throughout the menu, though the specials list in the back of the menu is exclusively Thai. There you’ll find the evocatively named Swamp Curry ($13.99), a mild yellow curry swimming with shrimp that’s balanced with sweetness of coconut milk and spice and takes a peppery bitterness from stalks of sauteed Chinese celery. Want more heat? Turn to a fragrant bowl of green curry soup studded with plump shrimp, notes of lemongrass and ginger, peeking through the buzz ($13.99). You can order tom kha gai in a more restrained sized cup ($4.50), though the aromatics find less expression in that soup. The Southeast Asian influences also extend to the seasonal crawfish offerings ($8.99/pound), as the large, stingy mud bugs are boiled in a traditional brew of aromatic Cajun seasonings and beer and then coated in spicy butter associated with the VietCajun crawfish craze.
If you want the tastiest marriage of Gulf coast and Southeast Asia, order JT boudin ($4.99), cut a thin slice of the funky herbaceous pork mixture, spread it on a cracker and hit it with Deckhand’s take on nam jim in a squirt bottle. The pungent sting of the fish sauce, garlic and Thai chili blend brings the primal boudin to life. The sauce enhances dishes across the menu. Do I want it as a mignonette with my Gulf oysters the size of elephant ears ($15.99/dozen)? Yes, I do. Does it electrify salt-and-pepper tempura shrimp ($12)? Indeed. What about using it to double down on the tanginess of tender moo ping boar skewers ($9.99) or drizzled across the bronzed squares of a whole pompano fish fried ($20) and scored into a tic-tac-toe board? Check and check again.
The Thai wattage gets turned down but the flavor doesn’t in a ginger-infused wine broth that bathes a dish of plump black mussels ($14.99), and for a true taste of Texas, you’ll find a butter-drenched and pico-and-crawfish-stuffed catfish ($14.99) served with neon green broccoli and limp green beans that would make a Luby’s buffet blush.
A farmers market purist could roll his eyes at the steamed vegetables, but they feel like comfort at Deckhand. The same kind of comfort and familiarity that you get from the staff, some of whom are family and the rest of whom are treated like it.
Tippy’s daughter May, who’s called Tarzan "Daddy" for most of her life, is a consistent presence at the South Lamar restaurant, entertaining patrons with the same dry wit as her stepfather, although with slightly more colorful language, and anticipating guests’ needs. She seems to know everyone’s name and their orders. I’ve seen her greet a guest without having to turn and see who it was. It’s the kind of genuine, Jedi-like hospitality that you rarely find these days in Austin, at a restaurant full of character and the type of characters that feel perfectly suited for a coastal town operating on island time.
And if you’re new or don’t already have a favorite dish, don’t worry. May will advise you on some of her preferences (a sauteed mix of seafood called the Drunken Sailor, but sub the red curry for the one-dimensional soy-and-oyster sauce) or point you toward the "secret menu." When she saw me finishing up my boudin, she told me about the "secret" dish of a boudin po boy topped with crawfish and cheese. Great intuition. "Why didn’t you tell me about that?!" I asked excitedly, already thinking about the next visit.
May grinned. Somewhere Tarzan chuckled.
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