Oysters by the Dozen: Twelve Spots for Decadence on the Half Shell
Mention oysters and you are bound to get a strong reaction. Chalk it up to their distinct texture or the oceanic liquor found at the bottom of the shell, oysters certainly fall into the love-’em-or-hate-’em category of edibles.
Until recent years, there were limited places for Austin’s oyster-loving population to find these tiny gifts from the sea, and they usually came with an obligatory bowl of cocktail sauce or served in fried form on a po’boy. These days, plenty of delicious reinterpretations and regional varieties keep any oyster connoisseur occupied.
“What I perceive is the influx of folks from East and West coast may have driven a demand for those oysters (and from countries other than U.S.),” Roberto San Miguel of San Miguel Seafood says.
“Gulf oysters get a bad rap — undeservedly so. Summers can be tough, especially during drought. Oysters need fresh water and a perfect salinity for them to be healthy … (but) Texas Parks & Wildlife does a tremendous job of monitoring and working with the three main harvesters in Texas. If there’s a problem, they will close the harvest, and they monitor it closely.”
Each year, oyster season closes during summer months (anywhere between May and July) and re-opens in the fall (anywhere between late September and November).
Here are some places to get them while the slurping is good:
Quality Seafood (5621 Airport Blvd. 512-454-5827). Quality Seafood has been providing Austin diners (and many restaurants via their wholesale department) fresh seafood since 1938.
A new eight-foot oyster grill is part of an expansion of the restaurant to 16,000 square feet, and behind it you can watch Mike Craig and Dante Oliver shucking at breakneck speeds and serving the newest addition to their menu: rich, luscious Gulf oysters grilled with a white wine shallot butter reduction and melted parmesan ($9.99 half dozen/$17.99 dozen). Chef Rich Taylor says the key is leaving a little extra butter in the shell. “You want a little bit of that slurp because that’s the decadent part of it,” he says.
Owner Carol Huntsberger said the idea came from the popularity of grilled oysters in New Orleans. “We just thought it would be a neat new thing, that the grill would … add some personality but stay within our (Cajun-style) characteristics.”
As far as raw oysters on the half shell, in addition to Gulf oysters ($6.99 half dozen/$12.99 dozen, primarily from Texas, though they do bring in Louisiana oysters one the Texas season closes), Quality is currently serving Blue Points out of Bridgeport, Conn. ($8.99 half dozen/$17.99 dozen) and Prince Edward Island Malpeques should be available in the coming weeks.
Watch for a Thursday night oyster special once crawfish season ends in June.
Parkside (301 E. Sixth St. 512-474-9898). When Parkside opened in 2008, it was one of the first high-end (non-chain) restaurants offering a rotating selection of oysters from the East and West coasts.
“I love oysters,” says chef owner Shawn Cirkiel. “There’s nothing quite like a glass of bubbles or a cold beer and a plate of oysters. Austin didn’t have anything like that. The closest was Gulf oysters, with lots of crackers and cocktail sauce. So we realized could do something that wasn’t being done and something that we love.”
Parkside carries 12 to 15 varieties, which Cirkiel sources from various farmers. “We always try to get a good balance of regions and flavor profiles,” he says, listing Lucky Limes (Prince Edward Island) and Caraquettes (New Brunswick) as a couple of his current favorites.
On the menu are several selections from New York, Virginia and Massachusetts (such as Rappahannocks and Cotuits), and British Columbia represents the west coast with Royal Miyagis and Shakespeare Creeks. All available by the half dozen ($14), dozen ($28), or mixed platter ($28-64), but those in the know go on Wednesdays, when all their oysters and sparkling wine are half price.
Deckhand (500 Parker Drive. 512-368-3379). Owner Tarzan Saybounkam has been shucking since he was a teenager, and he went on to own a commercial shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico. He worked on oyster boats when shrimp was out of season and continues to source oysters from the connections he’s maintained with boats on different bays along the coast, mainly Galveston and Rockport.
His restaurant, now two years old, is laid out like a diner— complete with a U-shaped counter and swiveling bar seats, where customers can perch and watch shuckers. The menu reflects a good deal of Cajun influence from his days spent on the coast (with offerings like boudin and etouffe), but the real treats are the dishes influenced by Tarzan’s Laotian background, incorporating Southeast Asian spices and just a little heat.
Not one for dousing my oysters in much of anything, I was captivated by their Deckhand sauce (anchovies, lime, sriracha, cilantro, garlic) and squirted it liberally on each plump, juicy oyster ($7.99 half dozen/$12.99 dozen). They also offer daily specials.
Perla’s (1400 S. Congress Ave. 512-291-7300) and Clark’s Oyster Bar (1200 W. Sixth St. 512-297-2525).
“(Tom Moorman and I) opened Perla’s after working with meats, smoke, and comfort foods at Lambert’s, so I think we were excited to do the opposite and work with very fresh, light ingredients,” Larry McGuire says. “We both travel a lot and definitely saw a need for great seafood in a casual, fun, beachy environment.”
As far as oysters, they’ll have at least 15 varieties at any given time, mostly from the East and West coasts: plump, creamy little Shigokus (Washington), mild Komo Gways in a delicate fluted shell (British Columbia) and briny, slightly bitter Fisher Islands (New York).
A dozen of these bad boys could cost you anywhere from $16-$20, but come during happy hour (3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday) for $.50 off each oyster and $2 off drinks.
Clark’s Oyster Bar, McGuire’s second seafood venture, opened last year. “Clark’s was really inspired by Swan’s Oyster Depot and great neighborhood spots in San Francisco,” McGuire says.
The current selection of oysters is representative of eastern Canada, with options like Blackberry Points (Prince Edward Island) and French Kisses (New Brunswick), all accompanied with a humble amount of the same delicious mignonette, fresh horseradish, and piquant cocktail sauce served at Perla’s.
Expect to pay a pretty penny when you step inside Clark’s, as each little party in a shell runs about $3 a pop. Their bar menu features four different oyster shooters, each deliciously different than the next. The Oyster Bomb ($9) is a sake bomb one kumomoto oyster richer, while the Scandinavian ($8) makes a PEI oyster into a craft cocktail by adding Aquavit, Orchard Pear liqueur, lime, and Swedish herb bitters.
Hillside Farmacy (1209 E. 11th St. 512-628-0168). Hillside Farmacy is known for sourcing almost exclusively from local farmers and growers, but head chef Sonya Cote, who says raw oysters are her favorite food, had to make an exception when it came to the shellfish.
“The oyster company that supplies HSF is from my hometown of North Kingstown, RI. … Our house oyster (when available) is the Quonset Points, which is where I grew up and I remember eating the most delicious morsels of oysters right out of the Narragansett Bay.”
Hillside Farmacy’s oyster list changes every other day and the selection is reflected on a chalkboard at the front. They have about 10-15 in constant rotation, including characteristically skinny Rhode Island Wilds, clean-tasting Fire Lakes (New Brunswick), mineral-rich Gigamotos (Washington), and smooth Fanny Bays (British Columbia).
“Mostly, we try to find oysters that other places don’t carry … I do have a few tricks up my sleeve with the connections that I have back home,” Cote says. “I love sharing the feeling of sitting on a beach in New England in the summertime, sipping on the cool bay oysters after swimming at Charleston Beach. The seaweed that we serve the oysters on is also from the bay.”
Hillside Farmacy offers happy hour deals ($2 an oyster/$7 half dozen/$14 dozen) on select East coast oysters from 4 p.m. to 6pm daily, and half off all oysters and oysters Rockefeller from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays.
Lucy’s Fried Chicken (2218 College Ave. 512-297-2423). Oysters might not be the first thing that comes to mind as an accompaniment to fried chicken, but the decision was a no-brainer for James Holmes. “I grew up eating Gulf oysters on crackers with hot sauce,” he says. “At Lucy’s, I wanted to create a real Texas vibe — Texas music, beers, chickens — so why not oysters?”
Gulf oysters can be ordered on the half shell “with red sauce and crackers” ($14), but the real stars are the half dozens cooked on a wood fire grill ($13.50). “I got turned on to grilled oysters in Northern California,” says Holmes, “so I came home and started experimenting on the grill, using a wood fire which works really well with Gulf oysters because they hold up.”
His creations include the Diablo, topped with habanero butter, jalapeño , parmesan, and bacon, and the Texan, with wild boar chorizo, garlic butter, and housemade hot sauce. They also offer a different grilled oyster special each week, which could be crowned with anything from Funyuns to kimchi.
Uchi (801 S Lamar Blvd. 512-916-4808) and Uchiko (4200 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-916-4808). “A super cold, sweet and savory oyster is an amazing way to start the dining experience most anywhere,” chef owner Tyson Cole says, “but especially at Uchi and Uchiko, considering how clean and light the food is overall to complement them.”
Both restaurants offer oysters on the half shell ($4 piece/$24 half dozen) which rotate in variety and, just like their sushi pieces, feature a yakumi, or flavor-accentuating garnish. The current Uchiko special is a buttery Duxbury oyster from Maine, topped with lemon and guajillo chili pearls, which add an acidic pop to the finish. Uchi’s current selection is a light, Pacific Shigoku complemented by a clean, cilantro stem mignonette.
“Most of the oysters we sell at our restaurants are smaller, cold water oysters shipped from Browne Trading in Maine,” Cole says. “I love the clean ocean flavor from the smaller Japanese variety of oysters including Kushi, Kumamoto, and Shigokus.”
Kenichi (419 Colorado St. 512-320-8883). Hailing from the Jersey shore, Kenichi’s executive chef Shane Stark grew up around oysters, and remembers Blue Points being the most common. “When I worked in a fish market as a kid, we always dreaded when the customer asked for fresh shucked oysters,” he says. “I couldn’t stand them. We used to dare each other to eat them, (but) eventually I started to enjoy them.”
Currently on the menu at Kenichi are deep-cupped Beau Soleil (New Brunswick) oysters topped with orange-wasabi mignonette and tobiko (half dozen for $14), as well as an item on special: green garlic and sunchoke velouté topped with crispy Gulf oysters and a drizzle of chile oil ($9).
Foreign & Domestic (306 E. 53rd St. 512-459-1010). Ned Elliot has declared Tuesdays to be Dollar Oyster Night at the 47-seat restaurant. The current selections (he will always offer two) are Malpeques and Conway Royales, both from Prince Edward Island. Follow each plump, juicy mouthful with a refreshing swig of selected beer for $2.
Elliot has also designed a small and similarly well-priced menu to accompany the briny treats, such as bacon & chorizo arancini hush puppies with tomato jam ($5), Gulf fish ceviche with bottarga and mussels ($6), and confit squid salad ($6). For only $33, enjoy The Whole Shebang: one of each dish, a dozen oysters, and Jodi Elliot’s homemade bread with butter.
Eddie V’s (301 E. Fifth St. 512-472-1860 and 9400 Arboretum Blvd. 512-342-2642). Since the first location opened downtown in 2000, Eddie V’s has been best known for serving steaks and seafood in a classic, upscale atmosphere. They have one of the longest-running oyster happy hours in town. From 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday (and all night Sunday and Monday), their Louisiana oysters are only a $1 (regularly $8 half dozen/$14 dozen).
They also have daily North Atlantic market oysters on the menu ($16/half dozen), including briny Beau Soleil (New Brunswick); creamy Chef’s Creeks (British Columbia); well-balanced Malapeques (Prince Edward Island); sweet, plump Wellfleets (Massachusetts); and mild, meaty Blue Points (Long Island).
Captain Benny’s (5700 N Interstate 35 Frontage Road. 512-452-1417). Follow the lighthouse on I-35, just south of 290E, and it will lead you to dozens so well-priced ($7.95), they don’t even need a happy hour.
Tiki tables dot the patio and the interior is no-frills — checkered tablecloths, several TV screens, your standard beer signs on the wall. Their oysters come from the Texas Gulf (mainly Galveston), arrive at your table heaped with fresh lemon and lime slices, and couldn’t go down easier.
Abel’s on the Lake (3825 Lake Austin Blvd., Suite 20. 512-904-0570). Abel’s on the Lake has a daily happy hour boasting $.50 oysters from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. (regularly $7.99 half dozen/$14.99 dozen). Their single selection varies throughout the season, but they’re currently carrying Texas-sized Gulf coasters.
Dozens on the half shell ($6) paired with their $3.50 happy hour Deep Eddy vodka cocktails and enjoyed on their lakeside deck just before sunset? Not a bad way to kick off the weekend.