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Shuck Shack

An East Side fish fry with cold beer, fried shrimp and hard truths on the half-shell

Mike Sutter
The hush puppies aren't available as a side, but they're definitely worth ordering as an appetizer. The barbecued oysters, however, were overwhelmed by the Parmesan.

Some 15 years ago, in a failed role as one of those ironic hipster people, I took the occasional side trip to an oyster bar shaped like a boat along Interstate 35. The lowbrow draft beer was ice-cold. Oysters and fried shrimp were cheap. I figured I was much too cool to be drinking Coors Light in a boat-shaped fish house, but give me my down-market style points, right?

Idiot.

That place had my number, mine and the other bowling-shirted poseurs in the pre-fab shabbiness around me. Bowling shirts have given way to factory-faded slogan tees, but the throwback design aesthetic lives on in places like Lustre Pearl and Clive Bar on Rainey Street, which happen to share ownership with Shuck Shack, a seafood place on the East Side with modest prices, a talent for frying and the covered-porch feel of a Gulf Coast boarding house.

Shuck Shack opened this summer at East Cesar Chavez and Chicon streets, in the refurbished two-story, clapboard-sided former home of the casual cafe Azul across the street from Mr. Natural. Along one wall of the main room, stacks of beer boxes — Lone Star, Shiner, Dos Equis — suggest a blue-collar bar, but the thick white paint is fresh, the furniture is chrome with slate-blue upholstery and a long, smooth bar rail matches the light wood floors.

Out back, it's an oasis of picnic tables with crushed granite on the ground and tropical plants around the perimeter and strings of white lights overhead. Goldfish swim in a galvanized steel tub, and red plastic chairs circle around upturned cable spools fitted with patio umbrellas. Sandy horseshoe and bocce ball pits run along an extended sideyard.

Like barkers at this congenial backyard fish-fry carnival, Pearl and Lone Star beers are $2. Always.

Frying is something the Shuck Shack does often and does well. Catfish, shrimp and oysters are the cornmeal-battered stars of a fried seafood combo ($12.95). The catfish has that river-bottom earthiness and the shrimp are clean and crisp, some of the best I've had at any place that uses paper baskets. The dish comes with two sides, and I'll recommend any of the three on the menu: crisp battered fries, tangy Texas caviar with black-eyed peas and hominy or a light cole slaw with carrot, purple and green cabbage and slivers of mild pepper.

Hush puppies aren't available as a side. Shuck Shack fries them as an appetizer at $5.95 for a basket of golfball-sized crunchers with whole kernels of corn and the same seasoning profile as turkey stuffing. They go well with everything. They're pretty good by themselves.

I've saved the oysters for last, because oysters need their own review space for a place with 'Shuck' in the name. Oysters are hitting a new restaurant stride with half-shell specialists around town: Perla's, Parkside, Olivia and others. The Shack doesn't deal in raw oysters at the moment. A caveat on the menu talks about 'getting right with the City' on that issue and says further that 'they're not in season.'

I understand that, and even without those hurdles, I have to guess that raw oysters would strain the Shack's admirably modest price points. But the barbecued oysters ($8.95), which come six to an order on half-shells with lemon, taste only like the broiled Parmesan, olive oil and garlic that dress them. And the fried oysters in the combo and on a po' boy sandwich ($7.95 on a good baguette roll with one side) are on the small side and dry, with some as tough as bivalve bubble gum.

The Shack works on so many levels: as a blue-collar-but-not-really scene, as a place for solid fried shrimp, sides and hush puppies, as a place to be loud and expansive on a cool fall night. I'm waiting for the 'Shuck' part to join the party.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Shuck Shack

1808 E. Cesar Chavez St. 472-4242, www.shuckshack.com.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Hours:11 a.m. to midnight Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays.

Prices:Appetizers $5.95 (hush puppies) to $9.95 (fried calamari). Po-boy sandwiches $7.95. Main courses $11.95 (New Orleans barbecued shrimp) to $12.95 (crab cakes, fried seafood combo).

Payment:All major cards

Alcohol:Beer, wine and cocktails. About 20 beers, including Abita Purple Haze, Guinness and Newcastle. Lone Star and Pearl beers are $2. Seven wines by the glass ($5-$7) and bottle ($20-$28).

Wheelchair access:Yes

What the rating means:The average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value.