A golden legacy
Owner of Rainbow Inn, Convict Hill restaurants remembered for more than beloved shrimp recipe
Austinites still can't forget Gaylan Stroth’s lemon shrimp.
The owner of the Rainbow Inn and Convict Hill restaurants died April 10 at age 77. Even though he hadn’t lived in Austin for more than 25 years, Stroth left an impact on Austin diners, and not only because of that memorable dish that has inspired dozens of readers to request the recipe over the years.
Thanks to Stroth's ex-wife, Jeannine Coward, we finally snagged the recipe, but first, let's spend some time learning about Stroth and Coward's restaurants, which were staples of the Austin dining scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
Stroth was born in Washington, D.C., but lived in Texas for more than 40 years, first as a scholarship basketball and baseball player at Trinity University in San Antonio. That’s where he met Jeannine, whom he married in 1962, and got his start in restaurants, first at Jim’s and eventually at the Magic Time Machine and Tower of the Americas restaurants.
After learning about the hospitality business, “we decided we wanted to try to go for it on our own,” says Coward, who now lives in Reno.
They opened the Rainbow Inn in 1971, and for more than 15 years, it drew patrons from the Capitol and beyond. The restaurant was in a building on the northwest corner of Lamar Boulevard and Barton Springs Road, where P. Terry’s is now, that had formerly housed The Lamar, Youngblood’s Fried Chicken and a short-lived location of Mickey Mantle’s Country Cookin’.
It started more as a steakhouse, but Coward says they added seafood, including stone crabs from Florida and that lemon shrimp dish that became so famous. Coward says the inspiration for the famous shrimp dish, one of the most frequently requested recipes from Statesman readers, came from a restaurant in San Antonio, where they’d had a similar dish with a garlic lemon butter sauce.
“Suddenly we were selling more seafood than steaks,” she says. “We remodeled the bar as an oyster bar, with oysters on the half shell, and it was very successful.”
Richie Jackson, who has been the CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association since 1985, says Stroth and Coward contributed more than a beloved seafood dish to Austin food culture.
“Rainbow Inn was certainly upscale, but they had a terrific lunch crowd and a diverse menu that could satisfy a lot of people,” Jackson says. “He was always checking on the guests to make sure service was good and the food was good.”
Convict Hill restaurant had been an Oak Hill landmark since the 1950s, but Stroth didn’t take ownership until the 1970s, after they’d opened Rainbow Inn.
“Convict Hill was back when wine was an afterthought in the restaurant industry,” he says. “They made a concerted effort to bring some great California wines into Texas, and they had a wine club where they introduced a lot of people to wines and let them know that there was something beyond Boone’s Farm.”
Their wine program caught the attention of Wine Spectator magazine, which gave them several awards over the years. “Convict Hill made a statement that said you could move out of Austin and into fine dining,” Jackson says. “At the time, there wasn’t that corridor connecting Austin and Oak Hill,” so you had to drive through some farmland to get there, but business and white tablecloth service flourished under the Stroths. The restaurant’s cucumber salad has been another oft-requested reader recipe over the years.
After the boom of the 1980s, Coward says they’d had a plan to replace the building that housed Rainbow Inn, but, “ultimately, everything just fell apart,” she says, and they closed the restaurant around 1987.
With the economic downturn of the early 1990s, they eventually also closed Convict Hill and the couple moved to Las Vegas, where they took some of the popular Rainbow Inn and Convict Hill recipes to open Cousins, a home-cooking, “Black-Eyed Pea-style” restaurant, which had been voted the best family restaurant in town, Coward says.
Just a few years after moving to Vegas, however, their son, Trent, who had graduated from Westlake High School and was a pitcher on the baseball team that won the state tournament in 1984, was killed in New Orleans.
Their son’s death and the subsequent trial, in which the suspect was acquitted, led to more turmoil and, eventually, a divorce in 1995. Gaylan moved to Colorado, and Jeannine moved to Reno, where she became involved in state politics and advocated for victims’ rights. "You can live a lot of life when you get to be my age," she says.
Coward says they stayed in touch over the years and shared fond memories of running restaurants in Austin. “We had such a wonderful time. We made so many friends, and many were customers,” including several governors, politicians and countless lobbyists who would venture south of the river for meals with clients.
“The nights I remember the most were football weekends, where we’d have a three-hour wait at 2 p.m. in the afternoon,” she says. “We’d still be serving food at midnight, and we wouldn’t close if we had people waiting.”
Stroth is survived by his daughter, Meredith, a Westlake graduate who lives in Denver; three grandchildren, Sawyer, Ford and Eliot Edwards; and brother, Steve, of Dallas. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. May 2 at Crosspoint Community Church in Centennial, Colo.
Rainbow Inn Lemon Shrimp
Countless readers have asked for the recipe for Rainbow Inn's lemon shrimp over the years, and in 2018, someone finally connected me with Jeannine Coward, who still had the restaurant’s recipes. The dish stands out for a few reasons, starting with the sour cream used in the shrimp batter. The sauce uses evaporated milk that is then diluted with hot water, which makes the sauce less likely to break when you add the lemon juice. Stroth and Coward served this sauce over the red snapper, too, and she says it's great with chicken. For an even more intense garlic flavor, increase the quantity of garlic salt to 1 teaspoon.
— Addie Broyles
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined and tails removed
For the shrimp batter:
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
For the lemon-butter sauce:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
3/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/3 cup evaporated milk
Juice from 2-3 lemons (about 2 1/2 tablespoons)
Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying
Press the shrimp down firmly to flatten, or you can butterfly them.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, salt and egg to make the batter. Place the flour in another bowl. Dip shrimp into the batter, covering each piece generously. Dredge in flour and gently press the flour into the battered shrimp. Shake off any excess, and set aside.
To make the lemon-butter sauce, melt the butter over low flame and skim off any solids that bubble up on the top. Whisk in the flour to make a roux and cook for 1 minute, then add salt, white pepper, garlic salt and evaporated milk. Add 1 cup hot water until the sauce reached desired consistency. Turn off the heat and then add the lemon juice. Cover and set aside.
Heat about 1 inch of oil in a large, deep frying pan or skillet over medium high heat. Once the oil is hot, drop the breaded shrimp into the oil and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until light golden brown. Remove the shrimp from the oil and place on a paper towel-covered plate. Continue cooking the rest of the shrimp in batches. When ready to serve, reheat the sauce, if needed (but do not bring to a simmer), and spoon sauce over the shrimp. Serves 4.
— Adapted from a Rainbow Inn recipe from Jeannine Coward and Gaylan Stroth
Convict Hill Cucumber Salad
Convict Hill’s cucumber salad recipe has also been a frequent reader request over the years, and in 2014, we republished a modernized version of the dish. Instead of cold water starch, the original ingredient they used that’s difficult to find these days, you can use cornstarch, a more powerful thickener that needs to be mixed with a little water, heated and then cooled. The result is a sweet vinegar dressing that stays emulsified with the oil. Cut back on the sugar if you don't want it so sweet.
— Addie Broyles
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon cold water
1/3 cup tarragon vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup olive oil (or salad or other neutral oil)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon dried or fresh minced chives (optional)
1 large cucumber, thinly sliced
1 small tomato, cut into wedges
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
In a small saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and water. Add the vinegar and bring to a simmer. Cook for two minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat and add sugar, oil, salt, pepper and chives, if using. Combine thoroughly and let cool on the counter or in the fridge.
Toss together cucumber, tomato and onion in a medium bowl. Add half of the dressing and toss. Taste for seasoning and add more dressing, if desired. Reserve any remaining sauce for up to two weeks in the fridge for other salads. Serves 2 to 4.
— Adapted from a Convict Hill recipe from Jeannine Coward and Gaylan Stroth