It had been too long.
I hadn’t been in Port Aransas for four or five years, which is four or five years too long in my book.
So, when a friend from New Jersey announced that she was coming for a short visit, I knew exactly where we were headed.
Hillary and I have covered a huge chunk of Texas together in the past 10 years or so. We went to Archer City to visit Larry McMurtry’s book stores and to try the steak fingers at the local Dairy Queen. We had steak at the Big Texan in Amarillo. We got the car stuck in the only mud puddle in Big Bend National Park, slipped across the border into Ojinaga for excellent Mexican food, and dined well at Maiya’s in Marfa.
She had not been to the coast. But since she’s a beachcomber from way back, she was as ready as I was to soak up some rays.
I don’t think she was quite expecting what Port Aransas had to offer. First and foremost was the serenity. We arrived after spring break and found the island largely uninhabited, a huge plus in both of our books.
We were able to drive right on to the beach, walk a few feet and stick our toes in the surf. The water is still cold, and there are plenty of jellyfish washed up on the beach at this time of year, but the sun was warm, the breeze intoxicating and the living was easy, even if it wasn’t summertime.
After a lengthy stroll to the jetty, we decided to find our hotel, which was located across the street from the Rusty Jeep Hickory Pit BBQ, a drive-thru that has long been one of my favorites in town. I had my priorities straight and got us chopped pork sandwiches, mine with plenty of spicy sauce, before checking in.
A quick trip to the nearby Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center offered a chance to see a flock of roseate spoonbills of an almost iridescent pink wing their way across a cloudless blue sky. White pelicans, ruddy ducks, grebes and a barn owl, not to mention an alligator that looked longer than nine feet, were all enjoying the fine day, and Hillary added five species of bird to her life list.
It was off to Venetian Hot Plate for dinner. This Italian restaurant has long been a favorite of mine, and it was good to see the high standards are still being maintained. We split a Caesar salad with grilled shrimp and scallops as well as plenty of anchovies and garlic. Grilled polenta with gorgonzola crumbles on top followed. Hillary has a pesto dish that was bursting with garlic and basil, while I tore into a plate of veal with mushrooms, artichoke hearts and more.
A little more birding in the morning preceded breakfast at San Juan, where you can fill up on pancakes, sausage and eggs for under $3.
A few hours of reading on the beach left us with a hearty appetite that was just perfect for Shells Pasta & Seafood. We couldn’t decide on just one dish, so we ordered six appetizers and made a meal of our small treasures. House-marinate olives, steamed clams with a garlicky broth, slivers of unagi eel on perfectly ripe avocado, and sliders made of shrimp and grits were among the treats. The two standouts for me, however, were a bowl of heirloom purple haze garlic soup, a kind of liquified velvet fist in terms of texture and power, and a plate of slab bacon with chipotle onion jam on the side.
Hillary said it was one of the best meals she’d ever had. I’m already thinking of a return visit to try a few more of the blackboard specials that called to me, including the Big Shell, a burger with foie gras on top.
Neither of us wanted to leave. The sun, the wind, the food had all worked its magic. But time was running short. It wasn’t quite gone. We still had time to catch the ferry and head to Aransas Pass for a slice of delectable coconut cream pie at the Bakery Cafe, which I discovered is in the process of expanding. Yet another reason to head to the coast again in the near future.
Rusty Jeep Hickory Pit BBQ
118 Cut-Off Road
Shells Pasta & Seafood
522 E. Ave. G
Venetian Hot Plate
232 Beach St.
434 S. Commercial St.