A trip to South Padre Island is all about kicking back and relaxing, whether you’re headed there for spring break or for the relative quiet that precedes the annual storm of students. That attitude extends to the food you eat, too.
Sure, there are a few higher-end places where you can indulge, if you want. One is the Sea Ranch, which has the most delectable fried snapper throats I’ve ever eaten (and, yes, I have had them in more than one place). But on a recent visit, my friends and I decided to stick with the laid-back likes of Daddy’s Seafood & Cajun Kitchen and Louie’s Backyard on the island as well as nearby Manuel’s in Port Isabel.
In fact, the meals at Daddy’s and Manuel’s were both so satisfying that we returned for seconds.
Daddy’s Seafood & Cajun Kitchen is a combination market and restaurant, so you can get the freshest fish to go or dine in. The restaurant is part of a local chain started about 10 years ago by Alfonso Salazar as an outgrowth of his bait shop.
The menu offers a full array of seafood specialties done the way you like them, blackened, pan-grilled, baked or tossed with pasta. But all of us had a hankering for fried, so we zeroed in on the Mardi Gras, a platter combining oysters, shrimp and basa fish.
The oysters were plump and soft with just enough breading to coat them without dominating their lightly briny flavor. The fish strips were firm yet moist. But the real stars were the shrimp, seductively sweet and dressed in a delicate cornmeal batter that seems barely to have covered the meat and yet added a light crunch. (On our second visit, it was all about the shrimp with a little fish on the side.)
We were given extra horseradish and limes on request, so we could doctor up the ketchup on the side into a fine cocktail sauce with plenty of bite to balance the natural sweetness of the shrimp. But in the end, I let the shrimp speak for themselves and used the sauce more on the fish and the few battered fries I cadged from my friends’ plate. (You get one side with your platters, and this cabbage addict always opts for the good coleslaw.)
Fans of Daddy’s who haven’t been to the island in a few years, as we hadn’t, might be surprised to discover that it has moved to the other side of Padre Boulevard into new digs. The dining area and bar still have the red brick interior that marked the original, but the space seems more open and inviting than before, a great place to knock down a slightly sweet margarita or two before, during and after your meal.
On one trip, we showed up at 11 a.m. on a Saturday after an excellent birding trip. We were the only customers in the place when we arrived; by the time we left, most every table in the place was filled.
Louie’s Backyard is vast place with essentially two restaurants in it, not to mention a patio bar that extends out to the intracoastal waterway between the island and Port Isabel. Based on locals’ recommendations, we have regularly visited the causal upstairs area for a pint of beer and Texas island-style pub grub.
An overstuffed pulled pork sandwich with lightly sweetened strands of pork on a buttery bun was a standout. Another was a plate of warm shrimp tacos, in which chopped shrimp were tossed with plenty of pico de gallo, shredded cheese and black beans in a flour tortilla. The latter is a great idea to try at home, though I would probably prefer corn tortillas. If the fried fish tacos didn’t quite reach the level of the other dishes, it is only because the battered strips of fish couldn’t compare with Daddy’s.
Breakfast at Manuel’s in Port Isabel has been a must since my first visit to the area about seven or eight years ago, when we stopped by on a Sunday morning on our way out of town. Shortly before that visit, the tiny restaurant had been heralded in Texas Monthly as having one of the best breakfasts in the state, and lines were out the door waiting for a table.
The lines are still out the door, no matter what day of the week you visit.
It seems that the family who owns the restaurant have settled on a two-pronged measure of success: quality and quantity.
There’s no mistaking the quality after you taste a forkful of scrambled eggs bathed in a warm ranchero salsa. The eggs, cooked completely through, as requested, were dry and fluffy at the center while the tomato-based sauce provided a coat of comfort with just a tingle of heat, just made for the three slabs of bacon on the side. Migas with corn strips, cheese and jalapeño slices, provided pure comfort, as did a chorizo and egg mixture that was spicy without being greasy.
The real star of the show, at least in terms of visual impact, is the series of Con Todo taco plates. Imagine a handmade flour tortilla so immense that, even when folded in half, it hangs over all sides of a platter, as if it were one of those massive chicken-fried steaks you find in San Antonio at the likes of Lulu’s and Bud Jones. Then fill it with your choice of meat as well as eggs, cheese, refried beans, potatoes and just about anything else you can think of. I had it with tender beef fajitas that, with the help of the cheese, just sort of melted in with everything else.
As massive as the Con Todo is, a couple at the table next to us on our first visit each polished off one while clearing a massive plate of French toast drenched in syrup. Now, that’s impressive.
If you have leftover tortilla and want some butter to make it go down easier, be prepared to squeeze some sort of liquid gold of a bottle. What it was didn’t seem to matter to anyone there, including me, though the flavor hardly matched that of real butter.
If you go to Manuel’s, hit an ATM first. It’s cash only there. And the dining room, little more than a box decorated with movie posters and sports pennants, is open only until 2 p.m., when a menu of dinner items becomes available. I would have said that nothing could come close to their egg dishes, but that was before I tried a practically perfect cheese enchilada coated with a chile gravy that is a star in its own right. Memories of that enchilada alone could have me pointed back to the South Padre area after the spring break throngs clear out.
Daddy’s Seafood & Cajun Kitchen
1808 Padre Blvd., South Padre Island
Lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
2305 Laguna Blvd., South Padre Island
Dinner daily, 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
313 E. Maxan St., Port Isabel
Breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m.