While many pick glitzy tourist destinations with high-profile food for their dining vacations, I often do the opposite — choosing places that seemingly no one wants to visit, figuring there will be regional specialties. Thus, I picked Port Arthur, Texas. Located right on the Louisiana border, the small city boasts of scenic Gulf of Mexico exposure, but one that’s marred by oil refineries belching smoke. With alligators. Was I crazy? It turns out not.
I began in my hometown of Austin, where I visited with my family for a few days, and ate my way through the city. There was the usual amazing barbecue at Micklethwait Craft Meats, Tex-Mex at Cisco’s, breakfast tacos at Veracruz All Natural and Papalote Taco House, duck enchiladas at Fonda San Miguel, as well as ritzy restaurant meals at Olamaie, Launderette, and Emmer & Rye, where the food was every bit as trendy and on-point as places found in New York or Los Angeles. I wandered the Hill Country, and ate at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano (505 West Dallas Street, Texas), bought sirloin jerky from Opa’s Market and Deli, a smokehouse in Fredericksburg (410 South Washington Street, Texas), and hiked the LBJ Ranch while admiring a working 19th-century German farm.
But after a few days, I was a bit tired of my vacation, and decided to head for the outback. Port Arthur lies 250 miles southeast of Austin, across the mighty Brazos River, past Houston, just south of Beaumont. This coastal region is part of Cajun country, and it’s an area that doesn’t enjoy the tourism of places like Lafayette and New Iberia, Louisiana.
Our route lay through the piney woods of East Texas, where we cruised past Bastrop, descending to the flatter and lower gulf plains through a string of towns founded by Czech and German immigrants. We refreshed ourselves with kolaches at Hruska’s (109 TX-71, Ellinger, Texas), a sprawling gas station and tourist trap that sold alligator-head souvenirs.
Reaching Port Arthur
Finally, after driving five hours, partly impeded by Houston traffic jams, we found ourselves leaving the interstate and scooting across wetlands interspersed with fenced-off ranches and vistas of grazing cattle and swamp grasses. Soon, the first refinery complex loomed on the horizon, a forest of flaming catalytic crackers and squat storage tanks, and soon, became so profuse along the shoreline. After crossing a couple of bayous, we finally hit Port Arthur.
Consisting of rickety frame houses, the surrounding residential neighborhoods of the town was a depressing sight, with buildings separated by vacant overgrown lots, as if half the town had mysteriously vanished. But it was here that we found some of the most exciting food. The Port Arthur area and its suburbs have a barbecue tradition unlike any other in Texas. Largely African-American, it centers on beef sausages with thick casings that are stuffed with chopped brisket.
Our first taste was at Nick’s Pit (2548 Gulfway Drive, Port Arthur, Texas), a white clapboard structure with a smoker on the side, which emitted clouds of smoke trailing across the parking lot. Inside, there was a small collection of Formica-topped tables and blue-upholstered chairs, plywood walls stained by smoke, and a counter selling potato chips. The menu was blessedly brief: brisket, pork ribs, sausages, neck bones, potato salad, coleslaw, and dirty rice.
We ordered the plate that was supposed to come with all four types meat, but the counter attendant gave us only three. Later, another customer parked his pickup out front, drifted inside, and said to us: “You ought to try the neck bones, they’re my favorite.” The meat was swimming in sauce, sweet and dark. The brisket was gray and forgettable, the ribs quite good, and the sausage even better. The skin was stretchy and difficult to chew, so we squeezed the coarsely textured forcemeat onto the plate. It was smoky and delicious, and the sauce helped. Other than the pick-up guy, we were the only customers. Its business card carried the slogan: “Land of Links.”
A short drive took us to Jaws Bar B. Que (1448 Rev Dr Ransom Howard Street, Port Arthur, Texas), occupying a low-slung building with a porch that looked like it might have once been an auto-body shop. The small dining room, with four tables and decorated with old Texas license plates, looked into the pit room, where a big, square smoker stood. A menu on a chalkboard listed ribs, pork bones, homemade beef links, sliced beef, chopped beef, and turkey legs. We tried the sausages, and they were superb, even better than the ones at Nick’s.
As we placed the order, the pitmaster came out to enthusiastically greet us. Her name is Punarbassi Sandy, and she is a Guyanese immigrant. She instructed us to call her “Miss Sandy.” She told us, “I learned this type of barbecue from other barbecues in the area.” She moved to Port Arthur in 1980, and started Jaws in 1981. She is a cherished neighborhood character, and soon, her family members came out to have their photos taken with us.
After settling into one of the motels on a modern commercial strip on the edge of town, we considered our dinner prospects. Since we’d come in search of Cajun food, I asked what was the best place for Port Arthur’s regional fare on Twitter, and received several responses. The most persuasive came from J.C. Reid, barbecue columnist of the Houston Chronicle.
Advertising live music five nights a week, the Boudain Hut (5714 Gulfway Drive, Port Arthur, Texas) is a real honky tonk — cinder block structure with horseshoe-shaped bar, illuminated by flyblown beer signs. A pool table stood at one side, where three tough-looking women played, and there was a karaoke contest taking place on the other side. Besides beer, it had an elaborate menu consisting mainly of sandwiches, burgers, and fried things. You had to look for what we were looking for, which was the section called Cajun Corner.
We ordered a bowl of the gumbo, and it proved spectacular. Served with mayonnaise potato salad, it possessed a dark roux that verged on gritty. Strips of chicken and coins of spicy andouille sausage, as well as rice, swam in its depths. We also couldn’t resist ordering the so-called hogshead cheese, which came sliced thick on a platter with soda crackers. The serving was an astonishing one pound for $5.29. Just before the plate arrived, an old guy leaned over and whispered, “You’ve got to try the head cheese here, it’s homemade.” And indeed it was, more French pate than head cheese, herby and tasting of lard.
The next morning we headed for Sea Rim State Park, a few miles southeast of town, down some interesting roads that followed the curve of the gulf. A sign warns to not disturb the alligators, and we actually saw one, lazing by the side of the trail as if posing for photographers with one eye open. We also found an enthusiastic ranger, all by herself in a small prefab structure. She eagerly advised us on our next Port Arthur dining destination.
She directed us to Sartin’s Seafood (3520 Nederland Avenue, Nederland, Texas), just north of Port Arthur, a town considerably more prosperous. The restaurant occupied a modern building painted aquamarine, with a sign hoisted in the air that shouts “We got the crabs!” Indeed, steamed crabs rubbed with spices — a sort of Cajun Old Bay — were a specialty of the house, in addition to all sorts of fried and sautéed seafood (most of it not local), served with coleslaw and hushpuppies. It was immensely popular with families, and, if nothing else, demonstrated the Cajun propensity for deep-fried food.
A quick visit to Kimball’s Creamery (110 South Twin City Highway, Nederland), a modern spot with a pink awning specializing in Wisconsin-style frozen custard, and we were on our way to pay our respects to the late singer Janis Joplin. She grew up in a neighborhood of neat single-family houses and brick churches in the northern reaches of Port Arthur, though with the occasional rundown corner store and meandering dirt road. The only evidence of her childhood is a metal plaque on a pole in front of her house that reads, in part: “A liberal and outspoken free spirit, Janis rebelled against the conservatism of her home town.”
On to Louisiana
Early the next morning, we set out for the Louisiana border, intent on seeking out more Cajun fare. Our path took us down the interstate, a straight shot through a corridor of tall trees toward Sulphur, Louisiana. This prosperous town lies just west of Lake Charles, and is considered a bastion of Cajun culture.
As we drove into Sulphur through a scrum of gas stations and motels, we spotted a butcher shop with a beguiling name: The Sausage Link (2400 East Napoleon Street, Sulphur, Louisiana). Inside were many kinds of cured and fresh meats, and a big picture window that looked onto a modern butchering facility. A heated glass case near the register sold pork cracklins by the pound, and a steam cabinet offered boudin blanc — an iconic rice, lard, and green onion sausage. Both were mind-numbingly good.
For our next sit-down meal, we headed just a few blocks north to Hollier’s Cajun Kitchen (1709 Ruth Street, Sulphur, Louisiana), a vast food hall that looked like it came straight out of an Old Western movie set from the outside. Inside, trestle tables were laid out between two dining rooms, and many of the diners were dressed in work uniforms, Stetsons, or baseball caps and jeans. Most went for the bargain buffet — all-you-can-eat deep-fried pork chops — but we scanned the sprawling menu, selling burgers, steaks, po' boy, catfish, and frogs’ legs dinners, and a handful of old-fashioned Cajun dishes.
We picked crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, and shrimp and crab gumbo, which ended up being some of best things we’d tasted throughout this trip. We fished out tiny crab claws from the gumbo, which had a medium roux. The etouffee was super thick and loaded with crawfish tails, served with white rice and a biscuit for a double-starch wallop. The jambalaya was best, rife with sausage and chicken. We left feeling satisfied at how these dishes were being kept alive in a meaningful way.
Back to Austin
That was as far as we got before it was time to turn around and wend our leisurely way back into Texas to Austin. On the return, we stopped at a couple of barbecue spots I’d never been before: Mikeska's Bar-B-Q (4053 US-90, Columbus, Texas) in a town with the Confederate Museum on the county courthouse grounds; and City Meat Market (101 West Austin Street, Giddings, Texas), where the pork ribs were the things to get. We stopped for dinner one evening in the very strange village of Round Top, where the real and the fake are hard to distinguish — but that’s a tale best left for another time.