Well, that's one thing that hasn't changed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Katrina. The beaches are still pretty empty. But lots of things are humming again. We happened to be there during the annual Cruisin The Coast week, when more than 4500 remember-when cars were swarming. (Check the website for photos; it's a gas, if you'll excuse the expression.) People there certainly seem eager to receive visitors again, although Gulfport has instituted a city-wide smoking ban in its restaurants, perhaps thinking that the family trade was more important than that offered by hard-core smokers. In the four years since Katrina, city business owners have worked hard to bring things back, and in a brief visit, we found two locally-owned restaurants that charmed.
Located in a great old one-time bank building in downtown Gulfport on U.S. 49, a block from its intersection with U.S. 90, the road along the Gulf of Mexico, the Half Shell Oyster House is dark and cool inside, a multilevel re-fitting of the building that's left it feeling almost sanctuary-like. This time of year, we were about the only non-locals there, and the servers were pleasant and obliging in our oyster-driven urges.
These are Louisiana oysters, mild and easier for a rookie than those from colder waters, where they acquire flavors that can be deeply mineral-saline in flavor. On the half-shell, they were unusually large and extremely fresh. And the Half Shell is not just for raw oysters, either; we loved the Bienvilles, topped with a creamy sauce studded with small chunks of seafood, the flavors dancing together. And the barbequed oysters, cooked over an open flame and basted with a garlicky butter sauce, were shockingly good. The version described as charbroiled was milder, but still good. We also sampled some Rockefellers, whose seasoned spinach topping was made creamy with cream cheese. They were very good, but not as remarkable as the Bienvilles.
A portobello mushroom stuffed with crab was mostly crab, not bread crumbs, a good take on deviled crab, very satisfying. A little meat? Voodoo chicken wings were large, moist and meaty, but the voodoo sauce was more sweet than spicy, and needed a nice dribble of Crystal Hot Sauce to top 'em off.
The Half Shell's bread pudding, a dessert that has spread across the Gulf Coast from New Orleans, is made from cinnamon rolls and dried cranberries, served in a martini glass.
Half Shell Oyster Bar
1300 13th St. (U.S. 49), Gulfport, MS
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Farther east on Highway 90 is the White Cap Seafood Restaurant, from the Lizana family that's had it since the 1920's. The website shows the re-building process – this is not the original location – but unfortunately lacks a link to their menu. It's another place that's popular with the locals, and the food is simple, rather than fancy. In fact, unless it's a time of year when things are dead quiet, a reservation may be a good idea.
The large, busy dining room overlooks the Gulf, and there's an aquarium and separate bar to occupy those waiting for a table. Servers are young but quick, and know their jobs and the menu equally well.
The clear specialty is fried seafood, so we headed mostly in that direction. Everything arrived, hot, fresh, crisp and greaseless. The platter included oysters, shrimp, crab claws, scallops, catfish, which has become a frequent visitor to Mississippi restaurant menus, and some (un-fried) deviled crab. The seafood wasn't overcooked, still moist and juicy under the cornmeal crust. Hush puppies, of course, fries and an unremarkable salad came alongside, but it was the seafood that pleased.
We also tried a couple of softshell crabs, which were particularly good, the crust not overwhelming the delicate flesh inside. For sides, the parsley potatoes and slaw were both winners. The potatoes were sauced with a generous amount of butter and garlic as well as the parsley, adding up to a memorable version of a seemingly simple dish. Even the slaw veered off the usual paths, with an unidentifiable tanginess that pleased.
For dessert, “Chef's Daily Selection” says the menu. That night, it was a bread pudding with a coffee caramel sauce, moist and warm.
White Cap Seafood Restaurant
560 Beach Drive (U.S. 90), Gulfport, MS
Lunch & Dinner Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good