221 9th St.
San Leon, TX
Eight line machine and a sailor’s daughter
Somethin’ makes ’em crazy growin’ up on the water
Playin’ for my supper six nights a week
Hurricanes, Easter and New Years Eve
— Hayes Carll, I Got A Gig
Texas songwriting genius Hayes Carll got his start gigging at the waterfront dive bars along this hard-scrabble stretch of the Gulf Coast.
He probably wasn’t singing about Gilhooley’s specifically, but that’s exactly where my mind takes me when I hear that song.
It’s like I’m there. Right there in that smokey, low-slung ramshackle dive full of rowdy, beer swilling good ol’ boys and gals.
These folks give the term “fresh off the shrimp boat” an entirely new – and literal – meaning.
Four tin walls now there ain’t much left
Lookin’ like a homeless Cheers on meth
Homer’s in the corner, breakin’ up a fight
Good Lord, I hope I get paid tonight
And Gilhooley’s is all that. But also so much more.
This dive just might be the best spot on earth to eat oysters.
And on this damp and chilly night, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than indulge in an old-fashioned Gulf Coast oyster roast.
I came to the right place.
Burnt fried chicken and Lone Star beer
Cops and the kids drink free ’round here
Girl behind the bar is takin’ what she’s givin’
Lyin’ about her past and tryin’ to make a livin’
“Where do you want me to sit?”
Shaking off the chill and inhaling the second-hand smoke, I’m sure I looked like an out-of-place, out-of-towner as I stood in the doorway searching for a vacant seat.
“Wherever the hell you want,” croaked the female bartender.
Broke pool table and some hard luck cues
Go tell your mama, I done paid my dues
Every one around here knows my name
Six nights a week in the neon flame
The turned heads and suspicious stares from the locals did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm though.
I was here to eat some oysters!
Roasted out back over oak and pecan wood, the oysters served here at Gilhooley’s are the very pinnacle of what oysters should be.
The first time I ventured into this joint, I brought a fellow traveler from Ohio who never had an oyster in his life.
Now this is at least my third venture to the classic seaside dive.
Whenever Houston Hobby Airport pops up on my itinerary, I try to fit Gilhooley’s in – even though it’s a good 45 minutes out of my way.
When the weather is nice, a stool over at the open-air bar off to the side of the oyster shell parking lot is the place to be.
On a dreary winter night like this one, a dark corner nestled between the space heater, the men’s room, and an old piano works just fine.
License plates, African tribal masks, and neon beer signs set the mood as my waitress brings my first of several $1.25 Lone Star longnecks.
The “National Beer of Texas” slides down even easier when you know you can get ‘em for cheap.
But it’s the roasted ‘Oysters Gilhooley’ I came here for.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Never am.
Each oyster, varying from tiny to humongous, is encased in a parmesan cheese crust and floating in a pool of melted garlic butter, nestled in its shell now charred from the oak and pecan fire out back.
The lips of the oysters curl slightly, a smoky scent emanates from the shells, and the parmesan and butter burble from their recent liberation from the hardwood roasting.
The rich flavor of warm butter and cheese only enhances, rather than camouflages, the taste of the oyster.
These oysters are bigger and juicier than almost any other on the Gulf Coast and yield a wonderful salty, briny taste from the gulf itself.
As another famous songwriter once sang, “Give me oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year, and I’ll feel fine.”
Just fine indeed.
But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to indulge in a few non-oyster items on Gilhooley’s extensive menu.
The gumbo was chock full of even more fresh Gulf oysters, along with shrimp, sausage, chicken, and lots of Cajun spice. Ideal Gulf Coast comfort food for a cold winter evening.
The boudin balls were fried full of sausage and rice, perfect for dipping in the accompanying ranch sauce.
There’s an old lion tamer parked behind the bar
Hundred pounds of weed in a stolen car
Oil patch boys and girls who went to college
Rules you don’t break and laws that ain’t acknowledged
As I tilted back the last drop of my final Lone Star and paid my tab (cash only – credit cards and kids strictly forbidden), I couldn’t help but marvel at Gilhooley’s well-earned dive bar credentials.
Genuine as a pair of Wranglers, Gilhooley’s is the real wind-battered, all-American oyster shack deal.
And I am a lucky man.
The waterman at the bar in the cowboy hat may look like he wants to filet me with a knife, but a bit of danger and discomfort only adds to the pleasure of discovering oysters this good.
And I had an urge to prove I had been there.
So I mustered the courage to ask my waitress if I could buy a Gilhooley’s T-shirt.
“T-shirt? We don’t sell no T-shirts, hon!”
And you know what? I’d have been disappointed if they did.
I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Barefoot shrimper with a pistol up his sleeve
Some will go to Heaven, some will never leave
Pills in the tip jar, blood on the strings
Oh Lord, I never thought I’d see these things
Rating: Bought the Shirt! (Or at least I tried)