Beaumont,Texas, is one of those towns that foodies pass by in route to food towns like Houston or New Orleans. They shouldn’t.
The town of 100,000, best known as the birthplace of the modern oil industry, is at the cross-roads of several the culinary influences – French, Cajun, cowboy, African American, Hispanic, and small town America. It all comes without the crowds, the pretense, or the steep prices of more well-known food towns. Throw in the authenticity and welcome friendliness of a small city and you’ve got all the makings of sumptuous road trip.
Its location on the easternmost edge of Texas, 30 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, allows Beaumonters (or Beaumartians as some prefer to be called) to enjoy fresh seafood from the Gulf , locally-raised crawfish, and bass, catfish, redfish, and trout from surrounding bayou waters and the nearby Neches River (pronounced NAI- chess). Seafood restaurants abound and one of the oldest and best is Sartin’s West.
The Sartin family has been operating renowned seafood restaurants for 40 years. The latest incarnation, Sartin’s West on I-10 South, is a large, airy, industrial-themed place, that’s the brainchild of Emily and Doug Sartin, grandchildren of the founders. They serve all manner of Deep South Cajun style fish and shellfish, much of it lightly coated with their own flour-cornmeal breading and fried with spicy Tex Joy seasonings (a local Beaumont product). A great way to sample their offerings is with an all-you-can-eat platter (about $30/person) that includes buckets of boiled crawfish and mountains of Sartin’s signature BBQ crab, blue crabs that are highly seasoned and deep fried. The sweet, smoky crab is both time-consuming and messy to eat, but well worth the effort. To cool your lips from all the spicy seafood, order a side of coleslaw, a crunchy mixture of cabbage and carrots with just the right vinegary-sweet dressing.
For great cowboy Texas BBQ, try Fat Mac’s Smokehouse, a casual, paper-towels-paper-plate kind of place that serves some of the most succulent and tender BBQ beef, pork, and fowl around. All the meat is dry rubbed and smoked in giant red oak-fired smokers that can cook eight half cows at once. Everything is slow smoked at Fat Mac’s (brisket takes 12 hours), ensuring pink meat with just the right char and smoke flavor. Their homemade BBQ sauce, regular and hot (the best), is served on the side. Fat Mac’s serves the usual sides – macaroni salad, dirty rice (white rice and chicken livers), kidney beans, creamed corn – but it’s the meat that has BBQ lovers licking their fingers and coming back for more.
Suga’s Deep South Cuisine and Jazz Bar in downtown Beaumont is a wonderful example of Beaumont ’s African American influenced cuisine. The place feels like an opulent 1920’s jazz supper club. The tin-ceiled former brothel is decorated with colorful contemporary artwork and diners are entertained nightly with live jazz. Chef Frank Panitti offers Southern favorites like fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, fried okra rellenos, greens, hominy, and bread pudding. The entrees, made with local ingredients, are absolutely huge, change seasonally, and include rich, fall-off-the-bone braised short ribs, pork osso bucco over creamy hominy and roasted campari tomatoes, and perfectly-cooked grilled, bone-in rib eye with roasted sweet potatoes and wild mushroom medley. The chef’s Sicilian roots are evident in the wide range of freshly-made gelato that you can get to eat in or take out.
Another downtown Beaumont restaurant, this one a blend of French, Southern, and Western influences, is chef-owner Chuck Harris’ Spindletop Steakhouse and Continental Cuisine, located in the entertainment district on historic Crockett Street. Harris, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute, educates local diners by incorporating “exotic” ingredients with ones that are more regionally familiar. For instance, he tops cowboy beef burgers and stuffs French beignets with foie gras. He slices fork-tender, medium rare Kobe beef over sizzling platters like fajitas. The results are deliciously surprising. The Kobe beef is rich and meaty with a nice smoky edge to it; his blue crab stuffed flounder served with buerre blanc sauce over Texas caviar (corn, black-eyed peas, purple onion) is light and satisfying – even a non-fish lover would appreciate it. The chef’s shallot flan, this reviewer’s favorite dish, is so creamy it literally melts on the tongue.
Beaumont’s Hispanic culture is captured in many mom and pop Mexican restaurants. A great choice is Carlito’s Mexican Restaurant, a modest, family-owned place that’s so good former President Bill Clinton chose it for lunch during the 2008 president campaign. Owner Carlito Hernandez says the secret to his success is making everything fresh from scratch. The restaurant doesn’t even have a freezer. The hand-stuffed tamales (pork, beef, or chicken) have a generous portion of moist, flavorful meat encased in the perfect thickness of masa. Carolito’s refried beans are super creamy and his sopapillas, tender pillows of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with a pot of honey, are freshly made and absolutely addictive.
For breakfast or lunch, small town Americana influence is felt deeply at Rao’s Bakery Coffee Café, a Beaumont favorite for 70 years. Every day Rao’s bakes a huge selection of cakes, breads, cookies, pastries, muffins, and cupcakes using no mixes, additives, or artificial ingredients. Their kolache, the Czech version of sausage-in-a blanket, has a slightly sweet, chewy dough with just the right tooth around a mild, meaty Zumo sausage. (Zummo’s is a local, 100-year-old sausage maker.) Rao’s outstanding cinnamon rolls are giant six-inch disks of soft dough with tons of cinnamon and just the right amount of not-too-sweet glaze topping. They also offer a wide range of sandwiches on their fresh-made breads, some like mozzarella and tomato on focaccia and Sicilian tune, incorporate owner Jake Tortorice Jr.’s Sicilian family recipes.
The Delicious Low Down
1990 Interstate 10 S
Fat Mac’s Smokehouse
5555 Calder Ave
Sugas Deep South Cuisine and Jazz Bar
461 Bowie St
Spindletop Steakhouse and Continental Cuisine
290 Crockett St
Carlito’s Mexican Restaurant
890 Amarillo St
Rao’s Bakery Coffee Café **
2596 Calder Ave
** Rao’s now has five locations. This address is the original location. Check their website for other locations.