Trips to Port Aransas for me in the past used to mean stops in Lockhart for barbecue, maybe a classic Whataburger run in the chain’s home of Corpus Christi and then cooking and grilling at a rental property. OK, and beer. Lots of beer.
But over the past couple of months I’ve realized there are more culinary offerings than one might expect. Now, trips to Port Aransas and Mustang Island mean great fried shrimp sandwiches, tasty tacos, lasagna … and beer.
For those headed to the beach this summer, I’ve compiled a list of places for eating and drinking when you need a break from the surf.
JB’s German Bakery and Cafe
It’s hard to describe this seafoam octagonal building. It kind of looks like an architectural version of the baskets used to deliver food at Ethiopian restaurants, or a tortilla warmer with a wicker hat. But those miss the cultural mark. Inside the bakery and cafe Juergen and Brigitte Kazenmayer opened in 2011 it is all about Bavaria, with an array of sweet and savory strudels (get the brisket), a bakers rack of hearty breads like cranberry stollen and hazelnut, and daily specials that range from schweinebraten to fleischkuchle (German meatballs). The address says Corpus Christi, but the bakery that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner is located on the island about 7 miles from the Mustang Island State Park. For those on the mainland, the owners opened JB’s Strudel Mania in Corpus about two years ago. 15137 S. Padre Island Drive. 361-949-5474, jbsgermanbakery.com
Irie’s Island Food
This little family-run joint with chill beach vibes features an ambitious menu of creative tacos and sandwiches. Wrap your hands around the Crazy Taco, which is a land-and-sea mashup of sauteed pork and shrimp, with avocado, pineapple jam, tortilla strips for added crunch and some fire dragon sauce on the side. What’s fire dragon sauce, you ask? A stinging concoction of scorpion peppers, red chili, citrus and garlic, and one of more than a dozen sauces offered at Irie’s, a cafe named after the daughter of the owners. The mango pico comes with my favorite sandwich, the Surfin’ Ricky, featuring breaded and fried pork cutlets on a homemade bun with pickles, lettuce and tomatoes. 503 N. Alister St. 361-749-2310, iriesislandfood.com
When you’re at the beach, even the fancy places are laid-back and won’t raise an eyebrow at your flip-flops. Such is the case at this large restaurant that features an ample amount of outdoor seating. The menu, which has something of a ’90s feel, features several Asian-influenced dishes like the pork pot stickers, baby bok choy and sesame-crusted tuna salad. I recommend the pan-seared scallops with a Thai coconut red sauce and the crabcakes with spicy ginger tartar sauce. Don’t sweat, they also serve a selection of fried seafood. Bring your wallet, because dinner for two is going to cost you more than $100. 337 N. Alister St. 361-749-9277, phoenixporta.com
All nautical themed, wood decks, friendly service, photos of prized trout and garage doors opening to the bay, Snoopy’s Pier is the quintessential waterfront seafood palace. And it has a colorful history to match, with its founder Ernie Butler claiming he decided to start cooking fish instead of catching them after he got tired of being chased by the Texas Game Warden during the Redfish Wars of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Anybody who spent time near water just about anywhere will immediately feel at home. The panko-crusted fried shrimp are plump and perfect, and the seafood sandwiches come on floppy buns dressed with lettuce and tomato. Don’t make the mistake and think the grilled cheese is just for kids, either. 13313 S. Padre Island Drive, 361-949-8815, snoopyspier.com
Venetian Hot Plate
Linda Halioua and her late husband, Maurice, opened their Italian restaurant in March 1995 in the heart of Port Aransas. “Everybody was laid-back, and the dogs slept in the street,” Linda says of her early impressions of her new home.
You might be on the Gulf of Mexico and not the Adriatic Sea, but you wouldn’t know it. Linda fills the cozy space with a joyful energy, attending to regulars and first-timers alike with a maternal charm.
Maurice died in 2006, but his tradition of serving lasagna only on Saturdays, a practice born of a small workforce and tedious preparation, continued. Call ahead and make sure you order one, as it is the perfect balance of pasta, meat and cheese, bubbling through the middle and just turning crisp at the edges. The restaurant was named after a translation of the Italian “piato caldo,” not a reference to industrious college cooking (much to Linda’s humored dismay), and a hot skillet brings the bounty of the misto mare (shrimp, diver scallops, blue lip mussels and clams) to the table for sharing.
Simple and earnest with a sense of home … Venetian Hot Plate is one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Texas. 232 Beach St. Port Aransas. 361-749-7617, venetianhotplate.com
The bar at the Beach Lodge
When I decide to disappear from the world, or write a Grisham-esque novel about a lawyer who’s gone into hiding, I’m headed to this amazing beachfront dive. It’s the only beachfront bar as far as the eye can see due to it being grandfathered in, and you can almost touch the dunes with your toes from the deck. The characters behind the bar are as good as the ones on the drinking side. One too many Coronas? Get a room at the Lodge. 2016 On the Beach Drive. 361-749-5713, thebeachlodge.net
Salty Dog Saloon
This bar has it all: shuffleboard, billiards, darts, Jell-O shots and a friendly and rowdy bunch of locals that’ll make you feel at home, even if you came on league night. Oh, yeah, and dogs sitting at the bar. Don’t be worried if some of the locals seem a little gruff at first — they’ll run outside and take in a double rainbow quicker than any softie from the city. 203 N. Alister St. 361-749-4912
Walking into this place feels like falling into a Waylon Jennings song. Originally opened in 1946 by Mack Daniel and Gladys (Shorty) Fowler, Shorty’s bills itself as the oldest and friendliest bar in Port Aransas. I won’t argue with the first, but a few stern looks from the regulars made me wonder about the second. After a beer or two, that ice melted. Almost made me want to take my hat off and nail it to the ceiling with the other couple hundred. 823 Tarpon St. 361-749-8224, shortysportaransas.com