"Why did you go to Gilhooley's?" asked Robb Walsh, my colleague at Houstonia and noted oyster expert, when I told him I'd recently taken a trip down to San Leon to visit my favorite no-kids-allowed seafood joint. "Oyster season is over."
Gilhooley's is known above all for its freshly harvested Gulf oysters on the half shell, but oyster season in Texas ended in April and we're well into June now. However, there's more to love about the rickety, sprawling, half-patio, half-boomtown-saloon which nearly abuts the coast than just raw oysters.
222 9th St.
San Leon, TX
For one, there's Gilhooley's fried chicken livers. Even when I make the trek down during oyster season, I always order a side of livers with cream gravy. Mix that gravy with enough Crystal hot sauce to turn it an alarmingly pink hue and you're set. The thick, crunchy batter and the musky, iron-scented livers sparkle under that pop of heat (and wash down nicely with cool gulps of Miller High Life).
Gilhooley's also makes my favorite BLT in town, although it's really more of a build-your-own-BLT. You'll get a toasted wheat bun split in half, draped with six to eight husky strips of bacon, but you're on your own for the rest of the sandwich: A pile of crunchy lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions lets you construct it as you see fit.
I'm not ashamed to admit that very often, I just end up eating a pickle, onion, mayonnaise, and bacon sandwich (which isn't too far removed from a childhood favorite: cheese, onion, pickle, and mayo sandwiches after school). I may feel ashamed eating this Frankenstein sandwich elsewhere, but there's something about the relaxed, seagull-ringed patio at Gilhooley's—not to mention its bawdy, smoke-filled interior, which seems downright lawless to Houstonians now—that encourages consumption of otherwise questionable dishes.
Most importantly, you can get Oysters Gilhooley year-round. While I wouldn't encourage eating raw oysters out of season, there's nothing wrong with cooked ones.
The classic Oysters Gilhooley set-up delivers a dozen bivalves saturated with Parmesan cheese and butter made bubbly and crusty in a pecan wood-fired smoker. Walsh once called them "the best version of barbecued oysters on the entire Gulf Coast."
Of course, I'm not the kind of person that likes to waste a day trip down to the Clear Lake area. So when your trip to Gilhooley's is over, consider grabbing dessert at Seabrook Waffle Company just down the road—the only purveyor of Liège waffles in the entire Houston metropolis—or exploring the small towns like Dickinson and Bacliff that dot the area.
On my last driving adventures, I found a carved granite map of South Texas atop a tree-shaded, long-abandoned mound that was now home to a colony of scrappy, dirt-colored Gulf Coast rabbits, and an abandoned power station that looked for all the world like a half-completed cathedral in which to worship the nearby refineries that sparkle like Manhattan's skyline at night.
That's why I go to Gilhooley's when it's not oyster season. Enjoying old favorites, while finding new things to love.