April isn't just prime ceviche season; it's also high time to enjoy plump, fresh Gulf oysters before the season begins declining in May as the waters warm back up. August 5 may be National Oyster Day, but note that it's not National Gulf Oyster Day. If you haven't gotten your share this season, it's time to start doubling down by the dozen.
Lucky for you, several new restaurants are putting oysters front and center on their spring menus. And if you still can't quite stomach the raw variety, you're in even more luck: chargrilled oysters are all the rage right now. Prohibition offers seven different twists on the classic dish, from the time-honored oysters Rockefeller (topped with butter, bread crumbs and Parmigiana-Reggiano) and Bienvenue (shrimp, mushrooms, bacon, Bèchamel) that pair with Prohibition's vintage vibe to modern interpretations such as Singaporean black pepper (garlic, ginger, soy sauce, cilantro). At Caracol, the wood-grilled oysters are topped with chipotle butter and they're half-off—or $12 a dozen—during happy hour, Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays before 5 p.m.
At the new Commonwealth, which just opened in the old TQLA space on Washington Ave., the chargrilled oysters come in three varieties (and the raw in four). While the Houston version topped with caramelized onions, bacon jam, and smoked butter sounded good—if decadent—we opted for the relatively simpler Korean version with gochujang butter and kimchi during a visit last week for dinner. At $12 for a half-dozen, they're a touch less expensive that those at Prohibition and Caracol (both of which run a standard $14 per half-dozen).
Even chargrilled, Gulf oysters are so briny and sweet right now that it was almost difficult to even taste the gochujang butter, but the fermented crunch of kimchi and bright snap of green onion was a welcome flavor contrast to the rich fattiness of the oysters themselves. Just for good measure, we also ordered a half-dozen raw in Commonwealth's Japanese style, which tops the oysters with Maui onion salsa, soy pearls, and more green onion. Here, the scallions clashed, and the oysters were better with them scraped off, the better to enjoy that beautifully salty blend of oyster liquor and soy sauce.
I'd like them even more if Commonwealth, like Caracol, offered a happy hour option. Then again, Houston has more than its share of cheap oyster dives, from the landlocked fleet of Captain Benny's Oyster Bars to the famous 90-cent oyster Mondays at Danton's. What I'm saying is, you have no excuse not to eat your fill this month while you still can.