Driving south on 61st Street in Galveston, you can’t miss Darlene’s Shrimp Shack. Happy shrimp in chef’s hats adorn the food truck, which is surrounded by picnic tables with cheerful striped umbrellas. You bring your own beer.
The fried jumbo shrimp here may be the freshest I have ever tasted—plump, lightly coated with crunchy panko breadcrumbs rather than dense batter, and cooked to sweet and moist perfection.
“Are you Darlene?” I asked the lady taking orders behind the sliding-glass window.
“No, that’s Darlene,” she said, pointing out the window to the shrimp boat tied up at the Offats Bayou dock.
“How long ago were these shrimp in the water?” I asked, regarding the huge examples in the paper container she handed me.
“We brought them in this morning and cleaned them a few hours ago,” she replied.
On each side of the truck is a proud declaration: “Cooked Wild Caught Shrimp.” While that’s something you also can find at Galveston’s (and Houston’s) best seafood restaurants, few—if any—of the shrimp served at the large chain restaurants overlooking Texas beaches come from the Gulf. In fact, some 94 percent of the shrimp Americans eat are previously frozen, imported and farm-raised, despite the fact that those imported from Asia may contain bacteria and antibiotics not found in ours.
The Gulf shrimp harvest has been in decline for years—not because of a lack of supply, but because it’s nigh-impossible for our fishermen to compete with producers overseas. You would think that wild Gulf shrimp would command a premium, but they sell for the same price as the imported stuff, and the vast majority of consumers don’t know the difference.
Why don’t the same consumers who pay more for local organic produce at area farmers markets drive demand for local Gulf shrimp? Explanations range from concern about the after-effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to a preference for the blander flavor of farm-raised shrimp, but consumer education is the real missing link.
I’ve always thought that if only consumers could eat fresh Gulf shrimp at the water’s edge, they might come to insist on it. And there I was, sitting at a picnic table in the parking lot of a bait camp, eating fresh fried shrimp with the boat that brought it in bobbing right in front of me. Of course, the mission of the Darlene isn’t to educate consumers about Gulf shrimp—it’s to supply the camp with bait. Owner Jason Reuter also sells jumbo shrimp for an economical eight bucks a pound inside his shop.
It was in 2016, a year after the city of Galveston had liberalized its food truck regulations, that Reuter decided to give the fried shrimp business a try. The only items on Darlene’s blackboard menu are Cajun crab sticks, three for $3.95, and a basket of 10 fried shrimp and two hush puppies for $11. (You can also opt for one of nine spice blends.)
I’m thinking the Texas shrimp industry ought to borrow Jason Reuter’s bright idea and park a wild-caught-shrimp food truck at every shrimp dock in the state. No marketing or advertising could be more convincing than the astonishing flavor of fresh-from-the-water fried shrimp.