Only have a minute? Listen instead
BROWNSVILLE — A pirate with a wooden leg greets me the moment I walk into Captain Bob’s Seafood Restaurant.
Speckled trout swim above his head, conjunto music fills the dining room. Only three tables are taken. I’ve come too early for the lunch crowd. The restaurant has just opened and will close at 8 p.m. I look forward to having dinner here soon.
A shark’s jaw bares its teeth wide and hideous on the back wall, poised to strike; the tropical fish swimming through the paintings seem to tease the shark’s appetite which lingers even beyond death.
The paintings of the tropical fish remind me of my days of diving in the waters of Panama in the 1980s and getting lost in the wonder of the pink brain coral, the red fire coral and the greens and the blues of the fish moving. For a moment, I’m back in those magical Caribbean waters wrapped in the timelessness of it all. I used to know the names of the fish on the wall. When I get home I will find my old book from 40 years ago and know those names again.
The timelessness of the fish in the paintings is easy to embrace. Captain Bob’s Seafood Restaurant at 2034 Price Rd. is almost empty, and I like getting lost in all the quietness and the images and the boats and the music.
The young waitress who speaks only Spanish brings me a basket of chips and a tall glass of ice water and a menu. I look over the menu at the appetizers, the cocktails, the shrimp dishes, the soups, the red snapper, trout and flounder. The menu offers both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Along with the familiar shrimp cocktail is the intriguing octopus cocktail and the squid cocktail. Alongside the fried oysters and the stuffed crab is the interesting shrimp and oyster brochette, the Captain’s combo and the fried gar.
I’m not feeling terribly adventurous at the moment so I order the shrimp po-boy, which is a little smaller than I would like because it is very good, but with the fries and the warm consommé it’s a very filling and delicious meal.
I enjoy this fine meal while admiring the eternal and passionate smile of Marilyn Monroe behind the counter. The sailing vessels, shrimp boats and images of lobsters conjure memories of the marinas in Corpus Christi, Rockport, Panama and the fresh lobster on the deck of “La Pirata” in the Galapagos Islands.
The following evening I’m dismayed to find that once again I’ve missed the dinner rush crowd. But, what would I expect? It’s fifteen minutes before closing time. I had intended to come earlier; I had pulled in to a parking lot filled with cars but was suddenly called away. When I return sometime later, the place is once again empty.
I look over the menu at the appetizers, the cocktails, the shrimp dishes, the soups, the red snapper, trout and flounder. The menu offers both the familiar and the unfamiliar.
But, I determine to enter the establishment anyway because the food is very good, and my stomach is empty and clamoring for something fine and delicious. And it wants satisfaction of its curiosities about the items on the menu.
There’s a sort of desolation that comes with eating in a large and empty dining room that has finished its last rush hour of the day. The energy of that rush hour still lingers so I know Captain Bob’s has enjoyed a good day, but I would like to have been a part of it rather than feeling it afterwards. Schedules too often intrude into my creative place but, as with all things and all people, we do what we can with what we have. Those who know me very well are aware that I enjoy the accidentals as well as the consistencies, so this accidental, this rupture in the plan and the desire, offer a time to reflect, in this case, on the matter of people and personalities and places.
Those of you who follow these narratives know I do not like to eat in a place without people, because the people juxtaposed on the shifting portraits of the restaurant reveal its layered personalities; a place with the movements and incantations of people never stays the same but instead moves, rotates and revolves in its portraits that appear and disappear every moment.
A fine reflection. The absence of people gives me cause to consider again the value of people and their presences.
I ask the waitress for crab flautas, and she tells me there is no crab. I order instead a big Angus cheeseburger. I wait and take in more fully my surroundings. I’ve often spoken about the similarities and dissimilarities of Cameron County restaurants and cafes with those on the Michoacan coast. This one is different though. This one is more like a fine fusion of Brownsville Mexican and the seaside places of Corpus Christi, Port Aransas and Rockport. I like this fusion very much.
Now a little personality emerges as a young couple with three small children takes a table immediately followed by an older man who takes the next table. There’s a cough, a fidget, a bass voice speaking to a woman across a table. A toddler with a pink bow babbles in a language only she can understand, and it’s refreshing to see and hear.
I work slowly through my burger, savoring each bite slowly, then head back to Harlingen to see some fine and extraordinary people graduate from high school.
There’s a sort of desolation that comes with eating in a large and empty dining room that has finished its last rush hour of the day. The energy of that rush hour still lingers so I know Captain Bob’s has enjoyed a good day, but I would like to have been a part of it rather than feeling it afterwards.
The following Sunday afternoon, I find the parking lot full and several tables filled. A crying baby greets my ears, and the hum of conversation appeases my appetite for the company of people. The couple with the baby and another child leaves but two men enter and take a table, joined a few minutes later by a third visitor.
A little girl in light pink casual dances with her hair bouncing before returning to her table in obedience to the stern eyes of her father.
The waitress brings a warm consommé. I ask, again, for crab but still no success, but I’m feeling especially adventurous tonight, so I order the fried gar (“catan frito”).
A few minutes later a plate with a mound of fried gar nuggets arrives along with the ever-present French fries and rice. My appetite and curiosity are quickly satisfied, and after a time of concluding this most recent journey I head toward the counter to pay my bill.
At that moment, an elderly man moves slowly, deliberately through the door and a waitress greets him with obvious familiarity. She walks with him to the table and there’s the scraping of a chair. He quickly has a large bowl of soup before him, obviously prepared by someone who knows him very well.