Blue water and sunshine, sea breezes and slow living: there are innumerable joys associated with visiting the coasts of South Texas. And Texans do love their Gulf seafood. For the most part, though, fine dining hasn’t really been a major factor in the coastal equation—especially dining that focuses on local fish, game, forage and produce. (Ever notice how many seaside restaurants serve salmon?) But in the little beach town of Rockport, just north of Corpus Christi, the situation has changed.
A new star shining on the South Texas Gulf Coast is the sweet bijou of a restaurant—appropriately named Glow—in a transformed boathouse facing the waters of Little Bay. Glow’s talented chef and owner, Karey B. Johnson, is enthusiastically committed to showcasing the best ingredients that the Coastal Bend has to offer—including some components that haven’t seen much use since Native Americans reaped the bounty of the sea and the land.
Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to appreciate venerable ingredients and apply them to contemporary cooking. Johnson, raised in Houston, made her way to Rockport via San Marcos, New York City and ultimately London, where she owned a catering company for eight years. Her husband, Kevin, has Rockport roots, and when the couple was expecting twin boys in 2008, they decided to move their growing family back to Texas.
Immediately, Johnson was struck by the culinary possibilities. “This area is magnificently haunting,” she says. “There’s a lot of history here that’s maybe been dormant for a while—especially food history. We’re trying to bring that back to life.”
Itinerant groups of Karankawas roamed the coast for millennia—hunting game, fishing, collecting shellfish and sea greens and gathering abundant wild fruits, nuts and seeds. When Texas was still part of Mexico, the Coastal Bend was sparsely settled by Tejanos in the early 18th century and then by Anglo ranchers from the 1860s on. Until 1900, Rockport was a hub for processing and shipping beef. Boatbuilding and commercial fishing developed in the 1880s, and shrimping took off in the 1920s. Game hunting has been part of South Texas life since the Karankawas’ time, and the coast’s temperate climate and beauty have always attracted visitors. A newer component is the produce grown by intrepid local farmers learning to work successfully with the challenging terrain.
“This is the story I want to tell with my cooking,” Johnson says. After remodeling the old wooden boathouse into an intimate space that manages to be rustic and elegant simultaneously, she opened Glow in May 2011. The dinner menu changes daily, based on what’s available by midafternoon. Most ingredients are sourced within a hundred miles of the restaurant. “This forces me to be more creative in my thinking—to work faster,” says Johnson.
A typical Glow menu would include fish, shrimp, antelope, feral pig, quail and, when in season, crab and oysters. Beef has been off the rotation since last year’s epic drought forced area ranchers to drastically reduce herds and left local grassfed beef in short supply. But an array of seasonal produce from nearby Four String Farm and Bee Tree Farm are in abundant supply.
The menu also includes some ingredients foraged and produced by Johnson herself, like her own hand-dried Frandolig sea salt (named after the ranch island that is now Key Allegro), pecans and sweet mesquite beans (a Karankawa favorite) that are made into flour and syrup for desserts and cocktails. She picks wild berries and mustang grapes for summertime menus, and in the winter, she gathers tender samphire from isolated beaches—noting that it tastes something like a salty asparagus and is great with fish.
For many reasons, commercial Gulf Coast fishing and shrimping have undergone significant changes that have caused a diminished catch that’s primarily shipped away. “It sounds strange,” Johnson says, “but it’s almost easier to get fresh Gulf seafood in Austin than on the coast.” However, she’s developed firm relationships with fisherfolk and shrimpers. She obtains seafood directly from third-generation fisherman John Johnson (no relation) of Fulton Beach Marina and from Flower’s Shrimp Market in Rockport, which sells catch from local Vietnamese-American fishing boats. She works closely with Jim Naismith, an innovative fisherman who processes his catch ike jime-style—a Japanese method of immobilizing, killing and bleeding fish that produces a better flavor and color in the flesh. And she embraces Gulf Coast species not often seen on menus: along with the more common flounder and snapper, she serves sheepshead, gulf squid, grey mullet, tilefish, grouper and Spanish mackerel. Through her inspired preparations, Johnson’s converted diners to enjoying varieties that traditionally haven’t been valued.
“Simply cooked fish, coastal produce, wine and friends” is how Johnson characterizes Glow. And word is out about this hospitable formula; the bistro is full most nights. Johnson has been invited to introduce her Gulf Coast magic at the James Beard House this November where she’ll be cooking a Glow dinner paired with Texas wines. Frandolig sea salt, meet Manhattan!
Look for a collection of Johnson’s recipes and stories in her new cookbook, Glow: Tastes from a Tiny Boathouse, available this fall.
1815 Broadway St., Rockport