South Texas Flavor: Ostioneria La Fragata offers fine Mexican seafood
Feb. 27—BROWNSVILLE — There's a small seafood restaurant along the farther reaches of town, where cars along a busy thoroughfare have already broken away to their separate destinations.
There is a stillness and a quietness to Ostioneria La Fragata at 4025 Boca Chica Blvd. which has a disarming effect on any busyness that may try to follow me. Valentine decorations still hang from the ceiling barely moved by the ceiling fan.
The air moving from the fan can easily feel like a windy breeze off the ocean, especially as I take note of a large mural on the far wall. It could easily be a snapshot of Michoacan's Pacific coast, the coconut palms leaning like umbrellas over the sand.
I appreciate that in Brownsville I can always find a restaurant that takes me back to Mexico. This is one of those restaurants.
The mural on the wall with the palm trees and the white sand draws me into those dreamy places in Playa Azul and Caleta de Campos in Michoacan, where the cafes lining the beach have no walls and the whispering breath of the Pacific sweeps in and sends your cares into the forgotten places.
And you're eating fresh seafood, and you can feel the sand because the café is sitting on the naked beach beneath a roof of dried thatched palm leaves.
Such is very much the kind of place where I am today, with the simple design of the menu and its listings: shrimp cocktail and fish ceviche, the latter reminding me of my Panama days. There is seafood soup, crab soup, fried fish, Mexican garlic shrimp, and stuffed crab.
And camarones al mojo de ajo — ah, now that's a familiar listing from beyond the border.
It awakens a memory of my first meals years ago in Playa Azul when I ordered a fish filet prepared al mojo de ajo. And certainly it was a fish caught by one of the many fishermen who would appear as shadows on the morning beach, push their motor boats out to sea and return with their catch later in the day.
I imagined that the fish on that plate had come from one of those boats. I don't know if that was true, but the idea was beautiful and pristine and a reminder of the generosity of the imagination.
Today, however, I choose an old favorite, fried shrimp with French fries. The waitress promptly takes my order. I take time to absorb more of my surroundings.
A man leaves with two boxes, and I later learn why. The food is delicious, too good to discard due to a full stomach. A waitress immediately clears the table. A game show dances across the TV screen — it's a festive Spanish language program which, in all likelihood, is being stream from the southern places beyond the border.
Another man leaves an empty plate and converses with obvious familiarity with the waitress.
"Son veinte," she says.
"Ok." He pays and heads out the door.
She clears the table, wipes it down.
My lunch arrives. The waitress brings ketchup and tartar sauce, and I enjoy a fine meal. I try to eat slowly and savor each bite.
It's a little hard to eat slowly when the food is this good. I tend to lean too eager toward the pleasures of the senses, especially flavors. So it's a challenge, chewing slowly, but well worth it. Eating slowly enables me to enjoy the whole meal, sparing me the burden of carry out boxes.
"Buenos tardes," says an older man who follows a woman in a mask into the dining room. It's not a large place, but it is certainly a fine one.
The waitress lays a menu before them in a somewhat perfunctory manner and then removes it. They already know what they want it seems to me.
I've finished my meal by now, so I pay my bill and return to the busy ness and the hectic of the daylight air.
I'm back the following day, 6 p.m. for the evening meal. Only two tables are taken which surprises me because, as I've stated previously, the food is very good. But this is a low key establishment with few embellishments, just a fine and quiet place to have a good meal. Judging by the relaxed dialogue between customers and staff, La Fragata seems to have a small but decent regular clientele, and a sign outside says it has been a member of the Chamber of Commerce since 2013.
In any case, Mexican seafood is the best. No need for embellishments.
A large man at a nearby table finishes a full meal with soup and a plate of stuffed crab from which he frequently scoops a spoonful of food. He seems to have a sort of rhythm going, perhaps a well-practiced one, in which he alternates between his soup bowl and his stuffed crab. He talks frequently with the waitress, and I imagine this is his predictable choice on each visit.
I order the mixed seafood plat and a few minutes she brings me a plate with fried fish filet and three fried shrimp, with rice and the delicious consommé.
I eat slowly again, taking my time. The stillness and the quiet of this place allows me to more fully tap into the pondering and the contemplative.
I've taken a window seat at the front of the restaurant and a fishing net hung over the window is a nice touch. I look at the fading sun and the cars passing and there's a soothing and a settling of things as twilight eases its way across the city. It softens the brokenness and the jagged edges and the sharp accidentals of the day; in the receding of the twilight into the dark the tiredness meets the healing.
La Fragata will close at 7 p.m. and I'm glad it closes so early even on a Saturday because the rush and intensity of other places is absent, and I can enjoy my meal in the safety and the peace of the silences.
I think now on matters of austerity. Stripped of extravagance and ostentation, we can feel more fully the beauty of the fewer and the intimate. I appreciate the fish net over the window, the beach scene on the wall, and the genuine flavor of the fish and shrimp. The consommé is a fine touch to the meal, and for some reason that stands out in my mind as much as the actual meal.
My only complaint is that La Fragata doesn't serve coffee, but I drink too much of that as many would agree, so it's probably for the best.