You may not know it, but I was deprived as a child. Sure, I had a roof over my head, a comfortable bed, and food in my belly; but, my parents forgot a few things. For one, I never owned a Barbie car, thus always finding myself sitting shotgun in my friend’s (though occasionally I got lucky and was assigned to “pushing duty” if the battery ran low and we weren’t too far from home). Secondly, no one took me to Disney World until I was 20 years old (read about my first time flying here), and even though I probably won’t take my kids either, it still hindered on my ability to hold riveting grade-school conversations about how awesome Splash Mountain was. But the fact that I had not been to Casamento’s until last Friday is unequivocally the most upsetting of the three.
It wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t had to listen to my dad gloat for the past 25 years about how during his days as a sought-after bachelor (his words, not mine), he would head over to Casamento’s on Friday afternoons, grab a seat at the bar, and slurp down three dozen raw oysters, chasing each one with a sip of an ice-cold Dixie. His descriptions were told with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why didn’t we ever go when I was a kid?” Was Casamento’s a place he wanted all to himself? Was he afraid that, had he taken me, I would have caused a scene about how oysters were “icky,” forcing us to give up our table or place in line and settle for lunch somewhere else? Of course, he claims none of these as reasons for depriving me, and says his years of avoiding the popular oyster bar were solely due to the fact that my mom doesn’t like to wait a long time to eat, and apparently a couple of times he got a waitress who was “short and rude,” deterring him and my mom from going back.
Well, putting my deprivation and heartbreak aside, I decided that it would be a travesty to prolong my suffering. So last Friday my boyfriend, his hungry college-student brother, and I all went to Casamento’s for our very first time. We had a two-fold game-plan: to be prompt because I–like my mother–am not keen on waiting an absurd amount of time to eat, and to try a bit of everything oyster–a little raw, a little fried, a little boiled.
We arrived at 11 a.m. exactly, joining the one man who was in line before the three of us. The brisk weather we endured while waiting made the idea of oyster eating even more appealing. But come 11:15 the blinds still weren’t open (any local can tell you that the status of the blinds is the tell-all on whether they’re open for business: closed blinds = closed kitchen), so we asked the man in front of us what the deal was. Before he could answer, a young man rolling a dolly towards the entrance did all the answering for him. Oyster sacks, one piled on top of another, came rolling past us. Talk about fresh. Who wouldn’t happily wait an extra twenty minutes for that?
As soon as customer number five arrived, the blinds opened and the lone diner led us inside. At this time I jumped at the opportunity to take a picture of a rare sighting: a practically empty Casamento’s.
As the man headed to the back of the restaurant, we followed suit and grabbed the table next to him in the back room that’s closest to the kitchen. I caught sight of a female cook holding a big wooden bowl filled with corn flour that I immediately knew could be used for only one thing: rolling raw oysters, only a few at a time, carefully around in the cornmeal until lightly coated. They’re then dropped by hand (no baskets!) into screamin’ hot lard. Yes, I said lard. You don’t think Casamento’s got its reputation for having the best fried oysters in the country–some would argue the world–by frying them in plain old oil, do ya?
We placed our order with a very friendly waitress–no short, rude waitresses that I could tell–for a dozen oysters on the half shell, three 1/2 oyster loaves, an oyster stew, two Abita Ambers (college kid is not yet legal), and an order of fries. The raw oysters arrived first, freshly shucked and ice cold. Lemon, horseradish, ketchup, Louisiana Hot Sauce, saltines, and everything else necessary to make your own custom cocktail sauce was available. And seeing as my only other recent experience with raw oysters was back in May, which isn’t exactly oyster season (it’s said that all months whose names contain a letter “R” are fair game, but due to advancements in refrigeration this is a myth), I was excited to give them another go. As I slipped the loaded cracker into my mouth and the cold oyster hit my tongue, it was in that moment that I knew that this was the best raw oyster I had ever tasted. They were of the perfect size, had excellent clarity, and smelled like the sea. Our ration of four per person wasn’t nearly enough.
Our oyster stew arrived next and from the mere looks of it I was disinterested. The heavy cream-based stew had about a half inch thick layer of oil resting on top, and despite our best efforts to stir the oil in, we eventually gave up. I fished out an oyster from the stew with my spoon and ate that, enjoying its chewy texture and pungent flavor, but I did not sip spoonfuls of the broth like the boys did.
My excitement could hardly be contained by the time our oyster loaves arrived, but we had to send them back because they weren’t dressed. Not wasting time with apologies, our waitress immediately took them back to the kitchen where they came back a split second later dressed as requested. Crisis averted.
I counted around nine oysters piled onto my white bread sandwich, which for around $8 is a pretty generous amount. You could tell we were happy customers because silence overcame our table as we ate, well except for the occasional “mmmmm!” There really isn’t anything quite like a perfectly fried oyster, and Casamento’s has the recipe for proven success. They’re not overly greasy, even though they’re fried in pure fat, and because of the temperature to which they heat the lard, the batter on the outside gets crispy, while the delicate oyster inside remains plump and juicy. Incidentally the only other place I’ve had oysters fried to this level of perfection is at Baru Bistro and Tapas, merely blocks away.
We devoured our loaves, paid the $57 bill, and tipped generously. But as we got up to leave I noticed for the first time just how crowded it had gotten in there. Mind you, we were among the first to arrive and it only took about an hour for us to eat, pay, and leave. In the span of that one small hour, Casamento’s had managed to fill every single table, and have a line of people waiting out the door. Incredible.
Of course, now that I’ve had a taste of the fried and raw oyster goodness Casamento’s offers, I can’t say I wouldn’t wait in an hour-long line to have it again. I don’t exactly love waiting an hour to eat but I guess it’s all part of becoming a loyal customer. I forgive my parents for never taking me as a child and lucky for me I know Casamento’s has been cooking their food the same way for more than 80 years. And as we all know, good things always come to those who wait.