By PAMELA CODY
Special to the PRESS
The newly christened Port Isabel Shrimp Cook Off and Seafood Festival carried on the same storied tradition as its predecessor, with the 26th year of the event taking place this past Saturday in Sutherland’s parking lot.
After a quarter century as the World’s Championship Shrimp Cook Off, the Shrimp Cook Off and Seafood Festival was the result of the board wanting to change it up a bit, according to Chamber of Commerce president Betty Wells.
“Well, you always want to try and make your event better. So we wanted to do something for the smaller children who come with their parents and make it more of a family atmosphere,” said Wells, speaking from the Chamber of Commerce booth at the festival.
“We changed out the entertainment this year, we had the band The Agency for years and love them, but the board just wanted to try some different things,” Wells said. “Our contestants could this year, for the first time, prepare and serve two recipes for sale to the public, one had to be shrimp, that’s the one that would be judged. The other could be any kind of seafood and would not be judged.”
As for the Chamber’s goal in having people come out to the cook off, Wells replied “We just want them to have a great time and we hope they’re going to leave with a full stomach.”
Chief financial officer for the Dirty Al’s Restaurant Group, Ethan Salazar, was on hand for the cook off and festival, keeping an eye on the booths representing his family’s restaurants, namely Josephine’s Kitchen, Liam’s, Senor Donkey, Pelican Station, and Daddy’s Seafood and Cajun Kitchen.
Salazar commented on their history at the event, noting “We try to support the city of Port Isabel as much as we can for any events that they hold, ‘cause it’s a good cause. We’ve been doing this for somewhere around 12 years.”
“I love seeing faces from the community, people’s reactions, the music. And of course the food, getting to taste the other contestant’s dishes,” Salazar said, adding “It’s just the enjoyment of competition, it’s great. Great camaraderie.”
Even though the newly expanded format allowed participants to offer a second seafood dish for sale, none of this year’s vendors submitted a second entree except for Josephine’s, and it was not a seafood dish but rather a fruit-filled dessert crepe. But for those hankering for something other than shrimp, there were the ubiquitous giant turkey legs, cheesecake, corn on the cob, funnel cakes, and other offerings to be had.
Manager of Gabriella’s Italian Grill & Pizzeria restaurant, Nicky Ojeda, said of their recipe this year that they were playing with new things and figuring out different flavors. “We’re confident we’re definitely going to be on the top rung.”
Ojeda described their dish, saying “I think we have something different, a dish that stands apart from everybody else’s. We have people that keep coming back to buy the same dish over and over again, so it must be good.” And indeed they were, as a long line of customers waited for their crispy battered shrimp with a lime and ginger glaze, served over angel hair pasta and garnished with fried wontons.
Contributing to the long lines was the fact that this year’s field of competitors was a little smaller than in previous years, down from 12 – 14 to 10. Conspicuously absent were longtime participants PadreRitaGrill and Palm Street Pier, now known as Lobo del Mar. With less booths offering food and large crowds, long lines were the order of the day, with some stretching more than 20 people.
The usual house band, The Agency, was replaced this year by 2 popular local entertainers. Local singer Leslie Blasing kicked off the festival, with singer Danica finishing out the afternoon.
Sitting under the tent enjoying the music were Bill and Renee Schultz from Washington state. The winter Texans were enjoying their first shrimp cook-off, with Bill remarking about their experience so far. “It’s outstanding, really good. Daddy’s was our favorite so far, fabulous.” Rene chimed in, echoing her husband’s sentiments. “We enjoy the graciousness of the people, and the food is outstanding.”
Brownsville resident Laura Perez Reyes, candidate for Cameron County District Clerk, was attending her first shrimp cookoff with husband Alonzo and their two children. With her young son eating noodles while perched on his father’s shoulders, Perez Reyes surveyed the crowd, saying “We are really enjoying it, it’s the first time we’ve made it out here – lots of good food! The kids enjoyed the games and the pony rides.”
As always there was a delicious variety of shrimp entrees to choose from at this year’s cookoff. South Padre Island restaurant Ceviche Ceviche, who just opened a second location in Port Isabel, had a booth offering their namesake dish. Senor Donkey’s of SPI offered a tropical dish with accents of coconut, a honey chipotle sauce, pineapple pico de gallo, served over coleslaw in a tortilla shell. Liam’s of SPI served up chipotle mango shrimp made with a little bit of orange, over a bed of caramelized brussel sprouts.
Produce manager Jimmy Garza was manning the booth for the Blue Marlin grocery store, located on South Padre Island. Their entree this year was bacon wrapped shrimp with a little piece of jalapeno inside, along with homemade chipotle sauce and french fries on the side.
“We’ve been here about 12 years, and we try to do something different every year,” Garza said. “Last year we took second place in the amateur division. We try and change it up every year.”
After all the votes were tallied, first place honors in the professional division went to Pelican Station in Port Isabel. Second place resulted in a tie between Senior Donkey and Daddy’s Seafood & Cajun Kitchen, both located on South Padre Island. Third place went to Josephine’s Kitchen on South Padre Island. These results are a feather in the cap for the Dirty Al’s Restaurant Group, as they own all of the winning restaurants in the professional division.
In the amateur division, first place was awarded to the Blue Marlin grocery store on South Padre Island. Delicia’s took second place, and the showmanship award went to Senior Donkey.