Hubcap Grill owner Ricky Craig is opening a restaurant in Galveston, but he won't be slinging burgers and fries. The new restaurant, which is now known as Harborside Mercantile, will serve po' boys, muffaletta sandwiches and seafood platters in a historic building on The Strand.
"I have a second residency in Galveston that I stay at. I really just became attached to it, the historic part, especially downtown and around The Strand," Craig tells CultureMap. "The Strand kind of reminds me of New Orleans. Just started looking. Stumbled on a space."
Historically, the east end of The Strand has been quiet, but Craig sees potential in the area. The recently developed Hendley Green park will draw foot traffic and other developments, including a new brewery, are coming soon.
Part of the family
He's partnered with former Chicken Ranch owner Joshua Martinez on the project and tapped former Haven/Table 57 chef Alan Duhon to run the kitchen. Martinez says he and Craig's father began discussing the possibility of working together a year ago, but the planning got more serious when The Chicken Ranch closed.
"I was telling Josh, 'I’ve got a couple of ideas. Why don’t you come on board with me? When I find something, we’ll jump on it,'" Craig recalls. He has always worked with family before, but, with three Hubcaps and one coming soon to Intercontinental Airport, he needed to expand his clan.
"When I hired Josh, I told him . . . 'you’re not just working with me. You’re part of the family,'" Craig says. "(The staff) needs to be close and have synergy and work together. If not, I don’t think you have anything in a restaurant."
After he visited the space, Martinez concluded that what's happening in Galveston is reminiscent of the improving conditions in downtown Houston that led him to open Goro & Gun on Main Street in 2013. While the restaurant ultimately morphed into cocktail bar Moving Sidewalk, the area's overall success speaks to his good instincts.
As for Duhon, Martinez has his eye on the chef since being impressed by his gumbo at a Houstonia magazine event.
"Gumbo seems to be very easy and simple, but it’s the one thing people mess up so badly. I tried it, awesome," Martinez says. "I was just waiting, biding my time. Sooner or later I’d be able to work with this kid."
Craig says Duhon impressed him with his work ethic and willingness to blend his East Texas heritage with Craig's vision for Harborside's menu of Southern standards. "He’s a chef who’s not it in for big money. He wants to do something that comes from his roots," Craig says.
At Haven, Duhon worked with chef Randy Evans on the restaurant's farm-to-table cuisine. Similarly, Harborside will benefit from its proximity to Galveston's fishmongers. Craig plans to purchase seafood fresh every day and let the day's catch show up as specials. Po-boy meats will be smoked on site.
While Hubcap is a decidedly no-frills, counter service dining experience, Craig plans to draw upon his history working as a server in fine dining restaurants to ensure the waitstaff at Harborside meets his standards for delivering Southern hospitality. Martinez also brings extensive front of the house experience to his role as general manager.
"The one fear I really have on this is waitstaff. Waitstaff can ruin you. You can have the best food, but if you have a bad waiter (people say), 'I’m not going there again. The service was horrible,'" Craig says. "When I worked with Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola at Pesce, when I was a captain over there, we were just going to do a pre-shift meeting every day at 4:30. Talking about service issues, the pros and cons, how to handle situations, taste the off menu specials."
Originally, Martinez and Craig had hoped to be open by December 1, but delays in receiving a liquor license have scuttled those plans. Whether Harborside opens before January remains to be seen, but Craig refuses to rush the process. He knows the island's residents have high expectations for the project.
"I’m not going to open until I feel really, really comfortable," Craig explains. "There’s a lot of hype in Galveston, because they’re tying into, oh, Ricky Craig, owner of Hubcap Grill. Well, his burgers are as good as they are, I can’t imagine the po' boys and muffalatas and seafood dishes. I want to make sure we’re really up to par on that."
Want a sneak peek? They're planning to offer a limited menu of to-go only food during this weekend's Lone Star Rally. If they can survive the thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts who flock to Galveston for the event, Harborside will be able to handle just about anything.