Tributary Café, 2813 Race St, FW. 817-744-8255. 10am-3pm Sun, 11am-9:30pm Tue-Fri, 10am-10pm Sat.
The Race Street neighborhood east of downtown Fort Worth has been getting some buzz lately. People are saying things about it. Terrific things. The best things.
Whether they call it “River East” or the more cumbersome “Six-Points Designated Urban Village,” the slice of Cowtown between the Trinity River and Haltom City is getting sized for redevelopment by those who recognize a good deal when they see one. Inexpensive and close to the city center, the area has plenty of charm potential. What has been lacking is a good reason for folks to visit.
Chef Cindy Crowder-Wheeler provides a remedy with her Tributary Café, an affaire de coeur featuring New Orleans Creole classics and fresh Gulf seafood prepared expertly enough to make the tiny spot a destination favorite.
Situated in a humble refurbished home with a broad front porch, the café’s dining room and bar are tucked into a single open space. The place is decorated with an informal sincerity, tasteful and pleasant without too much Cajun kitsch (never mind the kayak hanging on the wall). Daily seafood specials are scrawled on a chalkboard above the bar.
On a recent weekday evening, my guest and I made the short drive from downtown and were promptly seated in Tributary’s cozy front room. The menu (like the décor) works both sides of the street, from Cajun fried seafood on the low end to more highfalutin offerings, like Shrimp Victoria with mushrooms and crème fraiche.
An appetizer of shrimp remoulade arrived with five of the plump shellfish arranged on a bed of field greens. The prawns were sauced with a rich dressing of stone-ground mustard and horseradish that was almost (but not quite) too much of a good thing. Bring a friend with a delicate palate to share this dish with, and you’ll come out ahead.
An order of fried green tomatoes helped us cool down a bit. The electric twang of the under-ripe fruits encased in their nutty cornmeal crusts tasted like an evening in the garden, and the ramekin of roasted red pepper dressing gave the home-style dish a little extra class.
The crawfish etouffée was a wonderfully light and playful version of the Creole standard that all too often gets bogged down in goopy roux. Tributary’s take on the dish was buttery but vibrant, and the vegetables — onions, celery, and peppers — remained distinct and just a bit crisp to the tooth. Most importantly, there was no dragging through gravy in search of bites of crawfish. The tender tails of the little crustaceans, curled onto themselves like Fibonacci fractals, constituted the bulk of the dish.
As good as the etouffée was, my guest’s red snapper was the star of the evening. Pan-seared in butter and perfectly flakey, the fish could put Race Street on the map all by itself. When you order it, don’t forget to include the kitchen’s grilled asparagus as one of your sides. The charred spears were the ideal accompaniment.
I was so impressed with the snapper, I made a return visit two days later to try some of the chef’s other seafood specials. Blackened amberjack and grilled grouper were every bit as delicious. Chef Crowder cooks a fish as well as anyone else in town. The menu cuts down on the intimidation factor often associated with fresh seafood by doing away with the old “market price” nonsense and by offering all the fresh fish entrées for the same fixed price.
Portions at Tributary Café are scaled for human beings — a growing trend around town lately and one that should be encouraged. If you need a sweet bite after your meal, the homemade desserts are big enough to share. The key lime pie was flecked with green zest and nestled into a dense graham cracker crust. The bread pudding was proudly touted as “100 percent raisin-free” by our server, but it was packed with plenty of toasted pecans instead.
Race Street may have a ways to go before it’s the next Magnolia Avenue, but Tributary Café is well positioned to lead the pack, whenever the pack shows up.
Shrimp remoulade $10
Fried green tomatoes $8
Crawfish Etouffée $16
Red snapper $26
Key lime $6.50
Bread pudding $6.50