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GC: PJ's Seafood specializes in Gulf bounty

By Jessica Rodrigo
Nov. 16, 2011 at 5:16 a.m.

Just a short drive from the coast, a small shop in Victoria claims a piece of the seafood industry pie. It's a one-stop shop for fresh seafood caught locally.

PJ's Seafood, owned by Mickey Kostella and his wife, Marsha, is one place to buy fish, shrimp and shellfish, such as oysters in Victoria.

Shrimping season will come to a close, and a new batch of boats will make their way out to the salty, murky waters to pluck oysters from the reefs.

The official start of oyster season starts Nov. 1, and that means oysters will be harvested, cleaned, packed and then shipped to stores. Texas Oysters, harvested in the coastal areas near Galveston, in Matagorda Bay, down to Nueces Bay, will be shipped out by the pint, quart and gallon, packed in ice for oyster connoisseurs throughout the region.

Growing up in the area, Mickey learned how to fish as a child, and still enjoys fishing in Port O'Connor and Rockport.

"Seafood has always been a part of my life," he said. "We ate a lot of fish and shrimp. I grew up around it."

Life before PJ's Seafood

More than 30 years ago, life in Victoria went on with little or no seafood.

After almost four years in the Navy, Mickey lived in California and Washington state before returning to Victoria, meeting his wife and raising a family.

The family, made up of Mickey, Marsha, their four children and two dogs, lived in Washington state until Mickey made a life-changing decision.

"Mickey came home and said, 'I quit my job, I bought a station wagon and we're moving to Texas,'" Marsha reminisced.

When they arrived in Victoria, they began to settle in: The children went to school, and Mickey looked for a place to use his skills.

"I didn't want to work in the plants, so I was looking for a business to start up,"Mickey said. "At the time, there wasn't anywhere else to get local seafood. I wanted to specialize in locally caught seafood," he said.

A then-33-year-old Mickey bought an old washateria and transformed it into a small seafood market.

PJ's Seafood sells a variety of local sea fare, including redfish, flounder, catfish and shrimp, but also sells popular species including mahi- mahi, tuna and sea bass.

To sell bounty from the Gulf, Mickey buys from local commercial fisherman, Gold Coast Seafood in Palacios, and other seafood companies.

Mickey attributes a lot of his success to knowing his sellers. Before partnering with Gold Coast Seafood, he worked with Gasten's in Galveston for 25 years.

Hitting the market

In 1977, the Kostellas opened PJ's Seafood market. Mickey gutted the space, installed a walk-in cooler and freezer to keep his seafood fresh and bought some display cases for the front of the market to show off his inventory.

"I sell all my fish whole," he said. "We sell it that way so the customers can see it before they buy it."

In addition to selling his fish whole, he offers to clean each order before sealing and icing the fish and sending the customer on their way.

Before the restaurant came to fruition, the market had a few fryers lined up against the north wall where an ice machine and a few shelves now stake their claim. PJ's Seafood offered a small menu of homemade dishes for patrons, but only for take-out.

"Everyone kept asking us when we were going to open up a restaurant," Mickey said. And in 1978, the restaurant opened its doors.

Diner side of things

The restaurant side of PJ's was leased out to an antique store when the market opened, and when the business venture didn't work out, the pair turned the space into what is now a Victoria favorite for seafood and hamburgers.

Adding to the pool of knowledge the husband-and-wife duo already wielded, Marsha had previous experience in the food industry.

"When I was growing up, my dad owned a steakhouse franchise," she said. "We did think that eventually we would open a restaurant, and take our time gathering the things we need."

She said that when they changed the antique store over to the diner, they were planning on using the first couple weeks as a trial period to test recipes.

"The first day we were here, a couple of customers started coming in," the 61-year-old wife and restaurant manager said. "We put the chairs down, and then we were open. It was really fun. The community was all part of it."

And not just the community, but the family, too. The Kostellas are proud parents of four children and a handful of grandchildren. During Lent, Marsha said the entire family comes to lend a hand at the market and the diner. There are times when customers can see three generations running the counters, taking orders or cleaning fish.

"It's a family business. Everyone helps out and is involved in things here," Mickey said.

Marsha added that things haven't changed since they opened. Mickey works the market and the books, and she works the diner and oversees the hiring and management side of the diner. Together they offer the Golden Crescent homemade cooking - cooked at the diner or brought home for cooking.

"I think that is why we get along so well," she said. "We both have our own rules. I don't get in his way, and he doesn't get in mine."

Although Marsha is in charge of the diner, she says Mickey is the real chef. On Thursdays and Fridays, he comes to PJ's at about 4 a.m. and starts their famous seafood gumbo, updates the books, preps the fish and prepares to open for lunch patrons by 11 a.m.

"We make everything here from scratch - from our cocktail sauce, to our tartar sauce," he said. "It all starts in the market, too. I'll clean the fish and prep it for the day."

Oysters on the menu

According to the 30-plus-year veteran of seafood sales, oyster patrons enjoy cooking them as much as they do gifting them.

"I get a lot of customers who will come in and buy them by the gallon and make an oyster dressing for Thanksgiving," he said. "Around Christmastime and New Year's Day, a lot of them will buy them as gifts."

Every day, the longtime fisherman handles raw fish and shellfish, but he swears he'll never eat a raw oyster.

"I like my oysters fried," he said. "I won't eat anything raw."

He said a lot of that has to do with safety. One bad oyster in the bunch can spoil anyone's day. That's why Mickey sells his oysters shucked and packed, so he doesn't have to deal with the live oysters, but he will order them live at a customer's request.

Certified oysters

Making sure oysters are certified is one of the first steps to enjoying the salty creatures, he said, whether they are eaten on the half shell or fried in a light batter.

"You want to make sure all your gallon containers are certified by the state health department," Mickey explained.

He has seen peddlers pushing oysters without any certification and warns customers to be wary of them.

"If you buy them without a tag, you don't know where they're harvesting them, or if they got them from contaminated waters," he said.

State officials constantly inspect the reefs where oysters are raised, he said, and area officials examine the shucking houses, where oysters are placed in containers for sale.

"The key to a good oyster is cold and fresh water. The colder the water, the better the oyster. They'll start storing what they call 'fat,' and that's when they get nice and plump," Mickey said.

In the fall and winter months, the water will cool down, and one hopes some rain will have left fresh water in the Gulf. Oysters need fresh water, with a low salinity and high oxygen to strive on their reefs.

"That's why there's the old saying that the months with R's in them are the ones that you harvest them. Oysters will peak out in size and flavor in January because that is when the water gets colder," he said.

Mickey said PJ's gets fresh oysters throughout the year to satisfy the Golden Crescent appetite for the critters.

"Oysters are a favorite, along with catfish," said Marsha. "Mickey likes his cooked soft and I like mine cooked beyond recognition. We'll cook them like people want them."



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