Iconic Bevil Oaks eatery coming back after its fifth disaster

Vautrot's Cajun Cuisine

Martha Vautrot calls her little restaurant “the best kept secret in Texas.” She’s never advertised beyond word-of-mouth since Vautrot’s opened almost 25 years ago, she said.

She follows the advice her grandmother gave her growing up: “No matter how much you advertise, if your food’s not good, they won’t come back.”

Harvey’s flooding that covered the neighboring Bevil Oaks community in 6-8 feet of water was the restaurant’s fifth disaster. The ’94 flood brought chest-deep water inside her kitchen, she said. Hurricane Rita blew the whole top of the building off, and Ike caused more damage.

“And I said, ‘God, you’re trying me now,’” she laughed.

Then the restaurant suffered a fire the day after Christmas in 2009.

But there was one picture in her kitchen that the fire didn’t touch.

“Everything around it was burned… it was the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. This paper and wood did not burn. It was just as blue as the day I bought it,” she said.

“So I said OK, you’re telling me to come back.”

Vautrot’s is one of the few places to eat on Highway 105 between Beaumont and Sour Lake. Martha said her little restaurant became a community gathering place for Bevil Oaks residents.

“When they walked into my restaurant, it was like walking into your grandmother’s kitchen,” she said. “And they’d call me momma or grandma.”

“I’ve seen the babies grow up to be 20 years old, and they still come in and hug me. That love in that little restaurant is so tremendously tight with these people.”

It’s a true family restaurant: her husband cooks and her kids waited tables after school growing up.

And it’s not just Southeast Texas natives that Martha takes care of.

“I’ve had people from Africa, from Japan, from China, from Canada, from France, from England,” she said. “I’ve had every type of person you can imagine in my restaurant and when they leave my restaurant they all remember me.

“At one point I had 15 employees. They all laid off now.”

One of her cousins loaned her a food truck so that Vautrot’s could reopen temporarily, starting Oct. 3. The cousin sells crawfish but won’t need it until January, Martha explained. She hopes to be back in a building by then — further away from the road, on piers, with the parking lot in front instead of out back.

Their new hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Martha invites everyone to come by and get their “Vautrot’s fix.”

“My food is fresh. Everything is not frozen, my seafood is not what you eat all crusted like just a little piece of shrimp about that big,” she said, measuring with a little finger. “My shrimps are big shrimps, and you get a mouthful.”

Her shrimp comes straight from Louisiana. The catfish used to come from Galveston but now it has to come from New Orleans.

Her gumbo is “pure” and “truly Cajun,” she said — dark roux and no tomatoes or okra.

“When I go out to eat, I want food that I know that it’s come from the Gulf and it’s fresh,” she said.

Last week, Vautrot’s was voted best gumbo in a Channel 12 poll with more than 43 percent of the vote.

Her etoufee is also award-winning, but those trophies were lost in the flood.

The Examiner tried the fried green tomatoes, shrimp and catfish while talking with Martha beside the food truck. Each item was crisp and well seasoned but moist inside — just right.

In the beginning, and beginning anew

Vautrot’s got its start because trailer park owner Gilbert Quibideaux loved her food and gave her a building.

“We looked at a trailer,” she said, but “him and my son and my husband built the restaurant.”

Quibideaux asked her to manage the restaurant and then financed it for her.

“I got the restaurant and the trailer park. He believed in me so much that he did that for me,” she said.

Two years ago, she paid it off, but she’s still paying off loans to rebuild from the fire.

But then Harvey came.

“I lost my restaurant, I lost my home. And I had four rental trailers. I lost everything … so for the first time in my life, I have nothing coming in.”

Martha applied for an SBA loan but was denied on her first attempt. Friends set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to help her rebuild, and she’s received several donations from the community.

“These clothes that I have were donated to me by churches,” she said, pointing to her shirt.

Martha was born into a Cajun family in Louisiana, she said.

Her dad was a left-handed fiddle player in a band and her brothers and sisters grew up on the road, mostly raised by her older sister.

When she was a young child, her parents left her with her grandparents, who raised her.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 4 years old. My grandfather was a sharecropper and we didn’t have much. But we had a lot because we had so much love.”

Martha didn’t reunite with her family until she was 39, when her hope for a better education for her children brought her from Louisiana in the early ’90s.

“Her and I are real close; now it’s just like a whole different world,” she said, glancing over at her sister in the lawn chair next to her in the shade outside the food truck they’re cooking in temporarily.

Rebuilding is just in her family heritage, she said.

“We got [the] Cajun Phoenix. Go through anything and come back. You go down and bring you right back up.’”

Martha wants to help all of the Bevil Oaks residents come back, too. She’s on the Bevil Oaks City Council, where she has served for about a year.

“They were like lost sheep. And they were just like, I don’t know what to do. … If I have to lift my house, I can’t stay, I can’t afford it,” she said, remembering the City Council’s unanimous vote Sept. 28, that allowed many residents to rebuild without elevating their homes and returned the requirement back to base flood elevation.

“We were going to lose half of the people, if not more in Bevil Oaks.”

She considers the vote a victory — paying a few hundred dollars in flood insurance annually instead of paying possibly hundreds of thousands to elevate.

But her own house is one of the 44 that still needs to be elevated. Right now, she’s living with her daughter.

She told the story of taking her granddaughter, who is 12, to see Bevil Oaks after the flood.

“I said, ‘Are you prepared for it?’ ‘Yes, Meemaw,’ she said, ‘I can do it.’ I said OK.”

But she wasn’t prepared for what she saw, Martha said.

“She was dumbfounded.”

“I said, ‘So you see this? When you’re going to get older, they’re going to ask you about the flood of ’17. You can tell them you saw it.’”

“And you saw everybody’s lives in the street. Because everything that they owned is in the streets.”

She gives rides to some of the 80-year-old residents — the ones she calls “the originals” — who’ve had to relocate and want to come back and see their friends.

“We’re all spread out; everybody was shipped out of here,” she said. “So when everybody come back together, it was like a big ol’ family reunion. It made my heart full.

“We’re not the only little town. There’s so many people that need so much.”

Eleanor Skelton can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 222, or by e-mail at eleanor [at] theexaminer [dot] com.