Beachside Foodie: Conversations With A Port A Restaurateur
“It’s such an interesting time to live in the Coastal Bend,” gushes Port Aransas restaurant owner Chris Amundsen. “I don’t think there’s a town in the United States that has more potential than Corpus Christi…and Port Aransas will be pulled into that.”
It’s already happening. The sweeping coastal views and jackpot real estate prices of the Coastal Bend are attracting young innovating entrepreneurs in droves, and all along the palm-tree lined streets, new restaurants, bars, and food trucks are opening their doors to hungry residents and visitors.
Overall, the Coastal Bend foodie scene is coming in hotter than a South Texas summer.
As change comes to the Coastal Bend we want to know…what’s the original recipe for Coastal Bend food? And how is it changing? To find out, we sat down with premier restaurant owner Chris Amundsen, owner and chef of Lisabella’s Bistro and Bar in Port Aransas.
Q: You’ve made a name for yourself in the Coastal Bend, but you’re actually from Alamo Heights in San Antonio. How did you end up in Port A?
“We would always come down here as a family,” Amundsen says, starting with his childhood. And that pattern continued when he married his wife Lisa, whose family built a Port A vacation home of their own in 1963. “We just fell in love with [Port Aransas],” he continues. “Every time we’d leave, it’d be depressing. We were always dreaming of moving here…and we always wanted to open a restaurant.”
Lisabella’s origin story is quite possibly the most heartwarming tale of business and family we’ve ever heard. It’s a true American success story: no money, no experience, but immeasurable amounts of passion, determination, and hard work.
“I wrote a seventeen-page business plan to open a restaurant in San Antonio,” he says with a laugh, “and not one person would touch it. Not one person would give us a dime.”
In 2004, they settled in Port A, which by then had made great strides in development and tourism. Old Town bustled with shops, bars, and arts events. Island Moorings was more developed, and the recently designed beachwalk highlighted the town’s best feature: the sands of the Gulf Coast. In Port A, the Amundsens found a building to rent by the old Tarpon Inn, as well as folks who would give them financing. The whole family fixed up the building themselves, including Chris and Lisa’s sons, Luke and John, who were just thirteen and nine at the time. For a number of years, they really struggled – the restaurant business can be merciless. But their dedication paid off.
One of their customers (Jeff Lamkin, the developer at Cinnamon Shore) made them an offer. “They needed a restaurant out here, and we needed to make more money. It was a perfect match.” It was a risk to move out of Old Town and into the more rural area of beachside developments, but it was one that paid off. “Our business tripled the first year we were at Cinnamon Shore.”
Over thirteen years after it first opened, Lisabella’s remains a family business. Chris manages during the day, then hands the reins over to son John in the evening. The menu is the work of Lisa, whom Amundsen fondly calls “our sophisticated palate,” and Luke, whose passion for food and wine led him to earn a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. Their son-in-law Spencer rounds out the crew as the head chef. “There’s a lot of love in that kitchen,” Amundsen says.
Q: What are some of your favorite parts of Port A?
His warm southern accent slows to a drawl to answer this one, as if to savor the taste of every word.
“It’s a great lifestyle that feels almost European.”
Actually, we can kind of see that. Much like a small village in the French or Spanish countryside, locally owned shops and restaurants, afternoon siestas, and café culture are all part of daily life here in Port A. (Except instead of sipping coffee at a café, folks drink Shiner on the beach and restaurant decks because…well, this is Texas.) Quirky and charming, the town has an independent, yet welcoming personality.
Image courtesy of the Lisabella’s Bistro & Bar Instagram page
We have to ask about the elephant in Port A. But, with an enviable ability to look on the bright side, Amundsen finds perhaps the only silver lining possible to the brutal beating Port A took from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. “I’ve never seen so much love being poured out in this town for people who needed things. So much money was raised for people that needed a short-term fix quickly.”
Q: How does the relationship between Lisabella’s and Cinnamon Shore work?
Unsurprisingly, it’s a win-win. Amundsen explains, “[The developer] knows that he has a home run here, and we know that we have a home run here, too, because Cinnamon Shore is a large percentage of our sales.”
Cinnamon Shore developer Jeff Lamkin definitely hit the ball out of the park (to borrow Amundsen’s baseball metaphor) when he offered what used to be his coffee shop as a new home for Lisabella’s. Now he has one of South Texas’ best fine dining restaurants right smack in the middle of his pristinely landscaped “town center.” And this October, Lisabella’s and Cinnamon Shore will host the Texas trials for the World Food Championship.
Images courtesy of the Cinnamon Shore Instagram page
“Cinnamon Shore changed the game,” he says. “There are so many community developments popping up now, making this a high-end second home place.” He cites Sunflower Beach and La Palmilla Beach Resort, two newer and more luxurious beachfront communities, as examples of the resort-style splendor becoming the Port A norm.
Always the family-oriented man first, though, Amundsen emphasizes: “But we do get a lot of other people dining here…I don’t want to price people out of the neighborhood.”
Q: Do you see any rising foodie trends in this area?
“Chefs like to be clever; but here, everyone is more of a traditionalist.”
He recommends a half dozen of his favorite good ole South Texas restaurants in Port A: Venetian Hot Plate, La Playa Mexican Grille, Miss K’s Bistro, Stingray, Billy Joe’s Crafthouse…and his descriptions of the food at each one has our tummy rumbling.
Images courtesy of Lisabella’s Bistro & Bar Instagram page
“I think you’re going to get some young entrepreneurs coming down here to shake things up. But not Austin experimental. People don’t want that when they come down here. They want comfort. [Port A] serves fresh high-quality comfort food…No shortcuts. It’s all fresh fish. [At Lisabella’s], all of our sauces are made from scratch. Everything we do is as if you were coming to our house.”
That traditionalism is what makes Port Aransas so special. The food, the homes, the lifestyle – it’s all timeless, and he doesn’t see that changing too much. But he’s excited about the rising Corpus Christi revitalization movement and the positive impacts he expects it to have on Port A. “I think it’s going to explode because we’re getting more entrepreneurs. [Texas] A&M is growing, and when you get those educated millennials staying and getting in the workforce and opening businesses and doing things, then everything’s gonna get hip. I think in ten years, Corpus Christi will be a very important city…and Port A will be a part of that.”
Port Aransas life looks good on Amundsen. Whereas I’m steadily dripping a puddle of sweat on his beautiful restaurant floor, he wears the healthy, tan glow of a man who loves where he lives and loves what he does. He laughs when I mention this. “It’s the dream life here. Everyone here is relaxed. No one’s uptight. There’s something about the salt air that’s healing to humans.”
To find your place in Port A another area of Coastal Bend paradise, check out our list of Coastal Bend communities that need to be on your radar, download our exclusive Buyer’s Guide, speak with a local lender, and contact an agent to help you make your dream home a reality.