The Gulf of Mexico is filled with an array of delectable creatures and Alabama fisherman bring them in by the ton, making seafood plentiful (and affordable) throughout the state.
To help you take advantage, we’ve put together this guide to four of our favorite oceanic treats, plus a roundup of restaurants where you can indulge in Alabama’s signature seafood.
Royal red shrimp
These colorful crustaceans are found only in deepest, coldest waters of the Gulf, which makes coastal Alabama one of the few places you can find them in large quantities. The main shrimp season is fall, but they’re available year-round.
What’s the best way to enjoy royal reds? The options are endless, just ask Bubba from Forrest Gump. Fried, boiled and grilled are all popular. They’re even good pickled or “barbecued” New Orleans-style (cooked in a mix of butter, Worcestershire sauce and lots of black pepper).
Southern Living picks King Neptune’s in Gulf Shores as one of the best places to find this delicacy. They recommend ordering a heaping platter of the sweet, steamed royal reds.
If you’re cooking royal reds at home, the rules are the same as for any kind of shrimp: You want specimens that smell fresh (an iodine odor is a bad sign) and feel firm. Since they’re caught locally, fresh are better than frozen, but you need to cook them within two to three days for best results. Because royal reds have an especially delicate texture, it’s extra-important not to overcook them. The shrimp are ready when they just turn opaque, which won’t take more than two or three minutes in most cases.
And if you’ve always wondered whether or not shrimp should be deveined, rest assured that there’s nothing unsafe or unhealthy about a shrimp’s vein (actually its digestive tract), though it can have a slightly gritty texture in very large shrimp.
Fans of the small, briny oysters from the East and West Coasts may take a little convincing, but if you grew up on the large and mild bivalves found in the Gulf, you love Gulf oysters. The advice of Dyron Powell, seafood master and owner of Dyron’s Lowcountry outside Birmingham, rings true: “If you’re here, it makes more sense to eat a fresher product — anything from up north has to get here.”
Powell eats the delicacies raw with lemon and hot sauce, which is traditional and delicious. But he also tops with breadcrumbs and crumbled bacon and bakes them. Then there’s fire-roasting, grilling oysters over charcoal (or an open fire on the beach) for a few minutes until they pop open.
Further south at Wintzell’s in Mobile, they’re known for serving oysters up fried, stewed or nude, in addition to chargrilled and topped with Parmesan and Romano cheese, jalapeño peppers or piled high with shrimp and crabmeat.
When picking out oysters to cook at home, keep in mind that freshness is paramount. It’s best to buy oysters the day you need them, and you should throw out any oysters that aren’t closed tight or have cracked shells.
To open the oyster, hold the bivalve using a kitchen towel and insert an oyster knife at the hinge where the shell halves come together (not the front, where the shell is thin and can crack), then twist.
The Gulf (and a small portion of the Atlantic coast) is the only place in the world to find true red snapper, which makes this fish an authentic Alabama specialty. Powell serves snapper at his restaurant in a way that’s sure to become a Southern classic. Dyron’s pan sears the fish then serves it atop creamy grits.
The at-home cook’s best bet with snapper is to buy somewhere you can have filets cut from a whole fish — look for fish with clear eyes and bright-red gills. Barring that, give the fish a poke; the flesh should be firm and not at all mushy.
“High heat and fast cooking is best with any fish,” Powell says, and that’s very true with snapper. Its delicate texture is not well-suited to grilling since it will fall apart. Instead, get a pan very hot, add a little oil or butter, and sear for a few minutes per side.
Of the 1,200 species of crab in existence, more than 60 species can be found in Alabama waters. Eight species of blue crab exist in the Gulf of Mexico.
You can find blue crab in Alabama restaurants year-round, and, if you’re lucky, you may even see the delicate and elusive soft-shell variety on menus in spring and summer. Take your pick from fried crab claws, crabmeat sauteed in butter, steamed with spices, tossed in gumbo or mixed in a creamy dip.
At The Italian Fisherman in Mobile, you’ll find sauteed blue crab claws, lightly fried or marinated, in addition to soft shell crab sauteed or fried on a slice of fried eggplant and topped with cream sauce.
Don’t be intimidated by the blue crab’s tough shell — pull off the legs (don’t forget to split the claws open and eat the meat inside), then remove the shell starting with the belly. Remove the gills and break the body in half. If all else fails, take advantage of our Southern hospitality and ask your server for some help.
Ready to dive in? Check out the fresh catch at these Alabama restaurants:
Blue Gill Restaurant, 3775 Battleship Pkwy. Spanish Fort, 251-625-1998
The Bright Star, 304 19th St. N, Bessemer, 205-426-1861
Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar, 29249 US Hwy. 98, Daphne, 251-621-1086
Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar, 26029 Canal Rd., Orange Beach, 251-981-6999
Dyron’s Lowcountry, 121 Oak St., Mountain Brook, 205-834-8257
Ed’s Seafood Shed, 3382 Battleship Pky., Spanish Fort, 251-625-1947
Evangeline’s, 1653 McFarland Blvd., Tuscaloosa, 205-752-0830
Felix’s Fish Camp, 1530 Battleship Pky., Spanish Fort, 251-626-6710
The Fish Market, 612 22nd St. S, Birmingham, 205-322-3330
Ginny Lane Bar & Grill, 4780 Wharf Pky., Orange Beach, 251-224-6500
Gulf Shores Steamer, 27267 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, 251-948-6344
The Italian Fisherman, 2503 Old Shell Rd., Mobile, 251-478-2881
Jesse’s, 14770 Oak St., Magnolia Springs, AL 36555, 251-965-3827
King Neptune’s, 1137 Gulf Shores Pky., Gulf Shores, 251-968-5464
LuLu’s at Homeport Marina, 200 E. 25th Ave., Gulf Shores, 251-967-5858
Market by the Bay, 29145 US Hwy. 98, Daphne, 251-621-9994
Simp McGhee’s, 725 Bank St. NE, Decatur, 256-353-6284
Ocean, 1218 20th St. S, Birmingham, 205-933-0999
Original Oyster House, 701 Gulf Shores and Mobile, 251-948-2445
Voyagers, 27200 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, 251-981-9811
Wintzell’s Oyster House, various locations, 251-432-4605
Explore our complete listing of Alabama seafood restaurants.
The views expressed here are those of the author.