It’s 9 a.m. and a small blue trolley ship launches into Wolf Bay in the Gulf Shores of Alabama. The southern sun heats up shoulders and as the captain, John Beebe (nicknamed Skip), grabs his oyster trap from over the edge of his boat after it has grazed the bayou floor for a few serene minutes.
“The guys who do it look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he says with a chuckle, muscling up the rusty trap, releasing Alabamian oysters that are piled together and molded like rocks. The oysters here in the Gulf Shores are iconic, whether they are called Atlantic, American, or Eastern; many will often yield pearls, but for the most part, they are too small for any commercial purpose. Instead, these oysters play a large role in Gulf Shores culinary fare alongside the rest of the Gulf of Mexico’s abundant supply of seafood, from crab and shrimp to clams and catfish. “You can’t stop eating them because they’ve got that salty flavour you like,” smirks Skip, “and here we have so many great places to eat them at, my gosh.”
Up first? The Royal Oyster, the aptly-named seafood restaurant led by chef Tim Hensley. Unlike other fish shops found in these parts, The Royal Oyster does exceptional takes on the usual oyster and crab claws—without the use of a deep-fryer. “These have shiitake mushrooms, truffle oil, green onion, and parmesan,” shares general manager Marissa Wilkins, bringing out a plate of fresh oysters, which are garnished with all the mentioned goodies. The most delicious of crab claws in a coconut curry also arrives at the table, along with a ponzu dish smothered over an unexpected bed of Brussels sprouts. “It has fresh citrus juices in it, so it’s got lemon, lime, orange,” adds Wilkins. There is also Oysters Rockefeller, enjoyed with a side of white bread doused in salty Mediterranean seasoning. The menus and seafood suppliers change here frequently depending on who has what, and today the shellfish is provided by Shellbank Selects Oyster Farms.
The Gulf Shores is the easternmost region of the state of Alabama, just under 60 kilometres away from historic Mobile and quaint Pensacola. Meals here play a crucial part in bringing people together, specifically before a football game that tends to divide alumni and proud parents (cue Auburn or University of Alabama fans). Enemies often put their differences aside and meet over lunch or dinner at King Neptune’s to enjoy perfectly fried food; crab claws are golden to perfection and Alabamian classics like fish poppers, fried corn fritters, hush puppies, and fried okra appease any salt craving. “This is my love right here,” shares owner Al Sawyer, looking around at his restaurant, “and we’ve had some very nice people come through in 25 years.”
King Neptune’s is also home to what is considered the Gulf’s most prime delicacy: royal reds. “I’ll let y’all see what they taste like, look like; they’re a wild colour shrimp, found very deep in the Gulf of Mexico,” Sawyer says. “And it takes a special boat to go out there and get them.” They are similar to lobster in crimson colour and taste, and while sipping on Bloody Marys, the table shucks and discards the heads while dipping the meat into a warm butter sauce.
In the evening, Playa at Orange Beach Marina adds a bit of luxe to the dining experience here. Arrive ready to wine and dine through a plate of squeaky pimento cheese and a refreshing tuna poke with avocado and chips, followed by Gulf signatures like swordfish, grouper, or red snapper. A warm Southern breeze drifts through the open wooden deck, and a rich tres leches parfait is consumed for dessert. Next, trade in glasses of red wine for cups of Bushwick cocktails at the iconic Flora-Bama Bar and Lounge located on the state line. This institution (bar by night, church on Sunday) is what many country music stars consider America’s greatest watering hole; it is boasted as both Kenny Chesney’s and Jimmy Buffett’s pride and joy. The creamy, dairy-based Bushwick drink has a top-secret recipe, but it is filled with five different liquors and topped off sweetly with a ruby-red maraschino cherry.
Stomachs are filled to the brim, and a bustling rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” fills the Flora-Bama—there could be no better way to end a visit to Alabama’s favourite coastline.
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