About a year ago, I expressed a little petulant dismay that the first out-of-state restaurant that we featured on this blog was in Jacksonville, Florida, a town that I’d never visited before, in the state that I love to hate. A small part of that pouting came about because I had hoped to have one of my favorite places in Mobile, Alabama be the first out-of-Georgia eatery, or perhaps another great restaurant in that gulf coast town just packed with great restaurants. For many years, I have taken a Saturday in the spring to ride down to Mobile with my good friend Ric, who treks into Alabama twice a month from his place in Columbus to visit his son. Unfortunately, a combination of illness and bad scheduling meant that I didn’t get to go down to Mobile when it was convenient in 2010. So I was really looking forward to getting out of town for a day and making the ungodly trek down I-65, about which more in the next chapter, to this fabulous city, and spend some time catching up with my buddy, of whom I don’t see nearly enough. It’s a haul; sure, I only drive the leg from my place to Columbus and back, but the whole thing is 750 miles in a day. It’s best to break it up with a couple of meals and visiting some good people along the way.
When I first joined Ric for this mostly annual road trip in 2002, we got a recommendation from some people down on the gulf coast to try a place called The Original Oyster House, and we have usually eaten there each time. The other place that we’ve visited, twice, is the legendary Wintzell’s, a joint that demands another visit and a chapter of its own one day. Boy, reading about the restaurants in Mobile makes me drool. When Marie and I take a long weekend, one day, to go down this way and visit New Orleans and Baton Rouge, we will definitely be spoiled for choices. I want to visit Foley Coffee Shop, and Manzi’s Antique Club, and Moe’s, and oh. And Brick Pit. I think that’s the place with the gauntlet-throwing sign out front that tells guests that, if I remember correctly, “we proudly serve the best damn barbecue in the great state of Alabama.” Oh, yes, we need to eat twice in Mobile on our way to Louisiana and twice more on the way home.
When we first visited the Original Oyster House, they were in a different location, a few miles east of their current digs. They were located across the street from the USS Alabama, a battleship permanently moored there as a national park. We got to eat there twice, I believe, before Hurricane Ivan hit the region in September 2004. When I joined Ric for a visit in January 2005, we motored over to the Oyster House to see what was left of their property. It had taken a direct hit. Down here on the gulf, you often see homes and businesses on stilts. The Oyster House building suddenly looked like that, only it wasn’t built that way. That structure has since been razed, with no trace that anything was ever on that site. The current property has survived all the other devastating storms that the gulf coast has taken in the last six years, and is an incredibly popular, huge family restaurant.
There’s a very unusual item on the Oyster House’s menu, one that has caused a small amount of foodie controversy and isn’t at all native to the local waters. On that very first visit, years back, they were offering, among their daily specials, some lemon pepper grouper. I had an order of that and raved about it for a year. That was the most amazing fish I ever had. Only it wasn’t grouper. For the last several years, a supplier (or two) in the region has been unsuccessfully fighting a government lawsuit over mislabeled food. What they had been selling to restaurants around Pascagoula, Mobile and Pensacola as grouper was actually an Asian freshwater fish called sutchi. When this broke, many restaurants quit dealing with that supplier. But the Original Oyster House knew how popular it was and kept serving it, only making sure that guests knew what they were getting. Over time, the sutchi has graduated from the blackboard specials and to the printed menu, where it is, boldly, said to be “better than grouper.”
Since I was planning for a second, smaller meal a couple of hours later, I decided against a large portion on Saturday, and passed on the sutchi. I just had a lunch portion of flounder and shrimp with cole slaw. The flounder was, notably and sadly, less than outstanding, but the shrimp were really terrific, and the slaw, heavy with onions and exploding with flavor, just amazing.
Making the shrimp even better was the do-it-yourself sauce. Rather than giving guests a cup of pre-mixed cocktail sauce, the Oyster House provides all the ingredients and lets you experiment. I made myself a horseradish-heavy cup with garlic sauce and a little Worcestershire. As you might have gleaned from the previous couple of entries, my allergies have been quite unbelievably awful this year, and this was exactly what I needed. I raised the shrimp to my mouth and immediately teared up. One bite of that stuff and sinus cavities that had been blocked for six days suddenly found fresh air. This did, I say as delicately as possible, require that I turn my head from the table for a few moments. It was completely blissful, even if nobody in their right mind would want to have been sitting next to me.
The fellow who was sitting next to me was Ric’s son, aged twelve, who also had the flounder and shrimp, with fries. I’ve seen this boy order fries many, many times and never eat more than one. I bagged a couple; they’re great big steak fries which just cry out for some sea salt to be poured lengthwise across them. Ric and his wife, the effervescent, accident-prone Maggi, shared the KP’s Sampler of flounder, shrimp and chicken tenders, with red beans and rice and some amazingly good cheese grits. They certainly don’t scrimp on the cheese in this dish; you should definitely try this stuff.
We arrived shortly after eleven and the place was completely packed before we left, with a giant mob in the huge lobby area. Its size and tourist-friendly popularity have made it a must-visit destination for years, a standout on a stretch of road with at least three other gigantic seafood restaurants. The long wall of autographs from celebrity visitors is a further testament to how good this place’s PR people are, but it stands or falls on the strength of its food, and the fact that Ric and I have returned five times after that first visit is proof of just how good and how reliable they are here. If you’d like to really indulge in a great meal, get yourself some lemon pepper sutchi, an extra order of shrimp, cheese grits, slaw and a trip to the huge salad bar, and then make damn sure somebody else is willing to drive while you enjoy one of the best food comas you’ve ever had.
(Note: Sadly, my “mild” [that’s a medical term] shellfish allergy has prevented me from actually trying the oysters here. Shrimp I can eat; oysters, clams and a couple of other shellfish are very bad for me. I have heard enough raving about the oysters here to make me insanely envious of them. I figure the owners wouldn’t name their restaurant after a dish without believing in it. Spare a thought for me when you sample them, would you?)
Other blog posts about Original Oyster House: