This last week I returned to the Lower Alabama/Florida Panhandle area, my first trip back in 6 years. I didn't get a chance to cover as much area as I wanted, due to 3 day's worth of heavy rain, but I still had a chance to find some new great places and return to some that I'd visited previously.
I had gone on the trip expecting that my search for fresh oysters would be greatly affected by the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The cleanup is basically over but it's obvious the area has been impacted by the event. Last time, my place of choice had been Wintzells for their happy hour raw oyster special. Calling before going, I found out they had oysters, but at $13.00/dozen---a far cry from what the price had been before the oil spill. Several places I visited said they were not bringing in oysters currently, rather than paying (and charging) what they considered exorbitant pricing for the oysters. There were a few that had them, bringing them in from other areas such as Apalachicola, FL. More about that later. Shrimp, however seemed unaffected in it's availability and price.
Arriving in Pensacola around dinnertime, I knew we needed to stop for dinner. My friend, Sterling, who picked me up, suggested the Lillian Cafe, right at the Florida-Alabama border. The place was packed, partially due to a baby shower and a live band playing on the patio. We went inside where there was plenty of room in the small cafe portion. I ordered the Cubano sandwich, which came on a Italian roll and was topped with ham, roast pork, pickles, mustard and swiss. It did not seem to have been grilled in the true Cuban manner but was still tasty. I ordered the potato salad with it but there was nothing to distinguish it from any other. My friend got a grilled cheese sandwich which he said was awesome. It came on two huge slices of local organic bread and was accompanied by the same potato salad. A decent meal, not outstanding but worth the stop. At one point we were approached by the new father who told us to make sure we had some cake. True Southern hospitality!
The next morning we went out for breakfast. As usual, I had a list of about twice as many places to go to as there was time. Coincidentally, my friend suggested the Biscuit King, one of the places on that list. I had a single biscuit and gravy, approximately the size of the platter it was served on. The biscuit was good and the sausage gravy had a nice tang to it, although not as much sausage in the gravy as I have had at some places. My friend had a platter with hash browns, eggs and ham. Again, a decent meal but not outstanding.
Later on that day, we had errands to run in Foley, Alabama. I had picked the Down South BBQ as my place of choice for lunch. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. For $4.00, I received a huge bun covered with pulled pork with plenty of tasty bark on it. The sauce was delicious and complemented the tasty meat. My friend got the sausage sandwich which he said was OK---but he kept saying he wished he had ordered what I did so I think that sort of ruined his enjoyment. Beverage of choice was a delicious sweet tea. The dining area consisted of a carport-type area enclosed with screening---not fancy but it gave us a place to enjoy the meal. We went back to the window and ordered a couple of cherry cobblers, making a delicious ending to the meal. Afterwards, I wandered around the back where the huge smoker was located in a similar enclosure to the one we had eaten in. I got in a conversation the gentleman standing just outside it. After complementing him on the food, he told me he and his father smoked the meats while his mother made the cobblers as well as other things. Truly a family operation!
The third day, we again had a few places to see and errands to run in Foley. We decided to have an early lunch so we would have enough room for dinner. I'd read over the years about the Foley Coffee Shop here on Roadfood so that was where we headed. As those who know me can attest, country and chicken fried steaks are a big weakness of mine. I looked at the lunch specials but decided on the country fried steak dinner. It came with a salad, your basic iceberg lettuce mix. The country fried steak was tasty, as were the mashed potatoes and gravy. The cornbread muffin was a perfect accompaniment to it. Was it in my top 5 CFS meals? No, but it was good and a good value at $5.85. Again, sweet tea was ordered and made a nice beverage to go with the meal. For someone who never, ever put sugar in their iced tea, I was getting addicted to sweet tea. My friend ordered the Reuben. He is not a sauerkraut fan, so he ordered it without the kraut. In retrospect, I wished I had suggested he get cole slaw on the sandwich. The corned beef was lean but there was very little of it. The plate had absolutely nothing else on it. A little piece of greenery might have been nice. The waitress, when she returned, could sense my friend's disappointment. He decided that he should order what I did since my meals had tended to look and taste better than his.
The next few hours were spent doing a little driving and looking. First stop was the Foley Fish Company, a small fish market in the center of town. They seemed to have a nice selection of shrimp and fish. A little further down the road, we stopped at the Fresh Market Seafood, coincidentally a few hundred feet await from the awesome Down South Barbecue. It's an interesting place, a combination of seafood market and bait and tackle shop. They had a nice selection too of fish and shrimp. This was scouting day, however--------tomorrow I was planning on going to Billy's Seafood in Bon Secour. Billy's looked like my kind of place. Heading down the road, we stopped at a place that had come highly recommended, Jesse's Restaurant in Magnolia Springs. It shares a space with the Moore Brothers Village Market, where most of the meat is cut and breads etc. are baked. As we wandered into the restaurant we were greeted by the charming hostess who proceeded to tell us all about the restaurant and the menu. When she found out that I was into food, she introduced me to the chef, Gannon Leary. I had a fascinating talk with him. He seems very talented and his menu looks great, a mix of Southern specialties with some upscale treatments. We decided we had to come back one night for dinner but were unfortunately unable to due to the heavy rainstorms that began the next day. Jesse's is at the top of my list of places to go to when I return. On the way out, I saw a bottle of Crawfish Etouffee Sauce from a company called Cajun Power. I knew I wanted to make dinner one night for my host so I decided I would try it, since I didn't have my vast selection of spices with me on my trip.
Dinner time came and Sterling suggested a place literally down the street from him called Big Daddy's Grill. He had been going there for years when the owner had a much smaller place. He'd apparently been successful and renovated this place on the Fish River into a nice sized restaurant complete with outdoor patio on the river with a guest dock. Now, my observation is usually that places on the water opt for view rather than good food, so I went there, keeping my opinion to myself. Before we even sat down, Jason, the owner, came over and greeted Sterling as a regular. When introduced to me as an out of town foodie, he gave me a big smile. We had a nice talk about oysters. He is one of those who have opted to discontinue selling them rather than buy what he considered mediocre, expensive non-local oysters. Well, there went my first plan for what I was going to have for dinner.
Big Daddy's menu covers a lot of local dishes as well as some standard burgers and other items. Once I got over my oyster disappointment, I ordered a po'boy sandwich. The options included fried shrimp, crawfish, oyster (except for currently) and softshell crab. I decided on half fried crawfish tails and softshell crab, along with a choice of fries, onion rings or slaw. I am an onion ring fanatic so I decided to try theirs. My beverage of choice that night was Jack Daniels---it seemed to fit with the down-home atmosphere. When the basket came with my meal, I was shocked. The portion was huge! I figured that I would have to eat half the crawfish before I could even attempt to pick up the sandwich. The softshell crab was easily the largest one I have ever seen. On the side was a container of remoulade sauce. I dipped my first mudbug tail into the sauce and knew I had a winner. The tails were perfectly fried, hot but not greasy. The sauce was delicious with just the right amount of kick. Even the onion rings got dipped into the sauce. I didn't ask, but the rings certainly seemed hand-dipped. My last favorite place that I had softshell crab was a completely different place, Katsu-Ya Izayaka in Manhattan Beach, CA. This crab was twice as big, with the crab flavor bursting through and not needing any sauce at all. Best softshell crab ever!
My friend is a fan of their burger so he ordered that along with a side of fries. It looked like a good sized burger and perfectly cooked. I was extremely impressed--and stuffed. As a rule when traveling, I never go to the same place twice since there are so many good places to try, but coupled with finding out that they had a live band on the patio Sunday, we decided that Sunday dinner was worth a return trip.
For lunch that day we went to a place that I had been to on my last visit, 6 years before. Since my last time there, Guy's Gumbo Shack had moved to a larger location and was featured on Diners Drive-Ins and Dives. How would it be after so long? I ordered the lunch special, a cup of gumbo and a grilled cheese sandwich. The gumbo was tasty but not the stuff of legend. The grilled cheese was good too and a nice way to sop up the last of the gumbo with. My friend had the pulled pork which he said was very good. I'm not sure why, but the gumbo was not quite the stuff I had memories of as being the best gumbo ever.
The following day we headed out to Foley again, with the route stopping by the Tin Top Restaurant in Bon Secour. I had called them and they said they did have oysters. What I had not asked was about their lunch since it was listed as daily from 11AM on their website. We got their around noon and their was a notice on the door that due to the economy they had discontinued lunch during the week. I would have to search elsewhere for my fried green tomatoes and oysters on the half shell. My biggest complaint about restaurants that have a website is that they seem very lax in updating their websites. Disappointed, we walked around for a few minutes and then headed off. I did get a kick out of an item on their chalkboard however----it was AYCE Mullet night that night. Mullet seems to be a big thing in the area, with one of the towns even having a "Mullet Festival".
The last stop that day was another place I had found on the net called Billy's Seafood. It was listed as a fish market right on Bon Secour Bay. Quite a drive to get there, but when we drove it we could see it was the real deal. The parking lot was not asphalt or gravel, but instead crushed oyster shells. The docks where they unload the fish are directly behind it, as well as some shrimp boats. The selection inside was amazing. Probably 10 sizes and types of fresh shrimp, bins with fresh local flounder, grouper as well as other fresh (not local however) fish plus a freezer with crawfish, crab, alligator and other treats. This was fish market heaven. The fish were both filleted as well as plenty of whole fish. I picked up a few pounds of fresh shrimp and a pound of local blue crab claw meat. I asked about the oysters and they actually had them for $4.50 a dozen, a very good price. Unfortunately one of the few things I have given up doing is shucking oysters---I have a fear of stabbing myself if the knife slips. I hated passing on the oysters but still had hopes of finding them fresh-shucked at an oyster bar. We were heading back next to Fairhope, among other things the home of Winston Groom, the author who wrote Forrest Gump. The man behind the counter handed me my bag of seafood and I noticed his name on his shirt. I had just bought shrimp from someone named Bubba. How kewl is that!
A quick stop at the local Winn-Dixie market for green onions, celery, fresh green beans, Louisiana Hot Sauce and fixings for cocktail sauce and we were on the back to my host's house. An hour later, we decided it was time for an early dinner. I invaded the kitchen and got to work. First I chopped green onion and celery for the base of the crab cocktails. A generous portion of the crab went on next, followed by a cocktail sauced started from a bottle of Louisiana Cocktail sauce and spiced up with some fresh lime, hot sauce and some extra horseradish. A nice glass of iced vodka accompanied the cocktails. With over half a pound of crab between the two cocktails, they were truly magnificent. Yumm!
Typically I don't use jar sauces, but being in someone else's kitchen and not having all my spices and other ingredients to make my etoufee sauce, I decided to try the Cajun Power Crawfish Etouffee sauce. I can't usually leave well enough alone, so I did a little doctoring by sauteing onion, celery and garlic first in some butter. In went the shrimp (after almost an hour spent peeling and deveining them) for more sauteing and then the jar sauce went in. Once that was simmering I made some brown rice and steamed the green beans. When the shrimp were finished simmering, I put a portion of rice in a bowl, covered it with the etouffee and put the beans on the side. After one bite, my friend said it was one of the most delicious meals he'd ever had. The visit to Billy's was totally worth it!
The next day our plans were to head over to Sterling's girlfriend's house in Orange Beach. By the time we were ready to leave it had started pouring, the start of almost continuous rain and thunderstorms for the next three days. I'd had a request to recreate the previous night's dinner so we made a few stops on the way for more shrimp and sauce, plus a cooler with the veggies and other goodies I had picked up for the previous night.
On Saturday morning we went out on a little expedition, so I could see Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. We stopped at Sam's Stop and Shop, a small market with plenty of touristy goodies and a bait and bait and tackle shop. At the small deli inside, I grabbed a sausage biscuit for breakfast. My friend had the same with an egg fried to order on top of it. For under two bucks each, it was a nice something to have with our coffee. For lunch, we stopped at a place he thought was pretty good, Doc's Seafood. They have one location in Gulf SHores and another on Highway 180 in Orange Beach, that location definitely the original in an old, funky building. My usual question was asked and I was pleased to find out the had fresh oysters, sourced from Apalachicola, Florida---close enough to still be local. I promptly ordered the oyster po'boy with fries. With the rain making it difficult to travel too far, I suggested we go back there for dinner so I could get a dozen raw oysters, reasonably priced at $9.00 per dozen. At the table, they had small containers of horseradish and fixin's to make cocktail sauce. I promptly made a dipping sauce for the fries with the fixin's. Lunch came, and before I even took a bite I felt disappointed. The fries were frozen crinkle cuts. The roll was half the size of the one at Big Daddy's. Well, I thought to myself, I'll still enjoy my first oysters since I had arrived in Alabama. I picked one off the sandwich and bit into it. I really didn't taste much oyster, since I was eating almost exclusively batter. I took another one, just as small as the first. It was the same thing, very little oyster flavor and a lot of batter. I picked up the sandwich and ate it, every bite a disappointment. As far as I was concerned I still hadn't had my oysters. My friend had a double burger which he said was good, but it also certainly not like the one he had at Big Daddy's. Service was also terrible there, with the waitresses more interested in talking about a supposed shark attack at the beach rather than checking to see how things were. A few hours later, I had decided I was not going back there for dinner. It had been the biggest miss on the trip so far.
On Sunday we headed back to Fairhope. The plan was an early dinner at Big Daddy's, since they had live music. I always try to find places with live music and support local musicians whenever possible. It was still drizzling, although no where near what it had been the previous two days. The outside deck is covered and the section where the band played enclosed with plastic sides so it was actually quite pleasant on the deck. The band, consisting of two guitarists/vocalists, an upright bass and a female vocalist/mandolinist, was playing a selection of country rock and classic rock tunes. Just the right kind of music for a pleasant afternoon in the South. One other thing I tend not to do when I'm on a trip is order the same thing twice, but I was so impressed with the po'boy that I had had before that I didn't even think and just ordered it again. This time, I did get an appetizer--fried okra. My friends ordered one of their favorites, the chicken quesadilla. Another fantastic meal with some great music.
Since I hadn't had my fill of barbecue yet, we went to a place suggested to me in Robertsdale called the Hickory House Barbecue. It's very small, with four inside booths and a small enclosed patio. This time, my friends took my hint and both ordered the pulled pork sandwich combo. It comes with two sides of your choice for $6.99. They both got it with potato salad and fried cabbage, something I'd never had before but certainly sounded intriguing. I let my friends order while I decided which sides I wanted. As soon as they were served their meals, I ordered a pulled pork sandwich with mac and cheese and the fried cabbage. The cook/counterman informed me that my two friends had just been given the last of the cabbage. He was going to make more, but it would take 40 minutes or so. Darn! I ordered the turnip greens instead, one of my favorite Southern sides.They also had a deal of adding a spare rib to any meal for $1.25. How could I resist that?
The sandwiches were big and came without sauce, something I really appreciate because not everyone likes sauce on them. The had squeeze bottles at each table with three types of sauce, Original, Smoky and Hot. With the sandwich coming without sauce on it, it was a perfect opportunity to try each sauce separately on bites of the sandwich. At the table also was a squeeze bottle of white sauce. I didn't try that since I understand it's only for chicken. Above our booth was an award for their BBQ sauce having taken 3rd place in the Foley BBQ and Blues cookoff this year.The pulled pork was flavorful even without the sauce, but all three of the sauces complemented the meat quite well. The mac and cheese was good and the greens outstanding. Hearing about them running out of cabbage, one of my friends gave me half of theirs. It was very tasty, with delicious chunks of meat in it. I saved the rib until last and was not disappointed. It had a nice smoke ring to it and was cooked to that perfect point of tenderness where the meat melts in your mouth but only comes away from the bone in the spot where you bite into it. Seasoned well with a nice dry rub, I almost devoured it without even using the sauce, only putting a few drops of each in a few spots so I could taste it sauced too. All in all, just the kind of barbecue meal I had come to the South to enjoy.
On my final day of the trip, I had decided to try a place in Pensacola near the airport for lunch. We went to Jerry's Cajun Cafe and Market for lunch. It's less than a couple miles from the airport so it worked very well with catching my plane. As we drove up, we noticed the parking lot was completely filled. Always a good sign! Inside, the place was full, apparently with a lot of locals doing work/business lunches. I almost ordered a few of my Louisiana appetizer favorites, the Boudin sausage and crawfish pie but instead decided to get their half and half combo, a cup of gumbo and half a po'boy. The gumbo was excellent, easily beating what I had at the Gumbo Shack a few days earlier. It was chock full of shrimp and crab and had a nice dark base, speaking of a well=cooked roux. It was as good as my favorite place in Los Angeles, the Gumbo Pot in the Farmer's Market. The half crawfish po'boy seemed to be on a ciabatta-style bun. I had asked about the oyster po'boy but the are another place that has opted to not handle oysters at this point. Tasty, but not quite up to the level of Big Daddy's po'boy. It came with cocktail and tartar sauce but I missed the remoulade from Big Daddy's.
My friends got the Cajun Chicken and Andouille Pasta. It came with a huge portion of their Cajun slaw. I tried the spicy slaw and could have eaten a gallon of it! I also tried their pasta and it was very good. I'd been craving Cajun food and it was a perfect way to end the visit.
Overall, it was a very good visit. By the time I went, I knew I would not have much luck with the oysters so I was not surprised. Outside of that, I was pleased with most of the places I went to and the famous Southern hospitality. By the time of my next visit I hope the area will recover. I hope we don't lose many more restaurants there--several places that I didn't go into were devoid of customers at prime dining times and the news in general about the lack of tourism seemed to be true from my observations. I hope the area can recover and I look forward to my next visit to try the places on my list that I was unable to visit on the trip. Thanks also to my friend Sterling for the awesome pictures. You rock! Lillian Cafe
33925 Hwy. 98. Lillian,
AL (251) 962-7654 Biscuit King 17132 S Greeno Rd Fairhope, AL 36532 (251) 928-2424 Down South Barbecue
, 19891 County Road 10, Foley, AL - (251) 955-6622 Foley Coffee Shop
, 213 North McKenzie Street, Foley, AL - (251) 943-7433 Jesse's Restaurant and Moore Bros. Village Market,
14770 Oak Street, Magnolia Springs, AL - (251) 965-3827 Big Daddy's Grill At Riverpark
, 16542 Ferry Road, Fairhope, AL 36532-6617 (251) 990-8555 Guy's Gumbo Shack
, 212 Fairhope Avenue, Fairhope, AL 36532-2316 (251) 928-4100 Billy's Seafood
, 16780 River Road, Bon Secour, AL - (251) 949-6288 Sam's Stop and Shop and Deli
, 27122 Canal Road, Orange Beach, AL - (251) 981-4245 Doc's Seafood
, 26029 Canal Road, Orange Beach, AL - (251) 981-6999 Hickory House BBQ
, 22951 State Highway 59 S, Robertsdale, AL - (251) 947-8720 Jerry's Cajun Cafe and Market,
6205 North 9th Avenue, Pensacola, FL - (850) 484-6962 Cajun Power Sauce
, 10218 LA Hwy 82, Abbeville, LA - (337) 893-3856
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