By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
Along the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, when the night sky is calm and a warm wind brushes over the water from the east and a full moon lifts the tide, listen for the fisherman’s cry of “Jubilee!” Unique to this small part of the world, the jubilee is a recurring marvel: When conditions are exactly right, thousands of flounder, crab, and shrimp are pushed out of their deepwater habitat and end up teeming along the shore. Word of the jubilee spreads fast, and before sunup—at which time the fish and shellfish are once again able to return to the bay’s depths—residents fill buckets with the ocean’s gifts, and the predawn harvest becomes the day’s feast.
The jubilee is an apt metaphor for dining around the bay, with its culinary godsend of good restaurants little known to outsiders. Along the shore and in the city of Mobile there are countless opportunities to enjoy the Gulf of Mexico’s plentiful seafood—broiled, grilled, fried, steamed, stewed, or marinated—and to pack away its justly famous oysters, shucked to order by the dozens and served on the half shell. Beyond offering maritime meals, the city of Mobile throbs with a deep Dixie character that is emphatically expressed in first-class barbecue and soul food.
If one thing can be said to embody the jubilee’s extravagance, it is gumbo. In and around Mobile, gumbo is always seafood gumbo, packed thick with shrimp and crab claws, and sometimes crawfish and forkfuls of flatfish. Many local restaurants make a specialty of the dish, but it is particularly enjoyable in a modest beer bar fittingly named Jus’ GUMBO, twenty minutes from downtown Mobile in the perpetually flower-filled town of Fairhope, at the epicenter of jubilee country. There are no frills or pretenses at this jolly hole-in-the-wall, not even a kitchen or stove—just three mismatched Crock-Pots behind the bar, which Donna Becker and Tay Goodloe fill with gumbo, Cajun red beans and sausage, and (on Fridays) crawfish etouffee. With its tin walls covered by license plates and beer signs, it’s a relaxed getaway in which afternoon passersby can plant themselves at the bar and chat with Becker and Goodloe as they dexterously blend cupfuls of the sneezy potpourri of dried spices that is their gumbo’s soul. Impressive as the gumbo is, it is served humbly, sometimes sprinkled with chopped scallions and always accompanied by crackers and a couple of slices of good French bread baked by The Muffin Man across the street. Toward evening, much business is gumbo-to-go, by the pint, quart, and gallon. With a beer list bigger than the food menu, Jus’ Gumbo attracts a fair share of customers who come just to drink and be merry and, on Wednesday open-mic nights, to enjoy the sounds of local folkies and blues singers.
Mobilians don’t necessarily think of NAN-SEAS as a gumbo place, although its rendition is divinely perfumy, dark and complicated, and loaded with crab claws. A popular, polite restaurant with linen napkins and tablecloths, Nan-Seas is best known for two things: an open patio with a spectacular view of Mobile Bay and the best fried seafood in town. The much-abused art of fish frying is here practiced to elegant perfection; from the eatery’s bubbling kettles come immense shrimp, oysters, and meaty crab claws encased in a brittle batter so light it virtually evaporates on the tongue. The kitchen’s best non fried dish, usually ordered as a starter, is the ingenious Mobile specialty known as West Indies salad—crab meat and grated onion marinated in oil and vinegar. It’s a simple dish (and addictive), yet so rich that even the half-pound portion is best shared with friends.
Oysters, on the other hand, can be eaten all day and all night, and there’s no better place to do so than downtown at WINTZELL’ S OYSTER HOUSE. It’s quite a sight to watch twenty-nine year veteran shucker Willie Brown prepare raw dozens at the oyster bar, and even more amazing to look on as ladies and gents belly up to the bar and slide them down the hatch as fast as he can open them. Wintzell’s is the site of an ongoing contest to see who can eat the most oysters in an hour. The champ is Heather Andrews, who swallowed twenty-one and a half dozen in 1997; the male record holder for nearly ten years has been Phillip Hahn, who went through twenty dozen in 1990. If you can break the record you get them all free, plus a check for twenty-five dollars.
Beyond impeccable raw oysters, Wintzell’s is a good bet for gumbo, crawfish etouffee, po’ boy sandwiches, fried crab claws, and West Indies salad. It’s a hoot of a place, with vintage barroom charm, its walls plastered with thousands of little signs offering bons mots and politically incorrect rules of life put there by the original proprietor, Oliver Wintzell, starting in the 1940s. (For example: “When a wife looks high and low for her husband at a party, she usually finds him high.”) Mr. Wintzell’s self-published books, Bits of Wit and Wisdom (The Signs at Wintzell’s Oyster House) and Oysters and Politics, are available for sale at the register.
The definitive seafood restaurant in town is Roussos, a handsome, brick-walled former warehouse near the Mobile River that serves crackerjack versions of the city’s favorite things to eat—gumbo, West Indies salad, fried crab claws—but is even better known for its proprietary way with baked oysters. Freshly shucked nuggets of moist marine succulence on their shells are each topped with a hot, caramelized mantle of zesty red sauce, bacon, and cheese. Two other great things to eat in this lively dining room—frequented by a mix of downtown business folk, tourists, local cops, and big hungry families—are the Greek salad, available in giant sizes to feed tables of thirteen, and a homestyle meal called “chicken George,” for which well-seasoned pieces of bird are slow-cooked in a pan of butter to attain utmost flavor and fall-apart tenderness.
All of America’s Southland is barbecue country; in Alabama, Birmingham is famous as the place to go for superlative smokehouse meals. But Mobile can boast of its own top-level pork palace: THE BRICK PIT. In the back of this solid house on the west side of the city, Bill Armbrecht has built a cooker into which he piles hickory and pecan logs and smokes meats at the lowest possible temperature for the longest possible time: thirty hours for pork shoulder, twelve hours for ribs, six hours for chicken. During the slow process, the meats’ natural fat becomes their basting juices; by the time they’re done, each piece of pork and chicken is virtually fatless, yet supermoist.
Once cooked, pork shoulder is pulled from the roast by hand, resulting in a pile of lovely variegated shreds—some butter-soft, others with crunchy crust. They are served under a film of housemade sauce that is thick and tomato-based, with laidback character that does not distract from the fineness of the smoky meat. Ribs are blackened on the outside but extravagantly tender, with many areas so gentled by the smoke pit that the lightest finger pressure causes pieces of their meat to slide right off the bone.
The dining room at The Brick Pit is painted white and covered in signatures, tributes, and other assorted happy graffiti. Orders are taken at a short counter; once you’ve told them what you want, you find a seat, and in no time a waitress brings the meal in a partitioned plate that holds the meat of choice separate from the beans and coleslaw that come with it. Above the breezeway that leads to the parking lot a sign announces, WELCOME TO THE BEST DAMN SMOKED BAR-B-QUE IN THE GREAT STATE OF ALABAMA.
No eating tour of Mobile is complete without a visit to THE DEW DROP INN, a folksy wood-paneled café that is the city’s oldest eatery and where, it is said, original proprietor George Widney introduced hot dogs to southern Alabama in 1924. Hot dogs are still the prime attraction, especially for natives who move away and pine for a taste of home. Waitresses tell tales of families from Memphis, Louisville, and even farther north who return like expatriates to a beloved homeland and weep for joy over plates of Dew Drop dogs. The hot dogs themselves are merely steamed franks of medium size, but the presentation is awesome—they come in toasted buns, topped with sauerkraut, a layer of sweet beefy chili, mustard, ketchup, and a pickle slice. Aesthetes order them upside down (the dog sits atop the condiments) or “shaved” (without kraut). The same chili is used as a topping for Dew Drop cheeseburgers, which singer Jimmy Buffett (a Mobile native) credits with generating his burger lust when he was a boy.
At the outskirts of The Dew Drop Inn parking lot is a big dessert opportunity: THE CUSTARD COTTAGE. We’ll admit that this walk-up stand is an unusual recommendation; for Mobile, like so much of the Deep South, is not a serious ice-cream town. The good desserts in this region tend to be pies and cobblers. But here is one fine exception (actually three exceptions, if you include the branch in nearby Daphne and another soon to open in Mobile) where the custard is exquisite. You can see it being made behind the order window, where a gleaming silver machine extrudes a slow-moving column of ivory-white frozen custard. More pure than any ordinary ice cream, it is sweet and smooth and made from Wisconsin cream. Eating it plain is the connoisseur’s choice, but the Cottage does make some irresistible sundaes: the classic turtle sundae of fudge and caramel topped with pecans; a berry variation heaped with fruit; and a bananas Foster sundae, smothered in a grainy brown-sugar syrup and topped with banana slices and crumbled toffee and chocolate, with a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream. This last one, which we ate with two spoons from a single cup, put us back on the good-eats trail whistling “Dixie.”
The Custard Cottage (permanently closed)
1800 Old Shell Road
Jus’ Gumbo (permanently closed)
2 South Church Street
Nan-Seas (permanently closed)
4170 Bay Front Road
Roussos (permanently closed)
166 South Royal Street