Owner’s Choice, John Word’s Restaurant and Jazz Cafe
As you step off the plane into the mild Mobile heat, it’s as if an instant hunger develops for crunchy fried seafood, flaky biscuits (with meaty sausage gravy), and grits—that Southern classic so simple, yet impossible to perfect north of the Mason-Dixon line. At John Word’s, advantageously positioned adjacent to the tourist-magnet battleship USS Alabama, you can get all of these things, right at 8 am, when you most need them. The $14.95 ‘Owner’s Choice’ scores you two soft-shell crabs, newly encased in a hard shell of grease-free, expert deep frying, with the accompaniments outlined above (biscuits and gravy and grits), plus two eggs in the style of your choice.
Fried Oysters, Queen G’s Café
Queen herself stood up from her seat, greeting guests as they entered. The restaurant specializes in lunch and it was long after the initial 11am rush. Seat choice was simple: near the other two full tables, where order-ogling of others’ eats would be easiest. Eavesdropping too, allowing me to hear Queen and her daughter talking old-school Mobile with an elderly couple. He had the oysters, which seemed the thing to get, along with Southern classics for sides: okra and tomato salad and turnip greens. Nothing fancy here, simple dishes, accompanied by all the cornbread you can eat and a scoop of ice cream (your choice of topping) for dessert. The man knew what he was doing. Each oyster melted away behind its brittle crust, leaving the eater with briny kiss on the tongue and a craving for more of the scallion-sprinkled bivalves. The sides were home-cooking, restaurant-served, and at their veggie best. If all greens arrived with this flavor, all okra salads with this clean texture, there would be far fewer haters of these ‘healthy’ dishes.
West Indies Salad, Wintzell’s Oyster House
In a cruel twist of bad eater’s fate (or just poor planning), I ended up in Mobile on a Sunday and Monday, the two-day weekly closure of Bayley’s Seafood, inventor and home to the original version of this crab salad, unique to Mobile. The term ‘salad’ offers no indication of what this really is: an oil-and-vinegar marinated crab dish, full of sweet meat in whole chunks, mixed with finely diced onions. While this didn’t have quite the bite of the original version, it’s a good substitute if you’re in town on a Sunday or Monday, or lack the transportation or time to get out to Bayley’s.
Raw Gulf Oysters, Wintzell’s Oyster House
An oyster farmer who held a position in a national organization once told me he escaped having to play favorites on which type of oysters were best by saying that everybody’s taste buds develop to love the oysters from their own region. Thus, his favorites were these Gulf oysters. To some, they may taste muddy, but, as Seattle Weekly food writer Hanna Raskin says, “your muddy is my merroir,” referring to the oceanic version of "terroir" (how the land affects the taste of the wine). True as this might be, there isn’t an oyster on earth that takes better to a squeeze of fresh lemon and a dribble of hot sauce (Tabasco, Crystal, or similar) than these beautiful Gulf specimens.
Crawfish Pie, Boiling Pot
It almost pains me be in Bayou Country when it’s not crawfish season. Missing out on platters full of freshly boiled, boldly spiced mudbugs, the buzz of spice-burn on my lips, the torn skin on my thumbs from cracking sharp shells. In the off-season, I satisfy the cravings with a little crawfish pie. These empanada-like hand pies have a flaky outer crust, harboring a molten-hot (temperature-wise) stew of crawfish tails, a little rice, and those crave-able Cajun spices. It’s no plastic tray filled with fire-truck red, three-alarm shellfish, but for a fall or winter substitute, this is as good as you’ll get.
Boiling Pot: 3704 Airport Boulevard, Mobile AL 36608(map); 251-345-0749
Grilled Gulf Oysters, Wintzell’s Oyster House
The hearty oysters that come out of the murky waters of south Alabama hold up to cooking and flavoring like one of Bear Bryant’s offensive lineman. They can keep their composure amid all kinds of heat, and they’ll always protect their most important feature: the essential flavor of the sea. So Wintzell’s offers these oysters, as per their menu, ‘fried, stewed, or nude’. This preparation--grilled, then baked with Parmesan and herbs--is just an additional bonus; a greasy, smothered, indulgent version that could convert even the pickiest eater into an oyster lover.