Situated almost dead center along the northern Gulf coast is the city of Mobile, Alabama’s port city. While small population wise compared to other Gulf Coast cities, Mobile has created its own mark on the country over its 315-plus year history: It is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America. It is the birthplace of five Hall-of-Fame baseball players, including Hank Aaron, and it has baked, fried, and boiled some of the South’s most famous delicacies.
When you come to the Mobile area, take a gastronomic history tour of these mouth-watering dishes. Your taste buds will thank you for it.
The first settlement that would later become the city of Mobile -- Fort Louis de la Louisiane -- was established by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne and his brother, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, in 1702. France’s King Louis XIV had his eyes on making this new and wild territory the next great French colony, but the early explorers found life on the Gulf Coast to be harsh due to the heat, humidity, alligators, and mosquitoes.
The settlers were mostly all men and of course, to foster population growth in the new colony, you needed women. Enter the Filles à la Cassette, better known today as the Pelican Girls, a group of 23 young French women ages 14 to 19 who sailed to the new settlement in 1703. The group was named after the boat they had sailed in on.
Upon their arrival, Bienville’s housekeeper cooked up a fish stew for the girls adding her own special touches such as the French spice file’ powder, a spice made from ground sassafras. Some say that this was the birth of Creole cooking.
The girls loved the stew but thought it still lacked something. Onboard the Pelican, the ship carried a cargo of fruit native to Africa -- “gingambo” or “kingombo”, better known as okra. They added some of the ship’s okra to the stew, and with that, the Southern delicacy, Gumbo, was born.
Today, you can sample this spicy Mobile classic at Wintzell’s Oyster House in downtown Mobile’s entertainment district, Dauphin Street. Wintzell’s has been a Mobile tradition since 1938, and their gumbo has been voted the best in the Port City.
2. West Indies Salad
During World War II, Mobile became a bustling port city as the population increased by 100,000, with people looking for work in the shipbuilding industry. One of those who came to town was a young Bill Bayley, a former Merchant Marine ship steward and chef at the Alcoa Steamship Company.
While out at sea, Bayley experimented with various seafood dishes including some that centered around crab meat. At the time, crab was not a big seller due to the time and effort required to remove only a small amount of meat from the shell.
In 1947, Bill and his wife Ethyl opened a restaurant on Dauphin Island Parkway called Bayley’s Steak House. While it was touted as a steakhouse, the Bayley’s put crab dishes front and center on their menu including one that would become a restaurant staple across the Gulf Coast - the West Indies Salad.
The recipe is simple enough -- layers of Heron Bay blue crab and onions soaked in oil and vinegar. According to Bayley’s son, his father never measured the ingredients. “He would take a pitcher of Wesson oil and a pitcher of vinegar and just start to pour.”
However he did it, the result was pure heaven -- a zesty yet refreshing salad.
Of course, the best place to sample this Southern seafood tradition is where it all began at Bayley’s Seafood just south of Mobile in Theodore.
Another seafood place that whips up a great West Indies Salad is located on the Mobile Bay Causeway just east of the city. It’s the rustic (and I mean rustic) looking Felix’s Fish Camp Restaurant with its rusted tin roof. Not only do they have great seafood including the West Indies, but also a spectacular light show -- sunset over Mobile Bay.
3. Crab Claws
Once again, it was restauranteur Bill Bayley who took the ordinary and made it extraordinary.
Not long after his restaurant opened in 1947, its popularity grew exponentially from a small one-table dining room to a 200-seater. During that expansion, it is estimated that the staff at Bayley’s cleaned more than 150 pounds of flounder each week to serve up to customers.
At the time of its opening, chefs around the world who took on the tedious task of shelling crabs for their recipes would throw out the claws and only use the meat from the body. Leave it to Bayley to figure out that the claws had potential.
Bayley remembered his days working with lobster claws in the Merchant Marines and thought the same could be done with crab claws. And with that, fried crab claws were born.
Once again, when it comes to fried crab claws, you can’t beat the originals. Visit Bayley’s on Dauphin Island Parkway. For dinner and a show, get a table at the Original Oyster House on the Mobile Bay Causeway. The claws are indescribably delicious with just the right amount of spice and watching a blazing Mobile Bay sunset from a patio or window seat is a bonus.
4. Stuffed Flounder
George Roussos was a Greek immigrant to the United States. Upon arriving in the states, George took employment with his uncles at Mobile’s Harry’s Restaurant and later the Sea Ranch Restaurant, both of which no longer exist.
In 1974, George and his wife Zenia set out on their own and opened their first restaurant -- Roussos. Even though the restaurant suffered a severe blow in 1979 when Hurricane Frederick destroyed their building along the Mobile Bay Causeway, they rebuilt in downtown Mobile and the restaurant continued to be wildly successful.
The star of the Roussos menu was a Greek-inspired seafood dish that patrons raved about and is now an item in restaurants across the country -- stuffed flounder, a flakey and tender baked flounder filled with a delectable stuffing made with butter, claw and lump crab meat, shrimp, parmesan cheese, onions, peppers, and seasonings.
While Roussos now only caters, you can still taste mouthwatering stuffed flounder at the Bonefish Grill on Dauphin Street. The flounder is light and flakey and loaded with Mobile Bay crab and shrimp.
5. Oyster Loaf
Okay, this is one of those seafood creations that will cause a stir (no pun intended, or maybe it is). New Orleans, San Francisco, and a dozen other coastal towns across the country lay claim to creating the Oyster Loaf (aka Oyster Po’ Boy), but we love this story from Mobile, so we’ll let the Port City claim the title.
The story goes that over 150 years ago, the wife of a man who was apt to partake in a drink … or two … or more, was at the breaking point and was ready to leave him. One day, drunk again, he came home with a peace offering -- a sandwich he had either made himself or by someone in town that was made with oysters. The sandwich was called a “Peacemaker.”
Whatever city can truly lay claim to creating this crunchy and satisfying sandwich, we tip our hat to them. It is simply the best -- a crusty baker’s loaf piled high with hot, crispy, fried oysters. One of the best places to treat yourself to this portable seafood meal is at Mudbugs at the Loop. After you try their Oyster Po’ Boy, you’ll want to head back for their Big Daddy Platter piled high with a bit of everything -- shrimp, crab, oysters, and fish.
6. Punta Clara Pralines
We’ve covered the seafood, now let’s have a sweet treat. It comes to us from the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in the town of Point Clear -- the fabulous pecan-laden pralines found at the Punta Clara Candy Kitchen.
Once again, pralines are not a Mobile creation, but you will find what is arguably the best you will ever taste at Punta Clara, after all, they’ve been making them since 1952.
It all began in Dorothy Broderick Pacey’s kitchen, where she would create and give away fig preserves. The preserves were such a hit that she soon expanded, developing a recipe with her husband, Paul, for a sweet and nutty praline.
Over 60 years later, that same recipe satisfies the sweet tooths of thousands and is the most sought after in the region.
No matter what your age, as soon as you walk into the vintage 1897 Victorian building, you will literally feel like a kid in a candy store with the incredible assortment of chocolates, divinity, cakes, and of course, pralines. And if you can’t make it to the shop, you can shop online.