You could say that my brother and I are a little competitive.
“Six!” Mark laughed, dropping his load of suitcases and duffels in our Gulf Shores, Alabama, rental home with a collection of thumps. “Beat that!”
“That tote bag doesn’t count,” I said. “It’s part of that other case.”
“Knock it off,” Dad said. “You guys could turn reading a menu into a contest. Go see if your wives need help with the kids and the beach stuff.”
As usual, on our regular trips to enjoy the sugar-white sands and beach culture of Gulf Shores, Dad was in a hurry to get to the water with his grandkids, but his words gave Mark an idea. By the time we got to the car, he had challenged me to find the best Gulf Shores dining before our week was up—we’d leave the judging up to our family members.
“You’re gonna eat my dust,” Mark laughed.
“You’re gonna eat those words,” I promised.
Let the games begin
The turquoise waters of the Gulf teem with delights like grouper, redfish, amberjack, cobia, oysters, crab, and most of all, sweet, succulent “Royal Red” deep-water shrimp that have inspired chefs, short-order cooks, and backyard grill-fiends to culinary heights. Seafood had to be a huge part of this contest.
My kids, Irene and Keenan, were thrilled to hear it when I said we were heading to a restaurant on the beach for dinner. The views of the Gulf were great—that’s why we were in Gulf Shores, after all. My blackened red snapper was outstanding. My wife, Melissa, had a coconut shrimp dish that was unlike any other version I’d ever tried. It was superb, drizzled with a sweet chili sauce, and sprinkled with coconut.
“Not bad,” Mark said when we made our report. “Julie, Amber, and I had a good view, too.”
“Julie and I drank Old Fashioneds on the back deck of a little place looking out over a lagoon and salt marsh. Dinner came out on cardboard trays lined with wax paper. Classic Gulf Coast casual.”
“And the food?” I said.
“Great. I had a shrimp Po Boy that was super fresh. Bread crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. Outstanding! And they had fresh homemade chips that Amber kept stealing off my plate.”
We headed out after dark that night to probe the surf with flashlights looking for ghost crabs and washed up sea jellies. The kids’ laughter almost drowned out the waves, but I was already thinking about the next morning.
“Don’t tell me seafood doesn’t work for breakfast,” I told Mark the next day as we were helping the kids cover their grandfather with sand. “There is no beating a shrimp and crab omelet to start off the day. We found a place—Hazel’s Nook—that actually has a seafood omelet bar.”
Mark looked up. “OK, try to sell me.”
“Think old school,” I said: Old fashioned Naugahyde kitchen chairs and booths, plastic checkerboard tablecloths. Buckets on the table for your crab shell fragments. Oh, and did I mention shrimp and crab omelets?”
Mark and I might constantly pit ourselves against each other, but it’s incredible how often we think alike. Mark and his family had indulged at another Gulf Shores “classic breakfast” restaurant. This one put a Midwest spin on Gulf Shores’ seafood cuisine. I almost admitted defeat when he described a dish featuring two eggs and a juicy six-ounce ribeye steak at Kitty’s Kafe, but we had one more day here.
The kids wanted to spend it in the pool while Melissa and Julie worked on their tans, and Mark and I played golf. So it was dinner in that night: head-to-head boiled shrimp from two local seafood joints, cooked for us to bring back to the beach house. Honestly, both were fabulous. The flavors—from mild to medium to “Cajun” to smokin’—made a dinner that provided something for every palate.
After that, things got wild. We were running out of time, and Gulf Shores has dozens of great eateries. We had taco pizza and ice cream on the beach; listened to live jazz; enjoyed lamb lollipops, local cheese, and wine; and kayaked practically to the door of an eatery with shrimp creole mahi-mahi and grouper Reubens.
The last night was the big finale, devoted to dinner at Gulf Shores’ most popular restaurant: LuLu’s. This canal-front dining extravaganza is owned by Lucy Buffett, one of Jimmy Buffett’s sisters. Here, Mark and I finally rediscovered our own family ties—though we still had our own take on things.
The menu held its own unique delights, many drawn from Buffett family recipes.
“Can’t beat these fried green tomatoes,” Mark said.
“Crab claws come close,” I said. “And what about this ‘L.A. Caviar,’ of black-eyed peas, balsamic vinaigrette, chopped tomatoes, and yummy herbs and spices?”
“‘L.A.’?” Mark asked.
“Lower Alabama,” I said.
We both raved about our entrées, and at one point, Mark reached across the table and speared some of my Fried Oyster Loaf to try. Not to be outdone, I scooped some of his Mahi Tacos to sample.
We both chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed.
“Man, that’s good!” I said.
“Unbelievable,” he raved.
We looked at each other and without another word traded plates.
Everybody laughed. Dad smiled and said, “Finally, they found something to agree on. They both think the other one was right!”
Lulu’s is more than just a restaurant. After dinner, the kids headed to the towering Mountain of Youth ropes course outside.
We were watching from below when I heard Keenan say, “Bet I can tackle this faster than you!”
“Oh no,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” Amber replied. “I’d like to see that!”
Mark and I looked at each other.
Behind us came the booming laugh of my father, who had heard a similar exchange from his sons about a thousand times before.