Orange Beach and the Gulf Shores in Alabama are laid-back, welcoming places, especially for nature lovers. The coastal, island-based, adjoining communities are unpretentious and un-showy, without the celeb drama queens in their Maserati cars and glitz often found in other beach hotspots. There’s the Gulf of Mexico on one side and state parks and a wildlife refuge cradling accommodations and restaurants in the now booming tourism industry.
Friends and families mostly gather here, many annually, to put their toes in the sand, climb up on skim boards and savor some of the most local, freshest and creatively presented, Gulf-caught seafood around, establishing the ecotourism destination (more on this in future articles) as a food travel stop not to be missed as well.
The dining hotspots are casual, sometimes crowded, but always friendly. The local and sustainable-minded food scene is on the rise, especially when it comes to super-freshly caught seafood from the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll find area chefs increasingly going out of their way to feature fresh “nuisance fish” on the menu, like the dreaded and invasive Lionfish, or “trash fish,” fish that often get tossed away.
The great news is that these fish taste great and are good for the environment, a win-win for foodies flocking to the Gulf Shores. Joined by photographer John Ivanko, we explored the flavors on a recent trip, covered in this two-part food travel piece.
Savoring Seafood Helps Save the Oceans at CoastAL
Chef Chris Sherrill at CoastAL, is what one might call a big fish in a small pond. He’s a local culinary legend, thanks to his unique twists on the expected. Why just have a beignet when you can have beignet fries complete with dipping sauce, a Sherrill specialty. Yet he comes across as down home and personable, someone you’d like have join you on your fishing boat for an afternoon.
Chef Sherrill’s commitment to the Gulf Shores and stewarding the economic vibrancy and sustainability scene run deep. He’s the reason the World Food Championship is now held in Orange Beach annually, bringing over 1,500 top competitors to the Gulf Shores and over 30,000 viewers tuning in.
At his CoastAL restaurant, Chef Sherrill also leads a local initiative to better use and steward the unappreciated, yet locally abundant, seafood readily found in the Gulf of Mexico. Sherrill co-founded the NUISANCE Group, which stands for “Nuisance, Underutilized, and/or Invasive, that are also Sustainable and Available, through Noble Culinary Endeavors,” committed to education around these underused and underrated local edibles.
“It’s a mouthful of an acronym that basically says we want to put ‘trash fish’ and other nontraditional, regional foods to good use and show people that they can eat these species and that they are actually really tasty,” explains Sherrill, whose commitment to conservation reaches back to his youth when he achieved Eagle Scout. “The Lionfish, for example, is invading the reef systems in the Gulf and doesn’t have any predators. We can serve up something delicious and also include a side of education on how we need to protect our environment.”
For lunch, he dazzled us with several variations of shrimp: BBQ Colossal Alabama Brown Shrimp, Royal Red Shrimp and Grits with Bill E’s Bacon and Crispy Fried Pink Shrimp served over risotto and grilled local squash. He also blackened a coastal “junk fish” by the name of Sheepshead, perfect with the garlic-herb cream it came with. Sheepshead fish have teeth that actually resemble a humans’, with incisors and molars, which turn off many who hook them on their lines.
Asian Fusion Finds an Island Home at Fin & Fork
How can you go wrong when a fine dining restaurant that showcases seafood is owned by the veteran husband-wife team of Matt and Regina Shipp? Yes, their last name is Shipp. A new addition to the Orange Beach foodie scene, Fin & Fork, with a slogan of Fresh Gulf Shore Eats, has a menu that offers a mash up of fine seafood offerings with island and Asian influences. Everything is prepared from scratch and in-house. Most of the ingredients are hauled from the Gulf waters or grown in their own county soil.
If you share our desire to try every item on the menu, the “Locals Favorite” will take you in that direction with a selection of house favorites including panko encrusted grouper, Gulf shrimp and jumbo lump crab in a wine butter sauce. You’ll also find creative and colorful sushi rolls and Asian-influenced appetizers such as steamed boa buns with local pork Korean BBQ style alongside beignets stuffed with crabs and mascarpone.
No Gulf Shores dining experience is complete without a Bushwacker cocktail. It’s basically a creamy, boozy adult milkshake that’s seemingly enjoyed by macho ranch-hands and ladies alike. Most restaurants offer their own twist on the creamy and fruity combinations that go into their frozen concoction. Fin & Fork’s version features bananas and chocolate, making it the most decadent by far.
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam and millions of ladybugs.
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