Gulf gumbo: the good, the bad and the inexplicable

Seafood gumbo at Lulu’s in Gulf Shores. Best gumbo in L.A. (Lower Alabama), if you ask me. The menu says it is made from roux that is stirred “until your arm falls off!”

Just as I think that everyone’s favorite beach is the one they most visited as a child, I feel the same way about gumbo. Gumbo, by its very nature, is something that every cook prepares differently. And you like the one you grew up with.

My mother’s side of the family is from Louisiana and my grandmother, Nanny, was a fabulous cook. My brother and I grew up eating and loving her gumbo.

Nanny’s gumbo was almost always shrimp gumbo. She didn’t put sausage in it. She might throw in some crab meat, if she found some that looked good. Her gumbo was made with a medium to dark roux, but not too dark. And it was relatively thin. A little bit of viscosity was achieved at the end of cooking when she sprinkled in a generous amount of filé powder — ground sassafras leaves.

Gumbo traditionally is served with white rice. How much rice was always a bone of contention when we had gumbo. Nanny and I liked ours very soupy, with just a little bit of rice in it. My brother and mother liked it thicker with the addition of more rice. This problem was solved by serving the gumbo and rice separately and letting everyone add as much rice as he or she wanted to his or her individual bowl of gumbo. Same with hot sauce, which, growing up, was always Tabasco.

I say all this because gumbo is quite popular on the Alabama coast, from which we just returned. I wanted to find which of the many restaurants we visited in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach made the best gumbo — meaning the one most like that my grandmother made. Here are the results, with one big surprise at the end.

Number one: Lulu’s. That’s the gumbo pictured at the top of this blog post. It was almost exactly like Nanny’s. Thin, medium brown. With a lot of shrimp.

Number two: Pink Pony Pub. I was pleasantly surprised by this result. It was thin, but packed with seafood — and flavor. I guess my expectations were not very high, so imagine my delight when our server brought me this wonderful dish.

Gumbo at the Pink Pony Pub, my favorite dive in Gulf Shores, was the second best of the taste test.

Number three: Louisiana Lagniappe. This was a bit of a puzzlement to me because I would have thought theirs would have been the best. Once again, it’s an expectations thing, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, the gumbo was good. But it wasn’t great, as I had anticipated it would be. It was super thin. And its flavor was a little thin, too. (But that’s what Tabasco is for right?)

The gumbo at Louisiana Lagniappe was good, but not great. Tabasco helped. My guess is that it was thickened with okra rather than filé powder. I think the filé really adds flavor — and more body than the okra does.

Number four: Acme Oyster House. Being a restaurant chain based in New Orleans, and having a commissary where all the food is prepped, including, I would assume, the gumbo base, I thought this one might be a contender for number one. But it wasn’t. It was too thick. And too pale. And too bland.

The gumbo at Acme Oyster House came in fourth out of five in my recent taste test of Alabama Gulf Coast eateries.

Number five: Fisher’s Upstairs. This was a no-brainer. It wasn’t even close. This gumbo was awful. I couldn’t even eat it after a taste or two. It was dark, dark, dark. And tasted that way. Not delicate or nuanced at all. Although the folks at Lulu’s said their roux was stirred “until your arm falls off,” this one was stirred longer — too long! And the very worst thing of all: It was served with a scoop of potato salad plunked down in it! Potato salad! No, no, no, no, no!

The gumbo at Fisher’s in Orange Beach is served with a scoop of potato salad in it. Just wrong on so many levels.

OK. There you have it. Thank me later. I gotta go make some gumbo. Got any gumbo thoughts?


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20 Responses to Gulf gumbo: the good, the bad and the inexplicable

  1. Ellen Robinson, on September 21st, 2017 at 1:36 pm said:

    I miss Myrtle. She was the best!

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 1:38 pm said:

    Thanks, Ellen. I agree. (I got you a bottle of Mean Green, by the way. Will have it sent to your office tomorrow.)

  3. Carolyn Leahy, on September 21st, 2017 at 1:44 pm said:

    Need your go to gumbo recipe!

  4. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 1:46 pm said:

    Carolyn: I’ll get it to you. It’s my grandmother’s, of course. But, like those of most cooks of her generation, her recipe is not too precise when it comes to measurements and cooking times. Add “a little” of this and “a little” of that. And cook it “until it’s done!” Ha.

  5. Monique Anderson, on September 21st, 2017 at 1:58 pm said:

    Cynthia: I wonder what you thought of my gumbo. Maybe don’t tell me. Enjoyed this and made me want to make some.

  6. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 2:07 pm said:

    Monique: I love your gumbo! You should open a restaurant!

  7. JACK HAMMONTREE, on September 21st, 2017 at 3:06 pm said:


  8. Dorothy Bowles, on September 21st, 2017 at 3:26 pm said:

    Growing up in New Orleans, I consider myself a gumbo expert (expert taster, not cooker). Grandma’s gumbo = Number 1, Aunt Mae, #2, mother, #3 (only because my Yankee father didn’t like Cajun dishes, so mom didn’t stay in gumbo-cooking practice like Grandma and Aunt Mae). Like you, Cynthia, I like it thin, lots of seafood and not much rice. Knoxville restaurants with gumbo on the menu seem to use too much rice and too much hot seasoning instead of allowing the customer to Tabasco it to their own taste. Do you recommend a local restaurant for gumbo?

  9. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 3:38 pm said:

    Jack: Great to hear from you!

    Dorothy: You, too! I can’t immediately think of a local restaurant with great gumbo. Maybe someone else knows one and can post it for both of us?

  10. Shaun Fulco, on September 21st, 2017 at 3:41 pm said:

    My grandmother’s gumbo was always my favorite! She made hers with chicken, though. Sometimes with shrimp. My grandfather was a fisherman so we ate so much seafood that she would often make a chicken gumbo. My uncle always had to have potato salad with his gumbo. I never quite understood that combination! It looks to me like hers was very similar to Nanny’s. I totally agree with your gumbo order. I can tell just by pictures how each would taste. Now I’m hungry for gumbo.

  11. Susan Sinclair, on September 21st, 2017 at 3:43 pm said:

    I have a friend who is a chef from New Orleans and she serves hers with potato salad. I had never heard of nor tasted it that way before I met her.

  12. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 3:46 pm said:

    Shaun and Susan: Thanks for your comments. So, both of you have heard of having potato salad with gumbo. That makes sense to me. But IN the gumbo? That doesn’t.

  13. Sharon Cogburn, on September 21st, 2017 at 4:11 pm said:

    I too love gumbo! I have read of a new brew house to be opened on Gay Street sometime in the near future (can’t recall the name). The article stated the chef was working on some gumbo/étouffée recipes! Lucky you being so close! Hope it will be walk-worthy!

  14. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 4:16 pm said:

    Sharon: You are right, now that you mention it. It’s going to be in the Holston Building. Also, Bruce Bogartz makes great gumbo. I had some at Moe’s for the brief time he was open there.

  15. Dorothy Bowles, on September 21st, 2017 at 6:02 pm said:

    I think potato salad as a side with gumbo is pretty common, but I never heard of putting it in the bowl with the gumbo. Why, oh why?

  16. Georgiana Vines, on September 21st, 2017 at 11:46 pm said:

    Gumbo at Fisher’s looks like black bean soup. Did it have black beans?

  17. Cynthia Moxley, on September 21st, 2017 at 11:59 pm said:

    Georgiana: No. But that could possibly have made it better!

  18. Melinda Meador, on September 22nd, 2017 at 9:41 am said:

    What a worthwhile endeavor! You might try this one: Paul Prudhomme’s first cookbook has THE BEST gumbo recipe ever. I’ve made it many, many times and it never disappoints. And, according to Paul, potato salad is a traditional accompaniment — but always ON THE SIDE!

  19. Fran Scheidt, on September 28th, 2017 at 11:07 am said:

    Cynthia, Georgiana and I had dinner last night at the Bistro at the Bijou and SHRIMP GUMBO was the special. Outstanding! Just the right balance of rice and the not-to-thin soup. Tasted very much like my Louisiana aunt’s recipe that included just a little okra. But no potato salad on the menu. Nor Tabasco on the table. Check with Martha to see if she’s still featuring it.

  20. Cynthia Moxley, on September 28th, 2017 at 11:20 am said:

    Hi, Fran: Alan and I went there earlier this week, too, and I had gumbo. I thought it was great! It wasn’t shrimp gumbo, though, but pork and chicken. I still loved it!

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