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