It's a scientific fact that within two hours of arrival two out of every three visitors to Charleston will ask, "Where can I get the best bowl of shrimp and grits in town?" That's hardly a surprise, since shrimp and grits is an iconic Lowcountry dish.
But how often do we hear, "Where can I get the best fried shrimp in town?" It just doesn't happen.
We're tempted to say that fried shrimp is the burger or fried chicken of the seafood menu — the crowd-pleasing workhorse, always present but never getting the leading role. But now burgers and fried chicken are all the rage, getting top billing at restaurants built explicitly around them. Where are the chefs obsessively devoting a year of their lives to mastering deep-fried shrimp? We're not likely to see a Big Gun Fried Shrimp Shop opening this year, and we bet Robert Stehling isn't planning to call his next venture Shrimpland.
We're big fans of fried shrimp and believe that they shouldn't always be relegated to just a supporting player role. With all that in mind, we believe that fried shrimp deserves a shot at center stage.
And so we set out to find the best fried shrimp in the Lowcountry by going on a fried shrimp crawl — or, rather, on a series of fried shrimp crawls.
Originally, we thought we'd be able to knock out the mission in just a few days, but as basket led to platter, we realized the sheer number of places that serve fried shrimp on a regular basis in Charleston is overwhelming.
So, we took a step back. We polled our network of informed Charleston eaters and compiled our target list of likely candidates. Over the past year, we visited more than 30 restaurants and bars and racked up some pretty daunting stats along the way:
• Pounds of fried shrimp consumed (not including sides or sauces): 13
• Beers consumed: 50+
• Number of times we threw in the towel thinking the whole adventure was doomed: 1
• Number of lemon condoms encountered: 1
• Number of hushpuppies consumed: Too many
We had two main rules for this contest. One: fried shrimp must be a permanent fixture on the menu. Two: the fried shrimp had to be prepared in the traditional Southern fashion, so things like tempura fried shrimp or (shudder) coconut shrimp weren't eligible.
We ate large shrimp and small shrimp, tail-off and tail-on, thickly battered and lightly battered, mushy and crisp. We emptied some baskets in a flash; others we left on the table half-full, picking at them slowly so we didn't seem rude. We tasted each shrimp with and without sauce, some with lemon juice and some without.
Our initial empirical, side-by-side survey narrowed the list down to about 10 or so finalists. From there, we made revisits to narrow it down even more. Without further ado, here are the establishments that we have determined to be the top five best places to eat fried shrimp in the Lowcountry:
5. Gilligan's: A local chain with six locations in the area ranging from Beaufort up to Moncks Corner, Gilligan's offers fixed and endless platters of local fried shrimp. We walked in with low expectations, but got hooked after the first bite. The only chain to make our top five, Gilligan's offers two varieties, the traditional jumbo shrimp and also smaller creek shrimp, which are the real winners. Put any bad memories of cut-rate "popcorn shrimp" out of your mind. The tiny, tail-less creek shrimp are tender and sweet with a clean, sea-water flavor.
4. Acme Lowcountry Kitchen: One of the best brunches in the Lowcountry can be found on Isle of Palms, but it's the fried shrimp that gets us excited. The medium-sized shrimp are covered in a powdery breading that's fried extra crisp. Each bite reveals a crunch and a whole lot of flavor. Most importantly, the breading stays intact as the shrimp cools.
3. Dave's Carry-Out: A good friend, and long time contributor to the City Paper, Jeff Allen, introduced us to Dave's Carry-Out a few years back. It's a locals' joint serving fried fish and pork chops, and easily some of the best fried shrimp in town. There's just enough batter to add a slight crunch, but it's light enough to let the shrimp shine. It's served piping hot, just seconds out of the fryer, and at $8 a platter (including fries) it's the best bargain we found.
2. Roadside Seafood: Early last fall, there was a lot of buzz about the food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar restaurant, Roadside Seafood. So in November, we stopped by to see what the hype was all about. We ended up falling in love with the fried shrimp. Similar in style to Acme's, the shrimp at Roadside have a powdery batter fried a deep golden brown. They come tailless and crisp, and the balance of seasonings elevate it above others. This is classic fried shrimp at its best.
1. Red Drum: When we took our first bite of fried shrimp at Red Drum, we knew it was the winner. The shrimp are battered and fried tail-on and served in a paper-lined cone. It's got the crunch and seasoning we're looking for, but the real distinction is the briny sea-water presence that elevates the flavor of the shrimp itself.
Red Drum's fried shrimp doesn't need a condiment at all to go with it, but Ben Berryhill's restaurant also has our pick for the best cocktail sauce in town. In addition to the standard ketchup and horseradish, the remoulade sauce is flavored with a little orange and lemon zest, which adds bright citrus flavors. Take one of those golden-brown shrimp and give it a dunk in the cocktail sauce ... that's as good as it gets.
Our top 5 rankings includes only those places that have fried shrimp as a permanent fixture on the menu, but there are some other spots where notable versions show up from time to time. If you happen by when they’re available, be sure to give these shrimp a go.
Coda del Pesce: The Fritto Misto Frutti di Mare is an occasional antipasta offering that includes an array of fried seafood. Typically, there’s fish, calamari, or octopus. The fried shrimp speaks for itself.
Bacco: Owner/Chef Michael Scognamiglio has been known to fry a shrimp or two on occasion. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, he goes big. He only uses fresh local shrimp, and they tend to be huge. He fries them in a light batter with both the tail and the head on. If you haven’t sucked the juice out of the head of a fried shrimp, you don’t know what you’re missing. If only shrimp season were year-round.
The Granary/On Forty-One: We were privileged enough to have Chef/Owner Brannon Florie fry us up various types of shrimp for our blind taste test, and his batter is no joke. It’s on the lighter side with ample seasoning. We enjoyed his version without any sauce, but a small squeeze of lemon over the top the shrimp elevates it to a whole new plane.
• Bowens Island: During the winter months, Bowens Island Restaurant is a local oyster destination, but a big basket of lightly battered shrimp is worthy any time of the year.
• Coast: Coast’s fried shrimp are big and fat, and they’re quite tender beneath ample, well-seasoned breading that holds up in the heat.
• Hank’s: Fried shrimp goes uptown at Hank’s, where they are cooked in a crisp powdery batter with flecks of black pepper and have a pure sea-water flavor.
• SeeWee: The old general store turned seafood restaurant on North 17 serves decent-sized shrimp with the tail on. They’re golden brown, crispy, and have a nice zing.
• Hyman’s: The tourists lining up outside Hyman’s may be on to something: The fried shrimp are minimally battered and with intense shrimp flavor.
• The Wreck: There should be no controversy when it comes to fried shrimp at the Wreck. They have a light, almost powdery crust and rich, tasty shrimp inside.
• Fishnet: This place is known for their garlic fried crabs and their so-called “Jesus crabs” (it’s a good Christian place with no truck for deviling), but they can fry up some angelic shrimp, too — small, sweet, and very lightly battered.
Local, gulf, or imported? How much does it really matter when it comes to the quality of the fried shrimp that ends up on the plate?
While it’s easy to say, “Why, of course, I only eat local shrimp, dahling, and never shrimp that’s been frozen!,” we believe in putting such assumptions to an empirical test, like a side-by-side blind tasting. Chef Brannon Florie graciously accommodated us at his new restaurant, On Forty-One, where he assembled a selection of various shrimp and staged a crafty trial.
For this test Florie supplied us with three varieties of shrimp: locally-caught shrimp from Georgetown, regional ones from the Gulf of Mexico, and imported farmed Tiger shrimp. All were purchased frozen.
We sampled several of each shrimp in three different preparations: fried in Florie’s house batter, grilled with just salt and pepper, and “barbecued” New Orleans-style. As it turns out, the flavor of the shrimp comes out in different ways in each presentation, and that made a big difference on whether we could identify each type of shrimp.
We got pretty close on the grilled shrimp. The char from the grill was nice but sort of overrode some of the flavor, and the heat dried up the flesh somewhat, making the textures similar. But the imported Tiger was bland and insipid, while both the Gulf and local Georgetown shrimp had sweeter, richer flavor, making it easy to distinguish domestic from imported.
The fried shrimp threw both of us off. While we could certainly notice subtle differences in flavor and texture, one of us correctly identified the local shrimp, citing its more intense shrimp flavor. But the other, working more off texture, confused the local with the Tiger, since the latter had more of a toothsome snap to it, which made him assume it must be from nearby.
But amid all the seasoning, breading, and the time the shrimp spent in extremely hot oil, the end differences in flavor and texture were subtle at best.
That was emphatically not the case for the New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp, a preparation in which the shrimp are stewed in a savory blend of garlic butter, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce. Both of us nailed all three right off the bat. The farmed Tiger shrimp had an artificial, almost plastic-like texture and minimal shrimp flavor, while the Gulf was more flavorful but with a rather limp texture. The local Georgetown shrimp had both the right toothy texture and, more importantly, sweet shrimp flavor that rolled right through the pungent sauce.
“The lemon juice brings it out,” Florie explained as we discussed why the differences were so stark when it came to the barbecued shrimp.
So, our conclusion was this: when it comes to fried shrimp, the shrimp you use matters, but it doesn’t matter nearly as much as the preparation — the batter, the seasoning, the oil used, and even the condiments served alongside.
This theory was confirmed by Brian Gordly, the sous chef at Red Drum. We asked him what the secret was to the restaurant’s splendid fried shrimp. He notes that shrimp from the colder waters of the Atlantic are better than those from the Gulf. “The East Coast has a snap to it,” he said. But, he added, “It’s more how the shrimp is cooked. A little guajillo pepper, salt, pepper, flour . . . We keep it really simple.”
So, if you’re making shrimp and grits or barbecued shrimp, you really need to head down to Shem Creek to get the fresh local ones with the heads still on. When it comes to frying, those local shrimp will be better, but only if you focus on the technique first.