Seldom do I get the jump on friends with innate knowledge of Mississippi’s’ best restaurants. However, I possess bragging rights for visiting and coming to love the original Half Shell Oyster House's Gulfport location before friends had heard about the delights awaiting them inside the New Orleans-style restaurant featuring exposed brick and scenic courtyards. Ambiance aside, Half Shell's seafood, steaks, and creative pasta dishes have put this once-local restaurant on the Mississippi cuisine map and into neighboring states with 10 locations. I've dined most often at the Hattiesburg Half Shell, but started out a little further south.
A Gulf Coast friend took me to lunch in 2010 at Gulfport's Half Shell a few months after area restaurateur Bob Taylor opened his newest experiment in the historic Kremer building on U.S. 49 in the downtown area. Soon after, a national media tour of the Gulf coast included a visit to the new Biloxi location. I proudly pointed out menu recommendations to food writers from around the country. After sampling Shrimp Orleans ($21), they declared it rivaled anything they had sampled in the city for which it’s named.
Shrimp Orleans consists of a large plate filled with peeled gulf shrimp sautéed with Half Shell’s New Orleans style smoky Cajun sauce. With slices of French bread to soak up all the extra sauce, it’s a dish that, like me, you’ll likely order every time.
Shrimp Orleans isn’t an appetizer, but because I simply can’t wait to sample it, I order it before anything else. However, there are a number of fresh, creative appetizers on the dinner menu that shouldn’t be overlooked. A standout is fried green tomatoes and crab cakes ($13.50). Imagine crispy fried green tomatoes layered with blue crab cakes served over lemon aioli and topped with crab ravigotte. It’s almost a meal unto itself, but of course, you won’t want to stop there.
Other starters include a half pound of gigantic royal red shrimp served with hot butter ($12) or $21 for a whole pound; fried comeback or voodoo shrimp ($10.50); crab and shrimp dip ($13.50), crawfish tail mambo ($10) and crab claws ($14.50), to name a few.
Oysters are part of the name, so you can expect to find plenty of references to the crustacean on the menu. I’m not an oyster-lover, so I won’t profess to having tried them. However, I can tell you about them. There’s the oyster sampler ($19.50) filled with a combination of charbroiled, Oysters Bienville, Oysters Rockefeller, and Oysters Orleans. If you prefer, solo dishes of the three can be enjoyed for around $9 and $10 for a half dozen; $18 to $19.50 for a dozen.
Other seafood dishes, besides my favorite Shrimp Orleans, are seafood sampler ($26.50) filled with shrimp, oysters, grouper, blue crab cake, and jalapeno hush puppies; fried shrimp ($19); seafood pot pie ($18.50), and seafood stuffed portabellas ($22).
On the rare occasions I skip Shrimp Orleans, I select shrimp and grits ($19). I challenge you to find a better dish anywhere, including neighboring NOLA. It’s a decadent dish of seared cheddar cheese grit cakes smothered in a smoky bacon cream sauce with Gulf shrimp, topped with chopped bacon and green onions.
Fish selections include Redfish Orleans ($26), blackened redfish topped with shrimp sautéed in Orleans sauce and topped with crab meat and Parmesan cheese; herb encrusted grouper ($25); bourbon maple salmon ($22), and bacon and pecan crusted redfish ($23), among others.
If you’re not a seafood-lover, don’t worry. Half Shell is known for its delicious steaks, chicken, and pasta dishes. A frequent choice is Big Easy Surf and Turf ($28.50). This old-school dish has been given a modern twist with a six-ounce filet ($5 extra for an eight-ounce) served over a homemade blue crab cake garnished with a balsamic glaze, then topped with Béarnaise sauce, lump crab meat, and Parmesan cheese.
There’s also a mammoth 13-ounce ribeye ($27) that’s been seasoned and char-grilled to perfection, then topped with Orleans sauce; seafood pasta ($19.50) filled with shrimp, crawfish and portabella mushrooms tossed with linguine and lump crab meat; almond encrusted chicken ($16) and chicken Half Shell ($16).
When I’m looking for a lighter meal, I turn to the po-boy, burgers, and sandwiches menu. One of my favorites is voodoo shrimp po-boy ($12). Gulf shrimp are fried to a golden crisp and tossed in the restaurant’s original sweet and spicy voodoo sauce, then placed in Gambino’s French bread slices.
Other po-boy choices are fried oyster ($14), fried shrimp ($11), and a combination of both ($12.50); The Uptowner ($13) steak sandwich and the triple steak cheeseburger ($13).
Other lighter choices are gumbo ($6.50 for a cup; $11 for a bowl); Half Shell salad ($6 as a side; $9 as entrée) and crawfish, crab, and corn bisque ($6.50 for a cup; $11 for a bowl).
The perfect ending to a Half Shell meal is one of four delicious desserts. These include cinnamon roll bread pudding ($5); key lime pie ($5); bananas Foster cheesecake ($6), and chocolate obsession ($6).
Half Shell offers lunch specials and a Sunday brunch menu. Prices and selections may vary according to locations in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida. In Mississippi, you can find a Half Shell in Gulfport, Biloxi, Hattiesburg, Flowood, and inside Biloxi’s Hard Rock Casino.
To learn the hours and locations of each restaurant, visit the website at: www.halfshelloysterhouse.com.