Dozen Best Barbecue Shrimp
New Orleans barbecue shrimp are a misnomer. No smoke, no grill, or no barbecue sauce. Instead, the big shrimp (elsewhere, they'd be called "prawns") are cooked with a sauce Richard Collin once described as "all the butter in the world, and half the pepper." A little garlic, white wine, Worcestershire, and paprika flesh out the sauce. Some cooks try to complicate the dish, but shrimp, butter, and pepper make up 99 percent of it.
Barbecue shrimp was invented at Pascal's Manale in 1954. A customer asked Pascal Radosta to duplicate something he'd eaten in Chicago. (Probably shrimp scampi.) The resulting dish wasn't like that one, but the diner--and everybody else in the room that night--found it extraordinarily delicious. It quickly became the dominant dish at Manale's, where most tables still usually hold at least one order of the magnificent crustaceans.
It's essential for barbecue shrimp to be made with large, intact, unpeeled shrimp (about 10-20 to the pound), with heads, shells, tails, and everything else still there. Much of the flavor comes from the juices and fats in the head. Whole shrimp this size, drenched in that sauce, are messy to eat, especially if you insist on peeling the shrimp. (I just pull the heads off and eat the rest, shells and all--although I do not recommend this to you.)
Two chefs made significant improvements on Manale's original. In the mid-1980s at Mr. B's, Chef Gerard Maras made the sauce more elegant and flavorful by whisking in most of the butter at the end of the cooking process. A few years later, Emeril Lagasse developed a method of making the dish with peeled shrimp. He made an intense stock out of the heads and shells, and incorporated it into the butter sauce.
Here is the state of the art of making barbecue shrimp today.
1. Mr. B's Bistro. French Quarter: 201 Royal. 504-523-2078. The revolutionary 1980s recipe made a distinct improvement over Manale's original, enough so that it's now widely copied. With good reason. The shrimp are cooked in their own juices and a few other liquids, then the butter is whisked in to appear almost creamy. It doesn't get better than this.
2. Dante's Kitchen. Riverbend: 736 Dante. 504-861-3121. Extraordinarily beautiful shrimp, with an original sauce that tastes like it has a little tomato in it (although that might be red pepper).
3. Emeril's. Warehouse District: 800 Tchoupitoulas. 504-528-9393. Emeril's approach to barbecue shrimp is the best of those served with peeled shrimp. It works. Not only can you get the dish in all of Emeril's restaurants (Delmonico and NOLA, in addition to the flagship), but many other restaurants also copy it.
4. Gallagher's Grill. Covington: 509 S Tyler. 985-892-9992. It had to happen: the collision of barbecue shrimp with the newly-popular shrimp and grits. The two ideas were made for one another. Lots of restaurants do this now. Pat Gallagher is the best at it.
5. Pascal's Manale. Uptown: 1838 Napoleon Ave. 504-895-4877. They swear that they make the original barbecue shrimp exactly the same way, but it doesn't quite taste the same as I remember back in the 1970s. But this doesn't prevent the dish from being excellent. The barbecue shrimp poor boy at lunch is an interesting variation.
6. Bosco's. Mandeville: 2040 La Hwy 59. 985-624-5066. ||Covington: 141 TerraBella Blvd. 985-612-7250. These are made in the Emeril's style, with a thick, opaque, creamy-looking, pink-orange sauce that clings well to the peeled shrimp, as well as delivering all the flavors at full volume.
7. Flaming Torch. Uptown: 737 Octavia. 504-895-0900. An offbeat approach, using more red pepper than black pepper, and yet not overwhelmingly hot.
8. Pelican Club. French Quarter: 615 Bienville. 504-523-1504. The most offbeat version of barbecue shrimp on this list. Richard Hughes's recipe has a touch of Asian flavor in the sauce. The shrimp are tangled in rice noodles. In texture it's reminiscent of a Panang curry, but the main taste is Creole.
9. Mosca's. Westwego: 4137 US 90. 504-436-9942. "Italian shrimp" here are different enough from classic barbecue shrimp that some might say it's a different dish. But it's very close, and you eat these heads-on monsters the same way. Big whole shrimp come in a roasting pan with whole cloves of garlic, olive oil, rosemary, and a visibly large amount of pepper.
10. Bourbon House. French Quarter: 144 Bourbon. 504-522-0111. More or less the same recipe as at Mr. B's, and just slightly less good.
11. Ye Olde College Inn. Carrollton: 3016 S Carrollton Ave. 504-866-3683. A great piece of evidence that this old place is coming back again is its barbecue shrimp appetizer. Four big shrimp, four sticks of toasted French bread, enough sauce for both. It's in Emeril's style: peeled shrimp, dense and rich sauce. Right on.
12. Crazy Johnnie's. Metairie: 3520 18th St. 504-887-6641. It's a value-priced steakhouse, which makes some of its specialties surprising for their goodness--seafood gumbo, for example. And barbecue shrimp. The sauce is so good that a bowl of it can be ordered shrimpless, with a loaf of French bread as an appetizer. Better with the shrimp.
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