Each year, I travel to Gulf Shores with friends for a week-long beach vacation. And each year, I eat my weight in seafood; as someone who loves to eat, it’s half the reason I vacation near the ocean.
Three years ago, I had my first taste of something I had previously never heard of: Royal Reds. My life will never be the same. A Royal Red is a type of shrimp, larger than the white, pink and brown varieties we’re accustomed to in the Midwest. But the flavor and texture are indescribably delicious, to the point that, if you’ve never had them, I’m not sure I can accurately explain them. For my taste buds, they’re the tastiest shrimp on the planet, and it’s not even really close.
Royal Reds are softer than standard shrimp, lacking that little bit of snap you experience when biting into them. More important, the flavor profile is not only more robust, but quite different. They’re sweet and salty, and the best way I can describe it is to say that Royal Reds are what would happen if a lobster, a shrimp and a crab had a love child together. Yes, I know that’s impossible, but that’s what a Royal Red tastes like to me.
They’re rarer than standard shrimp, mostly because they live in far greater depths in the ocean. In fact, what I learned from doing a bit of quick research is that this species of shrimp prefers colder waters farther off the Gulf Coast. Specifically, they tend to stay out beyond where the bottom of the Gulf drops off the continental shelf, at depths of up a half mile.
In fact, it seems only a select few Gulf Coast fisherman are even licensed to harvest them, which feeds the rarity. In reality, most fisherman don’t even bother, because they can far more easily harvest the pink shrimp from shallower waters. As you would guess, the price of these delicacies is well above your average shrimp, but the cost is absolutely worth it — especially when you’re on vacation. Hey, you can have a burger when you’re back in Louisville.
So, as you can imagine, when I wasn’t eating oysters on the half-shell, I was downing Royal Reds. Typically, they are served either peel-and-eat style with the heads removed, or like crawfish — “in the rough,” one restaurant called it — meaning you tear off the head and then peel back to tail to get at the succulent meat. It’s messy work, but well worth it.
On the off-chance you’ll be in Gulf Shores anytime soon, I recommend the Gulf Shores Steamer in Orange Beach. I got a full pound for $21, which ended up being just over a dollar apiece. You can also get them low-boil style with potatoes and corn. And if you go to a restaurant that doesn’t have Royal Reds on the menu, ask your server. Often, they have them for those who are in the know.
But since you probably aren’t going to Gulf Shores, there’s good news: You can buy Royal Reds via mail order. Yes, they’re expensive. But Royal Reds are frozen as soon as they’re brought onto the boat, because fisherman typically have to travel 60 or more miles out to sea to trawl for them. That’s a long way back, which compromises freshness. So, they’re going to be frozen first, even if you get them on the coast.
Your easiest path is to buy online from one of several seafood outlets I found. One is called Wild Ocean Market (wildoceanmarket.com), through which they are $29.99, pre-peeled and deveined. But half the fun is peeling them yourself, so you might want to try Easton Street Seafood Market (kwseafood.com), which has them for $18.95 per pound, minus the heads.
What looks like an intriguing deal is Joe Patti’s Seafood (joepattis.com), which has them listed at an insane $7.49 per pound — and then when you go to check out, you find the $20 fee for the shipping container. Oops. (Also, it’s a five-pound minimum at that price.) Heck, I even saw a dealer selling Royal Reds on Amazon.com — at $79 for two pounds. Yeah, that’s a little steep.
Anyway, if you haven’t had Royal Reds — most people I know here haven’t even heard of them — here’s your seafood tip of the week. And if you’re headed soon to Gulf Shores (aka, the Redneck Riviera), you might want to push back your trip a week or two. I just returned from mine, and I suspect the waters are running low on Royal Reds. I have a big appetite.