The Foodies

When it comes to food, the residents of Mobile Bay have an embarrassment of riches that we are quite proud of. We’ve long known the goodness of a diet filled with real, fresh seafood, the kind that doesn’t exactly look as if it came from a Jell-O mold. That whole “local movement, ” all the rage across the country? We’ve been doing that a long time — from tomatoes and watermelons hauled in from Loxley and sold from the back of a truck to shrimp and oysters stacked on ice right next to the dock in Bayou La Batre.

What makes this a particularly exciting time, gastronomically speaking, is the lineup of all-star “foodies” making Mobile’s case as one of the South’s rising food towns. Allow us to introduce you to a few of the standout men and women who are doing their parts to ensure locals enjoy nothing but the best our area has to offer.

The Locavore

Maggie Lacey »

The same way a good fisherman knows where to drop anchor and a good college football recruiter knows which pockets of the country to keep an eye on, Maggie Lacey just has a way of finding the best produce in this area. As the manager for Fairhope’s Windmill Market and the buyer for its grocery store, she is constantly on the lookout for the freshest local products. In addition to stocking the shelves, Lacey is also in charge of putting together baskets for consumers who entrust their weekly grocery shopping to the Market. We talked to her over some coffee from Sweet Olive Bakery as she arranged the morning’s selections.

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◗ Originally, this building was an old car dealership, back when those were in town.
◗ It started almost three years ago as an open-air, weekend market for farmers and crafts. Then we just added on and added on. We moved to seven days a week, and the next thing you know we have three restaurants, a local grocery store and all these artists. It just keeps growing.
◗ We work with 50 different local farms. We have one woman who helps us coordinate all the farmers, and she runs a farm herself in Loxley. She knows all the farm families, has known them forever, and helps bring people to us.
◗ Our whole thing is knowing where it’s from and who grew it.
◗  I go down to Elberta about every other week and get cheeses from Sweet Home Farms.
◗ We had a cheese farmer in Southern Mississippi that we bought from a lot. I’d load my little station wagon up with a bunch of coolers, drive to Mississippi, step around their chickens and stuff and get the cheese. It probably wasn’t the most efficient model, but it was really cool.
◗ I’m a horse person. People laugh at me because I’m like, “I can’t believe these boots have become trendy!” Mine have genuine mud and hay on them. ◗ We are reducing the distance food has to travel and thus reducing the impact on the environment from trucking pollution. We are making our food system safer by limiting the number of people who come in contact with our food when it doesn’t have to travel cross-country and visit numerous warehouses between the field and the grocery store.
◗ C.S.A., community-supported agriculture, is where you can basically subscribe to a farm. Our customers pay for three months at a time, and then every week they come and pick up a whole box that has enough fruits and vegetables for the whole week.
◗ Local, in-season produce tastes better, as it was allowed to ripen naturally on the vine.
◗ The Delicious Dietitian’s stuff is so good. I never thought I would care about using vinegar – that’s such a random thing – but I use it in everything.

FOODIE TIP: Try to cut out any packaged food ­— if it has more than one ingredient on the package, you don’t want it! That helps make sure you stock your pantry with healthier items like fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Blogger

Gary Saunders »

There are plenty of websites and phone applications available to help indecisive diners figure out where to find their next meal. The easiest way to locate good food with your phone, however, might be simply using it to call Gary Saunders, the self-appointed C.E.O.

(Chief Eating Officer) of He and his wife started the website to catalog their trips to the best downhome dining spots and legendary dives south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Saunders met us at Queen G’s on Old Shell Road to talk trade and enjoy one of his favorite local dishes, their fried oysters.

◗ I try to be low-key about my blogging. Because the general feeling is, if you introduce yourself, then it’s like you’re expecting the celebrity treatment. You want to get the same service as anyone else.
◗ This started out as just a hobby of mine, almost 20 years ago. When my wife and I traveled, we would go find these little mom-and-pop, out-of-the-way, off-the-wall type places. And not only would we eat there, but I would collect menus. And we started to gather up all of these menus and photographs.
◗ Take the high road whenever you can. I think that helps, so that’s what I try to do.
◗ The one food that I crave most often, and tend to go back to over and over again, is pork barbecue. Barbecued pig. That’s kind of a favorite answer amongst foodies, but for me, the ultimate is cooking a whole hog and having a traditional pig pickin’.
◗ You know what’s good about the oysters here? If you like fried okra, they’re kind of a cross between fried okra and oysters, with just the right amount of cornmeal.
◗ What else is great about this place is these guys use local seafood, and you can tell with the oysters. They’re nice and big. Long. I’m really big on local, fresh seafood. It’s sad to have to say that, but some other places around here don’t.
◗ Billy’s in Bon Secour. That’s my favorite spot to buy seafood. If you go like you’re going to Gulf Shores, take a right on I-10 and head all the way down to the very end. It’s right out of “Forrest Gump.” It has that kind of setting: You’ve got the big oaks with the moss hanging off, the boats coming in and out, the guys walking around in these big, white fisherman boots. It’s great.
◗ In a town like Mobile, there are just so many options in terms of where to eat.
◗ One of the things I love about living in Baldwin is the fact that you’ve got all of those farmers nearby. So you can go to Allegri Farm Market in Daphne, or you can go to Burris Farms in Loxley, and get really good, fresh stuff.
◗ Ever been to MiMo’s? The food is really good. Plus, it has a great atmosphere.

FOODIE TIP: One of the best things I’ve eaten since I’ve been on Mobile Bay is the tomato pie at the Sugar Kettle Café in Daphne. It’s got a ton of cheese and mayonnaise, and it’s very unhealthy. It’s really, really good. The recipe is even available on their website.

The Super Vegan

Tracey Glover »

Tracey Glover describes herself as “smiley, ” and with the lengths she has gone to keep her body and conscience happy, she certainly should be smiling. She left her career as a corporate attorney in Washington, D.C., and ultimately embarked on a more fulfilling lifestyle in Lower Alabama. Now a yoga instructor at Quiet Mind Massage Therapy, Glover also teaches cooking classes and prepares meals for those looking for a more vegan diet. Raved one recently satisfied customer: “Your food makes me want to kiss myself.” Glover fed us, and showed off some of her favorite poses, inside Quiet Mind’s studio.

◗ It’s really not about being able to touch your toes. It’s about letting go of ego, letting go of the need to compare yourself to others.
◗ On my tattoo, the top word is Sanksrit – “ahimsa” – which means “no harm to any sentient creature, ” and that’s actually the first ethic in yoga. But you don’t learn that in the gym, so I did yoga for 8 years without knowing that had anything to do with it.
◗ For most people who come to me, who come to my cooking classes or order food, it’s not about animals at all. It’s about health.
◗ Tofu is the most well-known vegan protein, but most vegans I know don’t actually eat a ton of tofu.
◗ In my kitchen, I always have soy milk or some nut milk. I also keep raw cashews in my cupboard, because you can make creamy dishes with raw cashews and water.
◗ People think you can’t bake without eggs, and that’s just not true.
◗ I eat lots of tempeh, which is a fermented soybean cake sort of like tofu. I slice it up, and I like to fry it; it tastes like bacon when you add in some soy sauce.
◗ Lentils. I do lots of lentils. And lots of leafy greens. I also eat tons of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage.
◗ Cup-for-cup, collard greens have more calcium than cow’s milk. You get so many nutrients from leafy greens that you don’t think about.
◗ We grow up seeing those “milk does the body good” ads, the milk mustaches and everything, thinking those were like public service announcements. They’re not.
◗ There are actually vegan wines, then also non-vegan wines. Standard wines are often filtered with egg whites and fish bones.
◗ If I travel, I’ll sometimes take soy cream and Earth Balance (vegan butter) with me, because without those things, my life just isn’t as good.
◗ Kitchen on George, in Oakleigh, has a lot of vegan appetizers, and if you ask for a vegan plate, the chef will make one for you because the owner’s wife is a vegan. They get it.
◗ Regular chocolate is not vegan, but dark chocolate is. Not all dark chocolate, not the cheaper stuff, but the more expensive stuff.

FOODIE TIP: The most vegan-friendly restaurant in town is probably Mellow Mushroom, which I love. Places like Moe’s Southwestern Grill have vegan burritos. Panera Bread Company has some vegan options, too. Going out to upscale restaurants is where it gets hard.

The Legacy

George Panayiotou »

Anyone who has worked in a kitchen knows how important it is for all involved to work well together. That’s a lesson George Panayiotou has been practicing since his days in the back of his father’s legendary restaurant, Constantine’s. Today, the director of culinary operations for Cooper Restaurants applies the same principle to his own kitchens. And while he is more than comfortable in the spotlight, Panayiotou much prefers to pass the credit on. Executive Chef Michael Prince fired up a plate of Flamin’ Oysters (left) for us, which Panayiotou was happy to pass around as we talked on the back porch of the Bluegill Restaurant.

◗ When I was a young man, back when I was pot washing at my father’s restaurant but learning to be a fry cook, there weren’t timers for the food. You had to eyeball it.
◗ I moved to Orange Beach from Mobile in 1996. My wife and I had the intention of opening our own restaurant down there. But then, in September of 1997, David Cooper called me up. I agreed to come on for six months to help out. It’s 15 years and four restaurants later, and I’m still consulting.
◗ My No. 1 chef is Howard Grayson. I hired him in my first six months at Ruth’s Chris as a line cook, and we’ve brought him up to be the executive chef of Felix’s Fish Camp Grill, a restaurant that feeds 1, 500 people a day and has 135 employees.
◗ We buy all local seafood. At Felix’s, we keep four different local fish on the menu. They come in fresh, the whole loins. We’re filleting all day, every day.
◗ It was a brave man that ate the first oyster. Can you imagine looking down and saying, “I’m gonna eat what?”
◗ You know what the bread’s for? You sop. You have to sop.
◗ We called it Constantine’s World Famous Restaurant, and it was no more world famous than anything. It was just local Mobile. My father used to say, “I became Mobile’s finest and grew into world famous, all because I said it!”
◗ Oh, Greekfest is amazing. Get there early, like by 11 a.m., and you can spend hours just wandering around. It’s a fascinating event they put on.
◗ “Yes is the answer; what’s the question?”  We say that a lot.
◗ Y’all say foodies; we call them culinarians.
◗ At the end of a meal, when it’s really gone well, you feel like a conductor who has just directed a symphony perfectly. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. We have a strong group of people working, and that makes you proud.
◗ Fish hate me, I don’t play golf, and my grandchildren say I’ll die if I retire. There’s no reason to retire.
◗ Thirty-three years later and my wife’s still the best friend I’ve ever had in the world.  And, she’s a better cook than me.

FOODIE TIP:  With a good garlic sauce, one could eat an elephant. You’ll learn, if you’re Greek, you can never have too much garlic. That’s very important.

The Trailblazer

Maggie Lamorell »

The side of Maggie Lamorell’s food truck entreats passersby to “Git your mojo on, ” and that’s exactly what they do, by the flock, every Tuesday and Thursday on Royal Street. Lamorell moved her family to Mobile a year and a half ago to start Momma’s Mojo, and in that time they have become one of the major players in Downtown’s lunch game. While Lamorell tends to hold down the fort at the brick-and-mortar restaurant, her husband and their sons operate the food truck and provide their specialty mouthwatering Cuban sandwiches to the masses. We found  her on Conti Street with her family and truck — after the lunch rush hour, of course.

◗ “Mojo” (pronounced moh-ho, unlike the restaurant) is a sauce we make. The name came from my mother’s “mojo.” But since I’m the only woman at the restaurant — I’m the owner — I’ve kind of become Momma.
◗ The actual restaurant is way out in West Mobile, close to the Mississippi line. It’s right off Cottage Hill, before you hit Repoll Road.
◗ Miami’s loaded with food trucks. You’ll see 60 of them getting together at Tropical Park on a Friday night.
◗ I am American; I am of Cuban descent, but I lived in Miami all my life, in Little Cuba.
◗ A friend suggested Mobile and said food things were happening here. I came and said, “Well, there’s definitely not a Cuban restaurant in sight.” So, we’re here.
◗ It was a culture shock. We left Miami and entered the United States.
◗ We took “Best Side Dish” in Taste of Mobile last year with our garlic-cilantro sauce and yuca fries. That was after just three months in business.
◗  Not even as a teenager did I work at a fast-food restaurant. But my mom is a total foodie and cooks very well. I’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her.
◗ The “mojo” pork is prepared in the oven. It’s roasted with garlic, salt and “sazon completa.” And then we pour the “mojo” over it, which is a citrus-based juice. It’s like a light-brownish beige tone. It’s good stuff.
◗ The Cuban has the Boar’s Head black forest ham with shredded, pulled “mojo” pork. It’s got pickles, mustard, mayo, and then we flat press it on Cuban bread.
◗ Tuesdays and Thursdays we set up downtown. Wednesdays are over in Chickasaw at the Honeywell plant.
◗ At the plants, we’ll usually serve 60 or 70 people in an hour and a half. We’ll have these long lines, and it’s like, “Here we go. Rock ’n’ roll.”
◗ Tempers flare every once in a while – especially being Latino, you know. But it’s fun. It’s always fun.
◗ And now, I have to go cook for 500 people.

FOODIE TIP: We’re really popular for what our customers call “the green stuff.” It’s a garlic-cilantro “mojo.” We make it with cilantro and heavy, heavy garlic. You’ve got to try it.

The Grillmaster

Darrel Wiggins » [email protected]

When Darrel Wiggins discusses his food, his already barrel-sized chest swells just a little bigger, though he’s careful not to let you know everything he knows. After all, one secret ingredient gone public could make the difference in his finished product and the next guy’s. What’s apparent is that Wiggins loves feeding people, and judging by the amount of hungry folks who seek out his services in the Ladd-Peebles parking lot on football Saturdays and for their own private parties, he must be good at it. He towed his grill into a downtown parking lot to let us see what all the fuss is about.

◗ I had some buddies with grills, and I kind of studied theirs before I had mine built. I bought the tank from Blossman Gas, took it to a guy, he had it two weeks and gave this to me.
◗ This shelf right here is the gate off the trailer. I knew exactly what I wanted, had it down pat.
◗ Believe it, I can put 30 whole chickens on that thing. Sixty halves. And I can do 30 slabs of ribs. I’m serious. Thirty slabs of ribs at one time and 13 turkeys can fit on it at a time, too.
◗ One bag. One 20-pound bag of charcoal. That’ll last you about six hours. Light it and immediately start cooking.
◗ I try to stick to just meat and letting people do their own sides. Every now and then I’ll do baked beans, when somebody knows that I do them.
◗ I’ll smoke turkeys during Thanksgiving. But you have to start the night before so you won’t spend your whole Thanksgiving Day doing turkeys.
◗ We go out to Ladd-Peebles for the games. We’ll be there when the gates open, and we’ll be there when they close. We feed everybody on our side of the lot. The police, the gate people, everybody eats with us.
◗ I did Boston butt and baked beans one game, with some hot dogs and hamburgers. Last game, I fried fish and had beans and hot dogs. Next week, everybody wants fried chicken. It just depends on the schedule.
◗ I don’t put sauce on when it’s still on the grill. Take it off, and then I’ve got some tricks I do.
◗ When the grease is falling, it’s making the fire burn, but the fire is so far down that it ain’t on my meat.
◗ When it’s time to clean, I never put a brush to it; I squirt it down with Clorox, then get the water hose and rinse it good. It’s got holes in the bottom so water can drain.
◗ Nuh-uh. I can’t give you my secrets.
◗ I’ll be there next Saturday morning. You better hurry.

FOODIE TIP: I never put lighter fluid on my grill; I start it with a torch. If I’m making your food, I can’t have it smelling like lighter fluid. That’s one complaint I just can’t have.

The Tastemaker

Jen Neese »

As a mother of two and a military wife, Jen Neese needed something in her kitchen to make healthy meals easier, and if it made her cooking taste like a gourmet chef’s, hey, all the better. She came up with the Delicious Dietitian brand, her own line of spice blends and vinegars targeted for people trying to better their eating habits whether they are battling a diet-related illness or simply wanting to improve their nutrition. Her products can be found in stores across the nation, including the Windmill Market in Fairhope. Along with a few feathered and furry friends, she kindly welcomed us into her Midtown home.

◗ Dietitian is spelled D-I-E-T-I-T-I-A-N. AutoCorrect wants you to spell it with a C.
◗ I’ve been a dietitian for 20 years. I got out of it full-time and did pharmaceutical sales for about 12 years. I worked for Fortune 500 companies in Boston and New York, and I enjoyed it.
◗ I needed something a little bit more conducive to raising a family, so I took what I knew and combined it with my love of food and helping people with limited diets.
◗ Two-thirds of American households have one person with a diet-related chronic illness. Nineteen percent of those are children. So if you can make something simple and easy and live longer — why not?
◗ Having so many cupcake and yogurt shops makes my head hurt.
◗ I come from a big family. I feel that there are foods that can bring the whole family together. Instead of having to cook and say, “Oh, that’s special, ” or “That person can’t have this, ” let’s give everybody flavor that’s safe.
◗ It’s been a fun ride.
◗ Growing up on a farm makes you appreciate every morsel you put in your mouth. At one time I was actually in the field planting, picking, growing from beginning to end. So I understand food from a farmer’s perspective.
◗ Breakfast for supper is our emergency go-to. I always have grits and eggs on hand, especially since I have my own Midtown chickens for fresh yard eggs.
◗ Cold-press olive oil is a must have.
◗ Cinnamon. I love adding it while cooking but also adding a pinch to my coffee or tea while not adding calories.
◗ Really when people say “support local, ” it means more than that. It’s a soul you’re supporting; it’s a family farm you’re supporting. It’s outside of just the
local economy.
◗ If I had to choose, I’d say the Creole seasoning is my favorite. Just because it’s warm but it’s not hot. It has a little picante flavor to it, but it doesn’t burn your tongue.
◗ My son is 8, and he’ll tell people, “I get up with the chickens.” And he means it.

FOODIE TIP: The Hungry Owl in West Mobile. No question. Tony Nicholas is an amazing chef, and he is keen on supporting locally grown products. The quality approach to real local food is for my palate. I crave his grilled tuna with a side of steamed vegetables.

The Connoisseur

Lee Hale » attorney and wine aficionado

When Lee Hale talks wine, he can’t help getting a little professorial. His lectures are part history, part geography, part food education, all peppered with personal anecdotes and examples. Hale, whose house has a custom-built wine cellar stocked with a range of his favorite vintages, says he’s learned to keep most of his knowledge to himself in public because few completely dive into their wine the way he does. He gladly met us inside Mobile’s Red or White Wine & Gourmet Center to discuss his favorite hobby.

◗ It’s not a real pretty process going from grapes to wine. It’s a natural process, but it can be kind of rough.
◗ I look at wine as a gift from God almost, the way it just happened.
◗ When I first started drinking wine, I was really surprised at the kaleidoscope of flavors. It was like, “Whoa.”
◗ Back in the ’80s, there was hardly anything in Mobile. When somebody drank wine, it was kind of like, “What are they doing that for?” There was hard liquor and beer.
◗ When you swirl the glass, it’s to aerate the wine. The wine gets down in the bottle, especially with less expensive wines, and it can even get kind of a funky aroma. So, this opens it up.
◗ Cabernet sauvignon, to me, is ultimately a boring variety.
◗  I look for importers. Neal Rosenthal is a good importer. Kermit Lynch is very good.
◗ For beginniners, I highly recommend reading Robert Parker. I feel like I’m drinking it just from reading his words.
◗ If you see something that looks good, try it. Because too often people just aren’t exposed to wine in general. Most of the wines I buy are under 20 bucks.
◗ I love it that they’ve moved toward twist-off tops. Love it. Because corks are only needed if you’re keeping the wine for a long time. All a cork adds is expense.
◗ In France, wine is generational. They will buy the wine, realizing, “This is for our children. We’re drinking our parents’ wine.” They keep buying wine but not drinking it.
◗ In my wine room, the temperature stays 61 degrees. That’s really the temperature you should drink red wines at. People will say, “room temperature, ” but over there (in France) that’s like 60 degrees, in a cellar.
◗ The other thing wine does is slow the meal down. To really appreciate the wine and give it its due, you have to smell the wine. And then you drink the wine by itself. Then you drink it with food, and you get all these different dimensions.
◗  It adds so much to a meal. My wife and I don’t eat dinner without opening a bottle.

FOODIE TIP: One thing I do with a big-bodied wine is leave the bottle out. Drink probably half of it, then try it about 24 hours later. You’ll find that it’s aged about 5 years. Leave the cork out, and it may age 15 years. It’ll be like tasting a 15-year-old wine.

interviewed by Ellis Metz • photography by Matt Gates

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