Alabama's Crown Jewel: The Story of Royal Red Shrimp

Consider the lobster.

More than a century ago, thanks to their insect-like appearance and plentiful numbers along the Atlantic Coast, lobster were known as the “cockroaches of the sea.” They were often used for bait or even fertilizer, and when they were cooked and eaten, they were reserved for prisoners and lower-class citizens. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the tides began to turn on the lobster’s reputation, and by World War II, it became the culinary delicacy that it’s still considered today.

This cultural palate shift has taken place with Gulf species as well. In certain instances, we’ve come to let a species’ appearance or population density affect our opinion rather than purely the quality of the meat on the inside. Alabama Gulf Seafood products like Triggerfish, Lionfish, Sheepshead, Croaker, and others have experienced a similar resurgence in consumer demand, and many chefs are doing wonders with bycatch species (also known as “trash fish”) at restaurants throughout the state.

And then there’s the Royal Red Shrimp.

The name alone should be enough to get your attention. But back in the 1950s, hardly anyone was harvesting Royal Reds beyond Florida’s East Coast. And when the word began to spread in the 1970s, many processors and seafood markets priced this new premium shrimp lower than the standard Brown Shrimp, White Shrimp, and Pink Shrimp simply because customers weren’t willing to purchase something they weren’t familiar with.

Since those days, Royal Red Shrimp have steadily increased in popularity, especially along the Gulf Coast. But they have plenty of ground to make up before they become a household name, especially with those who only eat seafood occasionally.

If you need more convincing before you try these delicious critters, it’s time to learn more about how they’re caught, processed, and served from the people of Alabama’s seafood industry.

Photographer: Wes Frazer

Unlike areas beyond the Gulf coast, local seafood shops know the value of fresh royal reds.

The men and women of Alabama’s seafood industry have never been afraid of hard work. It’s a good thing too, because fishing for Royal Red Shrimp isn’t an easy endeavor.

There are only a handful of boats on Alabama’s waters that are equipped for trawling Royal Reds, and most of them only target this product occasionally. One of the exceptions is Zirlott Trawlers, owners of two boats that are capable of fishing for Royal Reds.

The process all starts with the right equipment. And in this case, it’s pretty expensive equipment.

“There’s a lot of investment that goes into fishing for Royal Red Shrimp, over and above inshore shrimp,” said Jeremy Zirlott, owner and operator of Zirlott Trawlers. “Our boats have big hydraulic wenches, and Royal Reds are so deep that it takes a lot of cable. Probably $30,000 worth of cable just to fish that deep.”

It’s more than just having the right equipment—it’s about picking the right spots. Brown, White, and Pink Shrimp are found in shallower waters around 200-300 feet deep. But Royal Reds require a farther trip; you’ll need to set out toward depths of 1200-1800 feet for a quality harvest. (This is where the longer, more expensive cables come in handy.)

The harvesting method is different at that depth as well. For other Gulf shrimp in shallower waters, fishermen like Zirlott use a “trynet” that allows them to sample the bottom of the waters and see what kind of bounty they can pull out. But there aren’t trynets capable of getting to the ocean floor at 1200 feet or more.

“It’s a little different,” said Zirlott. “You’re so deep you can’t really turn around. You just pick an area you want to try and you go set out and just try it.”

Fishing for Royal Reds can be a hit-or-miss process, one where it can take hours just to find the right spot. But once you do strike gold, it’s worth all the trouble.

When the product is on the boat, it takes a calculated approach to keep them fresh. Royal Red Shrimp in particular need to be frozen as soon as they’re taken out of the water. So Zirlott and his crew use two different methods to preserve their product.

Their preferred method is called IQF, or Individual Quick Freezing, a process that allows the product to retain its flavor and appearance after defrosting, thus maximizing freshness. But Zirlott’s boats also come equipped with on-deck contact freezers where shrimp can be packed onto stainless steel trays and frozen over the course of three hours, thus allowing for a longer shelf life.

It’s a lot of work, but with a steady demand—and a sustainable supply—Royal Red Shrimp have become a notable part of Alabama’s seafood ecosystem. And shrimpers like Zirlott will continue to harvest this flavorful bounty for all to enjoy.

“We have a more market-based approach to our fishing,” said Zirlott. “When we have demand for Royal Reds, I try to send at least one boat to go catch some, just to fill some orders. We’ve got some good customers, and we try to keep them supplied when it’s possible.”

Photographer: Wes Frazer

The rich, buttery flavor of Royal Reds shines when steamed with corn, potatoes, & sausage.

Thanks to trawlers like Zirlott’s and the shrimpers at Aquila Seafood in Bon Secour, Royal Reds are on the menu at many—if not most—Gulf Coast seafood markets. And they’re among the most popular Gulf seafood products you can buy.

According to Bryan Rumley, manager at Blalock Seafood in Orange Beach, Royal Reds have already surpassed their Brown, White, and Pink cousins from Alabama waters when it comes to consumer demand.

“Once you try a Royal Red, that’ll be your go-to shrimp from now on,” said Rumley. “It’s one of the most highly demanded shrimp that we carry. The taste is what takes them over the top. Very flavorful and rich.”

It’s the flavor that has made Royal Red Shrimp a word-of-mouth sensation in coastal states, of course. All Alabama Gulf Seafood products are delicious, but this is the only one that tastes like a miniature lobster tail, making it a delicacy in its own right.

But what separates Royal Red Shrimp even further from the rest of the pack is just how little needs to be done to them for a delicious meal or appetizer. Seasonings and spices can be added, of course—Blalock Seafood offers mild, medium, spicy, and Cajun flavors to go along with their plain option when folks buy them steamed—but the beauty of these “little princes” is that they’re terrific right out of the shell.

“I’d personally recommend very little seasoning,” said Rumley. “There’s so much flavor in them already. I’d recommend just boiling them in water and then eating them with drawn butter. Boiling them is gonna get you a different flavor than steaming, and they’re just as good if a customer has time to boil it themselves.”

As tasty as they are, though, Royal Red Shrimp have remained largely a coastal product. They can be shipped far and wide as needed thanks to the IQF process that takes place on the shrimp boats. But whether it’s an issue of low supply or little demand (or a lack of knowledge about the product altogether), you won’t find them very often unless you’re close to the shoreline.

“It seems like it’s mainly just a coastal deal,” said Rumley. “Which I don’t understand. Because they’re already frozen, so anybody could have them if they wanted them. We’ll ship them anywhere, but you don’t see them that far up north.”

If you do happen upon Royal Red Shrimp away from coastal cities, though, make sure you take a close look before you buy.

Royal Reds unfortunately have a fairly prevalent imported imitator in South America. Known commonly as “Argentina Pinks,” these shrimp have a very similar reddish color—close enough to potentially fool customers at restaurants and grocery stores. And of course, the quality is lesser than true Gulf Royal Reds, not to mention the lack of freshness.

If you see these Argentina Pinks at the grocery store, don’t be fooled by the similar color and texture. And if you’re at a restaurant with Royal Red Shrimp on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask where they came from.

Photographer: Wes Frazer

Royal Reds are found deeper than other shrimp, requiring boats specially outfitted for the process.

Royal Red Shrimp are an easy and delicious dish for home cooking. But if you really want to taste this premium product in its finest state, leave it to the chefs at Alabama’s seafood restaurants.

Chef Bill Briand of Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina is one of the most heralded chefs along Coastal Alabama, having received James Beard Award semifinalist honors for Best Chef: South five years in a row. But this seasoned chef still learned a few new tricks when he moved from New Orleans to Orange Beach—namely, the bounty of Royal Reds.

“I didn’t know anything about Royal Red Shrimp until I came down here,” said Briand. “Other than a few restaurants, they don’t use them in New Orleans. It’s kinda one of those things where I don’t see them often anywhere else.”

Despite working in New Orleans restaurants for two decades, including Donald Link’s family of restaurants, Chef Briand had never tried his hand at Royal Reds. But once he got to Alabama, they became a culinary priority.

He and the Fisher’s team visited Joe Patti’s Seafood in Pensacola, as well as the shrimpers at Aquila Seafood, to not only see the boats and try the product but bring some back to Orange Beach for their test kitchen.

Now that Royal Reds are a staple of the Fisher’s menu, Briand is using them in many different ways. He’s even infusing a bit of his Cajun influence in some of the dishes.

“We’ve done them in all kind of aspects," Briand said. “We’ve poached them in a shrimp roll, like a play on a lobster roll. We’ve steamed them. We’ll glaze them and put them in risottos, that sort of thing. And we use them in gumbo all the time. We’ve got a really murky South-Louisiana-style gumbo that’s very loose, and I find that those little sweet shrimp really elevate the flavors.”

Royal Reds are more prevalent on the Fisher’s menu during the summertime, since vacationers love to indulge in the local cuisine. (According to Briand, the snowbirds in the winter are more of a “meat and potatoes” crowd.)

But Briand knows that Royal Reds are a popular item at markets for home cooking as well. This “super tender” alternative is much more inviting for casual seafood fans.

His biggest pieces of advice? Stay away from the salt when you boil your shrimp.

“We don’t use salt ever when we cook them,” Briand said. “If you salt the water, just be careful. Because if you’re using salt with Royal Reds, they absorb that water and they’re instantly too salty to eat."

And stay away from those Argentina Pinks too!

Photographer: Wes Frazer

Only seasoned fishermen know the process of catching and preserving Royal Reds to get them to market.

Photographer: Wes Frazer

Fishing for Royal Reds requires patience, taking hours just to find the right spot

If you ask anyone that’s tried them before, you’ll know that Royal Red Shrimp have a reputation as one of the tastiest seafood products in the Gulf Coast.

But Royal Reds are more than just a nice meal. Because this culinary delicacy is unique to the Gulf states, every time you purchase them at a local seafood market or a South Alabama restaurant, you’re supporting Alabama shrimpers and processors who put in the extra time and effort to deliver a better product.

“Our goal in our whole program it’s that we try to buy as locally as we can,” said Briand. “We would rather give our money to places that buy Royal Reds like Zirlott’s and Aqulia, which helps solidify our economy and our area. It’s a better product and it’s fresher.”

They’re caught, processed, cooked, and enjoyed in South Alabama—and not much of anywhere else. That makes Royal Red Shrimp one of the most thoroughly “Alabama” food products you can buy.

So next time you’re on vacation, or even just passing through, remember that name: Royal Red Shrimp. You’ll be glad you gave it a try.

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