All due respect to meatloaf, chicken livers, and country fried steak, but if you ask us, seafood is the perfect entrée for a Southern meat & three plate.
And if you’re going to the right spots, you’ll see Gulf seafood on the menu.
One of those spots is Johnny’s Restaurant in Homewood, where Chef Tim Hontzas has earned four semi-finalist recognitions from the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef South) in just eight years of business.
As you might assume, Hontzas’s seasonal offerings include plenty of fresh Gulf product—from Royal Red Shrimp and fried oysters to puppy Drum and Tuna. Gulf shrimp has gotten so popular at Johnny’s that it’s become a daily staple of their menu.
“It’s basically what the fishmonger tells me to get,” Hontzas said. “Throughout the year, you may have 10, 12 different species that may come through here. A lot of my clientele, they want what they want, and they want fresh Gulf seafood.”
But Johnny’s is also known for their delicious side dishes—which Hontzas proudly describes as having a “facelift” compared to typical meat & three offerings. Trouble is, with all those choices, it can be difficult narrowing down the perfect plate for your visit.
So, for those facing indecision paralysis, here are a few of Hontzas’s recommended sides for Gulf seafood pairings, in his own words. Try ‘em on your next visit, or give them a shot in your own kitchen.
Baby Fried Okra
“When my farmer in Cullman brings whole baby okra, he grades them to about the size of my pinky, and if they’re any bigger, they go back on his truck. And I love that with any of the fish. I love baby fried okra as long as it’s not fried, fried, fried.”
Baby Mustard Greens
“I don’t know that I think of collards as complementary of seafood, you know? But I totally believe that baby mustard greens would completely complement a grilled piece of fish. When they’re really baby and tender, I can just wilt them in a sauté pan and use them as a bed, then put the fish on top with some type of vinaigrette on it. That is a good set.”
Chipotle Ranch Potato Salad
“Say we poach off some Royal Reds in some butter, right? I love the thought of a chipotle ranch potato salad. So you’ve got this cold but kinda smoky, creamy potato salad, and then we take these pasilla chiles and grill them off and puree them with fresh garlic and vinegar and lemon zest, and then we grill off some corn and we’ll baste the corn with that. So you see where I’m going? It’s almost like a shrimp boil, but in a different way.”
Okra & Green Onion Beignets
“Sometimes we’ll do okra and green onion beignets—or hushpuppies, whichever one you wanna call it—to go with grilled fish or fried fish. The okra and some sliced green onions is a nice twist on a hushpuppy, then add some Tabasco and you’ve got a totally different beignet. I’d almost rather say beignet; it’s swankier and we use heavy cream in them, so they’re fluffier.”
Parmesan Grit Cakes
“Our parmesan grit cakes, I think they go great with fried fish. And then if you think about shrimp and grits, for another twist on that. I love doing pickled shrimp in the summertime.”
Salad with Vinaigrette
“Any of this stuff, if you think about it, is gonna go on any kind of salad. Like a light vinaigrette with some arugula, or even a Greek salad. In the summertime, I love to put vinaigrettes on fish, man. It’s light, it’s cool, it’s healthy. Like a smoked peach vinaigrette with peaches from Clanton, with sherry vinegar in there and a little creole mustard. Stuff like that that’s super light on fish.”
“I love our squash casserole, man. It’s a two-day process to make that. The farmer brings it, then we clean it, tip it, slice it, steam it, cool it, and we break it down with our hands. Then we caramelize onions and garlic, we cool that the same day, then we come back the next day and marry it all together with Swiss cheese and other ingredients, then we top it with Ritz crackers and parmesan and butter. It’s a killer side. If it’s gonna be good, it’s probably gonna take time.”
Sweet Potato Hash
“If you get a heartier fish like a Swordfish, it may lend itself to a sweet potato hash. Because that’s a heartier fish—it’s a steak cut as opposed to a light and flaky filet. So it can stand up to a hash, it can go with it. We like to get sweet potatoes from my farmer and add a twist to it. Maybe add some achiote paste in there, which is from annatto seeds. And some chiles. That feels like a fall side that goes with a heartier piece of fish.”
Turnip Root Slaw
“I’m always thinking about my farmer and what he’s bringing next. For a side that really goes with fried fish or Royal Reds, he’ll bring me turnips and I’ll cut the bulbs off, and I will slice them and macerate them in a little bit of vinegar and sugar, then strain it all to pull out the bitterness. Then I’ll make a turnip root slaw out of it.”