I was looking for a detour on my way back from another trip across the Gulf Coast. Leaving from Gulf Shores, Ala., I wanted to find a restaurant that served something other than barbecue and was at least halfway back to New Orleans.
This is a 3 hour drive. Half way puts me in no man’s land, but Ocean Springs, Miss., is 2 hours away.
The historic, tree-lined downtown boasts a strong arts community and offers a number of independent local restaurants that take advantage of the proximity to fresh seafood.
Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant is known for its never-ending fried seafood and chicken, but what piqued my curiosity was its notoriety as a place Elvis Presley was known to frequent. He regularly occupied a back booth in the restaurant’s Julep Lounge.
Located inside an old house dating to 1852, the parking lot sports several 500-year old oak trees. The restaurant sits at the mouth of the Bay of Biloxi, where the back dining room allows expansive views of the water in three directions.
It’s a lovely atmosphere, and feels removed from downtown and the nearby interstate. It’s the kind of place where time slows down. Do take into account this is an old-fashioned establishment and looks the part. It may take a minute for the staff to get around to all the tables, but they’ll get there. This is part of Aunt Jenny’s charm. Have a cocktail and relax.
The menu is a brief read, two narrow pages that presents essentially three menu items: catfish, shrimp or fried chicken.
This is a tremendous bargain regardless, but if you show up at Aunt Jenny’s hungry this is nirvana.
The catfish and shrimp come in large orders, but for a buck or two more, super-size it to “all you can eat.” If choosing between these two items proves too difficult go with Gunny’s Combination, which provides all the catfish and shrimp a person can eat for under $15.
I was in a tough spot, because I normally would order the catfish. Quality fried shrimp isn’t difficult to find across the Gulf Coast, I could forgo that. But catfish done right is sublime.
The problem was I love me some fried chicken. Ronnie’s Roosters only come in “all you can eat” proportions. The mixed is $9.95, and Namaw’s white meat special is a dollar more.
For a moment I actually considered ordering the catfish and the fried chicken. But how would I be able to walk out of the restaurant?
Besides, all these menu items come with “trimmin’s.” You gotta love trimmin’s!
This consists of: country seasoned hush puppies, potatoes, crispy vegetable sticks, cole slaw and fresh-baked homemade biscuits with jelly.
Now we’re talking southern.
There appears to be some debate over the spiciness of the hush puppies. They have a thick cornmeal crust, that ensures the interior remains moist, with Jalapeno pepper bits mixed in with the batter, which some complain make them too spicy. I found the dense outside coating tempers the spicier middle. Unless from the Midwest, I wouldn’t consider these hush puppies especially “hot,” but be warned if your taste buds are sensitive.
The biscuits are a nice size, airy and rich. I could have filled up on them alone. I had to forcibly stop myself from ingesting anymore before my entrée arrived.
One appetizer or side item deserving notice is Kathy’s batter fried dills. Fried pickles are something you can’t find everywhere. At Aunt Jenny’s they batter-fry entire dill spears, which is even more unique, and worth checking out.
As for the main items, I went with the all white meat fried chicken and it was fabulous. The skin was crisp, and a dark rusty golden brown, that crunched as I bit into it. The inside jumped with flavor, and was tender and moist. Loved it!
Personally I didn’t see much difference between a large order of catfish and “all you can eat.” One plate is gonna get it done for most people. There’s four or five fillets in a large serving. Admittedly these are local, pond-raised catfish, that are smaller and thinner than the hefty, farm-raised version found in most supermarkets, but a considerable serving regardless.
The batter is a simple flour and cornmeal mixture, not too heavy and doesn’t overtake the silky catfish flavor. I enjoy the milder taste of these smaller, pond-raised fillets.
I can’t vouch for the shrimp. I heard different stories, some saying they were small-ish. I wouldn’t expect the typical large, prawn-sized Gulf shrimp, not at this price for “all you can eat.” There are better places to get shrimp so consider that, but it’s hard to go wrong with the catfish and shrimp combo. What’s the worst that happens — you order another plate.
This is a quaint and comfortable place to dine, but not upscale. Aunt Jenny’s is homey, and on a busy night the service for “all you can eat” is going to suffer. This is table service – not buffet. Good fried chicken is never fast, so choose the times you go here carefully. If you’re in a rush you might be disappointed. I went for a late lunch and had no problems.
In the end, Aunt Jenny’s is about totality. The food is good, but factor in the location, the historic property, the trees, the view – come kick back, fill up on southern hospitality and have a drink where Elvis used to hang.
1217 Washington Avenue, Ocean Springs, MS