There’s a certain charm at work in the cuisine classic to Louisiana, a rich roux of heart and soul whose recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. And it’s that undeniably special blend of magic that seems to cast its spell with just one bite, a deft layering of herbs and spices that unlocks the mystic complexity of even the most humble ingredients to make them a celebration of flavors that parade across the tongue. And while a trip to the Big Easy might not be in your plans for the day, getting a bite of the bayou won’t require leaving the shores of Panama City Beach, where Creole soul is jazzing up the culinary scene to bring a little bit of the French Quarter to the Emerald Coast.
Since opening in 1999, Bayou on the Beach Café and Oyster Bar has been a family endeavor, first owned by a couple from Lafayette, Louisiana, with Cajun spices running through their veins. And that legacy was passed on to their son and daughter-in-law, Jordan and Maria Buxton, who now own the restaurant and keep the Creole soul going strong in this down-home jambalaya joint where every bite is a tasty trip back to the bayou. Among their top tempters are the Who Dat Shrimp; Boiled Royal Red Shrimp; the Seafood Muffaletta; boiled mudbugs; and oysters served raw, baked or chargrilled to perfection. Based on Mama Buxton’s recipes, everything from the sauces to the boudin balls is made fresh from scratch. From the gumbo to the beignets, this is one bayou you’ll want to get down to.
Starting with appetizers like fried Boudin Balls and Gator Bites, the menu at Dat Cajun Place is like a second line through the Quarter, jazzing things up even more with Cajun specialties like po’boys, red beans and rice, and their very own variation on the mufalletta. And when owners Jan and Trudy White left their home in the bayou country to rebuild a post-Katrina life here on the Emerald Coast, the restaurant they opened in 2012 definitely did their home state proud, showing Creole cooking off at its finest with an award-winning Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo so addictive you’ll swear there’s voodoo in the roux. Letting the good times roll on with an oyster bar shuck-full of delicious variations as well as entrées like Crawfish Étouffée and Chicken Orleans, dat’s definitely one Cajun place you’ll want in your flavor parade.
Building on more than 40 years of experience running a successful donut shop and diner, owner Mike Thomas expanded his repertoire to open Mike’s Café & Oyster Bar in 2011, bolstering his menu to offer new dishes that perfectly showcased the fantastic seafood and fish at his fingertips and spicing things up with a few Creole-style favorites like rich gumbo packed with seafood, okra and Andouille sausage; po’boys piled high with fried shrimp and oysters; and red fish étouffée. And while a bulk of their focus might often go to the mollusks on the menu, the bayou bites at Mike’s just might make you come out of your shell.
Taking a decided lack of Cajun restaurants in the area as reason enough to open one for themselves, husband and wife team Dee and Brenda Brown started Dee’s Hangout in 2008 to create a place that would blend Southern coastal fare with Cajun classics, loading their menu with fresh seafood straight from the Gulf and dishes that make hanging out and digging in a truly tasty way to spend the day. And they do things right, with three kinds of etoufee bursting with chicken, shrimp or crawfish; two jammin’ jambalayas; po’boys; spicy red beans and rice; chicken or seafood gumbo; and even a Cajun Platter that’s a triple feature of étoufée, gumbo and crispy fried catfish served with a mound of creamy coleslaw. Sweetening up the deal, Dee’s has New Orleans-style bread pudding soaked in butter rum sauce that’s definitely worth getting jazzed over.
While their award-winning Jack Daniel’s barbecue ribs may have made them “World Famous” ever since owner Bill Buskell opened this family-friendly joint overlooking the Gulf in the mid-80s, Pineapple Willy’s blends islandinspired cuisine with the perfect kick of Cajun flavor to get some bayou boogie in on the mix. And with four variations on Nawlins-style po’boys piled high with your choice of juicy chicken; golden-fried shrimp; tender, flaky fish; or fried oysters topped with lettuce and tomato, they prove their po’boys are rich in tasty fixins. For something to get saucy over, order up the Nawlins Roast Beef & Debris Po’ Boy, a hefty specimen made with slow-roasted beef smothered in scratch-made gravy and topped with a scatter of lettuce and tomato. A slice of downtown NOLA is their “French Quarter” Dip layered up with freshly sliced roast beef and Swiss cheese and served with a side of au jus. But no trip to Cajun country would be complete without jambalaya, and Pineapple Willy’s does the dish with great panache, loading theirs with chicken, spicy sausage and five grilled shrimp. One bite of the food, and you might just think that Pineapple Willy’s has some “Who Dat” running through its veins.
Opening her own beachside shanty full of fresh seafood and a tidal wave of coastal cuisine in 2010, owner Christine McLaughlin decided her menu could do with a little bit of bayou flavor and added a few Nawlins classics like shrimp po’boys and gumbo so authentic you know from the first bite that she’s got a red-blooded Cajun in her kitchen. Using a classic dark roux, their scratch-made gumbo is full of fresh seafood, spicy sausage, chicken and veggies kicked up with a special blend of spices, all served over rice with toasted baguettes to sop up all that saucy goodness. No matter what’s on order, Hook’d will get you hooked and coming back for more.
After a fire destroyed their first restaurant in 2007, the Knowles family hit the refresh button to open Salty Sue’s in 2008, serving some of the best seafood, steaks and barbecue on the beach. And, when it comes to adding some Creole spice to the mix, this is one local joint that knows how to give roux its due. Offering scratch-made gumbo packed with shrimp, smoked chicken and Andouille sausage topped off with golden fried okra and served over rice, the menu dishes up some lowcountry love; and their creamy, cheesy Cajun-Style Shrimp & Grits are a mouthful of mystic flavors that’ll definitely put you under their spell. From first bite to last, Salty Sue’s gets down to the bayou without ever having to leave the beach.