Confession: I used to love instant grits. Perhaps that’s not a huge deal to those of you who don’t care much for grits, but to those of you who grew up in the deep South, you have every right to “tisk-tisk” me. On the other side of a few culinary experiences, I now understand the miles of distance between instant grits and the real thing—you know, slow-cooked, creamy, and enough butter to remind you that ignorance is bliss. And what goes better with a big bowl of grits than some juicy shrimp?
As much as I appreciate shrimp and grits (and will order it nearly any time I spot it on a menu), I must admit that it is still not a dish that I’ve tackled in my own kitchen, so I’ve gone looking for this Southern classic in town whenever the craving hits. Sure, Jackson isn’t Charleston or New Orleans, but it has a flavor of its own that comes from the intersections of cultures that West Tennessee offers.
In a search for some of these distinctive perspectives, I visited three local restaurants that boast some mean shrimp and grits and asked them to share their culinary influences with me so I could get a taste of just how complex this dish can be. Which is the best in town? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.
4 Stonebridge Boulevard | 731.660.0603
When I hear the words “creole” and “Mexican,” my ears are sure perk up, and when I first visited Coyote Blues to find the two genres in one location, it was a match made in heaven. And while this flavor combo is now one of my faves, manager Barry Nabours reminded me how many new customers are trying these flavors together for the first time. While he is hesitant to categorize the food as “Tex Mex,” the fiery flavors of Louisiana carried throughout their classic Mexican dishes create a meal that would make any Texan smile.
Now one of their top ten best-selling dishes, shrimp and grits wasn’t originally on Coyote Blues’ menu, but after experimenting with the recipe at a catering event and serving seconds after seconds, they were sure to share it with their customers. Knowing just how significant this dish is in creole culture, it now seems to make perfect sense. The only question for the restaurant was how they could throw in some Mexican flair, and from my experience, they’ve hit the nail on the head.
The fresh shrimp lining this dish are first covered in Coyote Blues’ house seasoning and thrown on the open grill, giving them all the flavor and texture you’d expect in a freshly served fajita. The shrimp sure won’t disappoint, but Barry is clear that, unlike at many restaurants, the grits are the real star.
It’s difficult to categorize these grits as sweet or spicy; more than anything else, they’re savory and pair perfectly with the tangy shrimp. The pearly texture of these thick grits reminded me a bit of couscous. Served with Coyote Blues’ signature cactus-shaped cornbread, I realized the flavors and textures incorporated in the grits are very similar to those in the cornbread. Peppered generously with roasted corn, garlic, and poblano peppers, every bite of this dish holds zest—and plenty of cheddar and parmesan cheesiness. And what would a Mexican take on shrimp and grits be without a sprinkle of fresh cilantro? But this dish is nothing without a big ladelful of Coyote Blues’ chipotle cream sauce smothering its entirety. (If you enjoy a little more heat, ask for the shrimp and crawfish sauce instead.) It holds the dish together both literally and in flavor, adding a buttery kick.
Clearly not categorized as a brunch-specific dish for this restaurant, these shrimp and grits make for a hearty dinner. For those of you who like a bit of spice and a whole lot of flavor, you’ll find yourself in comfort food heaven.
575 South Royal Street | 731.554.2221
Having worked as a private chef in the past, Chandelier’s Jennifer Dickerson is familiar with the challenges of lightening up rich Southern dishes in a way that both gives them a unique flair and stays true to the age-old reputations of classics. Her shrimp and grits recipe is no exception.
Although I think we’d all agree that we often groan inwardly a little when someone suggests “lightening up” a dish—especially a good, fatty, Southern one—by using such vibrant colors, bold flavors, and perfected textures, Jennifer has “brightened up” the dish so much that you won’t miss a thing.
When asked about her regions of influence—say, South Carolina’s “Lowcountry” vibes, Louisiana’s Cajun flair, or Tennessee’s Southern simplicity—Jennifer quizzically answered, “California?” Not your typical shrimp and grits spot, but once you take a bite into her melody of fresh sauted veggies like bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions, you’ll understand where she’s coming from.
These grits are anything but gritty; using the finest grind she can get her hands on, Jennifer whips them into a creamy, smooth dish reminiscent of mashed potatoes, using whole milk, goat cheese, and lemon for the perfect complement to the savory vegetables. And you better believe those are wild caught Gulf shrimp. (Have to dress to impress, right?) But don’t worry—they’re not over-seasoned or drenched in a sauce. These shrimp are what I would describe as “unadorned,” and I like that: nothing to overshadow the freshness of the seafood, although Jennifer said she’d never admit what her secret is to achieving that perfect bite.
While Jennifer is content to serve this dish outside the traditional brunch hours, the flavors include some clever nods to the most important meal of the day. Take the blood orange ginger sauce, for instance; its tang may be foreign to your shrimp and grits experience, but it sure ain’t a bad substitute for a mimosa. And the hearty veggie combo she includes are reminiscent of what you might expect in an omelet for champions.
Jennifer says customers often describe Chandelier as “sexy Southern,” and I can’t disagree. Aside from the shrimp and grits, this fine dining spot is known for their fried catfish, chicken and waffles, and even fried green tomatoes—never prepared how you would expect, though. Chandelier will leave you feeling all the glam of a delicate dining experience with all the warmth of a home-cooked meal.
16 Jackson Walk Plaza | 731.300.0404
If you’re craving the full Louisiana heat that a Cajun take on shrimp and grits gives, head to Rock’n Dough. While Rock’n Dough is best known for original pizzas full of killer flavors, they’ve quickly become known as one of Jackson’s top brunch spots and manage to put their creative “rock ’n’ roll” into every dish they create, like their grinders, salads, and even drinks.
With two locations in Memphis, I can taste a little of that Bluff City kick in their shrimp and grits, a dish that’s been a customer favorite ever since they opened the restaurant for brunch in 2015. Sure, the cayenne, green onions, and cheesy grits are pretty true to most Cajun interpretations of this dish, but buffalo sauce?! Yes, please. (And you better believe it’s made in-house.)
Unlike Chandelier, Rock’n Dough uses a coarser grind of grits to add texture, which I think is a great marriage with the generous pool of sauce. While the cooks can’t resist adding a little Parm and cheddar to the grits, cheese is not the main note in this dish, which is refreshing. Instead, the focus is on the spices and textures, which makes the blackened shrimp stand out without being overwhelmed by other elements. (Not to mention that by using smaller shrimp, you get a taste of seafood in almost every bite.) I’m a firm believer that shaved Parmesan makes any dish better, and this one is no exception, especially since its sharp bite both cuts the sauciness of the dish and cools off the tang from the buffalo sauce. Overall, the dish is very cohesive, giving it similar qualities to a well-composed pasta.
I will warn you, if you’re not one much for spicy foods, beware. It’s not so hot that it’s difficult to eat, but like any good buffalo dish, it will keep you close to your water glass (or your Beermosa if you’re feelin’ fancy). While Manager Trevor Jones believes this dish would be a knock-out meal for any time of day, it is only currently available on the restaurant’s Sunday brunch menu—so join me in pressuring them to keep it through the week if you can’t get enough.
As you can see, while West Tennessee may not be the birthplace of shrimp and grits, it sure has its share of unforgettable options with unique profiles. Can’t wait to try them for yourself? Learn more about the restaurants at coyotebluesfreshmex.com, chandelierjackson.com, and rockndoughpizza.com. Post your reviews on social media using the hashtag #OurJacksonTable to let us know which is your favorite!
Originally from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Katie Howerton moved to Jackson in 2011 to study Graphic Design and Drawing at Union University. She discovered Our Jackson Home in January 2015 and used it as a guinea pig for her senior design project, creating the first issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine. After graduating she was given leadership over Our Jackson Home at theCO, where she now runs the blog, designs the magazine, and coordinates events. She and her husband Jordan live in Midtown and are active members of City Fellowship Baptist Church.
Photography by Katie Howerton.