It was the first year to hold a competition to send someone to nationals, but May got off to a great start with the inaugural Alabama Seafood Cook-Off. Competition was fierce, and any of the contestants would have represented Alabama well, but the coveted honor is going to Chef George Reis of Birmingham’s Ocean restaurant.

Reis opened Ocean in 2002 and the place has steadily become a buzzword, not only in the Birmingham area but across the Southeast. It was his cumin coriander crusted grouper that won him first prize, served along with Alabama shrimp sausage, English pea hummus, Sand Mountain tomato jam, pickled carrots and radishes, and preserved lemon oil. I’ll take two.
Runner up was Brandon Burleson of Voyager’s Restaurant in Orange Beach.

Reis is now preparing to represent our fair state at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off (GASCO), to be held later this year. This is surely the biggest seafood showdown, as some of the best chefs across the country duke it out for the top spot. No matter how that event turns out, it is no small feat to champion the Alabama competition.

“The skill level exemplified by each chef was impressive on many levels, and we would have been proud for any of our finalists to represent Alabama at a national level,” Chef Jim Smith, executive chef for the state of Alabama and current chairman of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, said. No stranger to competition, Smith won the 2011 GASCO award. “We congratulate Chef Reis on this outstanding career accomplishment and look forward to watching him compete on behalf of our state at GASCO.”

We wish you the best of luck, Chef Reis.

Greer’s Cash Saver Midtown continues with renovations
Last week we told you about the new Greer’s Cash Saver Downtown Market at Government and Broad. The midtown location at Dauphin Street east of I-65 continues with upgrades. Of course, my interest is in the quality of the food.

The deli has become one of the best sub-six dollar meals in town, complete with sweet and unsweetened tea and a better-than-average salad bar. The newest addition is a chicken wing bar featuring three flavors, including barbecue, hot wings and honey-glazed boneless wings. Like the salad bar, the wings are sold by the pound.

The meat department is immaculate and the wine section is full of sweet deals. With Whole Foods on the way, Publix still enjoying the “new store smell,” Rouse’s bringing a new level of regional favorites plus seafood, and Winn-Dixie hanging in there on Catherine Street, I’d say the grocery game is looking up in Mobile.

Feed your soul at Lady J’s
There is plenty to eat at the shopping center in Malbis. But if you’re in the area and have grown tired of the usual fare, know that you are a hop, a skip and a jump from a great lunch on the cheap. Just head east on U.S. Highway 31 for a couple of minutes and you’ll find a large green building known as Fitzpen Place. Follow the driveway on the left-hand side and you’ll see Lady J’s Soul Food Café.

Fried or baked chicken, fried or grilled fish, barbecue beef ribs, smothered steak burgers and good old-fashioned pot roast are enough to classify it as soul food. Collards, red beans and rice, and homemade macaroni and cheese are only three of the dozen sides that solidify the classification.

I had an entree with two sides and tea, yet still got a couple bucks’ change when I handed the owner a 10 spot. Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., the menu I brought home boasts takeout and delivery. For daily specials (they mentioned oxtail in the near future) call 251-458-3256 or visit in person at 11203 U.S. Highway 31 in Spanish Fort.

Celebrate National Barbecue Month
I never can say what my favorite barbecue sauce is. Sometimes it changes per meat, sometimes it changes per mood. When making my own I keep going back to a recipe that I doctor up with heat, depending on whether or not my kids are eating with me. This slightly sweet sauce is great on ribs and chicken.

2 teaspoons olive oil
½ cup of onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 ¼ cups ketchup
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup yellow mustard
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or to taste

In a saucepan, sauté the onion in the oil over medium heat until softened. Add garlic and stir constantly for two minutes, taking care to not brown or burn the contents. Add the ketchup, brown sugar, mustard and vinegar. Stir to melt the sugar and add Worcestershire sauce. Add the cayenne pepper and test your heat.

Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. If the sauce is overly thickened, simply add water one tablespoon at a time. Slather this all over the meat with a barbecue mop during the last 15 minutes or so, allowing the sugar to cook a bit. Enjoy with the beer of your choice, but don’t forget to recycle!