We Asked the Experts: What Are the Best Local Fish to Eat?

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By Caroline Giddis

Salty, meaty, flaky, mild. These are some of the characteristics of the favorite fish of executive chefs, seafood market managers and fishing captains in South Walton. Whether they come from the bay or the gulf, our local fish are some of the best in the world, and highly sought after by fish fanatics.

“When people are on the plane or in the car, one of the first things they think about is what they can’t wait to eat – our fish,” said Phil McDonald, executive chef at Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar in Seaside.

With so many to choose from, we asked some experts in the area which local fish was their favorite. For them, this is like picking your favorite from every Academy Award Best Picture winner ever … How do you settle on just one?

Read below to find out what they picked.

Cobia – Chef Phil McDonald, Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar

“I love cobia because we can only get it a certain time of year,” McDonald said. “It’s really mild and flaky and tastes delicious when cooked on the grill. It has a great oil content with a little bit of richness.”

How to prepare it:

Over a natural wood fire, seasoned simply with salt and pepper

“I like to grill over a natural wood fire,” McDonald said. “Naturals add a lot more flavor, and it’s safer because you don’t have to worry about harmful chemicals that come with other types of grilling.”

Where to get it:

During cobia season, Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar serves a special of grilled cobia with sweet peas, sweet pea-bacon-shallot puree, crispy potatoes and treviso. YUM.

Redfish & Speckled Trout – Captain Hunter Forbes, 30A Guide Service

Yum, fish tacos! Photo from Grayton Seafood Co.
Yum, fish tacos! Photo from Grayton Seafood Co.

Fishermen can catch fresh redfish and speckled trout in the Choctawhatche Bay year-round. Both are mild, white fish — and a real treat!

Ways to prepare them:

“The redfish is a little softer so it’s harder to grill,” Forbes said. “I suggest putting it in aluminum foil to cook it on the grill, but it’s a great fish to fry. It’s also great on the grill if you leave the scales on one side and cook it with the scales facing down. It’s called ‘redfish on the half-shell’ and there are a lot of good recipes for cooking it like that.”

Redfish and speckled trout are also perfect for fish tacos.

“It’s great to make fish tacos with either because you can use less fish meat-wise and it goes alot further,” Forbes said. “You can feed a lot of people on two fish tacos because there are a lot of other ingredients involved other than serving the fish by itself.”

Where to get it:

Forbes said some local restaurants in the area like Grayton Seafood Co. offer a deal where you can bring in your catch and they’ll cook it for you. Its great if you don’t have a place to cook like you want to or easily take it home.

Red Snapper – Chef Camille Withall, George’s at Alys Beach

Jerk crusted Gulf snapper at George's at Alys Beach! Photo from Lee @dosaygive (Instagram)
The famous jerk crusted Gulf snapper at George’s at Alys Beach! Photo from Lee @dosaygive (Instagram)

“Red snapper is my favorite fish. It’s very tender and flaky and not too fishy,” Withall said. “Its very versatile too – you can grill it, sear it, roast it or even fry it.”

Way to prepare it:

“I love to pan sear it with a little bit of oil and a piccata sauce, which has a little bit of lemon and capers. Lemon goes really well with the salty flavor.”

Where to get it:

“One of our best sellers is jerk-crusted gulf snapper. Chef Greg Smith, who was here before, created the dish and we kept it on our menu because people loved it so much.”

The fish is seasoned with Caribbean jerk spices, which includes oregano, red pepper flakes and allspice.

“We sear the fish and then add sweet plantains on the side with coconut black rice, pineapple salsa and a coconut-rum molasses glaze,” she said. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

Yellowedge Grouper – Brian Cooper, Buddy’s Seafood Market

The Fish House Grouper photo from Old Florida Fish House
The Fish House Grouper photo from Old Florida Fish House

“I love yellowedge grouper. It’s the ideal baking, grilling or frying fish, and you can prepare it any number of ways,” said Brian Cooper, manager of Buddy’s Seafood Market.

How to prepare it:

“I love to pan fry it, put some lump crab meat on top with a bearnaise sauce,” Cooper said. “I can’t eat it every day because it’s so rich, but I love it.”

Where to get it:

Buddy’s Seafood, of course. Cooper said the most-popular sellers at their fish market are grouper, snapper and yellowfin tuna, all caught locally.

Chef McDonald said the abundance of delicious, locally caught seafood in the area makes it easy for people to try to eat local.

“We live on a beautiful body of water full of delicious fish,” McDonald said.

“The way I always see it, it’s the last area we have that’s completely free range. There are no farms in the ocean, no gmos, nothing – it’s all completely wild and fresh.”

If this article left you VERY hungry, check out our featured restaurants at 30adining.com or our full list on the 30A restaurant directory!

Caroline is a summer intern with The 30A Company.