A superlative slate of Gulf Coast seafood classics

Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY

6:57 a.m. ET May 11, 2017

The scene: The cartoonish logo of an alligator and a crawfish, both wearing white toques, the traditional chef’s hat, is very appropriate at Dempsey’s. It has a roadside shack feel, casual vibe and real Gulf Coast sense of place, and the quality of the food is taken very seriously. It’s a green barn-like structure with open front porch and overhanging awning in the area’s architectural style, located on a less traveled road in Kiln (pronounced “Kill”), Miss. Next door, a matching smaller structure in red houses Da Swamp Shop, a satellite gift store where you can peruse local handicrafts and foodstuffs. It’s the kind of setting that begs those who enjoy road tripping to pull over. The current location is six years old, as Dempsey’s had to move and rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

Inside are high ceilings with exposed rafters and corrugated metal sheeting. Ceiling fans twirl and walls are covered with photos of local settings, fishing boats and lots of articles praising the place. There is also more cartoon seafood art and a blackboard of daily specials with the headline “Be Nice or Leave!” In front is a large dining room with a cozy feel, and in back a full bar area with additional seating, sort of two spots in one, with coffee shop and tavern atmospheres. Tables are well stocked with condiments that give a hint of what is to come: salt, pepper, ketchup, cocktail sauce and tartar sauce.

Reason to visit: Shrimp and grits, mac and cheese, char grilled oysters, fried Gulf seafood

The food: The main attraction at Dempsey’s is fresh seafood, locally fished from the Gulf of Mexico, offered in a dizzying array of preparations and combinations. The house specialty is char grilled oysters, popular in New Orleans and the surrounding area, but not seen as much in the rest of the country (this part of the Mississippi coast shares many culinary traditions with neighboring Louisiana). Topped with garlic butter and cheese, then cooked in their shells and natural saline juices, the grilled oysters are delicious, and a meaty, excellent way for people who don’t think they like oysters to experience this Gulf specialty.

There are many other Dempsey’s highlights, including fried seafood, with your choice of oysters, shrimp or redfish, the three specialties of the Gulf, along with crawfish and catfish. If you can’t pick one, there’s a half and half combo and a “3-part” combo for those who really have difficulty narrowing down the selection. The shrimp are excellent, the fried crawfish big and meaty, among the very best I’ve ever had, and the only one that doesn’t impress me is the catfish, which is often a bit hit or miss — go with the redfish if you’re craving filets.  While the freshness of the seafood jumps out, it is complemented by the great texture of the fried coating, crunchy without being oily or so heavy as to distract from the fish flavor. There are also mixed fried and broiled seafood platter options, and if you are in the mood for a sandwich, excellent fried seafood po’ boys.

Try one of the world's rarest shrimp in Gulfport, Miss.

There are so many standouts here it is hard to experience the joys of Dempsey’s in just one meal. The shrimp and grits, usually a regional dish of the Lowcountry, the east coast of Georgia and South Carolina, is very non-traditional, unlike any presentation I’ve seen, and absolutely delicious. The chef-owner makes the grits with heavy cream, butter and a very substantial blend of cheeses (gouda, cheddar and jalapeno Monterey jack), then spreads the thick, rich, creamy mixture in a sheet pan. Once cooled, it is cut into squares and then pan fried until warm with a crispy crust, and finally doused with shrimp cooked in her secret cream sauce — along with some crawfish thrown in for good measure. It’s awesome. So is the locally beloved macaroni and cheese, a creamy, saucy version that’s then topped with a melted cheese mix, so you sort of get two different textural takes on the dish in one serving. “We make the mac and cheese from scratch, it’s one of the things we’re known for,” says the waitress, convincing me to try it — without much effort or hesitation.

For those who really cannot decide and want a good representative sampling of regional specialties, the way to go is to share the Demspey’s Platter for Two, which has double servings of gumbo, stuffed crab, shrimp, oysters, redfish, catfish and a pair of crawfish pies, crescent-shaped pastries stuffed with seafood that are sort of a very tasty Cajun take on empanadas. The gumbo is very good, thick but not pasty, and filled with lots of shrimp. The stuffed crab is a shell that’s been emptied, cleaned and refilled with the equivalent of a very good crab cake — plus added shrimp — and then baked. Many of these dishes are as good as you will find anywhere in the south, and it really is hard to go wrong here, even though the menu is large — even the sweet tea is a standout version. Locals swear by the steaks and there is even a pasta section of the menu with options such as veal marsala and fettucine alfredo with chicken, but there’s no need to go off the beaten path in Mississippi to seek out these commonplace dishes.

“We get all our seafood locally, cut and clean it here, and we go through it really quickly so it is always fresh," says owner Diane Hennessy, whose father owns the renowned Jack Dempsey’s restaurant in New Orleans. "We also hand cut all our steaks to order.” After Katrina destroyed her original location, she moved to the Big Easy and worked for her father for a year before coming back and rebuilding, with some newfound recipes.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you are in the area for a superlative slate of Gulf Coast seafood classics (and non-classics).

Rating: OMG (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 6208 Kiln-Delisle Road, Kiln, MS; 228-255-2043; eatatdempseys.com

Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a barbecue contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at travel@usatoday.com. Some of the venues reviewed by this column provided complimentary services.