Adam Evans has a deep and abiding relationship with Gulf shrimp. This is not uncommon for people who grew up in Alabama, where drives to the shore punctuate nearly every childhood. “We would always go down there,” he says. “It became part of our vacationing, and we would do seafood the whole time.”
Evans first cooked professionally in his home state and went on to learn in some great kitchens in New Orleans and New York, once getting schooled by a seafood chef so intense he broke the young cook’s spatula in half because it was not the correct one for maneuvering delicate fish in a hot pan. Now he’s one of Atlanta’s best chefs, serving signature dishes such as head-on Gulf shrimp drowning in a sauce of dried chile and lime at the Optimist, a neo–seafood shack routinely packed with local and out-of-town crowds.
Evans also puts fat Southern crustaceans to use in this salt-baked shrimp, a dish that is as simple to prepare as it is spectacular to serve. The genius marriage of salt, heat, and spices produces perfectly seasoned, moist shrimp that even novice cooks can master the first time. The trick is to get the freshest shrimp you can find, with the heads on. (Though the dish works fine with cleaned shrimp, as long as they still have their shells.)
You bake three pounds of rock salt tricked out with coriander, star anise, garlic, and a few other intense flavors, then bury the shrimp in it. Pop the whole thing back in the oven for ten more minutes or so, and it’s done. “I like the idea of baking seafood in salt,” Evans says. “It’s a great technique and it’s underutilized. It makes so much sense, though. You have seafood in whatever form—a whole fish or whole shrimp—coming out of salt water.”
Once you have a big platter of hot, salt-baked shrimp, you will want to bring out a bowl of comeback sauce. It takes the shrimp, already delicious and tender beyond any reasonable measure, to a higher place. The sauce is all over Mississippi, where it was first mixed up in a Greek restaurant in Jackson in the 1930s. Traditionally made with mayonnaise, chile sauce, garlic, a touch of onion, and a little Worcestershire, it falls somewhere between a classic rémoulade and McDonald’s secret sauce.
Evans whips up a more sophisticated version, with cornichons and fresh horseradish (though a couple of spoonfuls of the prepared kind will do just fine). And though he prefers you make it with homemade mayonnaise, Duke’s will do, too.