The secret to making Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s show-stopping Crispy Shrimp
Courtesy Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Welcome to Clubhouse Eats, where we celebrate the game’s most delectable food and drink. Hope you brought your appetites.
If you’ve ever visited South Carolina and its oceanfront golf meccas like Charleston, Hilton Head or Kiawah Island, you’ve probably noticed one item that always (thankfully!) makes its way onto the menu: shrimp.
Indeed, the Low Country is known for these delightful crustaceans, prepared all kinds of ways at dining establishments too numerous to name, but, perhaps, nowhere more delectably than at Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s Atlantic Room and Ryder Cup Bar. There, the Crispy Shrimp has spent more than a decade as a signature offering and go-to favorite for guests in the know.
“People come from far and wide to have it,” Atlantic Room Executive Chef John Ondo says. “It’s one of the things that you have to order when you’re on the island.”
Ondo estimates that the dish was served 20,000 times last year, which equates to roughly 7,000 pounds of shrimp consumed.
As a Charleston native, Ondo prioritizes local sourcing whenever possible. His relationship with Abundant Seafood, a local “one-boat show,” has endured for more than 17 years. But, given the volume of shrimp required to fulfill the Crispy Shrimp orders at Kiawah, Ondo occasionally has to outsource.
“When we run out of the local stuff, we make sure we’re buying only wild-caught American,” he says.
To prepare the shrimp, Ondo’s staff first coats them in buttermilk, then they’re breaded. For that, prep cooks use corn starch, jalapeño-powder flour and some blackening spice. The shrimp are then fried and tossed in a sauce made with Duke’s mayonnaise, Thai chili sauce, sambal (an Indonesian chili-pepper-based sauce or paste), sriracha and lemon juice. Then they’re drizzled with yuzu aioli and topped with toasted black sesame seeds.
According to Ondo, part of the shrimp’s magic are their ability to retain crispiness despite the generous tossing and drizzling of sauces.
“It’s different. It’s not your Charlestonian shrimp and grits,” he says. “It’s something a little off the beaten path. It stands out. The yuzu — that great acidity with it — just makes it pop. It’s a really fun dish.”
According to Ondo, the Crispy Shrimp can be broken down into five flavor and texture sensations. It starts with the bite — that satisfying crunch as you sink your teeth into the breading. Next, it’s the shrimp itself, light and flavorful, followed by what Ondo describes as “creeper heat” — not spicy exactly, but a sensation that builds as you chew. Then it’s a pop of acidity and citrus from the yuzu aioli, followed by a parting crunch from the sesame-seed topping.
Well. Who’s hungry?
While Ondo says most people elect to order the Crispy Shrimp as an appetizer, some will double up on the dish and eat it as an entrée. You can’t go wrong with a crisp white wine or any cold beer as a beverage pairing, he says. And for those who are looking for a compatible entrée, Ondo suggests one of the Atlantic Room’s other specialties: the Seafood Country Captain, which includes shrimp, clams, crabmeat, mussels and a piece of the day’s local catch paired with Carolina gold rice and a mild yellow curry with bell peppers and tomatoes. Delicious.
Ondo has a stellar culinary reputation, and, in 2022, he was named a South Carolina chef ambassador, an appointment made by the governor. Given his extensive experience with Low Country cuisine, I ask Ondo how he would improve upon the Crispy Shrimp, if given the opportunity.
“I was told specifically when I was hired that I am not allowed to change two dishes, one being the Bagger Burger [in the Ryder Cup Bar] and the other one being the Crispy Shrimp,” Ondo says. “So I am merely a caretaker of the dish.” Still, I press him. Is it just that it’s simply perfect in its current iteration?
“I think, for the safety and security of me and my staff,” he says with a laugh, “I wouldn’t change a bit.”