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Fried and True: Where to Get the South's Best Seafood

It starts down deep- that hankering for hot, crisp, salty catfish, shrimp, or oysters, gilded in delicate crust. The longer the idea simmers, the more urgent the quest. Like pursuing true love, you know exactly what you're looking for. You can't find it just any old place- you gotta be particular. And it's so good when it's right. In that spirit I set out, with a fork and an idea, to sample a fried platter. When the oysters weren't moist and fluffy, I pushed them away. If the French fries turned out to be the crinkle-cut, frozen kind, I shook my head in disapproval. And if the joint didn't reek with personality, I didn't even give it a chance. I know I met only a few of the perfect matches for me in the South (I bet you'll soon be writing me about other"fish in the sea"), but these indeed proved to be so good, so right.

Just a stroll away from the Atlantic in cute-as-can-be "downtown" St. Simons, The Crab Trap has stood for 26 years, and it looks like it. Worn like a beloved old boat, its dark interior harbors aged seafaring motors, tools, and gear. Owners Gordy Merrill and Charile Williams started this place, and Easter Mae Brown has been with them in the kitchen since the beginning, peeling shrimp all this time. Now, that's consistency.

As with most seafood platters I tried, this one was a structural wonder, a barely balanced mountain. Choose you first bit carefully or the whole thing could avalanche. The tail-on shrimp are tender and sweet, the oysters supple inside their crunchy, frilly batter. (After nibbling fried grouper here and at several other places that serve saltwater fish, I decided the only oil-dunked finned swimmer that makes me happy is cat-fish. Others seemed soggy and bland.)On the side, golf ball-size hush puppies are dense and soft, their generous amount of sandy cornmeal a welcome reminder of the carefully tended home-made French fries: They're hand-cut (four or five cases of whole potatoes daily in high season) and batter-dipped before their brief dive into delectable grease. While waiting on your order, slurp a cup of crab soup- a deceptive thin broth, wicked with butter, cream, and spices and full of lump crabmeat.