PEOPLE SAY things move slower in the South, but we can all agree that Tybee has its own pace.
Once tourists and locals have crossed the bridge over Lazaretto Creek, they are officially on Tybee time. So whether or not they are on vacation, the island vibe strikes them with a carefree frame of mind.
Yet, of all the laid back joints on Tybee, the place that is the epitome of the phrase “Relax, you’re on Tybee time” is Gerald’s Pig and Shrimp. Hand-painted wooden plaques bearing this mantra, are hung all over the property as simple reminders.
Gerald’s Pig and Shrimp is the place where Southern-style comfort food is prepared the way its patrons seek to live: low and slow. As soon as you enter the main hub of Tybee Island, right off of Highway 80, sits what looks like an antiquated and worn wooden shack.
With ivy climbing up trellises and green fishnets hanging like curtains, reclaimed heart pine columns hold this open-air shanty together. Weathered wooden accents furnish everything from the bar to the tongue and cheek signs haphazardly nailed about.
The brick floor, with well over 100 years of history, holds up mismatched tables made of wood, metal and plastic.
Then, peeking out from behind the bar, you can see a retro yellow food truck bearing the title “Gerald’s Chuckwagon.”
You can’t help but think, there’s got to be a story here.
Native Savannahian and owner Gerald Schantz celebrated the sixth year of his beachy shack on August 13. Naturally, I doubted the young age of this weathered hut, as it appears to have been there forever.
His eyes lit up, “You got it! That’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to look like a roadside railroad building that has been here for years.” Mission accomplished.
But Gerald’s story does not start there.
In the ‘90’s, Gerald, a former stained glass craftsman and theatre performer, found himself catering a private 250-person party for the cast and crew of “This Old House.”
“I did barbecue for (expletive) and giggles,” Gerald chuckles.
However, the soirée’s success unveiled a true talent: barbecuing finger-licking rib-sticking Southern comfort classics.
Demand for Gerald’s barbecue became high when he served patrons from his 20-foot grill at his downtown Savannah residence. “It grew from there,” Gerald reminisces.
Shortly after, ten years ago to be exact, Gerald purchased the vintage lemon colored food truck, which provided more space to cook and cater grand events.
“But you can’t just have a food truck, you have to have a commissary,” Gerald groans, referencing the regulation.
In fact, the Georgia Department of Health requires mobile food units to have a base of operation, or a commissary, in which food and supplies are handled, prepared and stored. Additionally, the food truck must park at this commissary at the end of every day.
To avoid the hassle, Gerald innovatively built a rustic awning over his truck, added a bar with stringed patio lights and called it Gerald’s Pig and Shrimp.
Why the name? “You have Johnny Harris and Mrs. Wilkes, both upstanding places. I’m just saying, you put your name on things that you’re proud of.”
On a laid-back Sunday, my husband and I sat ourselves at a large well-worn wooden table at Gerald’s joint. Among the mismatched tables and chairs, sat families of all ages, unwinding in the mellow vibe.
Two men in white rubber boots, faded blue jeans and ball caps sat casually at the bar sipping on ice cold Corona. Captain J.B. and his deckhand Johnny Boy frequent this establishment. They come every day to deliver white shrimp that they caught fresh a mere hour or two before.
These, dare I say, gorgeous head-on shrimp are transported to Gerald’s and other Tybee restaurants, daily in a regular sized cooler chock full with ice. For this reason, you can expect sensational shrimp. “We do our best to never ever overcook a shrimp.”
Chef James Flood, current student of the Culinary Institute of Savannah, humbly expressed that “working with a product like this (shrimp), I don’t have to mess with it. I am blessed to work with it.”
The hand-battered wild-caught shrimp may be the main attraction, but it certainly does not overshadow the slow cooked pork, brisket and ribs that are made fresh daily.
The piping hot smoker is stoked with hickory wood, giving the meat a distinct smoky flavor.
Each night after work, Chef Flood piles pork and brisket, rubbed in basic, but secret, spices, on the grill. While they barbecue overnight for 12-14 hours, the ribs marinate in an original dry rub.
Gerald emphasizes, “I was here at 7 a.m. this morning, putting the ribs on,” giving them just enough time to be ready for the lunch rush.
Gerald’s original canary-yellow food truck serves as a kitchen for his southern cuisine and let me tell you, big things happen in that small space.
Chef Flood admits though, “It’s a challenge to cook out of a small space,” as it snuggly fits two people.
The silver lining to a restricted area is limited storage. Therefore, the food is always fresh and “nothing stays here long.”
Because the husband and I are huge believers in go big or go home, we ordered the Big Combo for Two, which showcased the pulled pork, brisket, ribs, fried shrimp, jalapeno hushpuppies, cucumber salad and friend okra, all for only $42!
While waiting for our grub in the Savannah heat, we wet our whistles on Gerald’s signature Limeade. This freshly squeezed sip was an optimal balance of sweet and tart, perfect for outdoor dining.
The cornucopia of meats and seafood were served in a plastic basket, beckoning to be manhandled. Across the board, the meat was moist and full-flavored.
It is worth noting that while the rib meat was thick and juicy, the skin maintained a signature barbecue char.
As for the succulent golden shrimp, it was battered with mild seasoning, letting the salty fresh-off-the-boat product speak for itself.
Not that the meat or seafood needed any more pizazz, but as self-proclaimed sauce fanatics, we were elated to find a rack of house made sauces at our table. In fact, we slathered Gerald’s homemade mango hot sauce on everything. Made simply with mango, carrot juice, habanero peppers, onion, lime, honey and vinegar, it offered a spicy, vibrant, and fruity zing that complimented the rich meat.
While sampling the surf and turf bounty, we alternated bites of cucumber salad, jalapeno hushpuppies and fried okra. Just as can be expected, the hushpuppies were crispy and fiery, while the okra bites had a decadent crunch.
The “pickle wanna be” cucumbers were shaved thin and served in a cup along side crunchy onions and basil fresh from Gerald’s garden. This salad bathed in a briny, but sweet, liquid, that gave this heavy meal the acidic kick it needed.
As one can imagine, winter on Tybee Island causes a lull for local businesses and restaurants. Gerald’s Pig and Shrimp is only open three days a week, with primarily a local crowd, after Labor Day.
So whether it is a company gathering with 50 people or charity event with 500, Gerald’s catering operation is what gets them by over the winter months. Serving private events for people like Adam Sandler and the Governor, Gerald prides himself in being able to provide on-site catering. In reality, this part of the business is Gerald’s retirement plan.
Gerald’s open-air offbeat hut is as eccentric as Gerald himself. Although it sits beside a busy highway, patrons become lost in the Island vibe, an aura that can be found overseas in the Caribbean.
Of all the hand-made signs posted around this dive, the one that truly captures the carefree, no-where-to-be, feeling of relaxation at Gerald’s is, “If you’re in a hurry, you might be in the wrong place.”
So plan on coming to Gerald’s to sip on an ice-cold beer or freshly squeezed glass of limeade, forget your worries and languidly feast some satisfying barbecue.