During my five weeks in North Carolina, I have had some really wonderful food. It is always great to be back in the south where food is often simple, hearty and delicious. In this post I want to highlight some of the unique, iconic and delicious meals I've had here in North Carolina.
This culinary journey began at Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. I'll start by saying that North Carolina barbecue is not my favorite. As much as I love pork, it is the beginning and the end in classic North Carolina barbecue joints. There isn't a brisket or a rack of ribs to be found. Then there's the sauce - a sweet liquid pepper-vinegar concoction in the east and the same with some ketchup in it in the west - generally it just doesn't really do it for me. I did find some decent barbecue places in North Carolina, but none even held a candle to Skylight Inn. Skylight Inn was a whole different experience for me. They cook the whole hog over wood coals and give it a course chop right there while you wait (and apparently there is always a line). It's served with cornbread and slaw in a simple, basic setting. This place changed my whole opinion of North Carolina 'Cue, and I will definitely be back to Skylight Inn any time I am in the area.
Moravian chicken pie and fried chicken livers were the highlights of my trip to the Tavern in Old Salem, a great traditional Moravian restaurant. I had never had Moravian food before, and this was a wonderful experience from start to finish. It definitely reminded me of some of the Amish restaurants I've been to in Pennsylvania, and with good reason as Moravians in Pennsylvania fall under the umbrella "Pennsylvania Dutch" designation. I topped off with delicious and bargain-priced meal with some traditional Moravian sugar cookies from Winkler Bakery down the street. Sweet, buttery and delicious, I'm glad I only bought a small package because they were gone before I got back in my van.
Since Krispy Kreme originated in North Carolina, it shouldn't have been a surprise to come across some delicious donuts during my visit. Duck Donuts in Kill Devil Hills made hot donuts to order with an array of toppings and drizzles to choose from. They were pretty awesome. Wake and Bake in Wilmington also did some pretty amazing donuts and I'm glad I stopped in for one (well, two) when I was there. The Purple Rain was fantastic!
I had never even heard of Down East Chowder until I was, well, down east in the state. North Carolina chowders try and bring out the flavors of the seafood and are not cream based like a New England Chowder or tomato based like a Manhattan Chowder. I had tried Hatteras Chowder before in the outer banks, and the Down East Chowder was similar to that, but had way more flavor to it. I got my Down East Chowder at Captain's Choice in Harkers Island. It was amazing - full of clams, a few potatoes and a flavorful broth that accentuated the clam flavor instead of covering it up. This may be my new favorite chowder.
The Gamekeeper outside of Boone is a pretty amazing place. It is a bit of an adventure just to find it and pulling up the driveway in my big van was even more of one. When I walked in, though, it was warm and rustic and had a really good feel to it. I sat at the bar and the bartender, aptly named Hunter, was one of the most enthusiastic people I've ever met. The Gamekeeper specializes in exotic meats such as elk and emu. The chef prepares the menu daily with the meats he has available that day (he also has some great vegetarian options). His creations are definitely southern inspired, modern and delicious. This place is a little pricey, but not outrageous. If you're out in Boone, it's definitely worth the drive to check this place out. Get a window seat or sit on the deck if the weather is good and enjoy a beautiful view of the mountains, a nice drink and a great meal.
When I lived in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina many years ago, we had a huge array of "Calabash Seafood" restaurants. At the time I had no idea what that meant and it had since slipped from memory until I came to the town of Calabash in far-southern North Carolina. I stopped in at Beck's there, one of the original Calabash seafood spots and enjoyed a wonderful and inexpensive lunch. The Calabash style is just lightly dusted, seasoned and fried and comes out really nice. For fried seafood it wasn't heavy at all and I really liked it. The seafood also tasted fresh and clean. I was glad I stopped.
I had two really good burgers in North Carolina. One was great for its simplicity, the other for its complexity. Both, though, started with fresh ground beef and it really does make a huge difference. The difference between a fresh, hand pressed patty and a frozen hockey puck change the entire burger experience. Johnson's Drive In in Siler City does the most simple, basic burgers in a simple, basic setting which probably hasn't changed much since they opened in 1946. The photos on the wall show the building was updated at some point, but now it is remarkably retro in an unintentional way. The menu is small, but a good menu often is. They just make good burgers. Even the American cheese they use comes off of a block and is so much better than the individually wrapped kind. They came served on a piece of butcher paper and were really something special. On the other end of the spectrum was the Hot Mess Burger I got at the hip, modern Fork n Cork in downtown Wilmington. They started the same way though, with a freshly pressed patty, and then went crazy on it. The Hot Mess had cheddar and blue cheese, grilled onions, bacon, jalapenos, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles and was stacked so high I actually couldn't fit it in my mouth. I chose a salad as my side and it was a real side-salad, not a little pile of lettuce with one tomato and some dressing. The whole meal was great and I washed it down with a cold can of National Bohemian which reminded me of home. The cook even came over to check if I liked my burger, a sure sign of someone who takes pride in their work and a restaurant that hires people who do. A lot of restaurants will charge you $12 for a burger these days, but at the Fork n Cork, you actually get a $12 burger. And worth every penny.
Livermush is not the most appealing sounding food in the world, but it is a staple in western North Carolina. You are most likely to find it on the breakfast menu alongside bacon and sausage, but I had mine on a biscuit which was also good. Reminiscent of scrapple and in some ways Cajun boudin, livermush is pork liver, head meat, cornmeal and spices pressed into a loaf and usually cooked by pan-frying it. Ha - even that doesn't sound very appealing, but I really liked it. I got mine at the very pleasant Shelby Cafe in Shelby, NC, but you can also find it in grocery stores across much of the state and fry it up at home yourself.
I love being by the sea and especially love getting really fresh seafood. I am a big oyster fan and think there are few things more sinfully pleasurable to eat than fresh, raw oysters on the half-shell. I had some truly delicious, super fresh North River Oysters at the Shuckin' Shack Oyster Bar in Morehead City. The oysters were huge and tasted perfect with nothing more than a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. And perhaps the best part was that they were on special for happy hour at $1/oyster. I know there are a handful of these Shuckin' Shacks around the region, and I hope the next time I pop into one I can get oysters as good as these.
North Carolina is a much bigger state than most people probably imagine. A state with a huge coast, wonderful farms and a traditional mountain culture is bound to have a varied and interesting cuisine. I don't like to eat out much, but I felt like I ate out all the time in North Carolina. With few exceptions, I was delighted with what I found. No matter what your palate is craving, you are sure to find something delicious in every corner of the Tar Heel State.