Fresh, local seafood done casual style is nearly impossible to find these days. You can definitely kiss any chance of that goodbye if you live inland from the coast, as I do here in the Triangle of North Carolina. Sure, we have gourmet restaurants that dazzle with fancy preparations of seafood procured from local sources, but if you're itchin' for a fried seafood platter and a couple of cold ones, chances are your neighborhood seafood joint is sourcing their stuff from Sysco or US Foods. Even more offensive, so many of the "touristy" seafood joints on the water do a bait-and-switch with their customers with the impressive ocean view of the waves while their seafood is actually coming in on a truck from I-40 WEST. The seafood shack with fresh-off-the-boat product is as rare nowadays as the pitmaster who smokes his hog over hickory coals.
My mission to eat fresh, local seafood ain't just about supporting local communities and a dying way of life. It ain't just about environmental consciousness. It's the taste, dude - there is no match for a lightly battered shrimp or oyster or scallop or crab with the succulence and sweetness and juiciness of a local product. No substitute. So despite my eating at some non-locally-sourced seafood places up here inland over the past week, my appetite was not satiated whatsoever. It was time to make the drive, the 2 1/2 hour bucolic sacrifice - and hunt down a place that has been on my radar for years. Red Barn Grill
in Hubert, NC. A place that is a true Roadfood haunt - no website, a total of maybe two online reviews if you scour the Internet, a place completely outside of any tourist's awareness, but a place that locals in the know have been packing into for years to enjoy the freshest and most unctuous and generous portions of simple, casual, fried local seafood. There's a fish market attached to the restaurant. The product is as local as it gets. The restaurant is an extension of that market - everything they serve in the restaurant is from their adjacent seafood market, and their seafood market sources entirely from the local area. THAT's the ticket.
Finding this place required you to have done some preemptive due diligence. Off the highway that runs between Jacksonville and Swansboro, NC, you need to turn off the highway to the right, then make a quick left, then go a few miles around a few hairpin turns, then make another right, then another left, then down a dead end road...yeah, you get the picture. It takes deliberate effort to get here, but the locals sure know how. The road ends at the intracoastal waterway, and you see a "red barn" on the left. That's the place, folks.
Walk on in. Look at the menu. Look at the whiteboard that has some fresh catches of the day. We aren't talking about one or two token "catches of the day" that end up being some farm-raised tilapia or something. We're talking croaker, soft shell crab, jumping mullet, local shrimp, whole flounder, local oysters, clams, scallops, whatever the market has gotten in fresh. Some of their specials are at drop-dead-double-take tariffs - like $6.99 for today's special shrimp platter. However, I like to put together a combination platter - I did with a combo of three - shrimp, oysters, and flounder ($19.95), and it comes with fries and slaw and hushpuppies. They also have other sides with which you can substitute one or either of those - okra, green beans, potato salad, etc. Take your number, fill up your sweet tea, pick your seat, and listen to the beautiful sounds of from-scratch-frying in the open kitchen right behind the cash registers.
The seafood my wife and I had there tonight was worth the drive and lived up to the billing of a place that serves local seafood done right. The batter was light and airy, the seafood so clean and sweet and succulent, and the portions generous. I rarely get full off of a seafood platter - I'm like a goldfish when it comes to this stuff - but this filled me. This isn't the sort of place that gives you more french fries than seafood as stomach filler. Here, you get a massive plate of seafood as the star and main attraction, and you fill yourself to your heart's delight on it.
Oh yeah, I also noticed a wonderful looking banana pudding in the dessert case. That stuff looked righteous and portions were large enough for two. I never turn down banana pudding, but I was that full after my seafood meal. Also, we apparently arrived before the dinner crowd, because by the time we left, pretty much every table was occupied.
Another amazing thing about this place - maybe it's because the seafood they use is so fresh, or maybe it's an amazing ventilation system, but despite the open kitchen, we came out not smelling like seafood AT ALL. My shirt still smelled like laundered shirt. The first time we noticed seafood smell was stepping outside into the salty air and seabreeze blowing in off the marsh.
So folks, if you're ever down along the SE North Carolina coast - Crystal Coast, etc., please skip the highway-side "Captain's Mate" places with the emphatic nautical decor and questionable sources. Go to a local's place like Red Barn Grill
. Red Barn Grill
101 Red Barn Road
Hubert, NC 28539
Open daily (something like 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m.)
<message edited by blueheronNC on Sat, 05/30/09 1:08 AM>