A Taste of Authenticity at Vilai Thai Kitchen

Tucked into the shopping center where the Beach Road begins at milepost 2 in Kitty Hawk, Vilai Thai Kitchen has an intimate and special feeling, a little exotic even, with orchids lining the window sills and fresh flowers on each table. It’s a family owned and operated restaurant with Vilai Hammock and her son-in-law, Eric, commanding the woks, along with Yip, a friend from Thailand helping out in the kitchen occasionally. Vilai’s husband, Mel, her daughter, Malissa, and a friend named Linda welcome guests in and serve dish after dish of Thai classics, curries, noodles, and specials. With only 3 woks in the kitchen, the speed of service is impressive. In the moments it took me to tap a few notes into my phone, and to snicker at Mel cheerfully encouraging a table nearby to try the “spicy stuff” contained in a set of tiny blue and white pots he’d just delivered, Linda was already delivering plates of food I’d just ordered.

Vilai and Yip cooking over 3 large woks in the kitchen

Aside from the happy, light-hearted atmosphere, I’m especially enamored by the kitchen and the woks turning out this gorgeous food. Picturing pans the size of a skillet, with a handle, I was surprised to find 3 huge, flying-saucer-shaped pots taking up two-thirds of the clean, compact kitchen. Vilai and Yip were masterfully stirring, tossing, and showering fresh ingredients into the steaming vessels, releasing a hypnotic aroma. The food here is authentic in the style of the food Vilai grew up eating in Thailand. Her mother cooked for their family of 9 kids, often enjoying fish they farmed themselves and homegrown vegetables. Vilai laughed telling me about her parents converting her own backyard here on the beach into a wild, abundant vegetable garden with eggplant, peppers, herbs, and everything in between.

hOMEGROWN GOODNESS

Vilai has a Keffir lime tree in a pot at home that she plucks fresh limes from and harvests the leaves to stir into curries and soups at the restaurant. The leaves add a bright pop of flavor and citrusy notes that perfume her savory dishes. Having bought lemongrass from the grocery store myself but finding the taste a little muted for what should be an intense ingredient, I asked Vilai if she buys hers there, too. No, she grows it herself for use in her Tom Yum soup. You can taste the zing of lemongrass for sure but the thing I’ll be going back for is the way the underlying heat in the Tom Yum tingled on my lips, like a persistent, but gentle bee sting. It’s addictive, bright, and soothing; one of those things that makes you feel new from the inside out.

a bowl of Tom Yum soup

The soup is delicious on its own but also an excellent way to get your mind relaxed and your appetite in the right place to appreciate Vilai’s other offerings. For me, fried soft shell crabs were next. These little creatures, so dear to us Outer Bankers, were transformed into a crunchy, perfectly salty, fried situation – an absolute delight. The garlicky tempura batter puffed away from the crab, like a delicious second shell; the entire surface was a series of tiny, crackly bubbles ready to collapse under your teeth. Two sauces demanding to be swiped and sampled with your finger were drizzled over top. Vilai explained with a sly smile, “It’s yum yum sauce.” “There’s two sauces,” I said, “what’s the other one?” “Yum yum sauce,” again with a smile. Ok, I’ll respect the secrecy. The soft shell crabs sat perched on top of an herby, cooling seaweed salad, completing this plate with the most pleasing texture and contrast.

keep it clean

Vilai avoids using too much oil and salt in her cooking, coaxing enough flavor from ginger and garlic and introducing layers of seasoning with those fresh lime leaves and sharp, citrusy galangal in her curry. Here’s a little back-pocket cooking tip Vilai shared with me about flavor – when you’re making a curry, sauté the curry paste with salt and sugar for a minute before adding the coconut milk. A simple step that never occurred to me but allows for so much character and distinct pungency to come through in the food.

When I’m being smart and treating my body like I should, I agree with Vilai; none of us really need extra oil and tons of salt in our lives anyway. Vilai’s Seafood Fried Rice is welcome proof that less is more. As opposed to the heavy and rich fried rice most of us are used to, this one is light and fluffy with clean flavors, letting the crab, shrimp, and fresh veggies stand out. Vilai’s personal favorite from her menu, the Chicken with Basil, benefits from fresh Thai basil grown in her backyard and is lightly sauced. It’s rich and spicy without being cloying and is packed with crisp-tender bell peppers, zucchini, and onions and thinly sliced chicken, making for hearty forkfuls.

edible art

If you’ve dined at The Sanderling or The Lifesaving Station, where Vilai cheffed for 20 years prior to opening her restaurant 2010, and you ordered a dessert, you were witness to Vilai’s pastry artistry. The desserts at Vilai Thai Kitchen are not on the menu, they’re reserved instead for the specials board. I’m here to tell you, just stop at the Mango Sticky Rice. I’m sure all of the desserts are worth your time, really, but this Mango Sticky Rice is an absolute must. The warm rice is sweet and appropriately sticky, with a tiny hit of salt that gets you right along the edges of your tongue. Two ripe and juicy mango cheeks, skillfully carved into the shape of a leaf and brushed lightly with sweet coconut milk, are draped over top. It’s lovely and a completely satisfying end to a meal at Vilai Thai Kitchen. 

mango sticky rice on a white plate, with two magos carved into the shape of leaves on top

Vilai describes her food as delicious and simple, although it tastes beautifully complex to me. It’s clear her years of experience and finely tuned instincts have everything to do with those results. Authentically divine and warming from the inside out, Vilai Thai Kitchen is truly among the best of the best on the beach.

Feasting on Spirit at Russo’s Bistro & Bar

My coming to know Joey Russo of Russo’s Bistro & Bar in Kitty Hawk occurred in three parts. Part One was an entertaining discussion honoring the OBX chef world, folks that local and visiting food lovers consider celebrities. Praise flowed easily from Joey in his fast-talking Italian cadence, recounting success stories and lessons learned over the years from Outer Banks restaurant legends requiring no last name: Mike, Bob, Randolph, Amanda, Tony, Dan, Wes, Pok and many others. Russo brushes off the notion of celebrity chef-dom, though, making it clear he, they, are just like the rest of us, walking the earth and applying passion and intense hard work to a specific art. But there’s no doubt we all feel a little special and flattered when we get Joey’s attention and a kind word during his customary visit to our table at Russo’s. That’s all part of the experience here.

Russo's Bistro & Bar in Kitty Hawk, NC
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Thyme & Tide Café Spreading Happiness and Good Fresh Food

Sitting in a comfortable corner booth at Thyme & Tide Café, I couldn’t help but smile at the giggles coming from the tiny kitchen where Kareen Spruill and her granddaughter, Jackie Vesley, prepared one of their special Café Samplers for me. It’s just what I was craving: a platter of fresh fruit, grilled pita bread, sliced cheeses, pimento cheese, and shrimp salad, although you could also choose tuna or chicken salad if you prefer.

This is the way I always imagine eating in the summer, light and fresh bits of things here and there, best enjoyed at sunset with a glass of wine. The Café Sampler plate and The Sanctuary Sampler plate (overflowing with gourmet cheeses, shaved prosciutto and salami, olives and other savory, grabable things) are made for doing just that – eating seated among the tall pine trees on the grounds of The Cotton Gin and Sanctuary Vineyards, maybe sipping wine and swaying along to live music during their Acoustic Sunset events on Thursday evenings.

a platter of fresh fruit, cheeses, toasted pita, and scratch made shrimp salad
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Slice Pizzeria Voted Best Pizza in North Carolina

Kill Devil Hills, our little town, home to great people, pretty beaches, and the best pizza in the state of North Carolina! TripAdvisor has compiled a list of the top pizza spots in every state based on user reviews and Slice Pizzeria in Kill Devil Hills won the honor for North Carolina!

What do we talk about when we leave reviews on a site like TripAdvisor? The food, of course. The atmosphere, maybe. How we were treated, for sure. The hard-working staff and owners of Slice have had us covered since 2008. The pizza dough and sauce are made from scratch, topped with the highest quality Grande cheese, the freshest ingredients, and baked in stone ovens. The space inside their building at the corner of Baum Street and 158 is clean and welcoming and the staff is friendly, fast, and efficient. The online reviews reflect all of this but there’s even more to Slice Pizzeria than the reviews describe. Owners Rick Amodei, Jeremiah Stewart, and Elizabeth Cubler give back. They are proud supporters of our local schools and athletics, the Wounded Warrior Project, the Beach Food Pantry, and the SPCA. Slice Pizzeria is a charitably spirited part of our community and a warm and inviting place to get a great meal.

pans of pizza for sale by the slice
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Two Roads Tavern’s Twists on Classics

It’s June! The sun is shining and the water is warm, it’s prime time to enjoy OBX life to the fullest. Blow a kiss goodbye to your hot kitchen, get out of the house, and have a good meal somewhere. At the top of my list this week is Two Roads Tavern, located between the highways in Kill Devil Hills.

chicken romance

Their menu has my heart for many reasons, most of all because of their Carolina Pickle Brine Sandwich – a fried chicken breast that’s been soaked in pickle brine and hot sauce for a good long time, long enough to let that salty, sour, spicy juice soak in and render the chicken completely plump and tender. The flour the chicken is coated in is the trick, according to Kyle Forbes, the owner of Two Roads. A chef buddy of his developed it a few years ago. It’s not just flour and it’s definitely not breadcrumbs or cornmeal; there’s a sugary, sweet, unknown component that makes it the very best.

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Fresh Fish and a Little Wisdom from Carawan’s Seafood

38 years ago, Christina Brodeur and Bob Eckard’s family purchased Carawan Seafood Company from the original owners, the Carawan family. Knowing nothing about the seafood business, Christina and Bob’s mother, and eventually the rest of the family, set about operating what is now a landmark of our OBX community. Carawan’s is like a friendly next-door neighbor: always there with a smile and some yummy stuff to share. Picking up fresh catches from the docks in Wanchese every other day (sometimes daily in the summer), Carawan’s feeds our seafood cravings year-round. The rough but charming building, riddled with character, is most folk’s first stop when they land on this side of the bridge and many pass through on their way out, too, happy to bring a bit of the beach back home with them.

What is Carawan Seafood offering? Today, cobia, Spanish mackerel, tilefish, and softshell crabs are in season so that’s what they’ve got, among a few other local options as well as cod and salmon that are shipped in to meet our needs. You’ll also find fresh, local, often organic produce, and lots of little North Carolina odds and ends to help you complete your experience: grits, spices, sauces, and wine and beer courtesy of Sanctuary Vineyards, Weeping Radish, and Foothills Brewery.

Woccocon Oysters for sale at Carawan Seafood Company
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Delicious, Real Food in Manteo , N.C.

Let’s chat for a bit about great food, created with a little bit of heart and soul in downtown Manteo. Maria and Thomas Williamson, the husband and wife owners of Avenue Grille, stay true to who they are by featuring coastal southern cuisine reminiscent of Thomas’s grandma’s cooking combined with clean, real food that, in some cases, also happens to be gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian. Their menu has something for everyone and is a reflection of how they love to cook and eat at home. But there’s another element of great importance to how Avenue Grille operates: community. Maria and Thomas wholeheartedly support their town and their restaurant has become a gathering place for locals, as well as hungry visitors. We are not just customers in this place, we are friends, here to enjoy fantastic food and breathtaking views.

real food, big flavor

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Outer Banks Taco Bar’s Scratch Made Comforts and Creative New Pop-Up

Gabe Stabley’s approach to his food and the environment at Outer Banks Taco Bar is intuitively centered around what’s going to make people feel good. People, meaning all of us: me, you, Gabe, and the people who work there. It’s comfortable and satisfying; unique and interesting but still familiar. Nothing feels forced about the food or the setting, because it’s not. The empanadas, the fried rice, the Cuban sandwich – everything is made fresh to order. It’s not cooked until the feeling strikes you and you ask for it. The music is whatever the staff feels like listening to. Even the specials are often inspired by whatever the cook, Nick, or the servers were craving and plucked fresh out of the kitchen for their own lunches between customers.

hand to table

2 tacos on a blue plate
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Paynefully Good Artisans Creating Unique, Small Batch Eats on the OBX

With a careful focus on quality and regional, seasonal ingredients, Matt Payne is creating true artisan goods on the Outer Banks. While he spends his days cooking wildly-popular dishes as the chef for Bad Bean Baja Grill, more ideas for new and interesting flavors and foods are ever-present in his mind.

Nine years ago, Matt, a 2003 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, began making homemade bacon as Christmas gifts he and his wife could share with friends and family. Each year, he’d turn out a new version of bacon, with different seasonings and components. Recently, he arrived at the idea of pancetta but with a southern twist of adding smoke to the process. This, along with Bacon Jam, Habanero & Sweet Potato Hot Sauce, and Ghost of the Outer Banks Hot Sauce were the first of his Paynefully Good Artisans items available to the community for sale at Buffalo City Jug Shop’s Crafts & Drafts Holiday Market this past Christmas. The demand for the jarred Bacon Jam exceeded the supply in the first hour of the event and Matt started an email wait-list of sorts for his next batch. Now, Matt has bacon, bacon jam, and hot sauces in progress all the time and available for sale at pop-ups around town.

southern inspiration & Lacto-goodness

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Eating and Loving Dawn Holcomb’s Food

I want to have a seat at Dawn Holcomb’s table and here’s why: her food is familiar but special, deliciously comforting, and made with intention. There’s a look, a feeling, an emotion Dawn is coaxing out of all of us when we enjoy her food; it’s love and appreciation – the same things Dawn feels when she cooks for us. Her love of cooking runs deep. She was raised in North Carolina and was surrounded by food all the time, with both commercial fishermen and farmers in the family and grandmothers who loved to feed people. Dawn described Sunday dinners to me that make me flat out jealous – her grandmother would cook to feed twenty or more people, whoever happened to drop in to enjoy plates and bowls of seasonal vegetables and platters of three or four different meats and desserts.

dawn’s kitchen OBX

As luck would have it, I did get a seat at Dawn’s table at her Taste of the Beach event in March. This event was a seven-course Italian wine dinner. More accurately, it was a showcase of beautiful, classic Italian food that my husband and I luxuriated in for the entire evening. This is the kind of food Dawn creates on a regular basis as a personal chef and caterer. Her business is Dawn’s Kitchen OBX. She can cook just about anything you ask for, and it’ll taste better than you could ever imagine.

chef searing duck breast on stovetop, seasoning with salt
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