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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.