Along the saltwater edge of North Carolina, we have seafood. It’s in shacks, in stores, in dining rooms. It’s everywhere. There’s no way we could get to it all, but
The second drive begins on a weekday afternoon at Clyde Phillips Seafood Market (est. 1954), between the bridges on the causeway in Swansboro. Shrimp boats are tied up at the dock behind the store. Inside a small fish house with concrete floors, fishermen recall better days when the catch might include red drum “with scales big enough to be guitar picks.” Near the sink behind owner Jimmy Phillips, an employee heads a couple of pounds of the shrimp that they still have, and then counts out four dozen littleneck clams for a customer. It’s the end of the day, and the men don’t seem to be in a hurry to leave — a couple of them talk about having a fish fry in the parking lot, this week or next.
104 East Corbett Avenue
Swansboro, N.C. 28584
We continue up N.C. Highway 24 to Morehead City, looking for oysters on the half shell, and Chefs 105 Restaurant has them. This restaurant opened in 2007 in a circa-1929 building downtown and dedicates a large part of its dining space to the 105 Oyster Bar. We sample a dozen Bogue Sound oysters on ice, and then a half-dozen roasted oysters, hot from the restaurant’s wood-fired oven. One more round of the salty oysters would have been enough for a meal, but we drive on to Beaufort.
105 South Seventh Street
Morehead City, N.C. 28557
On Turner Street, almost to the waterfront, we stop in at the Royal James Cafe just in time to watch two men who are deep into a game at one of the slate-top pool tables. The cook has already gone home for the night, but the bartender says she can get an order of steamed shrimp going: “A local shrimper brought some in today.” She heats a batch of the shrimp in the microwave behind the bar. The peel-and-eat results — seasoned well with Old Bay — are good. And when the bartender explains that the cafe is best known for its freshly ground hamburgers fixed “all the way” with mustard and chili, we order one of those, too.
117 Turner Street
Beaufort, N.C. 28516
The next morning in Beaufort is peaceful, with mirror-flat water around the crab boats and polished teakwood yachts of Taylor’s Creek. Dolphins break the water. Our drive begins on the islands and waterways of Carteret County. We follow U.S. Highway 70 out of town and take Harkers Island Road to our next destination, about 15 miles away.
The Sea Side Galley’s cafe connects to a convenience store and gift shop that the Guthrie family of Harkers Island opened in 1986. The Core Sound Chowder is a specialty, served by the cup or bowl. Made with a thin broth (no cream or milk), wild clams, and chunks of potato, this version is simple. You can taste the clams. Mila Guthrie, the manager, says the island’s fishermen provide local seafood for the menu throughout the year. “We hear from the fishermen when they’re catching fish,” she says.
311 Island Road
Harkers Island, N.C. 28531
Post-chowder, we drive another 32 miles over causeways and past woods, creeks, and a few skiffs, and continue on to the end of the road, literally, at Cedar Island. Near the ferry landing is Quality Seafood, where we catch up with Bradley Styron at his fish house that backs up to Cedar Island Bay. He wears white boots and has just stepped out onto the docks. An enclosed pond where he raises flounder for the sushi market is just across the creek. We’d like to stay and talk more about the fish trade, but the next ferry for Ocracoke Island is about to chug off.
2890 Cedar Island Road
Cedar Island, N.C. 28520
A fan of seafood and road trips, writer Sandy Lang is based in Charleston, South Carolina, and she’s a contributing editor for Charleston Magazine and Maine magazine. Her most recent story for Our State was “Gimme Some Sugar” (February 2012).
Follow the rest of the Seafood Tour:
North Carolina Seafood Tour Part 1: Southern Coast
North Carolina Seafood Tour Part 3: Outer Banks