Last December, Barry and I caught a ride from Beaufort, North Carolina, to Raleigh with Dan Smith, of Funny Farm. It was a miserable evening, raining cats and dogs, and we bounced along 2-lane roads in Dan’s Big Red Truck, swapping tales and keeping each other entertained.
In Goldsboro, North Carolina, Dan introduced us to his favorite barbecue joint, Wilbur’s. We sat down in the cavernous dining room, and the waitress put a basket of hush puppies in front of us, even before we’d ordered. It’s kind of like the tortilla chips you get at a Mexican restaurant.
I’d forgotten my glasses that night, as usual, and I was sure I was misreading the menu. How could they sell a barbecue plate for less than $5?
In the time since then, we’ve gone out of our way to avoid tourist traps, and we’ve found a lot of down-home North Carolina restaurants. I’m always amazed at three things: The hush puppies, the number of fried things on the menu, and the prices. You can stuff yourself silly, always for less than $10.
My problem with the hush puppies goes back to childhood, when I learned to associate them with seafood. As a result, I think of hush puppies as something you put cocktail or tartar sauce on. But in North Carolina, they’re considered the bread course, served with butter. To me, putting butter on a hush puppy to me is like putting butter on a piece of fried fish!
Here are some of the cheap, memorable places where we’ve eaten around here:
The Captain’s Table, Morehead City: Located on Route 70, this is a family place where you have to walk through the large smoking section to get to the small non-smoking section. The owner told me he tried it the other way, and lost a lot of customers. This is tobacco country, after all. The food is fried, fast, and cheap, and the service is friendly. I always eat too much (especially on all-you-can-eat oyster night), so I don’t have room for the mouth-watering pies.
Roland’s Barbecue, Beaufort: The barbecue is good, but I’ve had trouble with other menu items. I once ordered the chicken breast sandwich, because it sounded healthy. What I received was a plain white hamburger bun with a fried chicken breast sitting on it. The weird part was that the chicken breast was not boneless! When I asked the lady at the counter if there’d been a mistake, she just gave me a toothless grin and laughed. I guess that means nobody every orders the chicken breast sandwich.
No-Name Pizza, Beaufort: This is the healthiest cheap restaurant in town, with excellent gyros and subs, as well as pizza and Italian dishes. Their hamburgers are enormous! And the tzatziki is so good, I can eat it with a spoon. The only downside is, they don’t serve hush puppies. I bet they’d be good with tzatziki.
Golden Corral, Morehead City: This is not just a restaurant, it’s a (frightening) cultural experience. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet with hundreds of foods, and you can stuff yourself until you hurt. I know, I’ve done it. The last time we went, our group included people from Switzerland, Australia, Oregon, and Wyoming, all amazed at what North Carolina has to offer in the way of food. But if you can focus on the salad bar and protein foods and not give yourself a stomachache on sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, it’s a good value.
Big John’s, Beaufort: When we moved out of the boat and into the van, cooking became a serious challenge, and we were too tired to drive into town. So we ate at Big John’s at least once a week, because it’s only a mile from the boatyard. If you didn’t know it was there, you would miss it, because it’s actually inside a BP gas station on Highway 101 at Steel Tank Road. Their cheese steak and pepper steak sandwiches are excellent, and they make good pizza, too. It’s probably better for takeout than eat-in, but we didn’t have any place to take it, so we put up with the giggling teenagers who hang out there.