The Saltbox Seafood Joint stakes its claim on North Mangum Street like a tiny, modern beach hut. Its vinyl siding is polished a light lime matte reminiscent of the tall, wispy grass lining coastal dunes. Whimsical and simple describe its bare-bones exterior, as well as the food served through its window. Durham has hit the beach.
All the orders are for takeout, and a window lines the front side of the one-room building. Its tight counter lends itself to an elbow rest framed by two chalkboard menus: one listing plates, the other listing the same items as sandwiches. On its first day open, a customer orders a soft-shell crab.
"That came straight from the coast," owner Ricky Moore shouts back, one hand knuckle-deep in flour while the other reaches for the deep fryer. "I got it this morning."
Moore, the former executive chef at Glasshalfull in Carrboro, works out of the kitchen, which encompasses the entire building. Clear containers of spices line a top shelf: whole black peppercorns and birdseye peppers, a tightly packed pile of bay leaves, ground coriander powder and lots of salt.
A New Bern native, Moore competed on Iron Chef America's 2007 Thanksgiving episode, although he lost to celebrity chef Michael Symon. The Washington City Paper in D.C., where Moore lived and worked at the time, reported that the judges raved over his pumpkin soup and gushed how all his dishes were "inspired by family."
My family also has a seafood history. My dad has run a seafood camp in the western part of the state since the 1990s, nowhere close to the coast. At Saltbox, I started with the fried shrimp plate, a quintessential North Carolina dish, something I didn't get a real taste of until I was 7.
The plate, with fries and slaw, set me back $12. (Saltbox accepts only cash.) But the mound on my plate totaled almost a dozen shrimp, and each one plumped up twice as big as my thumb. No juiciness was lost in the frying, which Moore does as a quick deep-fry after a few shakes in a large mixing bowl.
I grabbed one to pop in my mouth before the box was sealed. The flour is a simple, dry mix that doesn't create a batter to compete with the shrimp's quality. Moore wasn't lying about its same-day delivery. Plump pink peeked through the fried outer layer. It tasted like the beach.
To round out my order, I grabbed a plate of soft-shell crab for $11, also with fries and slaw. The entire transaction—with the food cooked to order—took four minutes.
This is the type of easy, simple takeout that you set on the kitchen counter and casually begin to pick at and subsequently devour over the sink. Once I got my hands on that crab, I couldn't sit down. Fried whole, the Saltbox's soft-shell crab is unparalleled in freshness, even at fancier restaurants, with a strange breed of aioli to accompany it.
The legs crisped under a thin layer of thick salt, while the middle lump meat tasted pure and clean. The bit closer to the head (that parts makes lots of folks wary) had a pleasantly sharp taste with a texture that melted in my mouth almost like warm feta cheese crumbles.
On another trip, I ordered the fried sea mullet for $7. Juicy chunks of this oily fish from the sound provide an incredibly filling meal. All of Saltbox's fried seafood dishes are accompanied by a small container of Texas Pete and a homemade tartar sauce, fragrant and heavy with dill. A plate includes the city's best slaw, or what Moore simply calls "cabbage salad." Crunchy cabbage and raw fennel are lightly seasoned with oil, fresh parsley and dill. There's no mayonnaise, which should please picky eaters and vegans. The fennel adds a piquant, ambrosial flavor. Moore's fries are more like chips, round cuts of thinly sliced potatoes just like Mom makes.
On my last trip, I picked a same-day catch of mahi mahi, griddled, a lighter option that can be done with any menu item. This option takes a little longer, but it's worth the wait. Moore dusts the fish with a toasted blend of coriander and fennel seeds before searing it perfectly on a cast-iron griddle pan. All the juices remain intact as a sweet surge of coriander aroma hits you before every bite.
Saltbox is undeniably on the higher end of the price scale for a seafood joint. But as fish becomes increasingly harder to catch, and reports of hog waste fed to imported Chinese tilapia stream through the news, I'll happily pay extra for fresh fish off my coast.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The ocean comes ashore."