The seafood arrives fresh nearly every day, caught hours earlier off North Carolina shores and delivered exclusively by Locals Seafood. Piles of sliced potato are twice-fried before being heaped onto paper trays. The crunchy slaw is doused with tart lemon juice and folded into sweet, fragrant herbs sprouted from nearby gardens.
Ricky Moore, a New Bern native, orders, preps and cooks on his own, five days a week, with the help of one cashier on shift.
Saltbox Seafood Joint celebrates its first anniversary on Oct. 11, with a steady flow of customers averaging almost 150 a day, 200 on a weekend.
Many know the story of Moore competing on Iron Chef America. This flash of celebrity, though, came after years of culinary training and life experience.
When he was just 21, Moore and his wife, both fresh out of the military, took their burgundy Honda Accord and drove from Arizona straight to Hyde Park, N.Y. Moore attended the Culinary Institute of America, and his career as a chef took off, landing him in award-winning kitchens in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as well as a stint at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.
Moore worked in Triangle kitchens, too, for other people, before opening the seafood shack just three days after his 43rd birthday. Saltbox is his first endeavor as an entrepreneur.
A big eater as a kid, Moore says his family "always had a fresh fish," whole or butter-flied and fried hard in a heavily seasoned cornmeal batter—in a cast iron pan, of course, bubbling with a thick pool of Crisco.
He understands why so many of his Southern customers ask for their fish fried hard.
"You could get choked on a bone," he says. "That kind of traumatized a lot of people from eating fish. But that's part of your rite of passage. Back then, the remedy was: 'Give him some corn flakes and flip him over. He'll be all right.'"
Much of the family's seafood came off a "raggedy" truck that routed his neighborhood twice a week, a weight scale swinging from the back.
Another source was the dependable get-it-yourself method.
We sit on a picnic table outside of The Joint, as Moore refers to it, the sun beginning to set just after 7 p.m., closing time.
Moore removes a lanyard that hangs from his neck, keys dangling at the end. He places it on the table, pushing the straps outward to create a makeshift outline of a flounder. The keys fan out almost like the fish's short tailfin.
You don't really "fish" for flounder along Croatan Beach at the Neuse River.
"What you do is, you gig 'em," Moore says.
He puts two fingers at the top left inner corner of his lanyard shape on the table, pointing to where the two eyes sit side by side on a flounder's head.
That's what you're looking for if you're a 10-year-old New Bern kid walking along Croatan Beach with a lantern in hand, hunting for dinner.
"You go out around 7 o'clock," Moore says. "Just before it gets dark. Full moon: That's when the tide is low."
Moore and his cousins, all younger than 15, would then slowly step into the water. Clenched in their hands were the gigs, long iron rods crafted as spears. They would fasten a string to the dull end of the rod, tying the end of it into a thick knot.
"Once you're maybe about a yard or two away from the water, you see their eyes in the sand," Moore says. "You see the specks and the spots on 'em, too. Obviously they can't see you and if you walk properly, you can walk behind them."
Moore points to a spot where the gills would be, right below the eyes.
"Gig 'em right below that gill. Boom!" he explains. "You don't want to mess the meat up."
Moore and his cousins carefully pulled each flounder out of the water, strung it down the iron rod and to the end of the string, the first one getting caught at the knot. They dragged the line of fish along the ground, the low tide of saltwater washing over and cleaning their bounty as they gigged some more.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The coast is clear."