Eating our way through the Outer Banks
We made a return trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July, after a very enjoyable first trip last summer. The weather was mainly either too windy, too rainy or too hot to cook much at our campsite, so we ate out most of the time. We camped at the KOA between Rodanthe and Waves, which meant a fairly long drive to all but a few restaurants. Highlights and lowlights:
Fond memories of The Top Dog Café in Waves led us back there twice. The air-conditioned portion is quite small, and we were put on the second floor on both occasions, but the fans and being out of the sun made it fairly bearable. At lunch, I revisited my last-year’s fave, a quarter-pound hot dog with chili, cheese and sautéed onions and found it, frankly (ouch), a bit greasy, but yummy nonetheless. My son had claimed he wanted to try the two-pound burger, but in the event retreated to the one-pounder, which was plenty big enough for a Canadian unused to massive American restaurant portions. The peanut butter and chocolate pie was still good, if not quite as much a revelation as when I first tasted it last summer. We had fun playing the “when will the food arrive” game (see below) while waiting for dinner.
After missing it last time, we finally made it to Hodad’s, in Avon, one evening. Not as much of the much-hyped surfing vibe as I had expected; the Top Dog is actually more atmospheric. It was nice and clean inside, anyway. The entrees on the dinner menu were very expensive in my opinion for the kind of place it is, with prices running between $15 and $25. We cast longing looks at the entrees, many of which sounded fantastic, but stuck to the appetizers and soups/salads to save money. My crab/corn chowder was very tasty, with a nice chili bite, but with a big grease slick on top. I followed that with a crab/cheese dip and nachos, also very tasty. The consensus among my group was that the meal was fine, but not outstanding.
A highlight was The Pickled Steamer in Avon, another favourite from last year. If anything, it was even better. I had most of a delicious openfaced tortilla pizza-like creation called a flat top, doggy-bagging the rest (those huge American portions again). My husband was challenged by the server to try an extra-hot flat top, which he did, and enjoyed greatly. My vegetarian daughter had half of a huge black bean-and-rice wrap, taking the rest home for supper. Our server was a delight; we came late for lunch so were the only patrons, and she had time to chat. It turned out she was from Indonesia, where my husband lived for several years while growing up (hence his affinity for spicy food), and she encouraged him to use his rusty Bahasa Indonesian language skills. Between the huge portions and a torrential rainstorm, we spent a couple of hours at the Steamer, and everyone agreed this was one of the best meals we had on the trip.
Later in the week we took a daytrip to Ocracoke Island, and had lunch at another much-hyped location, Howard’s Pub. It is huge inside, but with partitions and interconnected rooms and porches so it remains quite cosy. This is where we invented the “when will the food arrive” game, each of us guessing how long it would be before we saw our server bearing what we were certain was our food. (We later refined the rules to include putting up a dollar each, just to make it interesting.) Our lunch took forever to arrive, I guess because it was the height of the lunch crowd, but we were feeling pretty laid-back and relaxed, and in no hurry to rush off somewhere else, so we passed the time most enjoyably. After our first round of guesses expired, we had to pick new numbers. As I recall, my daughter won, with something like 37 minutes. The food itself was fine; nothing special. The pork in my Cuban pork sandwich tasted flattened and processed, and but everyone else seemed all right with their meals.
A minor disappointment was the Atlantic Coast Café, which was under construction opposite our campground on our last trip. The menu (available online) looks lovely, with lots of wraps, salads, smoothies and beach food. But there is almost no seating, so it took us two tries to eat there. I had a fabulous chai tea and raspberry smoothie, and I think everyone else thought their food was fine, but the service at the counter (you order, pick up and either sit down or take out) was brusque and unfriendly.
On our last night on the Banks, we drove down to Buxton after dinner at the Top Dog for frozen custard and mini-golf at Uncle Eddy’s. A great combination! The custard (we had been advised to try the hard-serve) was wonderful, with lots of interesting and unusual flavours and free tastes generously offered. I had Blue Moon, which was flavoured with pineapple and blue Curacao liqueur. Fantastic, and a huge serving. I am lactose-intolerant, but I took two lactase tablets and had no problem. The mini-golf was fun, too, at only $5 for unlimited play. This was a definite dining highlight for me, as I am a confirmed ice-cream freak.
Our biggest disappointment by far was Sam & Omie’s, a supposed don’t-miss institution in Nag’s Head. We had breakfast there on our way off the OBX. I thought of trying Stack ‘Em High, but the extra distance made it (I thought) too long to wait to have breakfast. We would have been better off there. First of all, we had to wait nearly 30 minutes for a table. Then they put the five of us in a booth for four with a chair on the end, nicely in the way of servers and customers. The booth bench was I think original equipment from the 1930s, with a slippery vinyl downward slant towards the table, necessitating perching rather than sitting. My grits and bacon were fine, the bacon nice and crisp if astonishingly thin-sliced. Everyone else’s breakfast was distinguished mostly by its high grease level, and my son tried biscuits and sausage gravy for the first and last time. The folks at the next table were loud and obnoxious, and too many people (i.e. any at all) were smoking. We will definitely not return.
Food-wise, the day was redeemed at lunchtime. We visited the Wright Brothers set-up in Kill Devil Hills, then carried on northward to Kitty Hawk, where we had been steered to John’s Drive-In. It proved to be a bit tricky to find, but find it we did. Parking on the beach road was sparse, and we dared not park on the sand verge for fear of getting stuck with our tent trailer, so we parked on a nearby, residential street, and walked back through the record heat to John’s. It’s one of those funky little places where you order at one window, pick up at another, and eat outside or take away. I had heard about John’s milkshakes, and ordered a chocolate/peanut butter/banana one as my entire lunch. It was fabulous, containing an entire, real-live banana and very good ice cream. I think everyone else enjoyed their lunches, but I was so busy slurping up my milkshake that I didn’t pay much attention, frankly.
This was our second, but not our last, trip to the Outer Banks. Next time, we hope to beat the bad weather by renting a beach house. With a real kitchen, I hope to try one of the famous, all-in-one meals called steamer pots.