Tastes of the Outer Banks

Think the Outer Banks shuts down when the temperatures drop and the tourists flee? Think again. There are plenty of spots where the locals know they can get good food right now. By keeping a reduced staff , offering distinctive specials and maintaining a calendar of unique special events, these old favorites keep their doors open during those chillier months. There’s much to enjoy about the off -season. The cooler weather, and a bit of time off after a busy summer, are a given. But one sentiment rings true for each of the owners of these three restaurants: They like to catch up with friends.

But in their answers is the hint of another question: Why not stay open? During the summer, you have to hustle, work too many hours, give up too many nights off. But in the off -season, there’s time to slow down a bit, enjoying the richness, and the romance, of living in an old beach town. By staying open year-round, these owners can maintain a great staff of people who, in some cases, have been at the restaurant long enough to be considered family; they also can keep up a standard of quality that would be more difficult if they had to close up shop for months at a time.

Tortugas’ Lie

Tortugas’ Lie is the quintessential beach shack restaurant and bar. Diners encounter mellow, aquatic décor: the walls and ceilings painted blue, sea turtle artwork on every wall. The wooden crossbeams are decorated with an eclectic collection of license plates representing locales from North Carolina to Aruba.

A Bob Marley vibe contributes to the welcoming feel of the place, from the decorative Marley “Freedom” flag that discretely hides the contents of the server station behind the bar, to a waitress’s red, yellow, and green earrings, Tortugas’ Lie seems to embody Marley’s lyric: “let’s get together and feel all right.” Tortugas’ Lie is a place for locals and tourists, young and old, those still sandy from the beach and those who have just arrived in town.

Tortugas’ serves a wide variety of choices, including burgers, hearty entrees, a great selection of fresh seafood, and many Mexican- and island-influenced dishes. When asked, the server suggested two of the specialties: the Baja Fish Taco Platter and the Coco Loco Chicken. The Baja Fish Taco Platter features two tacos, made with tender, flaky pieces of fish (on this particular occasion, it was grilled mahi), rolled in soft flour tortillas with jack cheese, sliced cabbage, and a lime-avocado dressing. The platter is served with rice, black beans, salsa, sour cream and sliced jalapenos. The fish has a smoky flavor from the grill with a hint of zesty spice. The lime-avocado dressing lends the dish a layer of cool freshness. Highly flavorful, the tacos are a mild dish for diners who may want to stay away from spicy food.

The Coco Loco Chicken is a chicken breast rolled in coconut and cracked pepper, then fried to a pleasant crunch and served with a lime-curry dipping sauce, black beans, rice and salsa. This dish is surf-meets-Indian, as the sweetness of the coconut meets with the sleepy heat of the lime-curry dipping sauce, making for a fresh blend of interesting flavors.

Tortugas’ maintains Wednesday Sushi Night throughout the off-season. After Thanksgiving, they begin serving fresh Atlantic oysters. The owner, Bob Sanders, told me that he particularly looks forward to the oysters: “I think they are some of the best I have ever tasted, and I used to work in a couple oyster bars in California. You just can’t beat good salty East Coast oysters.” And on New Year’s Eve, they hold the Tortugas’ Lie Unofficial 5K New Year’s Eve Run, where participants show up in their running shoes, run 3.1 miles, and then end up back at Tortugas’ Lie for a champagne toast to ring in (or run in) the new year.

Ocean Boulevard

Ocean Boulevard is separated from the beach by a small dune and a quiet street. A charming outdoor patio, decorated with solid wood tables and chairs, enhances the feeling that Ocean Boulevard is a dynamic restaurant, offering patrons the option to sit outside, to sit downstairs in a more traditional, efficiently packed dining room, complete with a chef’s table that looks directly into the big open kitchen, or to sit upstairs in the quieter part of the restaurant at big, round, family-style wooden tables. The restaurant is perfect for an intimate dinner or for a group outing. Ocean Boulevard couples a casual atmosphere and the laid-back beach energy that is so germane to the Outer Banks with nouveau French décor, dark wood and exposed brick interior for a mash-up of classy and homey.

Every season the chef de cuisine and the sous chef collaborate to write a menu that is seasonal and local. The sous chef is a local boy with ties to Southern cuisine (popular appetizer North Carolina Pork Barbecue Skillet is his grandmother’s recipe), and the chef de cuisine has worked with chefs all around the world. His influences are Middle Eastern, and many of the dishes feature a surprising blend of Southern comfort food and Middle Eastern accompaniments.

Ocean Boulevard offers not only spectacular food and an extensive wine and cocktail list, but also plenty of entertainment for its guests. There is live music every Friday on the patio beginning at 11pm (music is moved indoors in the winter months). Throughout the year, Ocean Boulevard hosts themed parties, like the Endless Summer Party, a Shrimp Cook-Off (to benefit dolphin research), and special events for Thanksgiving, New Years and Fat Tuesday. They also offer privately designed wine tastings for interested patrons.

The signature Seven Lettuce Salad is made from field greens, toasted pistachios, goat cheese, red onion, caramelized red grapes, Indian curry oil, and creamy pistachio dressing. The salad is sweet, toasty, and brings along that sleepy, unassuming heat characteristic of Indian curry, which contrasts nicely with the sweet caramelized grapes. (For an added treat, try caramelized grapes and the goat cheese in one bite.)

The Pan-Roasted Duck Breast is served with Foie-Gras-Potato Gnocchi, wilted local Swiss chard, crisp slices of summer squash, and peach gastrique. The duck is cooked to order, juicy and very flavorful. The duck breast is crispy with a smoky flavor, and the peach sauce suggests sweetness in balance under all that savory meat.

JK’s Steaks and Seafood

Across the busy main thoroughfare, Highway 158, sits an unassuming steakhouse called JK’s. It’s easy to drive past and dismiss JK’s as just another generic steakhouse, but inside is a mesquite grill, a fantastic menu, and some of the best hospitality in the Outer Banks. Owned by brothers Matt and John Homcy, JK’s possesses several unique signatures to its menu. The first is John Homcy’s organic garden, which he started for want of a good tomato. From there, it grew into a full-scale garden, in which he grows many of the vegetables on the menu, including the eggplant that they fry up for one of their most popular appetizers.

Most of the meat in the restaurant is cooked on the mesquite grill, heated to 1000 degrees, including their signature Friday special, the twice-grilled prime rib. For that dish, the whole eye of meat starts on the mesquite grill at eleven in the morning, then rested. Then it goes into an oven, where it is roasted to 90 degrees. Then it rests until someone orders it, at which time it is hand-cut and grilled to temperature. The result is smoky, rich, salty and tender, with a horseradish dipping sauce that is tangy with surprisingly little kick, so it adds a cool freshness that enhances the flavor of the steak. On the side is creamed spinach and a twice-baked potato that is savory and rich, positively packed with large pieces of bacon and plenty of cheese.

This steak is large, make no mistake, almost intimidatingly so, but the crisscrossed grill marks provide a road map of where to begin on the journey of chowing down. In addition to the Friday prime rib special, JK’s also offers burger night on Thursday, made from hand-ground beef and served with homemade French fries. Another popular dish is the South Carolina Quail, a mesquite-grilled, semi-boneless quail served over mixed greens with Roquefort vinaigrette that has been a staple appetizer on their menu for 10 years. The bird is garlicky, and in each bite, there is a kick from freshly ground pepper and the salty pleasure of grated Parmesan cheese. It’s served spread-eagle, relaxed in its draped posture over the fresh greens. JK’s Baby Back Ribs, which is prepared with a unique dry rub and has been a fixture on their menu since they opened in 1984, are moist and surprisingly tidy to eat.

Though the food at JK’s is superb, the ambiance is just as important and impressive. John Homcy is the perfect host, with a scruffy beard and a booming, jocular voice that carries throughout the dining room. He stops at every table to talk with patrons, to weigh in on the dishes they ordered and to suggest wines and whiskey to go with their meals. As new guests arrive, John greets many of them by name, shaking hands and hugging necks. “In the off season,” John says when asked about his favorite part of the winter, “the people who live here get to hang out with each other. We’ve got perfect weather in September and October, good fall fishing, and we get to see each other.” One gets the impression that summer is meant to be enjoyed, yes, but also survived, so that when the season is over, old friends can reunite.

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