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Photos: eating our way around the Outer Banks

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[ADDITION: If you want to read about the restaurants we've visited on OBX, look up North Carolina in my List of Reviews.]

Warning: gratuitous photos of seafood ahead.

Okay, you’ve been warned. Welcome to my brief culinary travelogue of our recent visit to the North Carolina Outer Banks. It’s an annual trip we make with our family, and over recent years it’s become an opportunity to try new restaurants and dishes that we don’t normally get in Ohio (or that we don’t get as fresh). Mainly I’m talking about seafood.

The picture up top is a basic platter of fried fish. During the summer months, a number of groups on the Outer Banks hold fish fries as fundraisers. In Avon the volunteer fire department holds one every Friday, so we pick up some meals to go. The firefighters gather out front of the building and fry up fresh fish (in this case Spanish mackerel) and serve it with hush puppies, cole slaw, baked beans, and tartar sauce.

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One of our family traditions is making crab cakes. We stop by one of the small seafood stores to pick up a few pounds of fresh crab; my mother-in-law has found a tried-and-true recipe for crab cakes, and we look forward to the meal every year.

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The nice thing about making your own crab cakes is that you control the amount of crab. Some restaurants over stuff their cakes with filler. But not so here. It’s pure crab cake heaven.

On a side note, we were saddened this year to discover the closure of one of our regular seafood stops, Daniel’s Crab House. Daniel’s was located in a ramshackle building on the side of the highway between Nags Head and Manteo. The business was family-run for over 50 years, so to suddenly see it closed was very sad indeed. I did a little digging and found that their building was damaged badly by Hurricane Irene in late 2011, so I’m guessing that contributed to the closure. There are very few places like Daniel’s on the Outer Banks now.

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Despite Daniel’s closing, our seafood quest continued. We ate pounds and pounds of shrimp, too. They’re great when boiled and served with homemade cocktail sauce, or in a seafood linguini. Or keep reading for one of our family preparations…

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Our trip also includes one or two runs to the Orange Blossom Bakery for their famed apple uglies. The uglies are really just glorified apple fritters, but they’re giant, crispy on the outside, squishy on the inside, and heavily glazed. Long-time customers have learned to either cope with an extended wait in line or to place large orders the day before. Over the years, we’ve been frustrated by the seeming lack of preparation on the part of the crew, as if it’s a surprise that carloads of customers show up at 6:30 a.m. You’d think by now they would have perfected the art of cranking these out more quickly. They’d probably make more money and tick off fewer customers if they did.

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This time around we resigned ourselves to waiting in line. Fortunately, you can order a hot breakfast at Orange Blossom, too. While the Mrs. and I waited, she enjoyed a bagel with salmon and cream cheese.

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And I feasted on a basic but likeable breakfast burrito.

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Aside from crab cakes, our favorite crab preparation is a simple dip of cream cheese, crab, and homemade cocktail sauce. My wife’s grandma rightfully doesn’t trust any store brand sauce, so she makes her own and it’s terrific.

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Mrs. Bfast w/Nick and I enjoyed an overnight getaway down to Ocracoke Island. Ocracoke is one of our favorite places to be; it feels like a little bit of our souls lives there. Being sans kids allowed us to explore the small village more thoroughly, and to enjoy some meals with actual adult conversation. For dinner we stopped by our favorite restaurant Dajio. The meal began with fresh rolls and dense, moist cornbread.

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We split two plates between us. First was the local smoked fish platter. Oysters and fresh mackerel, both smoked in-house, are served with manchego, pickled peppers and onions, olives, and crostinis. The fish was amazingly fresh and smoked very delicately.

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We also split the grilled shrimp and blue corn nachos. Also excellent and loaded with flavor. Overall, it was exciting to be there for dinner; usually we visit in the early hours for one of the best breakfasts on the islands.

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Back at the beach house we were cooking up a seafood storm. We typically take one night to make a massive bowl of seafood linguini. Here’s just the seafood, all pan seared and ready to go: shrimp, scallops, shark, and tuna.

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Oh, speaking of house favorites, here’s one of the best things you can do to shrimp: serve it over grits. Mrs. Bfast w/Nick and I made this dish (well, more so her), and really knocked it out of the park. Cheesy grits (cheddar and parmesan), bacon, vegetables sauteed in the bacon fat, and fresh shrimp that’s lightly floured, seasoned, and pan fried. Garnished with cilantro. A small bowl like this is incredibly rich and filling.

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On an excursion north to Manteo, we sought out a lunch spot called Ortega’z Southwestern Grill, smack dab in the heart of historic Manteo. Ortega’z was on our map because of a recent feature on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives. They were worth the attention, from their solid fish tacos (above)…

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…to the dense and delicious Cuban sandwich…

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…to the cobb salad with fresh tuna. When asked how she wanted the tuna cooked, my wife replied, “Barely.” That’s the only way to cook tuna, if you’re going to cook it at all.

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Finally, our last stop. We jokingly created our own amuse bouche out of a tortilla chip, fried shrimp, and fresh pico de gallo.

Looking back over these pictures, I’m amazed I didn’t gain twenty pounds on vacation. Believe it or not, we did do other things than just eat. The fun thing about the Outer Banks is that you can spend a lot of time running around on the beach, swimming, flying kites, and building sandcastles, so you work up a genuine appetite for the local fare.

Uglie Mugs Coffee | Avon, NC

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Uglie Mugs Coffee House (Facebook)

40534 NC Highway 12 (map it!)
Avon, NC 27915
(252) 995-5590
Open daily 7a-2p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 7:00 a.m.

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As you can see from previous OBX posts, the North Carolina Outer Banks are awash in coffee shops. Locals need them for caffeination and a quiet reading space. Tourists need them to fuel up while traveling the banks. The great thing about the Banks’ coffee scene is that, especially the further south you go, it consists mainly of small, locally-owned shops. Every small town on the islands will boast at least one good shop. In Avon, it’s Uglie Mugs.

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Uglie Mugs multitasks as a bead shop as well, so don’t be surprised to find trays of beads and craft supplies scattered around the store, too. All the same, Uglie Mugs fulfills its coffee shop duties well, with a large menu of hot and cold drinks. You’ll see some with creative local names, too, like the Hatteras Jack latte or the Lighthouse Lift smoothie.

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About what about the ugly mugs themselves? They’re present, although most of them are for display only. They’re lined up along wooden shelves high up out of reach.

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Look at them. They’re ugly, all right. I mean that in a nice way.

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The shop itself has two rooms with a mish-mash of chairs and tables, plus a small deck outside. Other reviewers have said the shop feels like a non-touristy because of the “whatever” attitude. I’ve seen some of that myself, and I’ll gladly take it in exchange for supporting a local shop. A shop that makes very good coffee, by the way.

Ugly Mug Coffee on Urbanspoon

Duck Donuts | Kill Devil Hills, NC

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Duck Donuts
(Facebook)

710 S. Croatan Hwy (map it!)
Kill Devil Kills, NC 29748
(252) 480-3320
Open daily 6:30a-9p
Accepts cash & debit/credit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.

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I owe a big thanks to reader John for suggesting Duck Donuts to us while vacationing on the Outer Banks. I had noticed one or two of the locations as we drove down the islands toward our destination, but given that we stay about 45 minutes south from the nearest location, it never quite popped on the radar. However, John suggested it at just the right time, as we were making a day trip up to Manteo (which is an incredibly cute little town with a lot of history). On our way back to the house we detoured north to visit the Kill Devil Hills location of Duck Donuts. And, oh, we’re glad we did.

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Duck Donuts is a chain of four (soon to be six) small donut shops spread out along the northern reaches of the Outer Banks. As the name implies, they got their start in the town of Duck, but have expanded to Corolla, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills (with locations in Virginia Beach and Williamsburg coming this fall). When you really think of it, Duck Donuts is a brilliant business model. Much of the islands’ economy is based on seasonal visitors, so for restaurants to succeed you need something that is an easy draw, is memorable, and can produce quality food quickly. Duck Donuts does all of these things.

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In essence they’re just a donut shop, plain and simple. It’s the preparation and serving – and an excellent final product – that make it work. They serve one type of donut: a spongy, not-too-dense cake donut. It tastes great on its own, but a customer can order a variety of glazes and toppings, and the donuts are assembled to order. A basic donut maker (see above) slowly pumps out the fried goodness. At busier times two machines will be working away while the employees rack finished donuts on trays.

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When you place your order, the donuts are boxed and then taken over to the glazing and topping station. Each donut – still warm – is dipped in the glaze of your choosing: chocolate, vanilla, lemon, peanut butter, strawberry, powdered sugars, maple, and so on.

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You can also order them topped with sprinkles, peanuts, and the like.

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What’s smart about this is that the donuts are always fresh, it’s easy to customize orders, and you don’t have to worry about running out. Customers don’t need to line up a 6 am to get a taste of a certain donut, because it can be made at any time, and it will have just rolled off the line.

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It’s fun to watch the crew at work while waiting for your donuts. Even at its busiest moments, the shop had customers in and out the door within ten minutes.

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This was our selection for our first dozen. The top row is peanut butter, lemon, and chocolate. The second row is chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. The bottom row is more vanilla and two plain glazed. The donuts are a perfect balance between a heavy cake donut and a melty yeast donut (a la Krispy Kreme). They’re the right size, too, so it’s easy to snack on a few of them. And all of the glazes were excellent. As you might guess, we made more than one visit on this trip.

My only regret? We didn’t get any maple bacon donuts. Next year…

Duck Donuts on Urbanspoon

The Flying Melon Cafe | Ocracoke, NC

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The Flying Melon Cafe (Facebook)

181 Back Rd. (map it!)
Ocracoke, NC 27960
(252) 928-2533
Open Tues-Sun, 9a-2p for brunch (dinner served 5:30-9p Tues-Sat)
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, June 14, 2013 at 9:00 a.m.

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The Flying Melon on Ocracoke Island has been on my radar for some time, ever since Leslie, owner of the excellent Books To Be Red, suggested it. The cafe used to be located in a small space, a stone’s throw back from the main road through Ocracoke. But we never made it there because we discovered the newer Dajio Restaurant, which offers a very colorful and flavorful breakfast that mixes island cooking with Kentucky fare. However, on our most recent visit to the island, Mrs. Bfast w/Nick and I happened to stop in to Live Oak Coffee for our first coffee of the day, and one of the employees told us of the excitement over Flying Melon re-opening for brunch in a brand new location that very morning. We just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it. While it was still too early for brunch, we wandered the island a bit, then stopped for a second coffee at Ocracoke Coffee Co., conveniently located just across the street from the new Flying Melon location. At 9 a.m. sharp, we joined the handful of people on the front porch and were ushered in when the doors opened.

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To give you a sense of how freshly completed the new space was: we noticed the owner up on a ladder hanging signs out front, while construction workers finished the roof and other projects out back. All of the hard work has resulted in a stunning location, beautifully painted and decorated. Gorgeous lighting fixtures. Tall ceilings. Bright light from the windows. The wooden floor is made from a reclaimed factory floor.

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There wasn’t quite the rush we expected, but the restaurant filled steadily. We were ushered right to a seat.

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The brunch matches the beautiful layout of the space. This is one of the more photogenic breakfasts I’ve encountered in recent months. Since we were sitting on a barrier island in the middle of the Atlantic, I just had to have something with fresh fish, so I chose the fresh local fish mash. The fish was a Spanish mackerel (there must have been a big haul, because everyone was serving it) plated over redskin potatoes, asparagus, and a light hollandaise. It was surprisingly light. The fish was cooked just right, the potatoes and asparagus were tender, and the hollandaise was very good, although used sparingly and in need of a little more seasoning. But it was overall a winning dish.

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The Mrs. choose the bacon and scallop omelet, with a side of grits and a fresh biscuit.

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The omelet was packed with a generous helping of perfectly cooked scallops, plus a mix of sauteed mushrooms, onions, and peppers. We couldn’t quite detect the bacon, so maybe it was forgotten, or maybe the omelet fillings were cooked in bacon fat. Fortunately, the bacon flavor didn’t overwhelm the scallops, which could easily happen.

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Are you kidding me?! That’s a true Outer Banks breakfast, if there ever was one.

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The restaurant space itself still had that newly-renovated smell. The entryway puts you in the bar area, facing a tall wooden spiral staircase.

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Again, look at the beautiful lighting and bright colors.

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Over the bar hangs this magnificent chandelier.

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Wooden painted rooster cut-offs add a colorful touch. They divide the space while keeping it open and airy.

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We can now confirm that Ocracoke has at least two very worthy brunch options, between Dajio and Flying Melon. The new space is beautifully appointed and decorated, and the brunch menu matches it with fresh dishes in artful presentations, using local ingredients and at a very good price point. We’re looking forward to brunching here on Ocracoke again next year!

Flying Melon on Urbanspoon

Ocracoke Coffee Co. | Ocracoke, NC

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Ocracoke Coffee Co.
(Facebook)

226 Back Rd. (map it!)
Ocracoke, NC 27960
(252) 928-7473
Open Mon-Sat, 7a-5p; Sun, 7a-1p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 8:30 a.m.

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Yes, it’s another post about coffee on Ocracoke Island! On our recent overnight stay on the island, Mrs. Bfast w/Nick and I enjoyed a morning of watching the island come to life. We usually visit just during the day, so seeing the sun rise over the harbor was a new experience. We had to make the most of the morning hours, so we stopped at not one, but TWO coffee spots… and that’s before we actually went to brunch. We’re dedicated, folks. Our first stop was at Live Oak Coffee, which is a newer shop on Irvin Garrish Highway, the main street (NC Route 12) through the island. After a little wandering we also found the more established Ocracoke Coffee Co. on the literal back road (called Back Road) of the island, and it was humming with life.

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It felt like we found the social center of the island. Both locals and tourists came and went. We’re pretty sure we saw the owner hanging on the front porch. The shop has a big porch plus a broad tree-covered front yard packed with benches and chairs. If you have a day of island fun planned, Ocracoke Coffee is there to help set the tone.

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In addition to all of the coffee, espresso, and smoothies you could possibly need, they also have fresh cinnamon rolls, muffins, cookies, and pastries.

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The interior of the shop is cozy and beach-themed. Expect a little bit of traffic going in and out, especially on a beautiful morning when everyone’s gearing up for a fun day.

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Mrs. Bfast w/Nick and I made our second breakfast out of a soft apple cinnamon muffin and a couple double shots of espresso. All excellent.

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The espresso was good to the last drop.

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If you want to feel the pulse of this lively island, Ocracoke Coffee is a good place to start. Relax in the yard or on the porch with an espresso or iced coffee. You’ll appreciate the back road find and the close community found under the trees.

Ocracoke Coffee Co on Urbanspoon

Live Oak Coffee | Ocracoke, NC

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Live Oak Coffee
(Facebook)

271 Irvin Garrish Hwy (map it!)
Ocracoke, NC 27960
(252) 928-0115
Open daily 6a-5p
Accepts cash & debit/credit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 7:30 a.m.

On an overnight stay on Ocracoke Island with Mrs. Bfast w/Nick, we found ourselves brunching our way around the island in the morning. You need good coffee to start the day, and it’s nice to say that Ocracoke has a few good options to choose from.

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Our first coffee stop – yes, our first – was right down the road from our hotel, on the main street of the small island village. We were automatically drawn to Live Oak Coffee because of their use of scrumptrulescent on their signage. (If you don’t get the reference, watch the SNL video here.)

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This is the second season for Live Oak, and there’s still a small sense of the shop getting on its feet. But the high quality coffee and all the snacks and accoutrement are there.

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They also have the coffee shop seating and wifi if you need a break or a study spot, plus the comfortable chairs inside and out front if you’re just lounging with an iced coffee. Nothing says relaxing on the island like sitting in big wooden Adirondack chairs while sipping a cold iced coffee. Also note that Live Oak serves responsibly-sourced Counter Culture Coffee.

So now you know: if you’re staying on the island and need to get your morning jump-started, just walk down the main drag until you find Live Oak!

Live Oak Coffee on Urbanspoon

Beyond Breakfast: Gringos Tacos | Hatteras, NC

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It’s not surprising, with the proliferation of food trucks and pop-up stands nationwide, to see mobile food and small-scale restaurants crop up on the Outer Banks barrier islands, too. Even on Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry, there’s a taco truck, hot dog stand, BBQ truck, and a handful of ice cream, snow cone, and coffee carts. This type of business model makes perfect sense for the hard-to-access islands whose economy is based on a seasonal clientele. So it’s no surprise to find a small wooden shack in the middle of the Hatteras Landing shops acting as a taco stand.

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At first glance Gringos Tacos might seem like your standard Americanized Mexican restaurant, and while there are elements of that, they offer a few surprises and most importantly, an inexpensive and very flavorful way to enjoy some local seafood.

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Case in point: the daily menu above, with crab nachos and mahi mahi tacos.

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We sought out Gringos for a quick lunch while stuck in line for the Ocracoke Island ferry. We ate a few tacos while watching fishing boats come and go and enjoyed the fruits of their labor. First up: the surf and turf taco with shrimp and shredded beef. Very tender and well-seasoned beef, plump little shrimp perfectly cooked, plus lettuce, cheese, and a very flavorful pico de gallo, all served in a flour tortilla.

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Second was the blackened mahi mahi taco, with a generous portion of fish, lettuce, cheese, and pico. Again, a real winner. Filling, freshly made, with balanced flavors.

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I’m hoping to make a return trip to Gringos again before we leave the islands. Even if I can’t, I hope this crew stays busy so we can see them again next season!

If you want to visit:
Gringos Tacos
58848 Marina Way (map it!)
Hatteras, NC 27943
(252) 986-1088
Follow them on Facebook

Open daily 11a-8p

Gringos Tacos on Urbanspoon

The Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop | Hatteras, NC

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The Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop
(Facebook / @Dncing_Turtle)

58079 NC Highway 12 (map it!)
Hatteras, NC 27943
(252) 986-4004
Open Mon-Sat, 6:30a-5p; Sun 6:30-12p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:30p

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The Dancing Turtle has long been one of our regular stops on our travels up and down Hatteras Island. The coffee shop is located in Hatteras Village itself, near the very southern tip of the island. Its location is perfect for anyone coming or going through that area, as they’re located right on the main drag of Highway 12. Even though the island effectively ends just south of the Dancing Turtle’s location, the ferry to Ocracoke Island departs from just a couple blocks away (if you can use city blocks as a measurement on these islands). So the coffee shop is situated nicely for anyone who wants to grab some coffee for sipping on the ferry, or to re-energize when you’re just arriving. Or if you’ve got some writing or reading to do, they’ve got the seating and wifi like any coffee shop.

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The decoration offers you a solid “taste of the beach” with wooden floors, deep pastel colors, and bright artwork on the walls. Dancing Turtle’s neighborhood includes fishing marinas, seafood restaurants, touristy shops, small hotels, beach houses, and even the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, so the coffee shop fits the area well.

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It embodies the laid-back vibe of the locals, as exhibited by a pair of lazy pooches lounging on the floor.

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Dancing Turtle has you covered with your coffee and espresso drinks, loose leaf teas, smoothies, Italian sodas, plus snacks like cookies, muffins, oatmeal, bagels, and biscotti.

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Their coffee and tea is also available for purchase by the pound.

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We’ve rarely had more than simple coffee drinks from Dancing Turtle, but we’ve always been satisfied. I need to find more excuses to do some writing down at the shop, or to drive by more often. But if you’re passing through, headed north or south, make sure you stop in.

The Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop on Urbanspoon

Front Porch Cafe | Nags Head, NC

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Front Porch Cafe
(Facebook / @FrontPorchOBX)

2515 S. Croatan Highway (map it!)
Nags Head, NC 27959
(252) 480-6616
Open daily 6a-6p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Visited: Saturday, June 8, 2013 at 11:00 a.m.

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The Outer Banks hosts a lot of travelers throughout the year, especially during the summer months, and you can bet that those travelers are thirsty and in need of caffeine. Many of them have traveled long hours to get to the Banks. In recent years we’ve seen a string of local coffee shops and roasters spring up around the barrier islands. One of the first we discovered was the Front Porch Cafe.

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Front Porch has three locations around Manteo, Nags Head, and Kill Devil Hills. The company is home to Kill Devil Coffee roasters, and you can purchase the beans at the stores. Their chalkboard menus give you a complete list of the beans available and their sources.

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The offerings are typical for coffee shops: a wide variety of drinks, plus smaller pastries and snacks.

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We were just stopping in briefly for one of our favorite summer coffee drinks: an iced chai tea latte with a shot of espresso. Depending on who you ask, that’s called a dirty chai or red eye chai.

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The space is bright and beautiful, without over-doing the beach themes.

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We were stopping in for drinks on-the-go, so we didn’t take advantage of the spacious shop. But if you’re in need of a place to work or just relax for a while, Front Porch has the space.

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They also have a big display of teas available. Overall, we’ve found Front Porch Cafe to be a very friendly and welcoming stop. It’s nice being able to support local businesses while we’re on the island, rather than running through a generic drive-through. If you’re passing through the area, or if you need some coffee beans for your vacation, stop on in!

Front Porch Cafe on Urbanspoon

Beyond Breakfast With Nick: Seafood on the Outer Banks

Our annual Outer Banks vacation means many things for us: time together as a family, getting to play in the waves and sand, catching up on reading, visiting the small towns along the Banks, and eating lots of seafood. As you make the journey to the Banks (and understand that one of the only ways to get there is to enter from the north, taking rural routes through Virginia and North Carolina), you encounter more and more signs boasting local seafood. We stay fairly far south on Hatteras Island, and as we travel down the coast to our destination, one of our first stops is to pick up fresh crab at Daniel’s Crab House. It’s not much more than a small shack on Pamlico Sound, where a tiny crew is steaming, peeling, and packaging fresh crab.

At the tiny counter, which is really just a large box filled with ice and bins of crab, you can catch a glimpse of the crab-peelers at their work. It’s amazing how quickly and smoothly they move.

One of our favorite things to do with the crab is to a make a simple dip out of it: layer of cream cheese, one pound of crab meat, and Grandma’s homemade cocktail sauce. Crackers for scooping. It’s a simple pre-dinner treat, and with a crew like ours, it gets polished off quickly.

Another favorite is shrimp. Many times we’ll get a couple pounds at a seafood store, steam it, and then dunk it in homemade cocktail sauce. In recent years, however, we’ve amped things up by making our own shrimp and grits. Allow me to demonstrate…

First, peel, clean, and de-vein the shrimp, then toss them in a pan. They cook quickly – usually only 30 seconds a side – so keep an eye on them.

Once the shrimp is done, remove it and set aside. While you’re preparing the shrimp, cook some bacon and chop it. Toss it in the pan with shallots, seasoning, and herbs of your choosing.

When the bacon has cooked down, toss in the shrimp, mix it all together, then remove it from heat.

Oh yeah, while you’re doing that, cook up a big pot of grits. Once the grits have cooked thoroughly, we like to stir in some butter and a cup or two of a sharp cheddar (like Dubliner).

Plating is fairly simple: a big dollop of grits, a scoop of the shrimp/shallots/bacon mixture, and then we garnish it with a fresh salsa of tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro. Sometimes we’ll make a small batch of guacamole and put a small gob of that on top, too.

This is a great dish to make for a crowd. All of the ingredients are easy to make in bulk. Your only real limitation is how much shrimp you have and how many you want per dish.

One night, we went all out and made the shrimp and grits plus some fresh tuna. Tuna is one of my favorite types of fish (especially rare), and you can cook it easily. We just sprinkled the steaks with a mix of seasoning and then cooked it in the same pan as the shrimp.

We like it fairly rare (look at the one in the upper left), and we often joke that in order to cook it, you simply wave the tuna over the grill and call it done.

And there you have it. One of the many reasons why we love the Outer Banks. Simply put: good, fresh fish.

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