After having lived in Florida for 20 years, I've been sorely underwhelmed with the fresh seafood offerings around the Triangle. Fresh Southeast coast seafood has been difficult if not impossible to come by in casual settings, despite our being only 2 hours from the ocean. Sure, one can drop a load of cash to eat at Fins, or put up with seafood that is frozen and shipped from thousands of miles away, but there hasn't been a place where one can go for good, inexpensive, fresh and local seafood prepared simply but done right (with Blu being perhaps the only exception, but I'll get to that). I've always had to drive to South Beach Grill in Wrightsville Beach to get my seafood fix. That is, until now...
Very recently, a place opened up in downtown Hillsborough on Churton Street called Gulf Rim Cafe (where the Flying Fish used to be). The chef and wife (Joe and Andrea Tullos) moved to this area from New Orleans shortly before Hurricane Katrina and have opened up this place as a tribute to cajun/creole seafood, Florida Gulf Coast seafood, and even Yucatan-based seafood recipes. The menu is indeed a survey of these three styles, and the chef excels at all of them. The key difference is his starting point of ingredients - with an emphasis, if not exclusivity, on local seafood. Indeed, every night he'll have a chalkboard of fish of the day which revolves around whatever he can get fresh. You won't find farm-raised tilapia coming out of this kitchen (sorry Blu)
Tonight they had a special menu to celebrate the Last Fridays! street event in Hillsborough. We started off with conch fritters, which were absolutely sublime. The conch were some of the best I've ever had (and that includes my conch binge down in the Florida Keys) - perfectly juicy and tender, with the fritter itself having just a right amount of tabasco bite paired with a wonderful remoulade. For my entree I had the grilled wahoo, which came in the form of a thick (1 1/2 inch) filet that was perfectly cooked all the way through yet juicy. The fish was clearly fresh - and perhaps one of the best cuts of fish I've had at a casual restaurant farther than 40 miles from the coast. The cilantro cream sauce was light and subtle and complemented the white, flaky nature of the meat perfectly. The dish was paired with green beans and rice. The other member of my party had the crawfish etouffle, served over rice with a andouille cream sauce. It was OUTSTANDING. I kept stealing bites off of her plate. Wow.
They also had baby back ribs today, which we did not get (but they have a smoker set up on the sidewalk). These had been slow cooking for hours in a blackberry cilantro glaze, and we noticed the table next to us exclaim that they were "[expletive] good." In fact, they got a huge thing of it to go.
Their regular menus look extremely promising too, for both lunch and dinner. They have shrimp po-boys, salads, fish and shrimp tacos, oysters, seafood baskets with fries, etc. - basically the sort of stuff you'd expect at South Beach Grill in Wrightsville Beach or some other local casual seafood joint by the sea. The atmosphere here really makes you feel like you're on the beach - it's cajun to be sure in music and decor - very fun.
I know some of you may consider it sacrilege to claim a place better than Blu Seafood, but I'm willing to say that they serve different niches. Blu is great for importing oysters from all over the place and serving up seafood with great and interesting recipes. But honestly, it's a bit tough to find fresh, local seafood on Blu's menu. They don't serve shrimp. Their "fish of the day" always seems to be tilapia, which is decidedly NOT fresh and local. They don't have casual fried seafood baskets and such.
So this is where Gulf Rim Cafe comes in. It's a lot more tropical with a fun vibe to it. It deserves checking out. I'll be back for lunch and will post some more reflections then.
Lunch menu: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com/files/Lunc...
Dinner menu: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com/files/Dinn...
Sunday brunch menu: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com/files/Brun...
Lunch: Monday - Saturday - 11:30 - 2:30
Dinner: Mon - Thurs: 5-9
Fri - Sat: 5-10
Sunday Brunch: 11-3
111 North Churton Street
Gulf Rim Cafe
111 N Churton St, Hillsborough, NC 27278