Yes, we know: Breaking down 100 of our favorite dishes in ILM will cause a stir (of some pho, perhaps?) of differing opinions on the best roast beef sammie or massaman curry in town. But someone had to do it. And, so, over the past month, we — encore editors Shea Carver and Shannon Gentry, along with food writers Fanny Slater and Joan Wilkerson — began culling our lists. Our rules were simple: Don’t repeat the same dishes a gazilion times and don’t repeat the same restaurant. After some back and forth over who would write about a Winnie’s Burger or Flaming Amy’s burrito, we hashed it out in order to present our dear readers with 100 of our favorite eats.
Deep Fried Sausage Gravy Bites, $8
Skytown Beer Company
4712 New Centre Dr #100
Skytown’s signature sinful starter takes on classic Southern gravy gone wild. Savory sausage meets white sauce meets crispy biscuit batter meets my mouth. P.S. They come in a cute mini fryer basket. Hashtag adorbs.
Shrimp Pad Thai, $14.99
Kyoto Asian Grille, 4102 Market St.
Celebrated by locals as one of Wilmington’s best and most undervalued Asian restaurant, Kyoto is the king of pad Thai. And what makes their twist on the tangy tamarind-sauced dish a standout? Smoked bean sprouts! The crunchy veggies pack an extra oomph of charred flavor with red onions and fresh jumbo shrimp perfecting it with sweetness. Go for extra limes and house chili sauce.
Raw Oysters and Accompaniments,
Pinpoint Restaurant, 114 Market St.
It’s not just that chef Dean Neff sources the absolute freshest oysters on the southeastern coast, he also knows how to dress them. Neff’s exquisite shallot-and-vinegar mixture is an acidic zing that practically brings the just-harvested seafood back to life. He occasionally throws in a curve ball—like spiking the sauce with champagne. Slide your mignonette-showered oyster onto a house cracker, top it with granita (an icy concoction of cucumber and citrusy yuzu), and you’ll be begging for another dozen.
Buffalo Baby, $10
CheeseSmith Co. Food Truck
Picture an elegantly deconstructed plate of zesty sauce-smothered wings and fresh veggies turned on its ass into an epic grilled cheese that pairs like a boss with local brews. Cheesemith’s imaginative combinations of spicy, tangy, sweet, and creamy make the Buffalo Baby a game-changer, with buttery Havarti, tender Buffalo-braised chicken, homemade buttermilk ranch, and quick-pickled carrot and celery slaw.
Crunchy Lobster Sushi Roll, $14.95
Genki Sushi, 4724 New Centre Dr.
Genki is a local’s spot! And turning to their specials for the best—and best-selling—dish in the house is a must: a rosy roll, enclosed in pink soy paper, with crunchy veggies, creamy lobster salad, and avocado. Crispy panko flurries are scattered around the plate and every bite is light as air.
Fried Pickles, $4
Rolled & Baked, 509 Castle St.
Despite being the new kid on the Castle Street block, R&B quickly became known fo their bomb biscuit creations. But, for me, it’s about the pickles: crackly breading—a seasoned cornmeal crust—and housemade brined cukes, sliced long and thin, sweet with a hint of garlic and dill. Their “Off the Ranch Sauce” is a thick, garden-fresh, herby landing pad, too.
General Tso’s Chicken, $14.95
Nori Asian Fusion, 1412 Barclay Pointe Blvd. #1006
At the Pointe at Barclay, Nori’s sushi lineup is tempting, but I suggest their hearty, traditional General Tso’s chicken over fluffy rice. Easily, it’s one of the best all over town. Each succulent morsel of white meat-chicken is fried in a sturdy, yet delicate coating, with tanghy and sweet housemade sauce, stacking up perfectly to an ice-cold Kirin.
Everything Bagel with Lox, $7.99
Round Bagels and Donuts, 890 S Kerr Ave.
With an all-Jewish family that hails from New Jersey, I consider myself a bagel and lox a-fish-ionado. Hehe. I discovered Round when they opened several years back, and felt they achieved the closest qualities I could find to an authentic northeastern bagel: a balance between a crispy, crackly exterior and an airy, soft interior. Their toasted everything bagel is studded from top to bottom with seeds and spices, smeared with smooth cream cheese, and piled with capers, onions, and salty, paper-thin salmon.
Chipotle Avocado Lentil Burger, $9.75
Sealevel City Gourmet, 1015 S Kerr Ave.
For an enticing burger full of nutrition and flavor, and light on fat, get to Sealevel City Gourmet yesterday. The dynamic, crisp lentil burger is griddled in peanut oil and topped with a familiar blend of condiments (shaved lettuce, tomatoes, white onions, and pickles). Oh, and you’ll be like, “Where’s the beef? I don’t care.”
Tuna Salad Wrap, $5.95
Lovey’s, 1319 Military Cutoff Rd.
Lovey’s prepared foods are prime. My favorite summer tradition is snagging their tuna wrap (and a salty bag of a kettle-cooked Maui onion chips) and posting up in my Tommy Bahama chair. Juicy tuna salad and sprouts encased in a whole wheat tortilla taste fresh when laced with dill and sharp red onions. If it doesn’t get in my belly button, I’ve done something wrong.
Riverside Caesar, $12
Steam Restaurant, 9 Estell Lee Pl.
The Riverwalk’s newest Embassy Suites brought with the classy coastal demeanor and style of Steam—and their No Temp Burger Burger. But I’m sending diners for their Riverside Caesar: bright chilled hearts of romaine, shaved Parmesan, white anchovies, and a luxuriously creamy garlic dressing. Sound simple? Exactly.
Loaded Waffle Fries, $8
Hell’s Kitchen, 118 Princess St.
I dig this divey bar and restaurant for so many things, but the Loaded Waffle Fries top the list. They’re just really freakin’ good: Choose a base—waffle or beer-battered spuds—to soak up every cheesy bite. I choose waffle to get all the savory, chive bits stuck in the crevices. Also, bacon.
Bacon, Egg, and Gouda Biscuit, $6
Love, Lydia, 1502 S 3rd St.
Do not fear the square egg, for it is simply a soufflé masterpiece, sprouted from the fingers of a pastry genius. Lydia Clopton—who also is in charge of pastries at Pinpoint—can do no wrong. She recently opened her own coffee and brunch café in the South Front district and the full menu is divine. The pillowy biscuits loaded with twirly bacon, smoky Gouda, and an airy egg soufflé are a light twist on the typically-heavy classic.
Beef Rendang, $21.99
Candlenut, 2101-1 Market St.
The homey Indonesian café (now situated on Market Street) takes comfort to a whole new level with their beef rendang over coconut-scented rice. They don’t cut corners, using prime cuts of Angus beef, and the meat is braised low with garlic, shallot, ginger, galangal, turmeric, coconut milk, and candlenut spice. And their presentation of eclectic sambals—one clear with lemongrass, one studded with thick pickles, and another inky black with ringlets of shallots—brings a different perfume and punch of heat.
Truffled Mushroom Pizza, $11.50
Fortunate Glass, 29 S Front St.
Fortunate Glass, Front Street’s swankiest vino haven, bangs out stellar small plates to pair with their expert lineup of extensive bottles. All sauces, dressings, desserts and doughs are made from scratch in an itty-bitty kitchen that doesn’t stop them from manifesting some serious food. Case in point: The fabulously funky truffled mushroom pizza. The flatbread is loaded with meaty shiitakes, Chianti onions and buttery Havarti.
Buffalo Shrimp, $11
Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery
4238 Market St.
Known for masterfully made in-house beers, and homemade pub-style fare, Bill’s impeccably crisp Southern fried chicken and buttery Buffalo Shrimp (paired with the Citra Pale) are a no-brainer. Bill’s spin features a fiery orange mountain of breaded and fried one-biters topped with tangy blue cheese crumbles. I double dunk them into Bill’s thick, creamy bleu cheese and ranch for a homerun.
Jacob’s Run, $2.75
Louie’s Hot Dogs, 204 1/2 Princess St.
You can’t beat a hole-in-the-wall hot dog joint that’s been around since Nintendo first came out. Though its passed through the hands of a few owners, Louie’s has always been a downtown staple for dishing out 100% beef dogs on warm, extra-wide split buns. I’ll gladly wait in the line (that pours out onto Princess Street) for the Jacob’s Run with tangy yellow mustard, velvety chili, and creamy slaw. Also, there’s no judgement for wrapper-licking at Louie’s.
Smoked Trout-Jalapeno Dip, $11
Smoke on the Water
3704 Watercraft Ferry Ave.
Imagine a cold seafood spread marrying the best onion dip and landing on top of crunchy, buttery rounds. It’s summertime everyday with smoked trout jalapeno dip.. Each luxurious dollop of fresh catch, oniony shallots, lemon, dill, and peppers is always the rock star of the table at this waterside joint.
Philly Cheese Steak, $9.49
Green Line Pizza & Steak, 7134 Market St.
At encore’s 12 Tastes of Christmas event, Green Line’s Philly cheesesteaks were one of the tastiest highlights. There’s a reason the word “steak” is part of the restaurant’s name. Thanks to being Philly-bred, the owner has mastered this handheld in all of its glory. The hearth-baked hoagie rolls have a sound ratio of crustiness-to-fluffiness, with juicy steak, thoughtfully-seasoned, with caramelized onions, soaked in gooey cheese. ‘Nuff said.
Meatball Sub, $11
Fat Tony’s, 131 N Front St.
My husband and I have been dining at Fat Tony’s for as long as I can remember. Every ingredient in the meatball sub is straightforward and simple (an adjective duo that typically produces the best kind of food). The meatballs are unapologetically moist and magically fluffy;, the house marinara is light and fresh; and the bread is so soft, it gives in to your fingers when you squeeze down and prepare for takeoff.
Giuseppe Sandwich, $8.99
Cousin’s Italian Deli, 7 N. 3rd St.
Cousin’s may be known for their killer Saturday and Sunday suppers, but I lose my mind fo the 3rd Street deli’s Italian-style, mayo-slathered hoagie sandwich, served on crispy, long rolls. When I can’t decide which marriage of ingredients I’m craving, I go for the Giuseppe because it pretty much has them all: capocollo, spicy soppressata, a tender eggplant cutlet, fresh mozz, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil and balsamic vinegar.
Macaroni and Cheese, $5
Rebellion NC, 15 S. Front St.
The Rebel Yell (featured on Food Network) will always be my entrée of choice at Rebellion, but their mac-and-cheese is the best I’ve ever had. Each penne noodle is drenched in Rebellion’s ethereal Mornay sauce—a basic béchamel (flour, butter, milk) with nutty Gruyère—that should be poured all over everything.
Edgar’s Nachos, $10.75
Poe’s Tavern, 212 Causeway Dr.
After a sandy-toed round of day drinking around WB, Poe’s Tavern craft brew list is impressive and especially paired with Edgar’s Nachos: mounds of salty tortilla chips, layered with a generous amount of creamy Jack cheese, hoppy booze-infuse chili, pico, guac, and spicy jalapenos. The multi-colored mound is made for three, but I believe in you. You can do it.
Seasonal Granola (and yogurt) Bowl, $7.50
Spoonfed Kitchen & Bake Shop
1930 Eastwood Rd. #105
Nourishing, delicious, inventive, Spoonfed offers a lot of goodness, but their seasonal granola and yogurt is heavenly and light. The invigorating bowl of locally-sourced, grass-fed yogurt is topped with fresh berries, drizzled with local honey, and speckled with Spoonfed’s signature, big, chewy pieces of oat, infused with shaved coconut and nuts, and expertly balanced with spices and salt.
Mediterranean Wrap, $3.75
Port City Java, various locations
PCJ’s Mediterranean Breakfast Wrap is my favorite parchment-paper-wrapped piece of simplistic morning perfection. It’s the ideal driving food, slowly exposing the hand-held for fear of falling feta. The tortilla tastes more like lavash, warm and toasted from end to end, and the interior teems with creamy scrambled eggs, bite size roasted red peppers, spinach, and salty feta. Extra Texas Pete FTW.
Pork Sugo, $14
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria
206 Greenfield St.
If ever there was a sauce I could eat on anything—and I mean anything—the pork sugo at Benny’s is it. It’s so savory and salty and, really, if smeared on a shoe, I would eat it. The ricotta adds a tangy, creamy element and brings the whole dish home. Plus, homemade pasta? There just isn’t anything better.
Calamari Frites, $9
Wrightsville Beach Brewery
6201 Oleander Dr.
Normally, calamari is served in a pile of delicious chewy circles, right? Not at WBB—slices this octopod are delicious, savory slivers of briney goodness. A smear of marinara introduces the perfect amount of acid to play up the classic dish. It’s the perfect marriage of savory and umami.
Massaman Curry, $8.99/lunch, $11.99/dinner
Thai Spice, 5552 Carolina Beach Rd.
I’m a spice wuss; it’s true. But Thai Spice, the unsung hero of the south side of Wilmington, will accommodate all diners from mild to of Thai hot (spice scale moves from 1-10). I love their massaman. It’s a beautiful balance of coconut, peanut, and curry spice. I like to get it with tofu, even though I’m an omnivore, because it’s perfectly crispy. The sauce is savory, sweet and only as spicy as I want it.
Crust Kitchen & Cocktails
124 Princess St.
So when ordering from Crust, close your eyes, drop a finger on the menu, and order whatever your finger lands on because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to decide what to get … fate. But if you’d like a little advice from a professional Crust customer, as in myself, start with The Ghostbuster. The combination of sharp cheddar and brie is a gorgeous yin-yang foundation for the mirroring lemony arugula and Chef Brian’s jaw-dropping bacon jam. It’s got green stuff on it so it must be healthy, right!? Oh, and if ordering fries, don’t forget some cheese sauce for dipping. Thank me later.
Enchilada & Taco Lunch Combo, $7.25
La Costa, 3617 Market St., 5622 Oleander Dr., 8024 Market St., Unit 1
I find myself craving Mexican food—all different kinds of it—often. We’re lucky in Wilmington to have so many options. My favorite is La Costa’s lunch—crazy inexpensive, yet so delicious. Plus, the lunch combo comes with a side of perfectly salty Mexican rice and creamy refried beans.
Tom Neal (or the #8 Smoked Turkey French Baguette), $7.99
Detour Deli, 1/2, 510 Red Cross St.
I love this sandwich the most because it’s like a grown-up version of my childhood lunchbox sammie. I never would have thought to put pesto and Sriracha in the same place, but now I want them on everything. The Neal covers all the bases texturally speaking—from the crunch of the baguette to the snap of the lettuce. I love the use of Roma tomatoes because they aren’t too juicy or watery like their Beefsteak relatives. Plus, Allister Snyder (the owner) does some truly impactful community work, so diners can feel good about mowing down on any of his delicious sandwiches.
Greek Sampler, $9.99
The Greeks, 5120 S College Rd. #107
I’m an indecisive person, especially when it comes to food because I just want it all. Enter: The Greek sampler. I like to get extra hummus, pita, and tzatziki if I’m sharing with someone because it’s so good and a little bit just isn’t enough. The tabouli is so garlicky and bright that, by the end of the meal, I feel like I’ve actually made a healthy choice and not just shotgunned a bunch of pita and hummus.
The Gary, $6.49
S&L Deli, 2317 S. 17th St.
I love a deli. And S&L is a really great deli. The menu is so vast, packed with every type of pancake, sandwich, wrap, side, you name it, it’s there. Including funnel fries with powdered sugar. Yeah, that’s right. Funnel cake fries. Get some. But the sandwich I find myself coming back to is The Gary. It’s got Taylor Ham, which is hard to find down south, and it’s just a big, messy, yummy breakfast indulgence that’s totally worth picking poppy seeds out of your teeth for.
Langousta Y Coco, $14
Savorez, 402 Chestnut St.
Would it be weird if I wanted to Scrooge McDuck-jump into a giant vat of Savorez’s citrus coconut ginger marinade? If so, I’m embracing my weirdness. The beautiful ceviche is sweet and spicy and salty and bright, and my fiancé and I always end up fighting over the last bite. Savorez is so very fabulous, and perfect for splitting a bunch of small plates. And don’t skip the empanadas. Or the BLT Arepas. Or the sweet potato goat cheese guac. Or anything.
French-Fried Mushrooms, $3.80
J. Michael’s Philly Deli, 8232 Market St., 3501 Oleander Dr., 609 Piner Rd.
Sometimes I just need to sit on my couch with my dog and dip a bunch of yummy fried things in ranch. And when I do, I get takeout from J. Michael’s. There’s something so delightfully indulgent about reaching into a little greasy bag and pulling out a perfectly golden fried mushroom. They’re crispy, savory and sinfully delicious.
Avocado on Wheat, $8.95
Nikki’s Fresh & Gourmet Sushi Bar
16 S. Front St.
When I moved to Wilmington, I worked in the film industry and was a vegetarian. Needless to say, a lot has changed. When the production office would order lunch from Nikkis’ downtown, I was hard-pressed to find veggie options. So when I found the avo sammie, I was hooked. And still I love to day. Even though it’s pretty healthy, I still like to get a side of beer-battered fries with honey mustard.
Spanky’s Blue Crab Dip, $13
Dockside, 1308 Airlie Rd.
My favorite way to end a morning at the beach with my gals is with some wine and snacks at Dockside. The wine list is healthy but manageable, and the list of snacks is long. My favorite is the creamy, briny, blue crab dip, with soft, chewy pita points. It pairs perfectly with a glass of bright, floral rosé.
Chicken Tacos, $7
Catch the Food Truck
I know Catch (both the restaurant and the food truck) is known for its seafood, but damn if their chicken tacos don’t do it for me. They’re always perfectly cooked and served with queso fresco and a delicious slaw situation, topped with radishes (and cilantro, if it’s your thing, but not mine).
S. College Deli, 32 S. College Rd.
Most folks find themselves at the deli for the Beef on Weck. And I get it. But I can’t let the BLT from SoCo go overlooked. The very best thing about it is that it’s zero-frills—except that the unsung hero from a strip mall on College bakes their own bread. But the rest of it? Super-thin crispy bacon, shredded iceberg, paper-thin tomatoes, and mayo. It’s proof that less is more. It’s my BLT measuring stick, and every single one since my first 10 years ago has paled in comparison.
The Hook, market price
The Basics, 319 N. Front St.
Someone said the hook brings you back, right? Well they were right. The Basics crushes their daily seafood special every single day. It’s always a delicious, generous piece of fish with a colorful side of starch and veggies and creative sauces. What I’ve learned is, if you don’t order it yourself, you’re going to wish you did. It’s always on the menu, both for lunch and dinner.
Bacon Cheddar Biscuit, $2.25-$12
Red Eye Bakery, 1011 N. 4th St.
If you haven’t been to the tiny, tasty bakery on North 4th, run—don’t walk. They serve beautiful baked goods, but what sold me was the bacon cheddar biscuit. It’s not a sandwich. It’s a hand-sized biscuit, a little crisp on the outside and pleasantly pillowy inside, with sharp cheddar and chopped bacon baked into it. It’s the perfect convenience food for any on-the-go morning.
Black Bean Quesadilla, $9
Beer Barrio, 34 N. Front St.
I order this quesadilla so much, the lunch staff starts keying it in when they see me walk through the door—a testament to both the amazing staff and food. The quesadilla stands out because Chef Stephen identified what the classic dish was missing and remedied it—a crunch. In the center of a cheesy black bean situation is a crunchy tortilla, so there is less a homogenous texture. And it’s awesome. Plus, even though the black beans have a smokey character reminiscent of bacon, they’re definitely vegetarian, which is awesome.
Steak & Mushroom Sub, $5-$8.75
Sub Stop, 2432 Carolina Beach Rd.
It should be pretty easy to tell by now I’m a big fan of handhelds, so I think absolutely everything at the Carolina Beach Road staple is fabulous. Still, if I had to pick just one, it would be the steak and mushroom sammie with cheese. I was a little confused the first time I had it because the steak is shredded, not chopped, but it’s such a nice touch. I always get the half and wish I’d gotten the whole. Plus crinkle-cut fries and a side of ranch because, if I’m indulging, I’m really gonna mean it.
T.I. Burrito, $7.75
Burrito Shak, 15489 US-17, Hampstead
When my fiancé and I first started dating, he brought down a T.I. burrito with chicken from Burrito Shak for us to split after my bar shift; I was instantly obsessed. I mean obsessed. I would find reasons for us to go to Burrito Shak. The thing that hooked me (other than everything) is the sweet chili slaw. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, spicy, tangy, and crunchy. I know it’s in Hampstead, but that’s really not that far. If you’re at the Lowe’s in Porters Neck, it’s a 12 minute drive—I know because I’ve timed it.
Cinnamon Caramel Oatmeal Cookie
Ice Cream, price varies by volume
Boombalatti’s, 1127-B Military Cutoff Rd. or 1005 N. 4th St.
I am a person who doesn’t trust people who don’t like sweets. I mean, they don’t have to love them or fawn over them or crave them because I do enough for … well, for everyone. But to not even just simply like them!? Rude. Case in point is Boombalatti’s Cinnamon Caramel Oatmeal Cookie Ice Cream. It’s sweet, salt, spice, crunch, and chew on a delightfully creamy, cool platform. I could eat it daily and never get tired of it.
Pulled Chicken Nachos, $9.99
Front Street Brewery, 9 N. Front St.
Obsession … infatuation … words that come to mind when I think of pulled chicken nachos from Front Street Brewery. My favorite little details are the sweetness of the chicken and the house-fried tricolor chips, but, really ,it’s like every ingredient holds the other ingredients’ hands and sings “Kumbaya.” My hack? Order chips “on the side”—that way nothing gets soggy.
Peel ‘n’ Eat Shrimp, $12
Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar
1211 S. Lake Park Blvd.
What goes well with drinking piña coladas on an ocean pier on a sunny day? Well, everything, but especially peel ‘n’ eat shrimp. Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar (lovingly shortened by locals to just ‘The Tiki Bar’) in Carolina Beach is precious to Wilmington-area locals. And the peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, served with drawn butter and cocktail sauce, are just the icing on the tropical paradise cake.
Pizza Dog, $4
The Scoop, 365 N Front St.
The Scoop is truly a hidden gem of downtown Wilmington. Hidden in the Cotton Exchange, the hot dog and sandwich menus are lengthy and creative, and boast daring combinations of ingredients. My favorite is the pizza dog, and it’s exactly what you think: bun, dog, marinara, mozzarella, pepperoni, yum. I love The Scoop uses split-top buns and grills their dogs. The grilling gives the dogs an extra-snappy texture.
Sweets, 129 Princess St.
Yeah, that’s right. $1.30 is an extremely low price for one of the yummiest things in Wilmington. The Crocake is the size of a hockey puck, the texture of a croissant, and covered in glaze. It’s crispy and sweet and magically much more delicious than a donut. Sweets, the bakery powered by Manna pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado Paredes, will have you ordering one of everything. And you won’t be sorry.
Crabcake Sandwich, $5.75
130 Yacht Basin Dr., Southport
If I said this is the best meal you can get on a styrofoam plate, I wouldn’t be wrong, but I also don’t think I would be giving it enough credit. The crabcake sandwich at Provision Company gave me life. I got fries on the side, but I think next time I’ll just get another sandwich because, oh, my God! Oh, and diner buddies, split up that order so sharing can take place; one gets the crabcake, the other, shrimp. And dip everything in cocktail and tartar sauces. Everything.
Shrimp and Grits Tacos, $12
Rumcow, 121 Grace St.
So, get this: I’m not even the biggest shrimp and grits fan. But Rumcow, Grace Street’s newest eatery, has hit a Southern homerun by making it the filling of a taco. Flour tortillas are stuffed with fried grits, plump shrimp and topped with a garlicky chimichurri. It’s game over after one bite. And then you’ll be ready for a few bites more. The only thing that could be better is if they turned it into a pupusa.
Indochine, 7 Wayne Dr.
It’s best enjoyed during warm temps in one of Indochine’s outdoor cabanas, and served with a glass of crisp white wine. Bun-thit-nuong is a cold rice-noodle dish, topped with a choice of protein (I like shrimp), and served with cucumbers, basil, carrots and shredded lettuce. The sauce is sweet and spicy, with hints of mirin and red chile, and topped with crushed peanuts. Go ahead and add cilantro and lime for a layer of citrusy punch.
Duck-Fat Fried FIngerlings, $11
Second Glass, 1540 S. 2nd St.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, go ahead and ask: How can fried potatoes make the list? Welp, fry ‘em in duck fat and enjoy with homemade mayo and fresh sea salt, and it’s near perfection. Enjoyed with a perfect glass of cab franc, Second Glass fingerlings are a great starter to what will be a decadent meal (go for the gnocchi for dinner!).
Eggplant Parm, $8-$10/ sandwich, $10/pasta
Taste of Italy, 1101 S. College Rd.
At first taste, I was convinced crack was put in TOI’s eggplant Parm … because the craving for it was intense, instant and insane within hours after finishing it. Sliced super thin, breaded and fried, and layered with cheese, I’ve never had another eggplant Parm quite beat it. On pasta, on homemade bread or on its own, it’s only matched by the simplicity of a delicious red sauce.
Mussels Mariniere, $12-$16
Caprice Bistro, 10 Market St.
The best meal comes with sopping bread—specifically at Caprice Bistro. The baguette is only a vessel to scrape up the white wine, shallots, lemon, garlic and parsley that pools around shells of plump mussels. Mussels mariniere is a standard at downtown’s French eatery and on Tuesdays, they’re half price. Paired with a glass of wine from their impressive list, it’s a perfect meal.
Posole ($8.50) and Pupusas ($3)
La Güera, 6620-F. Gordon Rd.
Essentially, according to me, one cannot be enjoyed without the other: homemade posole and pupusas. Served with choice of chicken or pork (I get both) in a hearty, warm, red broth, with garbanzo beans, La Guera’s posole comes in one whopping large size only. And that’s OK ‘cause eating it for three meals is better than one. Also, order at least three pupusas, thick cornmeal tortillas, stuffed with cheese and pork rinds, deep fried to perfection, to dip and dunk in the best soul-soothing soup north of the border.
Beggars Can’t Be Choosers, $9/plate
Manna, 123 Princess St.
Sunday night is the night to slay Manna. One of downtown’s finest eateries opens its bar seating only for an adventurous culinary journey: $9 plates. They’re simply titled “veggie,” “seafood,” “meat,” “surprise” and “sweets,” and basically are chef’s choice. Seafood may be a trio of scallops over root mash or a cut of triggerfish over Brussels. Meat may be pork or beef. It’s up to what’s inspiring Chef Jameson Chavez at the time or his pastry chef Rebeca Alvarado. Plus, the bartenders offer a specialty cocktail and wine for a steal. No matter what, it’s always a delight and a fun way to enjoy the creme de la creme of fine dining without breaking the bank.
Shrimp Vindaloo, $17
Tandoori Bites, 1620 S. College Rd.
Spicy food is my jam. I feel bad for anyone who can’t enjoy the rush of adrenaline that works through the body with a punch of heat. Vindaloo is my favorite from Tandoori Bites, and can be ordered very mild to very hot. I prefer it medium-hot with shrimp, but it’s also offered with lamb, fish, chicken, and as a vegetarian option. Tomato-based, it’s served with chunks of potatoes, which help tame the heat, and has a punch of vitality thanks to onion. Oh, and garlic naan is required to sop, sop, sop every drop.
Lobster Roll, $11.99
Anne Bonny’s, 106 S. Water St.
The barge restaurant returned last week and docked on Water Street to reopen and serve the best frosés and lobster rolls imaginable. Packed with crunch from the celery, richness from the mayo and sweet from the crustacean, the lobster roll is topped with crushed salt-and-vinegar potato chips that add a boost of tang and savory goodness. It’s the dreamiest handheld, and can only be beat by the view on the Cape Fear River.
San Felipe Taco, $7.95-$13.95
K-38, 5410 Oleander Dr.
Put a corn taco shell around anything and it becomes instant success. When it comes to fish tacos, K-38 has my heart—and stomach. They use Dos Equis to beer batter cod, top it with avocado, salsa fresca, cabbage, and cotija. They also serve it with yogurt ranch, but I hold off on it because, well, I’m one of those Southerners who thinks ranch is gross. But nothing about this taco is. Or K-38’s Cobb salad, for that matter. Seriously, give ‘em both a go!
Dim Sum Double Steamer, $8.50
Double Happiness, 4403 Wrightsville Ave. or 7122 Market St. Ste. 105
Every little cloud of goodness at Double Happiness will make the tongue do a happy dance. Their double steamer of plump dumplings is the way to go, in order to taste one of everything. Homemade dumplings are served aplenty: shrimp shumai, steamed pork, vegetable and chicken dumplings, and sesame balls. Only problem: One double stacker isn’t enough, so go for two. Then add an order of their homemade age tofu for good measure, too.
Elizabeth’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant, 4304 Market St.
Since 1995, when I moved to ILM, Elizabeth’s has been on my go-to list of eateries at least once a month. I love their pizza. I love their spaghetti and red clam sauce. But when I want to go into a coma of ooey-gooey goodness, I go for stromboli, which I’m sure has about 5 pounds of cheese in it. The veggie option helps add some roughage but, really, adds more flavor than another greasy topping. Dunk it in homemade marinara and … #winning.
Temptations Salad Sampler, $9.99-$12
Temptations Gourmet Café
3501 Oleander Dr.
Many items stand out on Tempations’ menu, like their daily homemade bread pudding or salad niçoise or paninis. But their homemade pimento cheese and tarragon chicken salad is one for days-on cravings. Their salad sampler allows both to be served in one, and even gives you another option as part of their pick three, like French onion soup or Caesar salad or egg salad or strawberry salad. There are no wrong choices, really.
109 Chestnut Chicken Sandwich, $11.99
The Copper Penny, 109 Chestnut St.
Shaved chicken, grilled mushrooms, caramelized onions, loads of provolone and chipotle mayo atop a freshly made hoagie is every bit as delicious as it sounds. The Copper Penny’s signature sammie, named after their physical address, has been one of the most popular bites among downtown streets, since the Philly-themed pub opened 15 years or so ago. Don’t believe us? Well, even Guy Fieri from Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” agreed—and suggested their addictive homemade onion rings as the side.
Hickory Smoked Wings, $12
Rx Restaurant, 421 Castle St.
Sure, their pork belly and eggs are great at Sunday brunch and their duck is succulent for dinner. But it’s the apps that suck me in at Rx. When they don’t have pig ears on their menu (which are insanely delicious), allow the Southern staple on Castle Street to deliver the most delicious wings, so every finger you have can be licked for all the smokey and saucey goodness left behind. The sauce is a perfect blend of sweet and spicy, with a smear of bleu cheese across the bottom and all-natural smoke (not that liquid shite) balancing it all.
Turkey Burger, $10.99
Might As Well, 250 Racine Dr.
While the college kids recognize Might As Well on Racine for their cheap drinks and late-night dancing, MAW serves up one dope turkey burger. And Door Dash is now delivering it to me about once a month. Topped with tangy goat cheese, avocado and homemade honey mustard, the patty is handmade with ground turkey and mushrooms. It is a perfect balance of savory, tangy, salty, and sweet. Though served with fries, I sub a side salad mainly as a vehicle for their homemade bleu cheese dressing.
Roast Beef Sandwich, $9.75
PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille,
various locations across Wilmington
Maybe it’s the taste of the grill fresh on the bun. Maybe it’s the freshly shaved roast beef, or the piled-high toppings of bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and Jack and American cheeses melting all over it. Maybe it’s the hand-cut, lemon-peppered fries served alongside it. Whatever “it” is, PT’s Olde Fashioned Grille has had my tastebuds doing cartwheels for more than 20 years with its roast beef sandwich. And their grilled chicken. And their turkey. And their burgers and dogs. But that’s only occasionally when I’m not ordering the roast beef.
Berry Cream Pie Cupcake, $3.75-$4.75
The Peppered Cupcake, 105 S. Front St.
and 260 Racine Dr., #7
It’s a cupcake … and it’s pie! To be fair, everything The Peppered Cupcake makes is excellent (including their signature which includes, naturally, pepper icing on the cake). But the one I go gaga over constantly is the Berry Cream Pie, which has a mixed-berry compote tucked into cream-cheese frosting, atop a vanilla-stuffed vanilla cake, then topped with whipped cream and pie crust.
CAH Salmon Salad, $11.79+
Carolina Ale House, 317-C College Rd.
Honestly, there is nothing supremely special about a house salad, now, is there? But when consistently there is fresh greens—romaine, cukes (cut on a large angle, which I love), tomatoes, red onion, homemade croutons, carrots—with blackened salmon on top, cooked a perfect med-rare, and served with homemade bleu cheese dressing, it’s, like, my perfect lunch. Carolina Ale House gets it right every time. Yet, their wings and burgers are some of the more popular items, especially on big game days, when the sports bar gets packed.
Tomato Pie, $2 (minis) – $20 (9 inch)
Pine Valley Market, 3520 S. College Rd.
So here’s a little secret: Tomato pie cannot be found on Pine Valley Market’s menu or maybe not even in their prepared frozen meals or deli case. But do not mistake: It’s available for call-ahead and it’s richly scrumptious. Tomatoes plus basil plus mayonnaise (Dukes, of course) plus cheese plus pie crust equals family and friends praising the choice you made to bring it for dinner or brunch or wherever, whenever, and often.
Moe’s BBQ, 5818 Oleander Dr.
Ain’t no reason to wait until Thanksgiving to eat fresh off-the-bone turkey. And ain’t no where to go other than Moe’s to get it done right. Get it on a sandwich or a platter for hot sliced, all-white meat, delivered with their house made sweet and tangy BBQ sauce, creamy Alabama-style white BBQ sauce, cool crisp marinated slaw and pickles. Their choice of country cookin’ sides (mac n cheese, collards, slaw, baked beans) and craft beer selection pair most gloriously, too!
Fried Chicken, 8-piece special, $21.99
Casey’s Buffet, BBQ & Home Cooking,
5559 Oleander Dr.
Owner Larry Casey brings his family’s country-cookin’ recipes to life here and while the barbecue and squash casserole and fried catfish aren’t to be missed, the fried chicken is the shining star. It’s crispy all the time, seasoned in a perfect zing of spice and salt, and piping hot and juicy. Paired with a few of their many sides and other options, it’s a feast among men on the buffet. But if you don’t want to wait for the lines, Casey’s does an 8-piece chicken special for only $21.99.
Linguine with Clam Sauce, $18
Roko Italian Cuisine
6805-105 Parker Farm Dr.
Chef Jadran makes homemade pasta at Roko, because what’s better than noodles made with care and perfect execution? Nothing. Roko’s linguine and clam sauce is simplistic divinity. White sauce is basic garlic, butter, wine, parsley, and fresh clams, while the red is their house marinara and garlic stewing among salty clams. Either is worth the dive, just ask for extra bread to scrape up any leftover gravy.
Bite-Sized Pies, $24/dozen
Mini Pies, $36/dozen
One Belle Bakery, 1616 Shipyard Blvd.
Pecan. Blueberry. Apple. Cherry. Name the flavor and One Belle Bakery likely makes it, and then puts it into teeny pie crusts so they become one-poppers to be eaten like cookies. They do cookies, macarons, donuts (caramel-pepper glaze, OMFG!), cannolis, brownies, banana pudding, cakes, and so much more.
Figure 8 Stuffed Flounder, $20.99
Cape Fear Seafood Company,
Monkey Junction, Porters Neck and Leland
Take freshly caught flounder, roll it up into roulades, stuff it with crab and other delights, and cover it in a lemon beurre blanc sauce for the most light yet filling flavor of seafood in Wilmington (cover photo). Cape Fear Seafood Company serves it with a choice of two sides, and I always go to their creamy risotto and asparagus. Insane good!
Falafel Bowl, $7.99
Peño Mediterranean Grill, 351 S. College Rd. or in Barclay Pointe, 1611 Dusty Miller Lane, Unit 301
You know it’s good falafel when it’s bright green inside; all of the fresh herbs dye the chickpea and spice interior of the fried croquette at Peño. Their falafel can be enjoyed as a platter or straight pita wrap, but the bowl is filling and flavorful with the fresh greens topped with crispy pickled turnips, hummus and tahini.
Music City Chicken Sandwich, $14
The Fork ‘N’ Cork, 122 Market St.
This sandwich is music to my ears … err … palate? Inspired by Nashville hot chicken—famously fiery amongst hot-sauce aficionados and spicy-food fanatics—Fork ‘N’ Cork’s version is beautifully fried, crispy chicken doused in Nashville hot sauce and topped with pickles, slaw, red onion, bacon, cheddar and bleu cheese. It has me singing its praises after one bite.
Quiche of the Day, $9
Jester’s Cafe, 607 Castle St.
Quiche isn’t just an “egg pie” if it’s done right, it’s just a matter of balance. No matter the ingredients (sausage or bacon, spinach or broccoli), it’s how the cook uses the egg to bind them together in a fluffy pillow encased in a buttery flakey pie shell. Jester’s daily quiche delivers on all of the above.
Berry Cheesecake French Toast, $10
Eternal Sunshine Cafe, 420 Eastwood Rd.
I’m typically locked in for a Benedict, omelet or other savory item for breakfast, but Eternal Sunshine’s berry cheesecake French toast is too good to pass up. The brioche is warm and soft on the inside with subtle crispiness on the outside. Layers of cheesecake filling, berries and strawberry sauce make it decadent, for sure, but none of it is overwhelmingly sweet.
Trailer Park Burger, $14.95
Winnie’s Tavern, 1895 Burnett Blvd.
No one can go wrong with any burger at Winnie’s but if when trying to break a personal record for “ways to enjoy fried-green tomatoes and other Southern favorites,” I go with the Trailer Park: Cajun fried-green tomatoes, jalapeño pimento cheese, bacon, bread-and-butter pickles, lettuce, onion, and chipotle mayo. Also subbing Winnie’s beef patty with the plant-based Impossible Burger makes me feel better about my life choices.
Chicken Pot Pie, $14
Little Pond Caterers, 2016 Princess Pl. Dr.
Little Pond Caterers is only open once a week on Tuesdays for dinner service for “Meatball Tuesday.” The meatball grinders are quite popular, as a line usually begins before the doors even open at 6 p.m. However, don’t ignore their rotating weekly special on the menu. It varies—anything from catfish with mac n’ cheese to coq au vin. I get giddy when the chicken pot pie shows up—a personal-sized homemade pie, bubbling over with chicken and veggies. And it’s to die for.
Avocado Ranch Club, $8.75
Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn,
4002 Oleander Dr.
Of all the mac-truck burritos on Flaming Amy’s menu—and I’ve tried and retried variations of many over the years—the Avocado Ranch Club (lettuce, diced tomato, cheese, grilled chicken, bacon, avocado ranch dressing) is now my go-to order. I just have to remind myself one thing: Order actual guac/avocado to add to it!
Oyster Po Boy, $13.40
Waterman’s Brewing, 1610 Pavilion Pl.
Quality and quantity are ongoing themes at Waterman’s Brewing. Their Po Boys (choice of shrimp, flounder or oysters) come out piled high with tomato, shredded lettuce, pickles, remoulade and lemon. Each are two roughly 6-inch halves and enough to share among some circles, and they still come with a side of choice—Brussels sprout slaw, anyone?
Firecracker Shrimp Basket, $10
The Husk, 31 S. Front St.
What’s nice about the Husk is that they’ve taken one of its sister restaurant’s staples and made it accessible all day, every day. The Firecracker Shrimp can be found on YoSake’s Happy Hour menu but the Husk has these lightly tempura-fried crustaceans coming out by the basketfuls with choice of tater tots or fries. Swoon.
The Hungry Sparrow, 701 Castle St.
My husband is somewhat of a cubano connoisseur—or at least, he’s a big fan—so when we see any iteration of a cuban sammie on a menu we have to try it. What we’ve come to agree on is that it’s a simple sandwich often complicated by grandiose attempts to “improve” or make it stand out. The Hungry Sparrow delivers on a simple promise with their “cuban/midnight sandwich”: roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard toasted on a hoagie bun. They trust the ingredients and the method. It’s everything it should be.
Dixie Benedict, $8.50
The Dixie Grill, 116 Market St.
The first thing I ever ordered off of Dixie Grill’s menu was their Dixie Benedict. It has all the trappings of a Southern breakfast: open-faced biscuit, fried-green tomatoes, scrambled eggs, all smothered with vidalia onion gravy. What makes it work is the cut of the tomato and breading ratio, making it not overwhelmingly “bready” with the biscuit. Still—get extra gravy, y’all.
Kebab Cobb Salad, $8.19+
Chopt Creative Salad Co.
1125 Military Cutoff Rd.
Two themes are happening on my list: Mediterranean cuisine and salads. Chopt happens to cater to my affinity for both with the Kebab Cobb Salad (feta, pickled red onions, Mama Lil’s spicy peppers, pita chips, romaine). While diners can choose to get their dressing on the side, they typically chop and mix their salads, dressing and all, so every single bite is the same.
Chicken Caesar Salad Pizza, $4-$22
Pizzetta’s Pizzeria, 4107 Oleander Dr.
or 1144 E. Cutlar Crossing, Leland
Pizza with a side caesar salad? Sure. Pizza with a caesar salad on top? Whaaaaa? We’re not sure if Pizzetta’s has mystical powers or a wizard flipping dough in the back, but somehow they’ve cracked the code on serving fresh romaine lettuce tossed with grilled chicken, Parmesan and caesar dressing atop hot pizza crust without it turning into a mushy mess. As well, the dressing isn’t too pungent or salty, so it still feels like eating pizza but it’s salad … so it’s OK to have seconds, or fifths.
Tuscan Soup and Bread, $5.95
Rosalie’s Trattoria, 5031 Market St.
These cooler days call for a warm bowl of homemade soup—even better if it was made by someone’s Italian grandmother, which is what Rosalie’s Trattoria’s Tuscan Soup tastes like. Each bowl is actually made to order with fresh onions, pancetta, spinach and cannellini beans, all sautéed in a tomato brodetto, which falls somewhere between stew and soup. Get it with their freshly baked Italian bread—as much as they’ll let you have.
Rise Biscuits and Donuts,
1319 Military Cutoff Rd.
There might be a bit of a cult following for a certain national fast-food chain known for its chicken sandwiches, but Rise’s execution of this simple combination of chicken and carbs is flawless. Their variations of this breakfast staple are on point as well: honey chicken on a sweet potato biscuit; spicy chicken with Boom Boom sauce, pickled jalapenos and crispy onions; and Southern Deluxe with pimento cheese and bacon.
Broccoli Di Rabe Aglio, $22
Tarantelli’s, 102 S. 2nd St.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t say it, because like most food at Tarantelli’s, the Broccoli Di Rabe Aglio will leave you speechless. Served with choice of any of Tarantelli’s handmade pastas, this is a relatively simple family recipe of Italian sausage with broccoli rabe sauteed in white wine, garlic and olive oil.
Vegetarian Pho, $6.50-$9.50
Pho Basil, 812 S. College Rd.
Pho Basil’s Vietnamese soup is a favorite because it’s filling but not fatty; light but not on flavor or size. Their vegetarian pho comes with large cubes of tofu, fresh broccoli, carrots, onions, green onions and rice noodles. The veggies lightly cook once added to the hot broth but maintain their crunch, which I love after adding the fresh beans sprouts, jalapenos and basil. The small bowl is usually more than enough but medium and extra-large helpings are available.
Jane’s Addiction, $10-$16
Johnny Lukes, 5500 Market St.
This was a go-to lunch often when I found myself nearby Johnny Lukes. I’m a millennial, and we do like our toasted breads with avocado. So add goat cheese, baby spinach and melted mozzarella with house-made pesto and we are a go. For folks looking for added protein: add chicken ($4), shrimp ($5) or burger ($6).
Taqueria Los Portales
Run, do not walk, to Los Portales for pretty much anything. I choose to highlight their tostadas, which is fried tortillas with beans, choice of meat, lettuce, fresh cheese, sour cream and tomatoes. Of all of my top picks, Los Portales is by far the best bargain—so try five of everything!
CIK Grilled Pimento Sandwich, $9.75
Cast Iron Kitchen, 8024 Market St.
This whole exercise has me thinking I have an unhealthy obsession with fried green tomatoes. While Cast Iron Kitchen was featured on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” last year for their bangin’ meatloaf and Dirty South Biscuit, definitely give their Grilled Pimento Sandwich a second take: fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese, pickled sweet peppers, arugula and bacon on Sourdough bread.
Cool Hand Cuke, $7.99
Jax 5th Avenue, 5046 New Centre Dr.
It’s the simple sammies that we need sometimes, and it doesn’t get much simpler than Cool Hand Cuke: ham, mesquite turkey and Swiss cheese between toasted pumpernickel, along with tomato, onion, cucumber and mayo. Equally impressive is Jax 5th Avenue’s expansive rotating tap (24 to be exact) of US, North Carolina and Wilmington craft brews, as well as upwards of 60 cans and bottles.
Pork Belly Sliders, $8
Bar Local Pub & Pizzeria, 19 Market St.
If it were Christmastime, Bar Local’s Pork Belly Sliders would make the naughty list. BBQ pork belly is layered with chipotle pimento cheese and caramelized onions. The sliders round out a nice list of shareable tapas, as well as tacos, pizza, paninis and more.
Cauliflower Soufflé, $9
True Blue Butcher and Table
1125 Military Cutoff Rd.
I’d sleep on a hot fluffy pillow of whipped cauliflower, lemon, Parmesan and black pepper if True Blue could make it big enough cauliflower soufflé. Not much more to say.
Turkey Avocado, $8.5+
Blue Surf Cafe, 250 Racine Dr.
Blue Surf’s homemade chips with Parmesan, cilantro and lime are perfect with their turkey avocado sandwich with red onion, Sriracha mayo and arugula on multigrain. Bonus tip: wash whatever you get down with Blue Surf’s daily infused lemonade.
Kalbi Steak and Rice, $12
The Foxes Boxes, 622 N. 4th St.
When pondering the giant chalkboard menu on the wall at The Foxes Boxes: pick a protein from left, then pick a side from the right. Their offerings change a bit seasonally for their The Gourmet Box ($12), The Fox Box ($9) and The Basic Box ($6) and sides, but get the Kalbi steak and rice (paired with the with olive oil and sea salt broccoli) while they’re still around.
—Shannon Rae Gentry