Doesn’t the end of February seem like the perfect time for a tropical vacation? For folks who want a getaway without the hefty price tag of traveling to, say, southeast Asia, head to Carolina Beach’s Salt Fish Restaurant and Tiki Bar.
I read how Chef Kirsten Mitchell closed her restaurant to go to Vietnam for the month of January with her sous chef. She wanted to prevent any culinary cobwebs from creeping into her kitchen. If there’s any time I want to try a restaurant for the first time, it’s when I know a chef’s wheels are turning and creative juices are flowing. I was already familiar with Mitchell’s comestible oeuvre from her days at Vittles, 1900 and Grand Cru. I was extra excited to head to Pleasure Island to taste what she had cookin’ at her own brick-and-mortar restaurant.
When my girlfriends and I arrived, all but one table was occupied and the restaurant was abuzz with energy. The woman who would become our server greeted and seated us quickly. Our group of four are service-industry natives. We were thoroughly impressed with the ease and grace our server endured as she oversaw the whole room—and made our drinks. (Give that woman a raise!) Also, we really appreciated how genuinely smitten she was with Mitchell’s menu. It’s great to see staff emanating respect and delight a menu like that deserves.
Tiki drinks are the name of the game at Salt Fish and we indulged. “My Two Beaches” includes dark rum, guava, cinnamon, lime, and soda water. I really appreciated the complexity of the bright lime, homey cinnamon and tropical guava. Another girlfriend landed on “Pineapple Royal,” which comes in a whole damn hollowed-out pineapple. Another gal pal chose the gin-based cocktail “Salt Fish Sling.” All the drinks were on the sweet side, but they were juicy, bright and oh-so-hilariously garnished. Some included little plastic monkeys, mermaids, gummy sharks, and classic umbrellas.
Mood? Set. The breeze was blowing through our hair and our toes were tucked in the sand.
For our first course, we got the crispy pancake stuffed with pork belly, shrimp and cabbage, served to be built into wraps, with butter lettuce and peanut dipping sauce. It was an explosion of flavor, boasting umami and brine, brightness and sweetness, plus tons of texture to boot. I can’t wait to return to eat them again and the teriyaki beef lettuce wraps. Savory sesame sung throughout the dish and married perfectly with the sweet and salty teriyaki. The fruit curry vinaigrette was eat-on-a-shoe-able.
Completing round one was a large crab cake with jerk corn salad, plantain chips and a big, yummy smear of jerk BBQ sauce. The crab cake made my heart soar with its meaty, crabby goodness and jerk seasonings, and my girlfriends raved about the oniony, crunchy corn salad.
A whole smoked mullet with French fries and island slaw got a resounding “um, absolutely” from the group as we moved on to the main features. We also got the catch of the day—tuna, with coconut rice and broccolini—and the Polynesian fried chicken. I was really glad we were there as a foursome because it allowed us to taste a lot of different things. If it had been a date night with my husband, we would have done the same thing, especially knowing what I know now. The portions are generous but not excessive, good for sharing.
The smoked mullet was so delightfully smoky. I love that Chef Mitchell smokes it in-house. The French fries offered neutral ground between the mullet and the zippy, tangy slaw. One of my girlfriends, fork-full of slaw in her mouth, actually uttered, “This is all I’ve ever wanted in a slaw.”
The Polynesian fried chicken was definitely my favorite. The chicken itself was boneless, so it was like a big plate of chicken tenders for grownups. The slaw, again, was mere perfection, and the black beans were as creamy as can be. For something as seemingly innocuous as a side of black beans, the whole table was obsessed. Topped with scallions and cotija cheese, they were remarkable. Kimchi cucumbers with cilantro and spicy mayo on the side made for a spectacularly balanced dish.
The only thing we didn’t absolutely lose our minds over was the tuna. There wasn’t anything wrong with the dish; it just didn’t shine the way the others did. It was served at a perfect medium, per our request, but the broccolini and rice were both a touch underseasoned. I was hoping the sauce on the side would either lend acid or spice, but it was soy-based, so it compounded the already umami flavors.
When our server offered us dessert, we obliged. She was pleasantly surprised. We weren’t messin’ around; our group was there to eat. We got both desserts offered: coconut cake and a pineapple rum cheesecake. They were divine. The coconut cake was extra fluffy and, conversely, the cheesecake was dense. From here on out, I would like rum-soaked pineapple on everything, please.