By the time I reached Porter’s Neck, I was certain I was in another state. Needless to say, I don’t meander outside of my Front Street comfort zone often—especially when it comes to dining out. And I know I’m not the only one. We’re all creatures of habit based off of wherever we’ve nestled ourselves within Wilmington. Let me make one thing clear: One bite of Cast Iron Kitchen’s progressive down-home cuisine will send downtown dive-bar lovers, midtown modern families and Wrightsville Beach bums away from their complacent ways and over to 8024 Market St.
Despite this gem being located far north in Wilmington, tasteful buzz has been spreading like wildfire through the Port City. Once known for his tasty creations at Sweet n Savory before moving on to a brief stint on the Funky Fresh Food Truck, chef Josh Petty opened his own locally-inspired, country store-themed restaurant in the spring. Cast Iron’s atmosphere is hip, rustic and run by friendly flannel-clad hipsters. Don’t worry, that’s a good thing.
I heard the restaurant’s weekend waits (especially before the tourists packed up and went home) were fairly lengthy, though incredibly worth it. Thanks to Cast Iron being more than a one-stop Saturday or Sunday shop, I was able to pop in mid-week to scope out their offerings (currently, they’re only open for breakfast and lunch with dinner hours perhaps coming soon).
A few weeks back, a friend text me a photo of Cast Iron’s deep-fried cheese grit bites, served with sweet onion aioli. It was accompanied that rhymed with, “Holy Shmorgasm!” Imagine my disappointment when the first thing I heard upon settling in at the bar was “86 the grit bites!” But, wait, there’s more. I also overheard the chef say he “didn’t like the way they were coming out.” Although bummed, I was incredibly impressed the chef holds his food to such high standards. It seemed to be a slower day, so the kitchen easily could have gotten away with putting out sub-par fare, but the chef preferred to take the item off the menu altogether rather than serving something he wasn’t completely proud of.
Off to a good start, CIK!
Still, I was in the mood for fried things, so I took my server’s suggestion of the fried green tomatoes. I sipped on a delightfully pulpy glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a not-so-hot (literally and figuratively) mug of coffee while I waited. I’d call the Joe pretty standard diner fare, but with the food being so far above average, it was easy to forgive.
The tomatoes arrived with a heaping bowl of homemade ranch (the fastest way to my heart besides beer and hot dogs). The golden breading was wildly crispy and hugged the tomatoes nice and tight. After two, I realized I consumed far more breading than tomato. Fuller rounds would have done the trick, but the crunch and flavor were on point. The ranch—thick, creamy, and swimming with fresh herbs—was addictive. Seeing as the rest of the menu was so creative, I was expecting one more flavor profile here (maybe something pickled). All in all, though, the Southern staple was cooked properly and disappeared fast.
More fried things, please, CIK!
Chef Petty clearly knows his way around all ingredients. In case diners weren’t convinced, his bacon-fig jam will make them firm believers. This seedy concoction came alongside a plate of epic chicken and waffles. CIK prides themselves on producing “simply Southern” food, but this masterpiece was anything but simple. The components: crackly Southern-fried chicken, crispy waffle triangles, honey-bourbon syrup, housemade granola, and yes, oh, yes—fig-bacon jam! The salty chicken expertly balanced the flavor bomb of sweetness from the remaining ingredients. Anyone who doesn’t dig bourbon (well, first of all, get out) can opt for maple syrup. The boozy treat was boozy indeed. A few taps of hot sauce mellowed out all of the sugary notes, but those who have a sweet tooth will lose their minds over this one.
For something leaning a bit more toward the savory end of the spectrum, the “Dirty South Biscuit” with bacon, a runny egg, cheese, and sausage gravy will cure all that ails from last night.
My kind server proceeded to steer me toward the shrimp and grits, as she said most people claim it’s the best they’ve ever had. That’s a damn fine accolade in a town where sweet tea rules all. CIK’s shrimp and grits (whose half-size portion could have fed three of me) was a hearty mixture of luxuriously smooth grits, smoked sausage, bacon, mushrooms, and a duo of sauces: tomato cream and red-eye gravy. The shrimp were swimming in the decadent mixture of spices, sauces and gloriously gooey grits. Every bite was hearty, smoky and melted in my mouth. Traditionalists may find the dish overwhelming, but the decadent spin on a classic enticed me to keep grabbing the spoon.
Brunch does include lunch, after all, so I was eager to get my hands around a sandwich. CIK has variety—everything from a top-notch burger to housemade pulled pork to a country garden sandwich on whole grain, loaded with clever veg fillings, like roasted cauliflower and pimiento cheese. Their shrimp salad melt had my name all over it. Loaded on swirly griddled rye bread, the masterpiece was piled with melted Muenster cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and herby aioli. The side of macaroni salad was a solid substitution for fries or a typical side salad. Despite being mayo-based, the pasta’s dressing was light with fresh herbs, and vibrant, crunchy veggies gave it a bright flavor.
The one trait I found contingent with every item I sampled from CIK: big, bold, soul-soothing flavors flourished in every bite. While there are a small handful of lighter selections, no one is coming here with the intention of ordering a salad. My suggestion: Fall headfirst into the fig-bacon jam and don’t look back.