6 Great Things to Eat in Wilmington, North Carolina

By Maya Stanton
May 8, 2018
Two women walking past restaurant
Courtesy Andrew Sherman
This port city offers more than just your typical Southern food. But don't worry—it has fantastic fried chicken too.

As a coastal community below the Mason-Dixon line, Wilmington's restaurants feature seafood and Southern cuisine galore, but the city also provides a variety of less-expected options, with everything from Cajun to Korean on offer. (That said, on my recent visit, I primarily stuck with seafood and Southern cuisine, because when in Rome, etc.) Sure, entrees at some of the more upscale places can run a bit high, but you'll find plenty of relatively inexpensive alternatives in the area too, as long as you know where to look. Here are six delicious, budget-friendly bites from my last trip to Wilmington and nearby Wrightsville Beach—each one $16 or less.

1. PinPoint Restaurant

Pinpoint-tartare-Andrew-Sherman.JPG?mtime=20180504093652#asset:101737Beef tartare at PinPoint Restaurant. (Courtesy Andrew Sherman)

Any decent French bistro can provide a serviceable steak tartare, but if you’re craving something with a bit more flare, this gussied-up take from downtown-darling PinPoint is just the ticket. Chef Dean Neff’s critically acclaimed menu puts a refined spin on traditional Southern recipes and regional ingredients—say, hummus made with North Carolina butterbeans instead of the customary garbanzos, or baked oysters with a ridiculously good local-shrimp topping to complement the usual butter and breadcrumbs. Everything I tried, from the octopus-and-pickled-shrimp lettuce wraps to the smoked-and-fried catfish to the decadent oyster stew to the bountiful seasonal vegetable plate, was out of this world. But if I had to return for just one dish, it would be the beautifully composed plate of beef tartare ($16), a puck of raw meat, perfectly chopped and seasoned, surrounded by an artful assortment of pickled beech mushrooms, fennel fronds, an intriguingly textured preserved egg yolk, dabs of caper aioli, and a pile of house-made waffle-cut potato chips. For an elegant treat-yourself meal, run up the tab a little and add a glass of sparkling rosé ($12) to start and one of pastry chef Lydia Clopton’s indulgent creations, like the amazing passion fruit tart with fromage-blanc sorbet and honey-chamomile caramel ($8), to finish. You won’t regret a single bite.

114 Market St., Wilmington; 910.769.2972; pinpointrestaurant.com.

2. The Trolly Stop

Photo-Mar-21-4-26-55-PM.JPG?mtime=20180504093648#asset:101736The Trolly Stop in Wrightsville Beach. (Maya Stanton)

With four franchises across the state, this mini-chain has been keeping North Carolinians’ hot-dog cravings at bay since 1976. The original location, just over the bridge from downtown Wilmington in Wrightsville Beach, makes for a perfect pit stop, both before hitting the sand or after a day spent in the sun and salt air. The selection of sausages is meat-centric, as you might imagine, with all-beef, beef-and-pork, ground-beef, smoked-pork, and turkey varieties on offer, but there’s a vegetarian option as well, and all veggie toppings are chopped fresh daily. To build your own, pick a dog and an array of accompaniments (on the lighter side, perhaps relish, diced onions, sauerkraut, or salsa; on the heavier, bacon, cheddar, or chili), or choose from one of the pre-paired styles listed on the wall. I went with the German, deli mustard and kraut on an all-beef “northern dog” ($3), and while I missed the snappy casings of the griddle-cooked franks from my hometown go-to, Gray’s Papaya, it was still a satisfying snack that disappeared way too quickly.

94 S. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach; 910.256.3421; trollystophotdogs.com.

3. Savorez

Savorez.JPG?mtime=20180504093656#asset:101738Seared tuna tostadas at Savorez. (Maya Stanton)

Savorez sits on an unassuming corner in downtown Wilmington, with a nondescript brick exterior belying a casual, bright-red dining room that serves some of the best Latin American food in town. Before opening his own shop, chef, owner, and native son Sam Cahoon cut his teeth at Panamanian-inspired local favorite Ceviche’s (more on that below), and the hotspot’s influence is clear. When we stopped by for lunch, the room was bustling, and though we had to wait a few minutes for a table, it took us longer to decide on our order than it did to be seated. The reasonably priced menu (even at dinner time, nothing goes for more than $20) runs the gamut from tacos and empanadas to vegan chiles rellenos and hearty sancocho, but in keeping with the beachy locale, we stuck with the seafood offerings, and we weren't disappointed. These crispy seared-tuna tostadas ($12) were the standout, their layers of rich ingredients (yuzu aioli, creamy avocado, and fatty, barely cooked fish) offset by lively ones (pineapple salsa, pickled shallots, and fresh jalapeño), with bright pops of sriracha “caviar” adding that extra bit of oomph. At two bites apiece, the portion size might be dainty, but each well-balanced morsel packs a ton of flavor.

402 Chestnut St., Wilmington; 910.833.8894; savorez.com.

4. Roberts Grocery

Photo-Mar-21-3-29-34-PM.JPG?mtime=20180504093645#asset:101735Roberts Grocery in Wrightsville Beach. (Maya Stanton)

With its 100th birthday fast approaching, Roberts lays claim to the title of oldest store in Wrightsville Beach, but though it may have seniority, this little market isn’t resting on its laurels. It’s best known for picnic fixings like chicken salad, pimiento cheese, and made-in-Wilmington small-batch ice cream sandwiches from Nye’s (nyescreamsandwiches.com), but the fried chicken is the real find here. Seasoned overnight, cooked daily on the premises, and served so hot it’ll singe your fingertips if you try to tear into it too soon, this is the platonic ideal of fried chicken, all crackly skin and juicy, salty meat, best when eaten straight from the wax-paper-lined box.

32 N. Lumina Ave., Wrightsville Beach; 910.256.2641; robertsgrocery.com.

5. Catch

Catch2.JPG?mtime=20180504093637#asset:101733Crab cake at Catch. (Maya Stanton)

As someone born and raised in the mid-Atlantic, not far from the crustacean-loving state of Maryland, I know what I like in a crab cake. In my (humble, unimpeachable) opinion, the best representatives of the genre go easy on the binding, taking a light hand with the seasonings and any other stuff that might interfere with the sweet, delicate flavor of the crab. Happily for Wilmington residents, the signature version at Catch, a seafood-centric spot tucked away in a strip mall 15 minutes from downtown, does just that. Chef-owner Keith Rhodes serves his lump-meat-filled patty ($16) on a bed of gently scented pirlau (the southern cousin of the staple rice-and-peas dish found in cuisines worldwide, from Persian to Trindadian, under a variety of similar names), adorning it with a shower of edible petals and presenting it with a side of lobster cream so good that I unabashedly finished it off with a spoon. If, somehow, crab cakes aren’t your thing, we also loved the Top Chef alum's take on diver scallops, which, that evening, married the sesame-seeded, brown-crusted mollusks with a spiced sweet-potato puree, briny Prince Edward Island mussels, crisp-tender bok choy, and a fragrant coconut-curry sauce. Be sure to get there early for the best selection; we went on a Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. and just missed the angry-lobster special, but it looked so impressive on its way to the neighbors’ table that it had me planning my next visit, even while the first was still in progress. That's what I’ll be ordering the next time I’m in town.

6623 Market St., Wilmington; 910.799.3847; catchwilmington.com.

6. Ceviche's

Ceviches.JPG?mtime=20180504093641#asset:101734El Quatro sampler at Ceviche's. (Maya Stanton)

The city's first ceviche restaurant debuted in a former cupcake shop in 2014, but it was met with such a warm welcome that it quickly outgrew its original tiny digs. Two years later, after a remodel, both the food and the space grew more ambitious, with the menu expanding on its much-loved namesake offerings to feature quintessential Latin American plates of ropa vieja and arroz con pollo alongside newfangled dishes like langoustine cakes and mojo-rubbed ribs. But to this day, the selection of citrus-cured raw fish remains irresistible, especially when paired with one of the daily drink specials. Go on a Monday for $6 fresh-lime margaritas, or try the half-priced bottles of wine on a Wednesday, but whatever you do, don’t miss the langoustine de coco ($12), in which chunks of the small lobster’s tail mingle with ginger, onion, red pepper, cilantro, and avocado in a bath of citrus and coconut, or the corvina ($10), in which cubes of sea bass meet a traditional preparation of lime juice, red onion, cilantro, and jalapeño. (You can also opt for a sampler with all four varieties for $24.) Some things are classics for a reason.

7210 Wrightsville Ave., Wilmington; 910.256.3131; wbceviche.com.

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7 Great Things to Eat in Portland, Oregon

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For $11, you more than get your money’s worth: a huge helping of clear, piquant broth swimming with shrimp, fish balls, ground pork, pork liver, sliced BBQ pork, and quail eggs, topped with crispy garlic and crunchy scallions and cilantro stems and anchored with a hefty portion of rice noodles. With a dish of the usual accoutrements (bean sprouts, scallions, herbs, and a wedge of lime) on the side, it's a satisfyingly substantial yet not-too-heavy meal. 6424 SE Powell Boulevard, 503.206.4344; rosevl.com. 2. Jacqueline (Maya Stanton) For a high-meets-low experience, sustainable seafood restaurant Jacqueline offers dollar oysters and Rainier tallboys during happy hour, Monday through Saturday from 5:00-7:00 p.m. It’s shuckers’ choice, so you won’t get to pick what you want, but rest assured you’ll be satisfied with the selection. The day I visited, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou-inspired neighborhood spot was only serving west coast varieties (alongside its usual array of house-made sauces—everything from a classic mignonette to tarragon to tabasco), and each one was icy cold and perfectly pristine. Not content to leave well enough alone, I followed the platter of bivalves with an elegant yellowtail crudo ($15), which paired the fatty fish with creamy avocado, tart grapefruit and ponzu, and a handful of bright-green sprouted coriander, to delicious effect. 2039 SE Clinton Street, 503.327.8637; jacquelinepdx.com. 3. Taqueria Santa Cruz (Maya Stanton) On my last day in Portland, the weather was unseasonably sunny and warm, so I hopped on a bus (well, two buses) and took the hour-long ride out to Cathedral Park, on the banks of the Willamette River in the shadow of St. Johns bridge. After a pitstop for a pint at Occidental Brewing Co. (occidentalbrewing.com), I took a lap around the park, watched some happy pups playing in the water, paused for a selfie under the Instagram-bait bridge, and then wandered back up to the main drag in search of a snack. My friend had recommended a taqueria in the back of a Mexican grocery store, and that’s how I found myself in a bigger-than-expected neon-lit room, watching Dirty Dancing on the corner TV as I waited for my order: a trio of meat-filled tacos. The carne asada was fine, nothing special, but the crispy-edged, well-spiced al pastor was great, and the tender chunks of lengua, draped with a generous helping of pickled onions from the complimentary salsa bar, were even better. And the fact that each one rang in at less than $2 a pop didn't hurt either. 8630 N. Lombard St., 503.286.7302; tiendasantacruz.com. 4. 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The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park (nps.gov/grsm) is America’s most visited national park (with more than 11 million visitors in 2017), in part because of its proximity to large populations of people, but mostly for its sweeping views, great hiking trails, and opportunities to get up close and personal with the most biodiverse park in America. Must-see highlights include hiking to the top of Clingman’s Dome Observatory and the drive through Cades Cove. In late 2016, some of the most trafficked trails of the park, along with the neighboring town of Gatlinburg, were burned when a wildfire met a windstorm. Both the park and the town have rebounded, offering a fascinating opportunity to see how the natural world rebounds after a wildfire GETTING THERE Straddling the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most centrally located national parks and a manageable road trip from many major urban areas in the East, Midwest, and South. The closest regional airports are Mcghee-Tyson in Knoxville Tennessee or the Asheville regional airport in North Carolina. Both airports have rental car options. And remember when renting a vehicle that you do not need a 4WD vehicle to experience this park. ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK There is no entrance fee for Great Smoky Mountain National Park, because the state of Tennessee would only transfer the land to the National Park Service if they guaranteed no fee would ever be charged to access the mountains. Please consider donating $20 to the Friends of the Smokies instead (friendsofthesmokies.org); this is the admission fee for most of the national parks across the country, and funds go directly to protecting the park’s facilities and wildlife. CAMPING IS A BARGAIN Tent camping is the cheapest way to experience the Smokies . For $20/night, there are 10 different campgrounds in the Smokies. Some of them require reservations and are only open during the high season. You can check the pricing and reservation requirements online (nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/frontcountry-camping.htm). AFFORDABLE LODGING Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee are considered the “gateway to the Smokies” and both have lived up to this moniker by providing ample affordable lodging and a huge variety of activities for families. This area is what I like to call “hillbilly chic” for the way it leans into its heritage.  Physical activities like go-karts, mini-golf, and horseback riding abound, but you can also experience museums of the strange and curious - from the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum all the way to the Titanic museum. And you’ll definitely notice a certain affinity for one Dolly Parton. This part of Tennessee is where the singer/songwriter grew up, and Parton has reinvested in the community by opening up several dinner theaters and her own theme park. Dollywood has several of the best roller coasters in the South and provides a great time. Should you decide to do any of these attractions, be sure to do a search for discounted tickets online before you pay full price at the box office. For the cheapest hotel options, you should consider staying in Cherokee, North Carolina (on the other side of the park from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge). This area is the Cherokee indian reservation, and has many hotels that get you more for the price. Cherokee is not as kitschy as Gatlinburg, and you’ll have fewer crowds to deal with. EATING OPTIONS ABOUND There are a plethora of restaurants on the Tennessee side of the park. You can find everything from cheap fast food to mountain pancakes to steak dinners. HIKING & MUST-SEE SIGHTS The Chimneys. The Chimneys is a classic hike in the smokies, a steep climb up to one of the best views in the park. This hike is a bit over four miles round trip, and you should plan on a workout. Bring plenty of water and a walking stick. This trail was part of the burn area in the 2015 wildfires, so it can be muddy in places where the brush was burned away. Because of the fire, you can no longer go the final .25 mile to the summit of the chimneys, but the end of the trail still provides a wonderful view. Alum Cave Bluff Trail. This is a moderate 6.5 mile trail that offers some amazing views and a variety of terrain, concluding at a natural cave in the mountain rock. This hike is really fun and is not as physically taxing as some of the other hikes in the park. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so be sure to get there early! Clingman’s Dome Observatory. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park, and has an observatory on the top that provides some incredibly views. The hike to the observatory is less than a mile, with minimal elevation gain. The trail is paved, making this an ideal outing for families with children and those who are disabled. Be sure to bring a jacket as this higher elevation is often cold and windy, even in summer. Appalachian Trail. The appalachian trail is a 2,000 mile adventure that goes right through GSMNP.  Those with an adventurous spirit can meet up with the Appalachian Trail at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot and hike as much or as little of it as they wish. Keep in mind that all overnight backcountry stays in this park require a permit. IF YOU'RE VISITING WITH KIDS... Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most fun parks to visit with children. Here, two options that’ll keep little ones enchanted, and make them want to return again and again: Creek Stomping. There are several places in the park that are great for kids to play in nature. At the trailhead for the Chimneys trail is a rocky section of the creek that offers a good opportunity for kids to climb and splash in the water. Scenic Drive and Picnic. Cades Cove is in a valley surrounded by mountains and makes for a lovely scenic drive. This is the best spot in the park for picnicking, as well as providing plenty of great photos and opportunities to see wildlife. Cades Cove used to be a small mountain community, and the old structures from the 19th century have been preserved for the public to get a glimpse of life. Bears are not an uncommon sighting in Cades Cove, but don’t be afraid - black bears prefer a lazy lifestyle as long as you don’t get too close! Plan on spending at least an hour driving the Cades Cove loop - which can get crowded on beautiful days and weekends.