Like many native North Carolinians, John Fitzgerald Hankins has fond childhood memories of Calabash, the fishing village known for its restaurants specializing in fried seafood. But for Hankins, Calabash was more than just a side excursion on annual trips to the beach. It became the inspiration for a lifelong dream.
Born just a few miles up the road from Calabash, Hankins enjoyed a steady diet of deep-fried shrimp, flounder, hushpuppies and sweet tea. He knew from an early age that he wanted to open his own restaurant where he could share the cornmeal-crusted bliss with others. With a singleness of purpose uncommon for his age, he set about achieving that goal.
By the age of 16, Hankins was head cook at the original Captain Stanley's in Raleigh. After several years dedicated to mastering the deep fryer, he set about earning seed money for his restaurant by starting a trucking business. That venture proved successful enough that by 2009, Hankins was able to realize his dream with the opening of Fitzgerald's Seafood in Rolesville. Two year later, a frequently full parking lot is testament to the fact that the restaurant is something of a dream come true for a lot of locals, too.
All the favorites
The basket of piping hot hushpuppies that lands on your table soon after you're seated is sure to strike a familiar chord. So will the menu, which offers a broad selection of deep-fried fish and shellfish in the form of platters (small, large or combo) and sandwiches.
Flounder, shrimp, scallops, clam strips - even catfish, trout and relative newcomer tilapia - are all true to form, lightly crusted in a classic cornmeal breader. Oysters can be hit or miss, and deviled crab - an obligatory offering on a Calabash menu - didn't live up to the rave reviews I'd heard when I sampled it. As one who still makes the annual pilgrimage to Calabash, though, I can say that execution is for the most part on a par with what you'll find there.
In a couple of instances, Fitzgerald's offering actually trumps the restaurants that inspired it. Whole flounder has all but disappeared from menus in Calabash, presumably because the work involved in eating around the bones has made it less popular than the ubiquitous fillets. At Fitzgerald's, moist flesh and delicately crisp slashed skin will remind you of why whole flounder is still worth the work.
Nor are you likely to find old-fashioned Southern style salmon patties in Calabash. Or home-cooked alternatives to the standard sides of fries and slaw, with options including a Brunswick stew that's chockablock with shreds of chicken and pork, and daily specials such as lima beans simmered with bits of ham.
It's worth checking the specials board for the daily changing seafood offering, too, which might include grilled salmon or tuna, and on Tuesdays features all-you-can-eat fried trout for $8.99.
And chicken too
If you're not a seafood lover, the fried chicken - juicy under a peppery, crackly crusted batter - is sufficient reason to make the comparatively short drive to Rolesville. So is a surprisingly good oven-baked rendition of Eastern North Carolina style barbecued pork. Better yet, get the fried chicken and pork barbecue combo - a landlubber's delight and a bargain at $6.50 for dark meat, $6.95 for white.
With walls painted a cheery Kelly green and strung with fishing nets, buoys and other nautical bric-a-brac, Fitzgerald's compact, brightly lit dining room is evocative of Calabash restaurants back in the days before fame transformed them into sprawling food factories.
Service is small-town friendly, too. The wait staff are on a first name basis with many of the customers, and are adept at making newcomers feel they belong. You might even find yourself dining in a booth next to the town's affable mayor (who is easy to identify if he happens to be wearing the shirt that's embroidered with the words "Mayor Town of Rolesville."
Chances are, you'll also see Hankins' son, John Fitzgerald Hankins Jr., who is increasingly taking over the duties in the kitchen and frequently makes forays into the dining room. His presence is comforting assurance that, while the original Calabash has changed over the years, its spirit lives on in Rolesville.