Step in out of the late afternoon sun, and as your eyes adjust, take in the surroundings. Suspended from the ceiling over the bar, swimming through the air in front of a bank of flat-screen TVs, is a life-size sculpture of a shark. Overhead light fixtures are fashioned from tin buckets. The walls, marine blue over corrugated metal wainscoting, are plastered with surfboards, beer ads, nautical scenes and T-shirts for sale.
Clearly, the marketing department for Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar, a small chain based on the North Carolina coast, knows its subject. And if the decor seems a bit heavy on the cliches, well, that’s true to seafood-shack form, isn’t it?
Not that anyone is likely to call the menu generic. Sure, the offering includes the usual oyster bar suspects, though (presumably as a concession to the small strip mall space), the shuckin’ is done in the kitchen. You’ll also find a modest sampling of the Southern fried fare that’s pretty much obligatory in these parts.
But where else will you find a lobster roll “with a Carolina twist,” topped with a spicy mustard remoulade? It’s a best-seller here, along with blackened mahi fish tacos.
And don’t let the Shack’s Carolina roots mislead you into thinking that “fried seafood” translates to “Calabash style.” The fish is cod, and it’s fried in a Yuengling beer batter that pairs with crisp skin-on fries for a respectable fish and chips. The cod is also available on a sandwich or in a fried seafood combination basket with fried shrimp (good) or oysters (inconsistent).
Order a surf ’n’ turf combo, and the “surf” is what you’d expect: steamed oysters (they’ll do the shucking for an extra two bucks), shrimp or crab legs. But “turf” turns out to be chicken wings – battered and deep-fried whole wings, that is, with the flat, drumette and wingtip still in one piece. They’re available with your choice of seven sauces, including a signature Shuckin’ Hot sauce that our bartender assured us is the hottest – and does indeed pack a decent punch, but will have serious chile-heads reaching for one of the dozen or so bottled hot sauces on the bar.
The wings aren’t bad, the meat moist and the batter crunchy if somewhat dense. But if you’re a seafood fan, I say put the turf in your rearview mirror and head for the surf.
Depending on the size of your beach party, you might wade into the steamed sampler (choose three: oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and crab legs), or take the deep plunge into Saul T’s Steampot (a dozen each of oysters and clams, a pound of snow crab legs and a half pound of shrimp with corn on the cob, served in a bucket with slaw on the side).
If you’re an oyster lover (and if you’re not, why are you here?), you might be tempted to dip your toe into the waters of the oyster sampler: four raw and a half dozen each steamed and char-grilled. Feel free to do so, with a couple of caveats. Raw oysters (two or three varieties are typically available, including some “giants” from the Gulf coast that lived up to their billing recently) are reliably fresh but sometimes carelessly shucked. Watch out for shell bits, and plan on cutting a couple of adductor muscles. Char-grilled oysters are fine, though a purist will find that their flavor is overwhelmed by the toppings, whether you opt for Parmesan-garlic of jalapeño-cheddar. Steamed oysters, on the other hand, are on the money – and the bigger the oyster, the better.
True to oyster bar tradition, service is a la carte unless otherwise specified on the menu. If you want hush puppies or some of the Shack’s creamy, coarse-cut slaw with your oyster sampler, you’ll need to order them separately. An eclectic appetizer list offers more ways to round out your meal, from fried pickles to a shareable cold crab dip that’s tasty enough, though the fine texture makes you wonder why they use lump crabmeat.
In the end, though, Shuckin’ Shack is an oyster bar at heart. That’s evident even in the list of specialty cocktails, where you’ll find the Shacktini: chilled Tito’s vodka with a skewer of steamed oyster and spicy olives, served in a glass with an Old Bay rim.
Brad Barbour, the local franchisee, has been a fan of Shuckin’ Shack for well over a decade, dating back to the days when Barbour – a Sanford native who attended UNC-Wilmington – was a regular at the original Carolina Beach location. He opened the Cary location, the seventh in the chain, in January.
In decorating his restaurant, Barbour did a little digging – not of the clam variety, but in town archives – to personalize the space. The result, scattered among crushed oyster shells under Shuckin’ Shack’s acrylic bar top, is a mingled collection of vintage black and white photos of Cary and coastal scenes. “I wanted to bring the coast to Cary,” he explains.
I’d say he did just that.
4214 NW Cary Parkway, Cary; 919-377-2283
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: flip-flops-and-sunburn-evoking seafood shack
Noise level: moderate to high
Recommended: raw and steamed oysters (check the board for varieties on offer), steamed seafood samplers
Open: lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: not accepted
Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.