The appeal of counter service restaurants is no mystery. They’re fast, and they’re cheap. We expect reasonably good food, naturally, and the dining area — if there is one — should be clean and inviting. But as a rule we’re not looking for world class cuisine or a lavish setting.
It’s rare that we stumble across a gem that raises the bar so high above the counter service norm that it deserves to be grouped with its elite peers in a special sub-genre all their own.
Namu and Saltbox Seafood Joint are sparkling examples, one serving up a refreshing take on Korean cuisine in a magical setting, and the other consistently delivering impeccably fresh, expertly prepared seafood at bargain prices.
I call them paper tray gourmet.
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5420 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
Tucked away in Straw Valley, a small commercial complex ensconced in a miniature forest of hardwood trees and tall bamboo, Namu is not a place you’re likely to stumble across by accident. If you do go looking for it, you’ll find yourself thinking you need a treasure map to supplement your GPS. (Hint: The entrance is on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard side of the building.)
Persevere. When you do walk through the door, you’ll feel as if you’ve stumbled on the Shangri-La of restaurant settings. Muted earth tones, lots of natural wood and greenery, and the clean lines of the mid-century modern structure set a serene mood for a maze of rooms surrounding a glass-enclosed interior courtyard. For those who find the zen of the space compromised by the glowing apples on the backs of laptops (Namu is part-Korean restaurant, part-coffee shop), a sprawling, secluded patio — complete with koi pond — beckons.
The menu, listed on a large chalkboard behind the order counter, is a mix of traditional and contemporary Korean fare. There’s also a varied selection of Counter Culture coffee drinks, teas and Korean sodas, and a small but well-chosen selection of beers and wines on a separate printed menu.
You’ll find most of the traditional dishes grouped under the “Han Saang” heading (literally, “one table,” a reference to the Korean custom of sharing a meal family-style). Think of these as shareable small plates — or, to be precise, small paper trays.
Korean barbecue is well-represented, and a worthy option even if you don’t get to cook it yourself. I’m partial to the galbi (short ribs), but I wouldn’t say no to any of the bulgogi (beef, spicy pork or chicken). Mandoo, Korea’s answer to potstickers, are another good bet. So are seafood pancakes, which are smaller than is typically served in restaurants but every bit as rewarding.
By all means, round out your meal with both kinds of kimchi on offer: the familiar spicy red version and a tangy, bracing white kimchi. As long as you’re at it, spring for orders of spicy edamame, seasoned bean sprouts and geem (toasted nori) for a D-I-Y banchan.
Venture over to the other side of the menu, labeled “Namu Dish,” for entree-size portions, and a walk on the wild side. Here you’ll find Korean barbecue served up in everything from tacos to something called kimchi bul-fries: your choice of bulgogi served nacho style over waffle fries, topped with pan-fried kimchi, a fried egg and spicy aioli.
Not feeling quite that adventurous? A classic bibimbap is one of Namu’s best-sellers, and deservedly so. Or go for a combo — Bo’s special, which serves up Korean barbecue, mandoo, rice (white or fried) and a small spring mix salad. Or Joe’s special: barbecue, japchae (Korean vermicelli noodles), rice and salad.
That’s Bo and Joe as in Bo Kwon and Joe Choi, the restaurant’s owners — and both, not coincidentally, owners of popular Korean food trucks (Bo’s Kitchen and Bulkogi, respectively). Now that they’ve joined forces under one enchanting roof, the whole of their combined efforts turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Saltbox Seafood Joint
Two Durham locations: 608 N Mangum St. (walkup window only) and 2637 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.
919-908-8970 (Mangum); 919-237-3499 (Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd.)
My mouth waters just describing Saltbox Seafood Joint owner/chef Ricky Moore’s signature crab grits. The grits are cooked in milk enriched with crab roe and seasoned, in the chef’s words, for “a she-crab soup flavor profile.” These serve as a rich, creamy foundation for a generous portion of lump crab meat. That’s blue crab, fresh from the waters of Virginia or the Carolinas, cooked and picked in house.
I’ve never had the crab grits.
Not for want of trying, mind you. It’s just that the chef only offers the dish on Saturdays, and only when blue crabs are in season and he can get crabs that meet his standards. And believe me, Moore — a New Bern native and Culinary Institute of America alum who worked in fine dining restaurants before opening the original Saltbox in 2012 — has some pretty exacting standards.
I couldn’t say how many times I’ve been to Saltbox — for years, the original location, a quaint shack on Mangum Street with a walkup window and a couple of picnic tables out front, and more recently the new Rockwood location, which has indoor seating. But as luck would have it, the few times I’ve been there on a Saturday, crab grits weren’t in the offing.
And every time, my disappointment has lasted only the few minutes it took to get whatever it was I wound up ordering. Because Moore insists on serving only fresh local seafood, the offering is short, sweet and seasonal. You’ll typically find just a half dozen or so options, available as a plate (with thinly sliced fried potatoes and and a distinctive dill- and parsley-punctuated slaw) or on a “roll” (aka buttered and toasted hoagie bun). Depending on the seafood, you can choose to have it fried or grilled.
A few weeks ago, I took the hint from the WAHOO SEASON sign out front and scored a roll filled with so many grilled finger-size filets it came with a fork. More recently, I’ve had fried black drum, flawless soft shell crabs, and mackerel (an oily fish that notoriously develops a fishy taste soon after it’s pulled out of the water) so fresh my mackerel-averse wife didn’t wrinkle her nose when I offered her a bite.
Really, though, it doesn’t matter what you order — flounder, oysters, scallops, grouper, black bass, bone-in croaker, you name it. You can count on it being irreproachably fresh and expertly prepared by a loyal staff (some of whom have been with Moore since he opened the first Saltbox) who, in the chef’s words, “share the vision.”
The only advice I can give is to order the fried broccoli as a side if it’s available. Also hush honeys. Moore’s other signature dish is what it sounds like: hushpuppies drizzled with honey. You can try to save them for dessert, but I assure you resistance is futile.
In short, everything I’ve ever had at either Saltbox location — finfish or shellfish, fried or grilled, plate or roll — has been nothing short of exemplary. And I do mean everything. I haven’t tested this theory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if even the paper tray the food is served in is delicious.