A new year brings inspiration on many fronts. To look and feel our very best. To become more open to life’s possibilities. To be bold and explore what’s “out there.” Fortunately, when it comes to nearby dining experiences, there really is something for everyone — including a few quirky or delightful surprises. Here are some recent discoveries.
Seafood bounty and more
Word-of-mouth about La Perla has been overwhelmingly positive, with many locals welcoming the chance to savor the inspired cuisine of Nayarit, a western state of Mexico known for its fresh seafood.
Translated “the pearl,” La Perla opened on Nov. 1 in the former El Burrito space near The Fresh Market. The restaurant owners and staff are the same, but the concept is different. An undersea-themed decor invites customers and serves as a preview of coming attractions. A bar occupies one side of the dining room; the managers were hopeful about receiving their liquor license within days.
An extensive menu features shrimp, crab legs, clams, octopus, lobster, salmon and other fresh fish. There are also plenty of options for non-seafood eaters, including a flavorful ribeye steak and the highly recommended beef or chicken fajitas, plus burritos and enchiladas. Several lunch specials are under $11.
The menu also entices with several types of ceviche, seafood that’s been cured in lime juice and punctuated with tomato and onion and a hint of spice. I started with shrimp ceviche, large enough to share, beautifully presented in a white bowl and topped with cucumber and a fan of fresh avocado slices ($18.99).
The authentic 7 Seas Stew, a soothing tomato-based broth with just the right amount of kick, is chockful of prawns (yes, those are fish eyes staring back at you, plus heads, tails and tentacles, too); smaller peeled shrimp; clams, crab and lobster in the shell; and other seafood ($27.99). In an interview with Jose Salcido, an attentive and thoughtful manager, he tells me that the kitchen staff will remove the shells and other parts on request.
The portions were so generous, I ended up taking about three-quarters of the food home with me — and enjoyed more delightful meals over the next few days.
Find La Perla Cuisine of Nayarit at 310 Glensford Drive, Fayetteville. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Reservations are accepted. 910-263-8825
Peruvian home cooking
A sign for Gabriella’s in downtown Dunn announces that the restaurant serves Peruvian, Italian and American specialties. But during a recent visit, everyone was happily partaking of only the Peruvian home cooking.
We found double-carb bliss in the authentic beef Lomo Saltado, topped with french fries with fluffy white rice on the side; add in lots of sauteed red onion, tomatoes and cilantro in an addictive sauce ($15.99). The dish can also be made to order with chicken.
Another thumbs-up goes to the Milanesa de Pollo, a thin-cut chicken breast, breaded and lightly fried, served with rice or fries and a house salad or substitute black beans ($15.99). We also shared a super-fresh chicken tamale.
We were too full for dessert but will make sure to save room next time for homemade arroz con leche (rice pudding).
If you’re craving Italian or American fare, the bargain choices are abundant — from spaghetti and meatballs to burgers, grinders and fried chicken. A kid’s menu also is available (about $5 to $8).
The atmosphere is casual and simply feels like family. They are proud of their food, and rightfully so. Our server was smiling, gracious and quick.
Gabriella’s is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Fayetteville, barring traffic snafus. If you’re in town during the day, check out Organic Butcher Shop just down the street. It’s a great place to shop for quality beef, poultry and seafood, including dry scallops, wild salmon and stuffed chicken breasts, plus stuffed mushrooms, a variety of sauces and Danny B’s pimiento cheese, just to name a few.
Gabriella’s is at 325 E. Broad St. in downtown Dunn. Lunch and dinner hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. It’s closed Monday. 910-304-1368
Happy days are here again
On the advice of a teenager, we headed for Fry Daddys off Interstate 95 in Selma for a Saturday lunch. Got to say, he (and they) nailed it.
Walking into the place is like walking into a rerun of TV’s “Happy Days.” The nostalgia factor is through the roof at this family-owned restaurant — from the red leatherette bar stools to the Americana art.
The snug dining room is sandwiched between a lunch counter and a partially exposed kitchen. Slices of homemade cake in plastic containers occupy a special place on the counter from where the Southern-sweet waitresses tend to business. On the opposite side, we catch glimpses of cooks who are working their fry magic — the sizzle of oil and clanging utensils happily melding with beach music.
The food fulfills the “wow” factor. The teen’s burger is a huge beef patty, tangy barbecue sauce, chili, crispy bacon and a heaping helping of mac and cheese in a delicious bun. The home fries make it truly a feast. It’s about 11 bucks.
The older folks go for fish platters — a combo with fried founder and shrimp — perfectly golden brown and nongreasy. Add deviled crab to make it a trio of goodness ($14.99/$16.99). Two sides and hushpuppies complete the meals. We especially like the fried okra and slaw.
The waitresses keep the sweet tea flowing.
Don’t be surprised when you arrive, though. The restaurant is connected to a convenience store and filling station, which is a trend we’re seeing more of these days. And let’s face it: Many of us long for the days when life was a little simpler. Fry Daddys fills the bill without breaking the bank.
Fry Daddys Fish & Chicken House is at 25 JR Road. Take Interstate 95 to Exit 97. Fry Daddys is a stone’s throw from the new Old North State Food Hall. Both destinations are two exits north of Carolina Premium Outlets, so you might make a day of it. There’s also a Fry Daddys in Goldsboro. Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. 919-334-2525
A pig in a what?
For years, I’ve heard the Big Guy in our house wax poetic about something called a “Pig in a Puppy.” Not pigs in blankets, mind you, but the alliterative Pig-N-Pup, as it’s also known at Kings Restaurant. A Kinston institution since 1936, Kings has been featured in The New York Times and various magazines and was praised by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
My Guy kept trying to explain that he craves a jumbo hushpuppy stuffed with North Carolina Eastern-style pork barbecue and slaw. For folks Down East, it’s a delicacy for which there is no comparison. Just finger-lickin’, lip-smackin’ good. At only $6.99 apiece.
So, on a trip back from New Bern, I saw the Kings sign and swung into the parking lot. Folks were lingering inside and outside, laughing and holding fellowship after indulging in the Sunday lunch buffet. Regulars, to be sure. I knew this would be a happy place. The vintage feel and friendly vibe makes me want to return and stay a while.
Once home, the Pig in a Puppy got gobbled up so quickly I didn’t stand a chance at getting a bite. But I did experience quite possibly the best collard greens on the planet.
I’ve also learned there’s good news for those who aren’t going to be in the Kinston area anytime soon. Kings has something called Nationwide Oink Express Shipping. To put together your own Pig in a Puppy or taste their national award-winning barbecue ribs — and a host of other Down East deliciousness, call 800-332-OINK (6465) or visit kingsbbq.com.
Find Kings Restaurant at 405 E. New Bern Road in Kinston. Hours: midmorning to 8 p.m. daily. 252-527-2101