Durham is about fifteen miles by bicycle from my home, depending on the route. By the shortest route it is not even a very pleasant bike ride. But Durham is a cool place.
I had read about Saltbox Seafood and its eccentricities, so I biked over to check it out. Would the food be worth the wait?
In New Orleans in an industrial neighborhood there is a snowball stand called Hansen’s Sno-Bliz. It has even won a James Beard culinary award, certainly the only one ever for a snow cone place. Back in the 1980’s when Tootie and I lived near it, it was run by its original owners, an elderly couple who had run it since the 1930’s. They were pretty much the only employees and they made amazingly creative snowballs with an exhaustive list of toppings. All the syrups were made in-house. They even invented their own snow making machine, with ice of uncommon fluffiness. When we would arrive outside there would be a line of maybe five people. But it still took about half an hour get to the front of the line. The old lady (Mrs. Hansen, I presumed) took your order. She would slowly and lovingly work out exactly what you wanted on your snowball. It took like five minutes to just place an order for one or two snowballs. The pace was so slow in was excruciating. But if you had nothing else to do on a warm summer evening it was sometimes worth taking an hour (or more!) to get a delicious snowball. The place still exists today, run by their granddaughter.
I saw some parallels in Saltbox Seafood Joint, on the east side of downtown Durham. There is nowhere to sit except on picnic tables scattered on the lawn.
At 1:30 PM on a Thursday there were three people standing at a walk up counter. The guy taking orders was super friendly. It took, however, nearly half an hour before he finally took my order for one clam roll. He kept stopping taking orders so he could deliver food to other people. When he finally took the order, as he had done for the people in front of me, he was sure to say “we are a little behind right now, the order will take forty-five minutes, is this OK?”
The guy said their menu changes every day, depending on what seafood they get that day, driven in from their sources on the North Carolina coast. He said all seafood was from North Carolina.
I was determined to see this through, so I said “sure.” It looked like there were two people working there, the guy taking orders and the other guy preparing food. A little later I also saw another guy in the back.
I sat on a picnic table in the shade. I actually was quite pleasant. I read The New Yorker on my Kindle for somewhat longer than forty-five minutes. I was starvingly hungry. I swore I would never do this again.
But when my name was called the food was really delicious. Clams have a distinctive flavor that can stand up in strong seasoning. Their special creative coleslaw covered the fried clams, which had been heavily sprinkled with lime juice and a spicy hot and salty powder resembling Old Bay seasoning. Everything tasted great, even the bread. Unlike most fried seafood, I felt no urge to put ketchup or anything else on this. It was complete and ready to go.
So it was great food that took forever to get. Was it worth it? I dunno, it depends on how valuable your time is!