Slurping down oysters at Sunny Side was high on the list of the hubby's birthday wishes. So, ROAD TRIP! Williamston, NC is a little crossroads of a town floating in the flat coastal plains just inland from the Albemarle Sound, about two hours or so from the Triangle.
Sunny Side is so worth the drive. It's a landmark, steaming oysters since 1935. There's a large bar room in the front, where live music keeps things lively on a Saturday night while you wait for an hour or two for your turn in the back room around the horseshoe-shaped bar.
Slide onto a stool, then peer onto the floor in the middle. Yep, wood shavings. Catches the drips when the buckets of oysters are brought in from out back, steaming and overflowing with the bivalves.
I picked Jesse, our server and shucker for the night, out of the line up of all the shuckers' mug shots printed on the paper placemats, while we waited for our peck to steam. He's been working at the Sunny Side for 25 years, always his night job, the second one that keeps him afloat, he said, as he poured hot butter into little saucers, then added another bowl of horseradish for us to mix into Sunny Side's own sweet cocktail sauce made with a secret recipe.
The menu is simple: oysters, steamed, not fried or baked. Shrimp, steamed. Crab legs, steamed. There's no coleslaw, no fries, no veggies, except broccoli smothered with cheese, if you insist. There aren't even any hushpuppies, just packages of saltines opened by each server as you need them.
Jesse chatted as he put his wooden board on the lower workspace, and with bare hands - no gloves, mind you - started opening our prizes, distributing them equally in the small bowls set in front of us.
The oysters this past week were from Texas, and like most things Texan, were big and juicy. Next week, around Thanksgiving this year, they hope to score some oysters from North Carolina waters, from the Pamlico Sound, down near Stumpy Point and Engelhard.
Our bill, for two pecks of oysters - it was a birthday, mind you - and for a pound of steamed shrimp, and a few beers, was about the same as a date for a full-fledged meal. But, it made the birthday boy very happy, and was well worth the drive of dodging deer in the dark.
TRY THIS RECIPE, AT HOME
Here's a delicious recipe from a local......
CRAB SLOUGH OYSTERS (C) from THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK: Recipes & Traditions from NC's Barrier Islands, by Elizabeth Wiegand, 2008, Globe Pequot Press.
Crab Slough is in the Pamlico Sound at the southern end of Roanoke Island near Wanchese. It’s a well-known area for harvesting prime oysters because the water is slightly rough, being near the Oregon Inlet, so that only single oysters, rather than clumps, are formed. The water is rather brackish which gives the oysters a delicious salty taste. Frequently, tiny pea crabs, themselves a gourmet treat, are found residing in the oysters. Crab Slough oyster beds were “claimed” and passed down from generation to generation, says Frank White, a Manteo native.
Imagine White’s surprise when on a trip to New York City years ago, he found Crab Slough Oysters on the menu at Joe Allen, a restaurant near the theatre district. He adapted the dish by the chef, Ed Gafney.
3 dozen oysters, preferably from Crab Slough, in their shells
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound fresh or frozen spinach, thawed
1 ½ sticks butter
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce
- Open and remove oysters from the shells. If you should find tiny crabs, be sure to save and include with the oysters. Reserve each of the larger, flat halves of the oyster shells, and place on a large baking sheet or pan.
- Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add the garlic, stirring and cooking for just a minute or until the garlic is almost brown.
- Add the spinach and sauté until fresh spinach is thoroughly wilted or frozen spinach is warm. Drain the spinach in a colander.
- Divide spinach among the oyster shells. Place one oyster (and one pea crab, if present) on top of the spinach.
- In a heavy skillet, melt the butter, and add the Worcestershire sauce and hot pepper sauce. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until butter is nut brown.
- Preheat the oven to broil.
- Drizzle each prepared oyster with the browned butter mixture. Place under hot broiler for two to five minutes, or until oysters are thoroughly heated. Serve immediately.