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Gulf Rim Cafe (Hillsborough, NC): perhaps the best casual seafood in the Triangle (fresh and local!)

  • m

After having lived in Florida for 20 years, I've been sorely underwhelmed with the fresh seafood offerings around the Triangle. Fresh Southeast coast seafood has been difficult if not impossible to come by in casual settings, despite our being only 2 hours from the ocean. Sure, one can drop a load of cash to eat at Fins, or put up with seafood that is frozen and shipped from thousands of miles away, but there hasn't been a place where one can go for good, inexpensive, fresh and local seafood prepared simply but done right (with Blu being perhaps the only exception, but I'll get to that). I've always had to drive to South Beach Grill in Wrightsville Beach to get my seafood fix. That is, until now...

Very recently, a place opened up in downtown Hillsborough on Churton Street called Gulf Rim Cafe (where the Flying Fish used to be). The chef and wife (Joe and Andrea Tullos) moved to this area from New Orleans shortly before Hurricane Katrina and have opened up this place as a tribute to cajun/creole seafood, Florida Gulf Coast seafood, and even Yucatan-based seafood recipes. The menu is indeed a survey of these three styles, and the chef excels at all of them. The key difference is his starting point of ingredients - with an emphasis, if not exclusivity, on local seafood. Indeed, every night he'll have a chalkboard of fish of the day which revolves around whatever he can get fresh. You won't find farm-raised tilapia coming out of this kitchen (sorry Blu)

Tonight they had a special menu to celebrate the Last Fridays! street event in Hillsborough. We started off with conch fritters, which were absolutely sublime. The conch were some of the best I've ever had (and that includes my conch binge down in the Florida Keys) - perfectly juicy and tender, with the fritter itself having just a right amount of tabasco bite paired with a wonderful remoulade. For my entree I had the grilled wahoo, which came in the form of a thick (1 1/2 inch) filet that was perfectly cooked all the way through yet juicy. The fish was clearly fresh - and perhaps one of the best cuts of fish I've had at a casual restaurant farther than 40 miles from the coast. The cilantro cream sauce was light and subtle and complemented the white, flaky nature of the meat perfectly. The dish was paired with green beans and rice. The other member of my party had the crawfish etouffle, served over rice with a andouille cream sauce. It was OUTSTANDING. I kept stealing bites off of her plate. Wow.

They also had baby back ribs today, which we did not get (but they have a smoker set up on the sidewalk). These had been slow cooking for hours in a blackberry cilantro glaze, and we noticed the table next to us exclaim that they were "[expletive] good." In fact, they got a huge thing of it to go.

Their regular menus look extremely promising too, for both lunch and dinner. They have shrimp po-boys, salads, fish and shrimp tacos, oysters, seafood baskets with fries, etc. - basically the sort of stuff you'd expect at South Beach Grill in Wrightsville Beach or some other local casual seafood joint by the sea. The atmosphere here really makes you feel like you're on the beach - it's cajun to be sure in music and decor - very fun.

I know some of you may consider it sacrilege to claim a place better than Blu Seafood, but I'm willing to say that they serve different niches. Blu is great for importing oysters from all over the place and serving up seafood with great and interesting recipes. But honestly, it's a bit tough to find fresh, local seafood on Blu's menu. They don't serve shrimp. Their "fish of the day" always seems to be tilapia, which is decidedly NOT fresh and local. They don't have casual fried seafood baskets and such.

So this is where Gulf Rim Cafe comes in. It's a lot more tropical with a fun vibe to it. It deserves checking out. I'll be back for lunch and will post some more reflections then.

Lunch menu: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com/files/Lunc...

Dinner menu: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com/files/Dinn...

Sunday brunch menu: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com/files/Brun...

website: http://www.gulfrimcafe.com

Lunch: Monday - Saturday - 11:30 - 2:30
Dinner: Mon - Thurs: 5-9
Fri - Sat: 5-10
Sunday Brunch: 11-3

111 North Churton Street
Hillsborough, NC

(919) 245-0040

Gulf Rim Cafe
111 N Churton St, Hillsborough, NC 27278

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  1. Mike - I am so glad to have this great information. I have to go to Hillsborough about once a month, and I am looking forward to trying Gulf Rim. Thanks!

    1. I live in Hillsborough and have eaten here a few times, though the place hasn't made quite the impression upon me as it has upon you. Nothing has ever stood out: the conch fritters were fine enough, though nothing memorable and nowhere near "sublime," while the fish burrito is priced a dollar or two more than I feel it's worth. The black beans that accompany the burrito, I think, are tasty. The servers are friendly, but if you go there later in the evening, they seem to be in a hurry to close up the restaurant. One evening some friends and I went in to have some appetizers and some beers and we were, more or less, hurried out. We went next door to the Wooden Nickel only to find two of the Gulf Rim servers hurry through the door minutes later.

      1 Reply
      1. re: otto_pivner

        Yes, the one time we went to Gulf Rim we were underwhelmed - and I thought it was rather pricey for what we got.

        That spot seems to kind of cursed too. We've lived here for almost 8 years now and Gulf Rim is the 4th restaurant to go into that space in that amount of time. But maybe this one will stay awhile.

      2. Mike - Great review, I have been eating at the Gulf Rim Cafe, GRC, since the first week of them changing the name in August 2007. It has been one of my top 10 places to eat, but in the last 2 weeks it has officially became my favorite spot to enjoy a meal. I think it took some time to get the restaurant to what the new owners had planned. So if you have not been in since the first of April, it deserves another shoot. I have carried numerous friends and family there and they have enjoyed the place as much as I have and they have gone back. Recently my wife surprised me by having my birthday party there in April and everyone (11 of us) enjoyed everything. The seafood, like Mike said, is one of the cornerstones of the place, it is fresh and you can tell it and if when you go, they have the dinner special Scallops with Bourbon sauce, you have to get it, but with that said, I have never had a bad special. Some of my favorites off the menu are, Fried Pickles, Conch Fritters, Crawfish Pie and just about anything they have listed for the daily special listed on their website. Everything on the brunch menu on Sunday is “Quite Delicious”, but if you like crab, you have to try the Crab Cake Benedict. They even keep Mountain Dew under the counter for my favorite drink, Jack & Dew, which I order from time to time when I go out to GRC. I have been so impressed by them that I had them cater our Christmas Banquet (80 people) back in December, and they did a fantastic job for us. I am as cheap as the next guy, maybe more, and I have to say knowing what quality food costs, that their lunch prices are great and the dinner prices are fair. Worth going!

        1. honestly, i havent been this impressed by GRC in their standard menu, though i'll give them kudos for a well-done brunch menu.

          I guess, out side of the Brunch menu, which i feel is creatively put together and actually representative of the foods and cultures Joe is trying to represent...i feel the rest of the menu is just rather...pedestrian. I just think he could have done much better with the menu, and I dont see why he had to pay any sort of Homage to the previous owner by keeping things like "The Flying Mayan" on the menu...if you want a flying Mayan, go to the flying burrito

          1. OUY, looks like I jumped the gun with praising this place. Perhaps I should've waited to try their menu not on a special evening before extrapolating their greatness. I think we have enough data points c/o other opinions in this thread to suggest that it deserves a few more tries (which I will do) to either confirm or reject my initial impressions.

            1 Reply
            1. re: mikeh

              not at all! some people love it...I dont think its bad, I just think it could do so much better. I've known the owners, and I know they can do better...but they have gone the more safe route in my opinion

            2. When I looked at the menu it was familiar. I think I ate there before the change in ownership. The Tarpon Springs Greek salad stood out - since it is missing many of the ingredients that any Greek salad in Pinellas/Pasco always has. The server at that time found my questions about the missing items very tedious, I ordered something else, meal was mediocre & have not been back.

              Mikeh, your review & the further info of new owners has me inclined to try it again.
              TSQ75's mention of them keeping old menu items as a homage - that can be dangerous too. Ex: I recognized the old items & would have just assumed it was the same place & not been willing to give them another try!

              Some friends have a lovely jewelry store down the road, I'll have to try Gulf Rim Cafe next time I visit their shop!

              1 Reply
              1. re: meatn3

                they're great people, and I do love their Brunch! Tuesday nights, the owner and a catering friend do a "showcase" cooking night, which i have yet to get to...maybe that's worth it.

                but lets face it, caribbean food is the original fusion, and it peasant food at its best...comforting and flavorful and zesty and real...it should represent all that...the european the african and the indigenous...mm

              2. I just wanted to post to reaffirm an earlier comment i had made...

                Had Brunch there today...it was perfect. Exactly what i like to see a place do...offer options different than your average brunch, and reflect the feel you're trying to portray.

                the $15 for the brunch entree was worth the sheer amount of food they offered in the plate.

                my shrip and grits plate was half covered with cheesy grits, grilled shrimp and rich tasso crab gravy, and also came with 2eggs, 2 pieces of bacon (or sausage) 2 half slices of bread, and sliced fruit...it was a beautifully composed and balanced plate...and did its job of filling a belly until evening.

                my husband's crab cakes were a good size, on crumpets, with perfectly poached eggs and tasty hollandaise. accompanied by home fries (or grits) and fruit.

                i still am unimpressed byt the lunch and dinner menus just not creative at all...and the Flying Mayan Burrito that they kept on the menu...while a really amazing veggie burrito...should def. not be $10

                1. Can't wait for the Weaver St. Market to open in Hillburough. It'll be more worthwhile to pop into Hillsborough from Chapel Hill when we will be able to take in a good meal and get some grocery shopping done in one trip. I have a feeling the amount of business done by the Churton St. restos will jump dramatically when Weaver St. opens-- which their sign is nebulous about saying "by the end of May."

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: bbqme

                    I've got to say though...driving by the new site and seeing this massive edifice and multi-level dock there is rather depressing...

                    I cant believe WSC has become that large...and that its in lil old Hillsborough.

                    1. re: TSQ75

                      I guess quite a few of the Weaver Street shareowners live in Hillsborough and have asked for years about getting a branch there. They're also putting a large prepared food facility into some nearby old warehouses - that's what they are waiting on. When that's done they'll open the market, which will also have an indoor cafe. The entire first floor will belong to them - they have purchased the site.

                      The Orange County Library will also move over there later on, so there's going to be a lot going on in that building once everything's in place.