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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 5, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Outer Banks, YumNuts, Candy Shop War

If you're heading for the Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina this summer, here's an update on -- well, not really everything, but whatever I noticed and feel like reviewing. Pretty much what I do every week ...

First of all, this was our acid test -- or rather our sunny-day-at-the-beach test -- of Amazon's electronic book reader, the Kindle.

I didn't do any beach reading myself -- I spent most of every day in the rented house, writing a novel which, if I were a competent, functioning adult, would have been finished in March.

But my wife reports that even on the brightest day, she got excellent contrast and no reflection -- she could read easily.

Another plus: When the wind came up, the pages of the Kindle didn't flip. Since her recent shoulder surgery made a lot of extraneous arm movement unpleasant, she was very glad not to have to keep pushing pages back open. She could hold the book with one hand.

Amazon has come out with yet another Kindle model, not to replace the Kindle 2, but to supplement it. The Kindle 3 is about twice the size, so that large maps, graphs, and illustrations are much easier to see. But ... it's twice the size, so it's that much more awkward to lug around. So we're sticking with our Kindle 2s.

Naturally, any electronic book reader at the beach has the drawback that getting immersed in water kind of wrecks it. Also, you don't want to get sand in the earphone receptacle or the charging port, either. But you wouldn't incorporate a printed book in your sand castle or play volleyball with it, either.

My wife was a tough sell on the Kindle. She just didn't see the point, since books work just fine. Not until surgery made the use of a second arm in page-turning and book-holding quite uncomfortable did she realize that the Kindle had definite attractions.

Especially since the book she's reading right now -- The Magicians and Mrs. Quent -- is a nice thick hardcover and so the Kindle is a much lighter package to hold.

Kindle at the beach: A+.

*

One of our favorite OBX restaurants, Austin Creek, located on Hatteras Island right at the landing for the ferry to Okracoke, never recovered from the hurricane a few years ago. The building is fine -- it's just hard for a restaurant to stay in business when the main road to it is covered with water.

Replacing Austin Creek is, I'm sad to say, another Dirty Dick's Crab House. I can't review it because I've never been inside. And never will go inside a restaurant whose clever advertising consists of billboards saying "I got my crabs at Dirty Dick's."

But when my wife and I found ourselves at the south end of Hatteras Island, for old times' sake we got out of the car and walked around the little shopping center.

That's how we found out that the little bakery just across the walkway from Dirty Dick's is not only still open, it's better than ever. It employs some of the people who were responsible for the fine cooking at Austin Creek, and they have kept their standards high.

Highlights: very good pizza by the slice; a chocolate eclair surpassed, in America at least, only by the eclairs at Gelson's in southern California; and a first-rate semi-sweet chocolate chip cookie. It's a fitting reward for making the trip all the way down the bridge-linked islands.

Their foccaccia bread, alas, was almost too strongly seasoned for our palates. But other people will like it fine.

*

A few years ago, next to a pretty good gas station, we noticed there was a grocery store under construction. Since its completion, we've been regular customers at the Village Grocery in Avon.

It's a tiny store, but they manage to pack in a lot of quality even if the selection isn't as broad as at, say, Earth Fare or Fresh Market in Greensboro. That's where we replenished our supplies of snacks and groceries -- we were staying in Salvo, so we were only about twenty minutes away.

A snack food I saw for the first time at Village Grocery was Yumnuts Naturals. They consisted of slow-roasted no-oil-added cashews that were lightly washed or dusted with different flavors.

There are six flavors -- sea salt, spicy cajun, toasted coconut, honey, chocolate, and chili lime -- and so, being a responsible reviewer, I bought one of each and brought them back to the house for everyone to try.

The verdict: Sea salt is the best pure cashew we've had this side of Japan. (Believe it or not, the best cashews I've ever found were sold in Circle-K's Japanese subsidiary, and manufactured by them.)

As for the chocolate: Maybe we're already too dependent on thick chocolate coatings on cashews, but this light flavoring didn't really work for us.

I'm the only one that loved the toasted coconut. It's an odd flavor, but it's my favorite. The honey was fine.

Oddly, the spicy cajun was quite mild (and delicious), while the chili lime was blow-your-mouth-out hot. I liked them both, and when we left the beach to come home, we made a last run to Village Grocery and cleaned them out of our favorite flavors.

I'd point you to the Yumnuts website, but it's nothing but a brochure. You can't order anything there. I'm speaking of "YumNutsNaturals.com". There's another YumNuts company that has nothing to do with the snacks I tried, and they have the plain "yumnuts.com" URL.

They actually put more time and effort into their YumNuts Facebook page. Is that the wave of the future? I actually prefer a well-designed website to anything on Facebook, but they're certainly getting plenty of feedback from loyal fans at that location.

*

Speaking of nuts, on the way home from the OBX we stopped at a store we've been passing -- and ignoring -- for years. Mackey's Ferry has two stores, one that sells guns, and one that doesn't.

Since I'd like to think that buying a gun there would require a waiting period of a week, and I don't get out there all that often, I never bothered stopping. But this time I noticed that the little food store looked rather interesting, and I stopped in.

It's all about peanuts. We're talking serious peanuttery here, folks. I bought two kinds of peanut butter: chunky, and unsweetened smooth.

The ingredient lists are pretty simple. The unsweetened peanut butter has one ingredient: peanuts. But not just any peanuts. These are, or so the Mackey's Ferry folks claim, "the very best peanuts grown in Eastern North Carolina." I'm not going to dispute their claim.

It's not as homogenized as Jif or Skippy -- it's a bit loose and oily -- but it spreads just as well on bread.

The chunky was a disappointment, for me at least. This one has added sugar, and for my taste they added a little too much.

Some of my kids stopped there, too, and bought me a tub of their flame thrower peanuts. These are sneaky little devils -- the spice tastes quite mild until you're about halfway through chewing up a handful of nuts. Then you taste the fire. But it's not extreme, really -- not as strong as the chili lime Yumnuts, for instance -- and I enjoyed them very much.

If you aren't passing through Jamesville on Highway 64 any time soon, Mackey's Ferry has a very good website that you can purchase from: http://shop.mfpnuts.com/. I wish the folks at YumNuts would pay them a visit and see how it's done ... at least by companies that want customers nationwide.

*

Back to stuff we found at the Outer Banks. The best of the restaurants is still there and going strong: Blue Point, in Duck. The menu changes frequently, but everything -- and I mean everything -- is superb. It's the only world-class restaurant on the OBX.

But since we rent well south of Nags Head, we were happy to find a couple of very good restaurants in Buxton.

The first one we tried was Rusty's Surf and Turf. Owned and cheffed by Rusty Midgett, a scion of one of the dominant old families in the area, this is a surprisingly good restaurant.

Normally any place with "surf" and "turf" in the name would never be afflicted with my presence -- it's usually a marker of a second-rate restaurant, in my experience. But not this time.

The building is modest in size, and the tables and place settings are unpretentious, but the room is brightly painted in beachy colors, and the service was friendly and efficient. It was obvious that the wait staff is proud to be working at a restaurant like this.

Nor were the prices extravagant, though you do have to pay a little to get quality like this. We'll be back to Rusty's every time we return to the OBX.

Google "Rusty's Surf and Turf" and it will lead you to both MySpace and Facebook pages.

The other Buxton find this summer was the restaurant at The Inn at Pamlico Sound. We can't say anything about the inn itself, except that it has a beautiful setting and, if it stays at the same level of service and quality as the restaurant, it must be a superb place to stay. But I can't imagine it's cheap!

The "restaurant" is mostly scattered along the porches of the inn, so everybody gets a lovely view of the marshes, and the sailboats and jet-skis out on the water.

But it's hard to care about the scenery when the food is this good. You pay for it, but if you want an elegant setting at the south end of the OBX, this is the place.

They give excellent directions and offer some nice photographs of the place in their website at http://www.innonpamlicosound.com/

*

Moving north again, to Nags Head and points beyond, I'm sad to say that over the years we watched the quality of Penguin Isle restaurant deteriorate sharply. We stopped going, and apparently so did a lot of other people. It's closed now, and will reopen in future years as something else.

But that doesn't mean there aren't gems to be found. For instance, at 710 S. Croatan Highway (milepost 8.5 on the west side of the bypass) in Kill Devil Hills, there's a tiny shopping center attached to a Suntastic store. (There's another Suntastic farther south, but it doesn't have any shops attached.)

This is where the Try My Nuts store, formerly of Avon, has relocated. We'll miss having them so convenient to the places where we rent, but it's nice that they're still in business -- and they'll probably do better in the new location, where a lot more people can find them.

This is the place where we get our real chocolate-covered cashews, along with plenty of other great treats.

Right next door is the real gem: Duck Doughnuts. With three locations in the OBX (in Kitty Hawk just south of where the by-pass and the beach road come together, and in Duck at the Osprey Landing Center), this happened to be the one we noticed first.

The idea is that they make only one kind of doughnut -- a light, delicious cake -- but they don't ice them and then set them out for hours. No, the doughnuts you're going to eat are coming out of the oil as you walk in the door, and when you place your order, they get iced or dipped or coated or just put in a box right before your eyes.

Cooked to served: About two minutes if you ask for a coating, ten seconds if you want it plain.

This is only a drawback with the powdered sugar doughnuts -- they're so hot and fresh that the sugar melts almost at once and looks a bit gloppy. But let's see ... attractiveness versus perfect freshness ... yeah, I can deal with gloppy powdered sugar doughnuts.

My favorite was the cinnamon-sugar, but everything I saw there looked great and everything I tried was delicious. It's my new favorite doughnut store in the world and it just kills me that they don't have a shop here in Greensboro.

Or wait. Come to think of it, maybe it's actually saving my life.

Be warned, though -- they have a habit of closing at 3 pm. Don't they know that I get doughnut cravings sometimes at night? But I guess they figure that doughnuts are a morning thing. I don't know why.

Yes I do. But just because coffee drinkers often like doughnuts with their coffee, and they also drink a lot of coffee in the morning, doesn't mean that doughnuts are a morning thing, or that you have to be a coffee-drinker to enjoy them.

So get up early and make your way to one of the Duck Doughnuts locations, and unless you have to have the mostly-air glazed doughnuts from Krispy Kreme or Dunkin' Donuts, these are worth getting up for.

Then walk to the next store and you're in a branch office of Rita's Water Ice, a terrific ice cream shop with soft serve and frozen custard among their offerings. It's a chain that's widely known ... in places where I don't live. So this was my first taste, and I liked it. Get an idea of their offerings at http://www.ritasice.com/

The same little center also has a Quizno's and a Slice Pizzeria. Basically one-stop shopping for seriously good quickfood.

*

For years I've been buying a short-term membership at Spa Koru in Avon, because they have a great little exercise room -- lots of ellipticals and treadmills, and a full range of weights with plenty of benches.

It costs fifteen bucks a visit -- actually on the cheap side for a workout place -- but if you're really serious about working out while you're at the beach, it makes sense to buy a one-week membership for $45 or, if you're staying for two weeks or more, a one-month membership for $60. After four visits, you're in profits compared to the one-day price.

This summer, though, several of the female persons in our party actually went across the lobby to the spa side of the establishment, and whether it was massages, facials, manicures, or pedicures, everybody came out happy.

There's something about being pampered that most women seem to love, and since the poor dears tend to be married to mere men, in whose experience "pampering" is a word without a referent, a really good day of being babied and fussed over costs a little bit.

Some women don't like that. But I only know a couple of women in that category. It's not cheap, but here's a thought -- rent a house a row back from the beach, and with the money you save, get the women in your household a day at the spa. It'll be worth the extra steps to the beach.

And what you get is a larger house. Because a house that's full of relaxed and happy women has a lot more room in it ... or at least it feels that way.

If you're still heading for the OBX this summer, check out Spa Koru's website at http://www.spakoru.com/, and then make your reservation as soon as you get there. Or before you go. They only have so much room and can only fit so many appointments in a day.

Come on, how often do you go to the beach, anyway? And when you rent a house on the Outer Banks, what happens? The women usually end up doing most of the cooking (and cleaning up), so it's not half as much a vacation for them as it is for you.

They deserve the chance to have an experience that's all about making them feel good without having to work for it just like they do at home. That way it'll be a vacation for them, too.

*

It's a long drive to and from the OBX -- six hours from Greensboro, if you make a reasonable number of stops. (That's an hour and a half farther than Myrtle Beach -- ironic that the closest beaches to Greensboro are in another state!)

Here's how we break up our trip. We always stop at Whole Foods in Raleigh. It's so easy to get to. When you're heading in toward Raleigh on I-40, you take the Wade Avenue turnoff -- more like a freeway division than an exit.

When that highway has an interchange with the beltway, don't exit, just go under the overpass and turn left at the first intersection with a stoplight. Then turn right into the parking lot and there you are: Whole Foods.

Why would you stop there? Because that's the place for dinner, my friends. They have a superb deli. They can make sandwiches out of anything. They have an incredible salad and meat bar -- check out the barbecued beef (it has a fancy name I can't remember).

And even though I'm not a tofu fan, their mock chicken salad makes a great sandwich.

They have a full array of Naked and Odwalla juices -- I'm so glad those finally spread out of California to get pretty nearly nationwide coverage.

Their chocolate-covered graham crackers are a perfect carry-along dessert that you can eat in the car when you resume your journey.

And they have loaves and rolls of brioche bread that is as close as I've found in the U.S. to French brioche. Any package of brioche rolls that I open in the car, however, has a way of not making it all the way to the beach. So I have to buy kind of a lot of them.

Best of all, Quail Ridge Books is at the other end of the same shopping center, a true independent bookstore, with a great selection of the books you expect to see and an even better selection of the books you aren't going to notice at the big chains.

Another element of such a long drive is the audiobook you bring along. This trip, it was The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull. The cover of the book makes it look like it's for young kids, kind of like the Candyland Game, but this is not a correct impression.

This is a book that's entertaining for the whole family, including jaded adults like me. The idea is that a candy shop has opened in a small American town and some quirky and funny and likeable kids find themselves getting sucked deeper and deeper into an addiction to candy that gives them the power to do stuff.

Like fly.

The only trouble is, the proprietor, a really nice old lady with a very sharp eye, uses the kids to collect an ever-more-dangerous selection of ingredients for her concoctions. Many of these things have to be stolen, and there are dangers out there. Where do the kids draw a line and say, We're not going to do that?

The book is aided by a wonderful reading by Emily Janice Card. Yes, she's a relative, but one minute into her performance and you'll realize that there's not a speck of exaggeration in my claim that she's one of the best professional book readers out there.

*

A final word about beach houses. We used to rent condos at Cherry Grove in North Myrtle Beach, and we were spoiled by the elevators in every building.

Most of the houses in the OBX don't have elevators, but some do, and I've got to say, when you're lugging everything up three flights of stairs, the elevator starts to look like a necessity.

Yes, I'm man enough to do the lugging and stair climbing. But sometimes the price difference in the rental starts looking perfectly reasonable. Let's see ... Beachfront at price $X, no elevator; one row back and price $X-minus-1500, with an elevator.

You do the math.


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