Fried food has gotten a lot of bad press lately. Most folks hearing the word “fried” immediately get a mental picture of some poor quality foodstuff covered with a clay-textured batter that’s been cooked in 30-weight to the consistency (and flavor) of stucco.
Thankfully, the practitioners of the calabash-style of fried cookery know how to do fried just-about-anything the right way. The Tri-Cities is fortunate to have such a place up in Bristol. Fishtales Pigtales Café could have been lifted bodily from among its brothers on South Carolina’s Grand Strand and set down on US-11E’s roadside.
Though their sign is certainly visible as you motor along Volunteer Parkway, the restaurant is not, so you’ll have to look sharp to spot the entrance to their parking lot.
Serving the Tri-Cities going on 20 years now, Fishtales Pigtales Café has the interior look of your typical 1990s-era Carolina seafood house, being several roomy dining halls fitted with family size tables and booths, all of it off a busy centrally located kitchen. This kitchen’s main product is seafood, and that means fish, shrimp, clams, oysters and the like done calabash-style.
My dine-around friends and I were driving down Volunteer Parkway talking about our last trip to the beach when the Dieter announced she was “in the mood for some seafood,” and could we please stop at Fishtales Pigtales Café? Well, the Carnivore wasn’t “in the mood” and said so. The Dieter brought him round, assuring him that the Pigtales side of their menu had what he wanted, including barbecue, ribs and such.
After being seated and seen to by our friendly server Betsy, we were assisted in our choices by our new friend Bob, whose restaurant this was. Bob explained how the calabash method differs from traditional frying.
The name “calabash” derives from the tiny coastal town of Calabash, N.C., self-proclaimed Seafood Capital of the World. Calabash-style cooking uses fresh-as-possible seafood soaked in a mixture of milk, buttermilk and spices (some recipes add an egg or two) and tossed in a flour and cornmeal dredge. This is then quick-fried in a light oil and served with coleslaw and baked beans as side dishes. An ear of fresh-picked corn may also find its way to your plate.
The result is a treat for your taste buds, especially with a frosty glass of iced sweet tea.
In between some comfortable jokes, Bob related his current task, locating a reliable source of fresh oysters and clams; this being necessary because of the damage wrought to the Bluepoint and Chesapeake oyster beds by 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.
The Dieter got her seafood fix by ordering a scallops, clams and fish seafood combination platter ($12.49), while the Carnivore chose the Pigtales sampler platter ($15.49). The Retiree wasn’t in the mood either, stating that the broiled chicken tenders platter ($9.99) was more her style. My dining partner and I went for the (menu-stated) “Ultimate Calabash Seafood Experience,” deciding on the Dinner for Two ($22.49).
We had house salads as a first course, using the sauces on the table as our dressing. Each salad was made special with the addition of a fat handful of fresh marble-sized hushpuppies — nutty and slightly sweet cornmeal fried crispy.
Our platters arrived shortly thereafter. The Pigtales platter was just what the Carnivore wanted, pulled pork smoked on-site, with grilled chicken tenders to hand for a change of taste and texture. A smile in every bite, though even this was eclipsed when the Carnivore started in on the sampler’s quarter-rack of pork ribs, matching his own smile with the ear-to-ear barbecue sauce “smile” of a true rib-eater.
The Retiree’s broiled chicken tenders were quite good, the dusting of lemon pepper bringing out the flavor of the fresh chicken white meat, matching nicely with the rice and steamed broccoli side order.
The Dieter was in her element; her calabash-style scallops and clams disappeared long before the codfish filets did. Save for a squeeze of a fresh lemon slice, the Dieter used no cocktail, tartar or barbecue sauce on her meal.
Meanwhile, my dining partner and I were busy reducing our Dinner for Two to its component parts. Given a choice of three seafood entrees each, the two of us demolished a turkey server-sized platter laden with popcorn shrimp (melt-in-your-mouth), fried oysters (really fresh, and the best I’ve had in a long time), Alaskan whitefish (tender, flaky and fresh fish filets), Carolina-style deviled crab (a husk of a crab shell, this time minus the eye-stalks, filled with a wad of breading mixture that had my dining partner wondering where the crab went), jumbo fried shrimp (good, but could have been bigger and fresher) and lastly, a pair of Maryland blue crab cakes (oh, here’s where the crab went; backfin and claw crabmeat in every bite.)
The best side order of the meal was my barbecue baked beans, demonstrating that taking your time with baked beans yields a good result.
Fishtales Pigtales Café does steaks and chops, and makes some amazing desserts, including Linda’s Chocolate Lovin’ Spooncake ($3.79 a slice) for you choc-o-holics. They cater and have event rooms available for your next get-together. Their website is very informative and is updated often.
My Carnivore friend went home wearing a faint-but still-there barbecue sauce “smile,” my Dieter friend got her calabash-style seafood mood seen to, and the rest of us had a great time with Bob, Betsy and the rest of the team at Fishtales Pigtales Café. So will you.
Fishtales Pigtales Café
2131 Volunteer Parkway
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Fri. 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Sat. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Sun. 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
(To-go orders desk closes a half hour before the dining room.)
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