For those of us who grew up thinking of herring as a pickled hors d’oeuvre, North Carolina river herring is a shock. For one thing, it looks like a fish. For another, it tastes like a fish — not the least bit like chicken or anything else. If you like fish, you will love it. And there is no better place to love it than at the Cypress Grill on the banks of the Roanoke River. Here is the last of the old-time herring shacks, quite literally a cypress wood shack, open only for the herring run, January through April.
There is nothing on the Cypress Grill menu other than fish. In addition to herring, you can have rock (striped bass), perch, flounder, shrimp, oysters, devil crab, clam strips, trout fillet, or catfish fillet. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, roe is available. Not even a gesture is offered for fish frowners. No hamburgers or grilled cheese sandwiches here! Side dishes include a choice of vegetables, which are fine but not particularly interesting: boiled potatoes, fried okra, slaw.
The herring are spectacular, heads lopped off but not the tails, each one veiled in the thinnest possible sheath of cornmeal, its flesh scored with notches so that when it was tossed into the boiling oil, it cooked quickly deep down to the bone.
The big issue among river herring lovers is degree of doneness. Some ask for it sunnyside up, meaning minimal immersion in the fry kettle, resulting in a fish from which you can peel away the skin and lift moist pieces of meat off the bones. The opposite way to go is to ask for your herring cremated: fried until hard and crunchy and so well cooked that all the little bones have become indistinguishable from the flesh around them. The meat itself is transformed, its weight lightened so the natural oiliness is gone but the flavor has become even more intense. The crust and the interior are melded, and they break off in unbelievably savory bite-size pieces, finally leaving nothing but a herring backbone on the plate.
While some herring-crazed patrons fill up on four, five, six, or more of the plush fish, we must advise first-time visitors to the Cypress Grill to leave appetite for dessert. That’s the one non-fish item on the menu worth singing about. Every morning, proprietors Leslie and Sally Gardner make pies. When we stopped to visit one day around 10am, Mr. Gardner led us right over to the pie case – a wooden cupboard built by a neighbor to be so sturdy, he says, “you could dance on it.” He insisted we feel the bottom of a pie pan, still nearly too hot to touch. We sat down then and there and forked up a piece of chocolate pie that was modest-sized but intensely fudgy.