Route 13, the two-lane highway that threads the Eastern Shore of Virginia from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to the Maryland state line, passes through another world. Nothing like the rolling hills of more familiar Virginia to the west of the Bay, it is shockingly flat; old-timers speak with a Tidewater accent that linguists trace back to English spoken three centuries ago; and it is impossible not to do double-takes when passing signs for towns with such names as Little Hell, Mutton Hunk, Onancock, Bloxom, and Nassawadox.
Traveling this breeze-swept route, no one could miss Metompkin Seafood, located between Temperanceville and Modest Town. A long series of bright yellow sign boards are set up along the roadside announcing the eatery’s impending presence in bold, hand-painted red script: “soft crabs,” “steamed shrimp,” “fried fish,” “oysters,” and “home made crab cakes.” Anyone looking for impeccable seafood, expertly prepared, served in the simplest of surroundings and at remarkably low prices, will be happy to know about this tumbledown shack.
Here you find not only delicious seafood; you also can get an education in local oysters. Ellen Hudgins, who runs the place with her husband, J.C., explains that there is a whale of a difference between seaside oysters and bayside oysters, the latter being fairly bland but good for frying, the former bold and marshy and delicious on the half shell. Metompkin Seafood does not serve oysters raw because the Hudgins can’t abide health department red tape involved, but their roadside market / eat-shack offers fried and steamed seaside oysters that are unimpeachable. Other highlights of the hand-written menu posted above Metompkin’s order counter include soft-shell crabs, fried fish sandwiches, and Ellen’s flaky (not lumpy) crab cakes.
The one-room commissary, decorated with fishing equipment from J.C.’s days as a waterman, is a true mom-and-pop operation, about which J.C. explains, “We own it, we take care of it, and we don’t have to pay each other, so business is fine.”
The Hudgins’ modus operandi is cheerfully inefficient. This is how it works: Tell Ellen what you want to eat. She walks back to the kitchen and gives J.C. the order. While he cooks it, you can peruse ice beds arrayed with raw seafood or shelves stocked with a small selection of spices, hot sauce, and fish-fry mix; or you can choose dessert from a table display of candy bars, bags of Cracker Jack, and cellophane-wrapped Moon Pies. About every 10 minutes Ellen goes to the back and returns with an armload of meals in Styrofoam clamshells and sandwiches wrapped in foil, announcing, “I’ve got some orders here.” At this point, a wave of hungry customers from throughout the room surges towards the counter, all hoping that their time has come.
It’s almost inevitable that you will get involved in a conversation while waiting for the food to cook. Spirits are high, aromas emanating from the kitchen are enticing, and quarters are close. The single room where orders are placed and delivered and where customers shop the cases for raw fish to take home is a cozy space, outfitted with a trio of rocking chairs and a round table arrayed with hot sauce, a roll of paper towels, the week’s Walmart circular, a bible, and a remote control for the corner TV. It is understood that these indoor amenities are for people waiting for an order, not for dining on premises. Indeed, most of what the Hudgins cook gets bought to take away. But there is a nice informal dining option on premises. Those who crave immediate satisfaction may select a picnic table outside and have their meal al fresco.
To people who live around here, visiting Metompkin Seafood is part of the fabric of life. When we first stopped by, one Saturday in February, the place had only just opened after a winter vacation, and the crowd of customers waiting for their food was positively ecstatic that it was back in business. “Finally!” one woman called out, stepping up to the counter to order a couple of pounds of steamed shrimp, a fried scallop platter and a crab cake sandwich to take home for herself and her husband. “I’ve been hungry since Christmas,” she declared as she walked out the door, juggling her armload of food. A man in a camouflage hunting outfit said he’d driven forty-five minutes to Mappsville three times in the last week, since Metompkin opened, just to have plates of fried seaside oysters, which he declared to be “food of the gods.”