Alley Twenty Six and Saltbox Seafood Joint – both of which celebrate a decade in business this year – are perennial Best of Durham winners and 2022 James Beard Award nominees
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Most of us know our way around a plate of barbecue – many would say it’s the definitive cuisine of our state. Chef Ricky Moore has been on a mission to change our minds about that for more than a decade.
“[North Carolina] also needs to be known for seafood,” Ricky says, adding that many restaurants offer only a handful of familiar seafood options – and that’s what people have come to expect. “It’s going to be fried, and it’s gonna be flounder, shrimp and oysters, and maybe a stuffed crab.” His goal is to educate eaters and “open them up to trying things that they’re not culturally conditioned” to choosing off a menu, all while benefiting North Carolina’s fisherfolk.
Ricky opened Saltbox Seafood Joint out of a 205-square-foot A-frame hut at 608 N. Mangum St. in 2012, four years after moving from Washington, D.C., back to North Carolina with his family. Customers ate at picnic tables out front, and there was just enough elbow room to butcher fresh fish and organize his prep station behind the walk-up window.
Ricky’s inspiration came from continents away. While working in Singapore, he often ate at hawker centers – open-air food courts packed with “these stands of small little restaurants serving really delicious stuff. … I [realized then that I didn’t] want to do a full-service restaurant,” Ricky says. By scaling down, he could cook everything himself and perfect one type of cuisine.
Those first few years were a rush. The adrenaline of building something all his own reenergized Ricky. “It put me in a place of creativity,” he says, after years as an executive chef became routine, working in kitchens from Paris to California. The former Army cook and Culinary Institute of America grad brought life and vitality to this small seafood shack.
In an industry where new ventures are plagued by painfully brief life spans, Ricky tackled the duties of entrepreneur, chef, seafood buyer, marketing manager and face of the business. His efforts paid off in spades, as folks clamored in long lines for his hush-honeys, crab grits and, of course, any of his fresh catches of the day.
After the 10-year lease expired last summer, saying goodbye to that tiny green-and-white shack “was emotional,” he admits. “I spent a lot of time in that little space and dedicated myself to [being] there … to really dial in the concept and brand to make sure that … the community believed in it.”
On to better – and bigger. Ricky poured his energy into Saltbox’s second location, which opened off Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard in 2017. The restaurant’s signature shade of pastel green gave a fresh look to the unique 1960s building with indoor and outdoor seating, which also has a lot more room to cook behind the counter. Over the years, Ricky earned widespread praise, published a cookbook, appeared in Garden & Gun, Our State and other publications – including our own – and an episode of “The Hook” for PBS North Carolina. Not only was Saltbox named one of our readers’ favorite seafood restaurants in the Best of Durham poll this spring, but Ricky was also listed as a James Beard Award finalist. It’s the second time he’s been in the running for best chef in the Southeast – he was a semifinalist in 2020. All the buzz signals that he’s achieving his goal of convincing more diners to explore the tastes of a wider variety of seafood.
Whether grilled, marinated, poached in oil or added to a stew, regular catches of the day like almaco jack, sheepshead, mullet, snowy grouper and others are featured on the chalkboard menu. Ricky draws on his own “culinary DNA,” an intricate web of memories and regional cooking methods combined with his own experiences with global cuisine that all influence the eastern North Carolina native’s dishes.
Ricky reminisces about eating at coastal dives where seafood is fried Calabash-style (lightly dredged in dry corn flour). “The coleslaw is mixed and then you get hush puppies [all in] a basket with a piece of paper in it, and those cups with whipped butter-like stuff,” Ricky says. “I used that as a reference, not straying too far,” but spinning it with refinement into dishes of his own.
Saltbox’s fish is fried using that same Calabash method or prepared in other regional styles – like cooking mullet over charcoal, for example. It’s served in paper boats and paired with shredded slaw that’s never met mayo, achieving the crispness of a salad. Ricky’s version of a hush puppy is a mashup of culinary worlds: It’s similar to the cornmeal recipe we know and love but airy like the zeppole he learned to make in a pastry kitchen in Italy, and glazed with honey. Some fish like croaker and pompano, cooked whole, also pop up on the menu frequently.
Many folks are not used to eating whole fish, but Ricky hopes that’s another boundary he can push while supporting our state’s fishing industry. “We’re helping out a huge economy down in coastal North Carolina,” he says. “Fishing is hard work.” During the pandemic, Ricky partnered with some of his seafood suppliers like Steven Goodwin of Salty Catch Seafood Company to host creative and supportive events, like a weekly drive-thru chowder pickup.
Ricky says it best: “If you’re living in this state and you’re not eating local North Carolina seafood, shame on you.” He’s pleased with the progress that Saltbox has made thus far, but much bigger plans – including additional locations and retail product lines – are also in the works. He senses a deeper implication in the recent James Beard Award nomination. “Regional seafood is being recognized,” he says. “That was the big deal for me.”
Shannon Healy can certainly pour a perfect Manhattan or whip up a heavenly strawberry daiquiri. The bartender of more than two decades and owner of Alley Twenty Six is a master of his craft, but he says his true talent lies in being a good listener. Find a bar stool, pick your poison and – whether you ask for a top-shelf whiskey or something fruity and devilishly sweet – he’ll deliver.
“What I love to do is surprise and delight somebody with [a cocktail] that they like. They say, ‘How’d you do that?’and I say, ‘I cheated. You told me, I listened,’” Shannon says.
“My favorite drink is probably the next drink. Because now that I’ve gained [a customer’s] confidence and their trust … I can turn them on to something a little new.”
The industry veteran (and former general manager of Chapel Hill’s famed Crook’s Corner) says that it’s gratifying to serve people who aren’t used to a bartender who will spark a conversation and “use their ears as the most important tool” in mixing a drink.
The approach is refreshing, and it dispels any lingering impressions of pretense and pomp that puts some off from cocktail bars. Alley’s upscale atmosphere is built on a foundation of genuine hospitality, and, clearly, Durhamites have warmed to Shannon’s take. Alley Twenty Six is a top choice among our readers for date night and late night, and it’s where they’d steer you to find some of the best cocktails in the city. Alley also garnered national attention this spring as a James Beard Award finalist nominated for outstanding bar program, placing it among four others in the U.S. singled out for exceptional skill and care in the selection and preparation of spirits, beer and wine, and cultivation of a diverse portfolio of brands.
That above-and-beyond effort that the Alley team exudes extends even further. They produce, package and sell their own extensive line of cocktail syrups (we adore the ginger). They also host monthly virtual and inperson classes, plus private events, for anyone looking to refine their at-home bartending skills. And you can learn to make a Corpus Christi Collins, Chartreuse Swizzle and more from Shannon himself via the “Mixology at Home” YouTube series.
Other programming includes Whiskey Wednesday, when a visiting bartender chooses a featured bottle to sell without any markup on the last Wednesday of each month. “It’s just another layer of possible geekery,” Shannon says, where customers can taste a top-shelf brand inexpensively and knowledgeable pros can share their expertise.
Since 2012, when Alley Twenty Six opened on the ground floor of its East Chapel Hill Street building, the plan was always to build a kitchen to complement the bar program. Charcuterie plates and snacks were served out of roll-top coolers until 2017, when a full kitchen was added. Enter chef Carrie Schleiffer, who made her debut at Alley in 2016.
The New Jersey native relocated to the Triangle from New York City in 2009 to pursue a job at one of restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias’ eateries in Cary. She subsequently stacked her resume with stints at the now-shuttered G2B Restaurant & Brewery and fellow Best of Durham winner (for its cocktails and burger) Bar Virgile.
Carrie paired elevated-yet-familiar American favorites that celebrate local ingredients with the established bar program. She says that the most popular dish on her menu remains the Alley Burger, inspired by hearty bacon cheeseburgers but dressed to the nines with black truffle cheddar, house-made bacon jam and an 8-ounce chuck-and-brisket patty that’s ground in their kitchen. She maintains a collaborative back-and-forth with Shannon so that food and beverage menus evolve in unison. “They go together hand in hand,” she says.
Named one of our city’s best chefs in our Best of Durham poll, Carrie tempts diners with creative spins on staples, like a Spam version of the burger. The tropical twist matched the mood when Alley’s bartenders trade their buttondowns for colorful and floral prints during outdoor summer specials called “Alley Freezes Over” and “Islands in the Alley,” which began in 2020 as a pandemic pivot.
Shannon says the successful series, which will return this June and July, is “a great excuse” for Alley to dive into a zany subgenre of frozen cocktails – “old tropical drinks that had their heyday in the ’30s through the early ’60s and then became the bastion of nonsense in the ’70s.” Five drink bays churn daiquiris and mai tais all season long, allowing patrons to cool off under the market lights and colorful flags that wave in the breeze above the bar’s namesake brick alley. Shannon added fold-down tables built into the brick walls to increase the bar’s outdoor seating capacity and hoped the tropical favorites would draw out new faces after pandemic shutdowns. “There’s no on-ramp like a piña colada,” he jokes.
True to the bar’s longtime standard, its cocktail, dinner and weekend brunch menus change regularly to encompass fresh, local ingredients. Carrie often shops at the Durham Farmers Market for produce, and sources microgreens from Bull City Greens and bread from Loaf, among other local businesses. This versatility is informed by Shannon’s experience with the daily menu changes at Crook’s Corner. “It was a way of keeping it seasonal without pretending that the seasons only changed four times a year.”
Participating in downtown’s Small Plates Crawl on Thursday nights – in which Alley offers up a small plate special and recommended beverage pairing – is a chance to dream up new dishes and drinks every week. The variety keeps things interesting for the regulars and for the staff, Shannon says. For now, Shannon says, it’s satisfying to be back to in-person service after grinding to a halt in 2020, but he’s looking forward to finding enough staff to stay open seven days a week until 2 a.m. And with mounting interest in Alley’s educational offerings, its classes and events are sure to continue and grow with Shannon at the helm, ready to impart his wealth of cocktail knowledge. “There’s enough in this category to never stop learning,” he says.