Some food writer I am: Wrightsville Beach has been my go-to beach town for years, and I’ve hit all the usual food stops — Trolly Stop chili dogs, fresh shrimp and fish from Motts Channel Seafood, fried shrimp at Dockside, Kohl’s frozen custard.
So how did I manage to miss one of the best food finds on the coast until this summer?
Roberts Grocery Store is a mainstay. Opened in 1919, the little market that used to be the only store around before Harris Teeter came close enough for fast shopping trips. It’s still the place to grab the stuff beach renters tend to forget, like dish soap and cereal, with the jacked-up prices you pay for convenience. There’s a good deli in the back where you can get a mean crab salad sub and a small bakery with good cookies and an excellent lemon chess pie.
The real reason to go, though, is for the perfect beach food: Roberts chicken salad.
Roberts chicken salad is the best chicken salad this side of homemade. The chicken is shredded, giving it a hand-made texture and the right chicken-to-mayonnaise ratio. It’s got enough red pepper, green onion and diced pickle for crunch. Most important: It’s not too sweet, the downfall of most store-bought chicken salads. My only nit is that it’s a tad undersalted, but if you eat at the beach, you’ve probably got dried salt on your lips already.
It’s the right size to toss in a hotel-room refrigerator or a boat cooler. Spooned on a Ritz cracker, you can eat it standing on the balcony when your bathing suit is still too wet to sit down anywhere. Smear a little on toast in the morning and skip the long lines for breakfast. Take along a sandwich to eat from your beach chair.
Roberts chicken salad has such a following, the owners of the store expanded a few years ago, adding tubs of chicken salad at Harris Teeter locations across the state.
Here’s the thing, though: I brought back an extra tub from the beach this week and picked up a tub from a local Harris Teeter. Then I did a side-by-side tasting.
The winner, hands down, was the batch from the beach. The packaged version has bigger chunks of chicken, making it a little dryer. It’s good, and if you need a party food, you could pass it off for homemade.
The beach batch, though, was definitely better: more chickeny, fresher-tasting and definitely more moist from the way the shredded chicken mixes with the mayonnaise.
Price comparison: A 14-ounce tub at Harris Teeter is $8.99 ($7.99 on sale this week), while the tubs at the beach are $8.29 a pound.
The only trouble with getting Roberts chicken salad at the beach is parking on Wrightsville’s busy main drag, Lumina Avenue. If you can’t score a place to stash your car, take someone with you: They can run in for five minutes (10 if you want a crab salad sub) while you drive around the block a few times.
Tell them to get two tubs. You’ll definitely polish one off before you head home.