It seems sometimes as if restaurants come and go as often as the tides, but the best of them are as constant as summer traffic here on the barrier beaches. Kitty Hawk’s Rundown Café, now celebrating its 25th year, is a reliable favorite of Outer Banks visitors and locals.
Rundown has evolved over the years, but it hasn’t strayed far from its roots as a Caribbean-themed restaurant with a lively bar crowd on the Beach Road. Yes, the original brick building is gone but was replaced with a new one a block away whose main dining room is an exact copy of the original.
More importantly, it retains the Caribbean influence but has evolved to include dishes from the Pacific Rim. Dishes like Vietnamese Pho, a garnish-to-taste glass noodle soup, or a Hawaiian Poke bowl, peacefully co-exist with menu items like Jamaican jerk chicken and St. Martin Shrimp, a linguini bowl with plump shrimp, bacon and sun dried tomatoes.
Longtime owner Michael Montiel attributes the addition of Asian and Pacific flavors to his travels to both his SoCal roots and decades of wide-ranging surf travel. “When you own a restaurant and travel, the dream is to serve all your favorite foods from those trips,” he says.
Montiel grew up in San Diego, where surfing exposed him to the Baja peninsula where street vendors sold fish tacos that Rundown has precisely duplicated: soft flour tortillas filled with honey-chipotle-lime glaze and chicken or fresh white fish, pico, beans and rice on the side. Simple and delicious.
Asked about his favorite menu item, Montiel doesn’t hesitate: “The spicy Thai Lemongrass noodles with fish are what I usually have.” It includes a gamefish filet, most often yellowfin, served in a bowl filled with spicy lemongrass broth, lo Mein noodles, mushrooms, veggies, cilantro and crisp-fried wontons.
The Rundown menu is extensive and varied, with many of the dozens of main courses offered with choices of fish, shrimp, chicken, calamari, Portobello mushroom or soft shell crab. The entrees include: Thai, Vietnamese or Malay hot noodle bowls; cold sesame noodle bowls; massive dinner salads; coconut shrimp plates; Hawaiian poke bowls, an Argentinian gaucho steak; tempura fried soft shells; jerk chicken or fish; Baja fish burrito; and a dozen burger and sandwiches. I’ll leave the huge list of inventive Rundown appetizers for you to discover.
And family-friendly to the core, there’s something for everyone at Rundown. I counted nine vegetarian choices on the menu, notably the Thali, a platter of black beans, rice, hummus, fried eggplant, marinated cabbage, flat bread and condiments. There were also eight dinners highlighted as gluten free. For those with as-yet immature palates, a kids menu has familiar items, with optional side choices, though children are likely to be more interested in feeding koi in the outside pond than in eating.
I can’t write about Rundown without mentioning the seating areas and décor. The downstairs main dining room is lively, and eclectically decorated with what might be described as upscale “Southern Hemisphere” art. It’s fun.
But the upstairs is my favorite squat. Inside, it’s a tribute to owner Montiel’s lifelong love of all things surf. Numerous boards and other artifacts recall the history of the sport harking back to Duke Kahanamoku and other surf pioneers. The most striking display, especially in the evening, is a wall of backlit surfboard fins.
“I just couldn’t figure what to do with that wall out for 18 years. A friend of mine and I built it and later added the color-changing back lighting,” Montiel says. “Now at night it just takes over the whole room.”
The outside patio upstairs, christened the Hula Deck, is where you’ll find local live music most nights. It’s an irie, maluhia or whatever spot to watch day turn into night, enjoy a few drinks and apps — just kick back and enjoy the vibe.