James Pharmacy

111 North Churton Street, Hillsborough

919-932-0134, jphillsborough.com

Deep-frying seafood is an art. I’d put it right up there with barbecue, pizza crust, ice cream, and ramen among the foods that simply can’t be perfected without apostolic practice and repetition. Dunking sea creatures in hot oil is probably not as difficult to master as those other finicky skillsets, but finding truly excellent examples—even among the literally hundreds of restaurants devoted to it—is just as difficult. Like pizza and barbecue and ramen and ice cream, even bad examples of fried seafood have an essential core of indulgent pleasure; it becomes easy to mask the poor quality of one specific plate of food behind the innate charms of the gestalt. 

But to fry seafood in a way that is really, truly good—that’s another trick altogether.

So I am happy to report that the fried seafood at James Pharmacy is really, truly, good. The batter is perfect, somehow infused with its own lemony brightness and applied as more a protective shell for the fish than a donut-thick encasement. And the quality of the seafood is (mostly) excellent. My visits were punctuated by ax-head-sized pieces of flounder, the flesh buttery and meltingly soft; oysters that popped like little saltwater balloons; and, best of all, great, bristling piles of clam strips. 

This humble boardwalk staple is often nothing more than a convenient batter-delivery vehicle—sad wisps of clam suffocated by funnel cake dough. Here, they are voluptuous, meaty, briny, and sweet.

James Pharmacy is part of the continued reshuffling of Hillsborough’s main drag, which has seen the opening of a beer-pouring record store and the expansion of the beloved Wooden Nickel. It replaces—and has much the same team—as the decent-yet-unmemorable Cajun simulacra LaPlace Louisiana Cookery. I was concerned it would be a retread, but the new concept has improved on its precursor in every way. 

The layout is the same, but La Place’s semi-dingy aesthetic has been replaced by an inviting interior that is clean and bright without being antiseptic. Punctuated by blonde wood and a weirdly tasteful array of nautical ephemera, the dining room is a uniform off-white, or what my wife called “the color of a sail.” It does indeed feel like you’re ensconced in clean canvas, especially in the dim glow of hurricane lamps. It’s a warm, attractive space, and it slots right into Churton Street’s cozy ambiance. 

Before diving into the specifics of James Pharmacy’s menu, I should talk about the actual, physical paper menu that you’ll find in your hands because it looks and reads like something from an entirely different restaurant. You’ll find words like “dippin’” and “sippin’” and “shrooms” and “cukes” and “freaky” and “dance-off” and “tropical party in your mouth.” There’s a cocktail called “Tiki As F.” (I had it; it’s pretty good.) There’s a cocktail called the “Phil Collins,” which is funny until you see “Sussudio” listed among the ingredients. There’s a “Big Ass Bowl of Mussels.” There’s a dish that comes with something called “crack sauce.” Actually, if you peruse the raw bar menu, you’ll encounter the words “ass” and “crack” in alarming proximity to one another. The menu is supposed to be “fun,” but it comes at you like a Times Square happy-hour throwdown.

But behind the manic font changes and the shouty verbiage, there’s some profound, soulful cooking. About that, uh, “crack sauce.” It turns out to be the dressing on a fabulous plate of fried calamari. Tossed with crisp cabbage and shot through with fiery acidity and electric fish-sauce funk, the dish ends up somewhere between comfort food classic and Thai yam pla. It’s awesome, in spite of the pithy reference to street drugs.

Equally complex and refreshing is the fish ceviche, meaty chunks of red drum “cooked” in a drinkable, hangover-killing broth of bitter citrus and sweet potato. The accompanying house-made tortilla chips vary in quality, but it doesn’t really matter when the ceviche is this good. (Avoid the shrimp ceviche, though. It’s not terrible; just inessential.)

I visited James Pharmacy multiple times to get a read on its enormous menu. One of those visits was a solo lunch, where I decided to try all the items for which I had the lowest expectations. I had already been suckered in by the unforgettable clam strips—surely this place doesn’t need to serve a poke bowl.

The poke bowl, to my bafflement, is great—a generous handful of cubed raw tuna with just enough soy/mayo richness to offset the accompanying edamame, seaweed, cucumbers, and pickled ginger arranged mezze-like over a scattering of white rice. It’s invigorating and bracingly healthy.

Equally satisfying (and extravagantly unhealthy) is a gigantic grilled alpine cheese sandwich stuffed with fried green tomatoes and blackberry jam. The alpine cheese, rather than some Sysco-truck “Swiss,” is honest-to-god cheese, rich and complex, and the tart tomatoes cut right through the sweetness of the jam. The whole affair is pressed cleanly between slabs of buttery toast, thick enough that the molten insides don’t drip. Vegetarians, take heed.

Not everything is so wonderful. The chopped salad is entirely too chopped, once-proud romaine and stilton and pecans reduced to a sad, wet dust. The boiled peanut hummus is out-of-place and tastes nothing like boiled peanuts. Blackened catfish tacos dissolve into an unappealing mound, the catfish itself a rare instance of James Pharmacy serving fish that tasted unpleasantly fishy. The seafood chowder is described as “soon-to-be world-famous”; that’s not going to happen.

But the burgers are magnificent, the piquancy of local grass-fed beef slathered with more of that fatty alpine cheese. The shearling-soft bun disintegrates almost instantly under the patty’s juiciness.

The drinks list is as huge as the food menu, but it’s neatly arranged and well-curated with hip, small-production wines and seafood-friendly beers. There is clearly some well-intentioned creativity and skill behind the cocktail list, although they play fast and loose with their take on a Jungle Bird, one of my favorite cocktails from the tiki days. Served in a Collins glass, and without the tenebrous molasses swirl of blackstrap rum, it’s a decent drink, but it’s not a Jungle Bird. More intriguing is the aforementioned Tiki As F, basically an old-fashioned made with pineapple rum, slightly medicinal but fascinatingly smoky.

For the abstaining customer, James Pharmacy innovates with thoughtful non-alcoholic options. The Love Potion #9 is a shockingly vibrant concoction of pineapple, hibiscus, lemon, and ginger.

All of this—the tacos, the tiki, the dips, the beach-bum wordplay—stacks up into the unsubtle persona that James Pharmacy is clearly trying to present to the world. A party vibe, a casual meal, a drinking lunch, a raucous, happy dinner (the dining room was packed on a Tuesday night). But ultimately, this playfulness undersells the heart of the place.

The real key is the whole fried fish. I have written at length about the joys of eating whole fish, and I can confidently say that James Pharmacy’s take is one of the best—and strangest—that I’ve encountered in the Triangle. Gone is the batter, replaced by a glistening, seed-strewn carapace of pure crisp, encasing a whole branzino. The fish is curled into an action pose, like a carp depicted mid-leap in a Sumi-e ink painting. The first bite is almost too sweet, draped in a sticky, lime-tinged sauce. But when dragged through the spiced dregs and fish juices collected at the bottom of the plate, and paired with a bite of cool, soy-drenched pickled cucumber, it snaps into exquisite balance.

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