El’s Drive-In: A Destination for Locals...and Folks From Off

What is it about the combination of shrimp, ketchup, slaw and a buttery bun that makes us slobber like newborns? Whatever the answer, there’s a family restaurant on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast where it behooves you to bring a bib.

El’s Drive-In is one of those places who do it simple and get it right. The building itself is no bigger than a hut, but the flavors inside are humongous. Their shrimp burger is featured in a few fleeting bites of A CHEF’S LIFE’s "Shrimp Sells" episode in season two. “I kind of hate how much I love the shrimp burger at El’s,” Chef Vivian admits. “The soft white bun is not something I usually advocate for, but it’s squishability marries the ketchup with the slaw, and keeps the tiny shrimp from slipping out the sides. I guess it’s our version of a po’boy.” Add an order of crispy fries and you’ve got yourself a perfect, summertime drive-in combo.

When trying to pinpoint what makes the restaurant so popular, Chef Vivian says, “There are a lot of restaurants in Eastern Carolina that try to conjure up the 50’s and the sensibilities of a drive in. But El’s is the real deal, forcing you to eat in your car…not in the way McDonald’s drive through does, but in a vacation, feel-good, throw-back kind of way.”

El’s co-owner Mrs. Gayle Frank seems equally baffled by its popularity. “Maybe it’s the amount of shrimp, homemade coleslaw and ketchup,” she proposes. “I like mine with cheese.” The shrimp are salted, breaded with cracker meal, and deep fried. Simple as that.  Mrs. Gayle has wrapped many a shrimp burger in aluminum foil for devotees heading in and out of town.

El is short for Elvin Frank who opened “This Is It” restaurant in a storefront in 1959. Upon relocating, El changed the name to El’s Drive-In, mocking the popular carhops that first appeared in the 1920s. El’s son Mark and his wife Gayle took the helm after El’s retirement. Not too much has changed since the move from it’s original home a few miles outside of town. Cars park willy-nilly in the sandy lot and the register still refuses anything but cash.  Waitresses sashay through a dollop of oak trees to take your order and toss southern greetings like “shug” and “honey” through the driverside window. In a matter of moments, a whole parking lot is unbuckling its seat belt (and its pants),  chowing down on seafood trays and burgers of the beef, oyster, and shrimp varieties.

Mrs. Gayle reinforces the nostalgia of El’s and other old-fashioned food destinations that have few rules and know no strangers. In a jovial trail of southern drawl, she tells me that locals keep them going in the winter, and refers to vacationers who descend upon El’s in summer months as ‘from off’ (as in, “People who don’t live here are from off”). There is no condescension in this qualifier. It’s a mapping tool that pinpoints Morehead City on the foodie road atlas and distinguishes their port town from the rest of the world. Such places inform the personality of both Chef and The Farmer and The Boiler Room.
Chef Vivian, like many beach vacationers who visit the North Carolina coast see El’s as part of a summer ritual. “While it’s totally acceptable to eat shrimp burgers all year long, I only crave them when it’s hot outside and I’ve been sitting next to the water. They’re my version of summer comfort food I guess.”

At El’s Drive-In, it’s not uncommon to ask someone where they’re from and offer reviews of your meal from the car window between chews. So, when you visit El’s, be sure to enjoy your shrimp burger with the windows down.

*Note: Mrs. Gayle wants y’all to know they’re not going anywhere. The closing of El’s Drive-In is a 10-year-old rumor. Her husband Mark worked there for 35 years and now their son, Shelton is on staff with the goal of doing what his grandfather did, which is to keep the business going.

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