Savor local seafood at this surf shop turned taco stand in North Carolina.
Story by Katie DeTar
My annual spring vacation to Topsail Island, North Carolina delivers much-anticipated joys of the seaside. But during my most recent trip, the focus unexpectedly shifted from tanning to tacos.
Local seafood has always been a big draw on this 26-mile-long island near Wilmington, with shrimp and blue crab dominating the state’s catch. Dining destination Shaka Taco partners with local fish markets for its creative, fresh, Mexican-inspired eats—much to the delight of locals and tourists.
Revelers flock to Shaka Taco in such droves that it made me wonder if the beach is no longer the main draw to Topsail Island. My family and I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to find a queue 20 diners deep twisting away from the open-air ordering window. The patio and deck buzzed with patrons. Suntanned and swimsuit-clad families carted away large bags of take-out, heading toward nearby Surf City Pier and beach. Others stayed on site, sipping a variety of adult beverages and chowing down.
Shaka Taco started as take-out only, but now offers outdoor seating.
The menu is simple and direct, with a few surprises thrown in. It’s a local ingredient-infused assortment of tacos, nachos, and burrito bowls, plus a variety of wing options like jerk-rubbed with pineapple glaze, fruit and acai berry smoothie bowls, and seasonal beers, cider and wine.
We ordered a variety: shrimp tacos, carne asada, chicken taco bowl, black beans and coconut rice, kids’ chicken quesadilla. The rice was sweet and delicately flavored, balancing the spiciness of the taco. The shrimp were fresh and cooked just right. The food was perfect for fueling up a day of surfing or, in our case, recovering from a sunny day of beach play and lounging.
“The main focus right now for us is to get out the most consistent quality product to the guest as fast as we can. But it’s not fast food, we are hand-cutting pico de gallo, mixing it to taste every time,” says Cody Leutgens, co-founder and owner of Shaka Taco. “You can see and taste the difference, same with the fresh fish. We are cutting it, prepping it, making it all by hand, everything.”
Leutgens and high school buddy Chef Steve Christian opened Shaka Taco in 2016 as an expansion of Leutgens’ surf school business. Leutgens grew up on Topsail Island and won the national surfing championships at the age of 18. The surf shop started in 2014 out of the back of his Jeep Cherokee and soon developed into a full-time career with a brick and mortar location. Post-surfing eats was a logical next step as a business venture.
“Topsail was lacking something fresh, casual, and relatively fast. It needed something different that wasn’t fried shrimp and hush puppies,” says Leutgens. “We wanted a place for people to come after surfing, a place to be safe and have fun. It works so well together, in so many aspects, the surfing vibe, and what we do with the tacos. I fancy myself a humble dude, but the concept is really cool.”
The restaurant takes its name from the shaka hand gesture, perhaps best-known to lay people as the “hang loose” sign used by surfers. Originating in Hawaii of debatable origin and coming to be known in surf culture as a general friendly greeting, the shaka emblemizes surfer cool.
Shaka Taco cooks up creative, fresh, Mexican-inspired eats. The soft shell crab taco is just one of the many seasonal specials you can find.
Waiting in line for our order, I sensed that relaxed vibe radiating through the entire business. Customers made friends in line, and a staff member was happy to show me around the small surf shop, chatting about life at the beach and showing off photos of a recent surf camp.
Leutgens is proud of his home island, he and his friends’ surfing heritage, and the local products grown and raised on and around Topsail. Shaka Taco utilizes local tomatoes, greens, and produce whenever possible. But the main star of the show is the seafood.
On average, North Carolina fishermen bring in roughly eight million pounds of shrimp every year, second only to the blue crab harvest. Grouper, tuna, and other seasonal fish are also popular—all caught right off the coast near Topsail. Shrimp are considered a sustainable harvest, with an average two-year lifespan, stable populations and—while their supply can be weather-dependent—are often available year-round. Recent recommendations and regulations aim to make shrimp harvesting, typically done with trawl nets that can lead to unintended by-catch, safer for other species and the environment.
Surf City Crab is the place to go for local, fresh-caught fish, shrimp and crab. In operation for more than 25 years, the seafood market’s fishmongers sling the daily catch to customers from a row of coolers parked under a large wooden shelter. A large selection board changes daily with updates on supply and pricing. The location, just over the bridge on the sound side of Topsail Island, is nestled into the docks where boats deliver the goods daily. In large wooden holding tanks, live blue crab and crawfish await their fate. It’s a fresh as seafood gets.
On North Carolina’s Topsail Island, Surf City Crab is the place to go for local, fresh-caught seafood.
Leutgens and Chef Christian work closely with Surf City Crab for the features and menu items at Shaka Taco. At the time of our interview, local tuna was fresh and in season.
“It probably came out of the water eight hours ago, and we served it with peaches that a farmer just inland picked yesterday,” says Leutgens. “We can cater to what is available, so today they had tuna, so we buy a bunch of tuna. We love it and go for it.”
And those North Carolina shrimp? They hold a special place in locals’ hearts and stomachs.
“The shrimp taco is my baby,” says Leutgens. “We would run a shrimp special and it would just be gone, it didn’t matter how you served it, people wanted it.”
The local crab harvest is celebrated as well, and was recently highlighted lightly fried and tucked into a soft shell for the crab taco. I’ve never seen a whole crab on a taco anywhere in my travels before. That unexpected mix of surf shop, local seafood, friendly vibes and good eats brings the crowds to Shaka Taco on Topsail Island. When other restaurants are making standard fare, I had to ask, why tacos?
“Tacos are straight up cool,” says Leutgens.
He adds: “We’re going to keep mastering what we are doing.” A mouthwatering promise.
The shrimp taco at Shaka Taco uses locally-caught shrimp and fresh ingredients.
Katie DeTar is the host and producer of “Fringe Benefits,” a Public Television travel series that highlights destinations in and around featured American cities. The show also delves into nearby and lesser-known villages, scenic highlights, unique shopping, local flavor, and relaxing getaways found just on the fringe of the featured city. Learn more about Katie and “Fringe Benefits” on her website, katiedetar.com, and also in this interview.
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