Good Eats: Soul Food Seafood
By Janet Gibson
Photography by Cindy Burnham
Chef Judith Cage – better known as simply Chef Judy to locals and fans who have seen her appearances on the Food Network – flashes a megawatt smile when she talks about bringing her unique brand of “Soul food seafood” to her latest Fayetteville restaurant. Situated near the banks of the Cape Fear River, just past the Person Street Bridge, the aptly named Riverside Seafood began, pardon the pun, reeling in the regulars after it opened on Feb. 1.
“Soul food seafood is prepared with love,” she says, cracking open an ample crab leg. “It’s about the butters, the seasonings, all the
good things!” she adds with an extra dash of enthusiasm. “It’s all about bringing the dish to life!”
The perfectly seasoned feast before us, dubbed the Riverboat, is a bucketful of several snow crab clusters, 16 medium to large shrimp, two lobster tails, four ears of sweet
corn, a couple of thick sausages and lots of baby red potatoes. At $85, the Riverboat is the fanciest, priciest and most popular menu item.
Although recommended for “three hungry people,” it is often ordered by a couple to share – or a solo seafood lover who may take home some leftovers. A number of steamed platter choices are available at different price levels. In addition, grilled or fried seafood entrées – from salmon to catfish – are about $14 to $25. Much of the seafood is meant to be savored with abandon, sticky fingers and all, dipped into a choice of four addictive butters: Garlic, Barbecue, Carolina Kick (sweet and spicy), or one called River, a savory blend of pepper, herbs and onions.
Yet, while dining here at an earlier date, our party discovers that the lobster tail is so juicy, so perfectly prepared, no drawn butter is required. Another pleasant surprise is the crab cake. Roughly the size of a bread-and butter plate (!), it consists of mostly crab and very little filler. The side dishes also satisfy, including cole slaw with just the right amount of mayo, lemon-pepper broccoli, Cajun fries and hush puppies with honey butter for dipping. If asked, the friendly servers are likely to
recommend a starter of warm crab dip with Indian-inspired naan bread fresh from the oven. It’s a great pick for sharing. Fried oysters with a chipotle-lime remoulade and calamari tossed in a sweet chili sauce also are included in the appetizer section. If looking for non-fish alternatives, the choices are few. Try the deep-fried wings with a choice of four dipping sauces, chicken tenders from the kids’ menu or some of the side dishes.
Clearly, seafood is king at this casual, rustic restaurant with well-spaced tables and an outdoor patio on which to escape under the sun. Chef Judy will tell you that her travels are often a source of inspiration for dishes that make the menu, such as her favorite whole red snapper, which she first tasted on a trip to one of her favorite destinations: Jamaica.
Chef Judy’s own culinary journey goes back to age 9 when she began cooking for her large family in Chicago. As a teen, she joined the Army and honed her skills as a cook. After she got out of the service, she went to work as catering manager for Fayetteville State University for two years and then embarked on entrepreneurship.
Now 41, she is upfront about her “successes and failures,” including how the pandemic has forced her to shut down some businesses and rethink others. Pre-COVID, she owned as many as seven combined restaurants and catering companies.
Today, she is happy with three. In addition to Riverside Seafood, she owns the enormously popular Uptown’s Chicken & Waffles in Ramada Plaza off Owen Drive and Let Me Cater To You at Pope Army Airfield.
The concept for Uptown’s was conceived by her business partner and “fellow foodie” RaShawn Moore, whom she also credits for much of Riverside’s momentum and for keeping ideas flowing. Business also has turned into a family affair. A single mom, Chef Judy is proud of 19-year-old daughter, Destiny, who is now one of the managers of Uptown’s.
As for Riverside, the historic building has been a number of different restaurants over the years, including a seafood concept more than once. We have to believe that, if anyone can make it stick, it’s Chef Judy. A celebrity in her own right, she has prepared meals for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire actor, producer, director and comedian Tyler Perry, and Fayetteville’s own chart-topping rapper, J. Cole.
In 2013, she first appeared on the Food Network, on “Chopped.”
“I didn’t win, but I walked away with a lot of friendships and exposure which helped push my culinary career,” she says. In 2019, she took the top prize on the network’s “Supermarket Stakeout,” bringing home 10 grand. She says she spoke with Food Network execs recently about another opportunity, but it would mean being away from home for six weeks, and she doesn’t see that being feasible at this time.
On this day, she’s excited about the frozen daiquiri machine that will be churning out fruity drinks beginning May 1 in strawberry, blue raspberry, mango and piña colada – just in time for Mother’s Day, graduations and the long, hot days of summer. Besides, nothing goes with soul food seafood quite like an ice-cold slushy beverage.
Riverside Seafood is at 1130 Person St., just east of downtown Fayetteville. The restaurant is open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Closed on Monday and Tuesday. Lunch or dinner for two averages $30 to $45, not including alcoholic beverages and gratuity. No reservations. First-come, first-served. Tables and booths are physically distanced with plastic shield guards in place. Outdoor dining is available. Takeout window for pickup orders. Phone 910-491-6449.