Mini pies from Durham's Scratch Artisan Bakery. Photo by feeb/flickr.
La Farm in Cary for masterful renditions of traditional French pastries like almond croissants and pain au chocolat , a variety of hearty breads from ciabatta to rye, and – my favorite – owner Lionel’s signature white chocolate baguettes. Weaver Street Market (Carrboro, Chapel Hill or Hillsborough) for bread – dense, chewy peasant loafs, moist, salty olive bread, golden baguettes. Desserts are decent too – try the fruit tarts and cheesecakes; avoid the cookies and the too-rich, unflavorful cupcakes. Guglhupf in Durham for artisan breads – glossy challah, rustic batard – and European-style cakes and pastries (their light, tart mousse cakes are my fave, with their plate-sized linzer cookies coming a closing second). Mediterranean Deli in Chapel Hill or Neomonde in Morrisville for fresh pita bread. Scratch Artisan Bakery in Durham for ecstatically good pies (try the Shaker lemon, with delicate slices of whole candied lemon), plus an amazing thing known as a “donutmuffin.” The bakery counter at Grand Asia Market in Cary for glutinous Chinese pastries, crumbly egg tarts and hot, steamy cloudpuff dumplings full of lovely things like lotus root and barbecued pork. Rue Cler in Durham for baguettes and fresh beignets. Panaderia Loma Bonita in Cary for fresh tortillas and crackly sugar-shelled concha pastries (word to the wise: when they ask you how many tortillas you want, they’re asking how many pounds). For the moistest, fluffiest, most marshmallow-y delicious tres leches cake you’ve ever tasted, try La Michoacana, a five minute drive away.
Scrumptious burger cake at NC State Fair. Photo by joanna8555/flickr.
The John (with American, havarti and provolone cheeses) with a side of onion rings at Cary’s Abbey Road Grill, a double cheese burger at the lunch counter at Sutton’s Drug Store in downtown Chapel Hill, the so-rare-they’re-blue bison burger at Ted’s Montana Grill in Durham, the open-faced Royale with whiskey cheddar at Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh, whatever the Farmer’s Market Special is at the OnlyBurger truck in Durham, the half-pounder with Gruyere at the Raleigh Times, the old-school cheeseburger with Kraft singles and yellow mustard at Wimpy’s Grill in Durham, the “hamburger steak” at Raleigh’s famous Char-Grill, the goat burger with duck fat fries at Saxapahaw General Store in Alamance County.
Because it’s only April, and it’s only gonna get hotter…
Tangerine-thyme LocoPop. Photo by sleepyneko/flickr.
1. Mexican-inspired popsicles at LocoPops, one of the Triangle’s favorite summer stops. Try a “guest star” flavor (olive oil, gazpacho, sweet corn, etc.) then go back to the counter for a classic (Mexican chocolate, mojito, strawberries ‘n’ cream). Once a Durham-only treat, LocoPops has lately spread to Chapel Hill and Raleigh.
2. Drippy homemade ice cream cones, eaten while sitting in a rocking chair on the porch at Maple View Farm in rural Orange County. It tastes even better if you biked here – the shop is a popular cyclist destination on weekend afternoons. The creamy, slightly tart lemon custard ice cream is one of my favorites, as is the classic butter pecan.
3. A scoop of kulfi at Cool Breeze in Cary, a strip mall hole-in-the-wall specializing in Indian street snacks. Kulfi, a milk-based Indian dessert, is similar to ice cream but lighter and more refreshing. Try the chikoo flavor – this tropical fruit is also known as Indian butterscotch. It’ll chill down your mouth after a plate of fiery bhel puri (a spicy peanut and rice snack).
4. Lemon sorbet and bittersweet chocolate gelato at Durham’s beloved Francesca’s, a pitch-perfect example of a cozy neighborhood hangout – warm lighting, exposed brick walls, local art, Duke students on laptops. In fall, don’t miss the pumpkin gelato, a seasonal local classic.
5. Oddball ice cream flavors from the freezer section at Grand Asia Market in Cary: corn and cheese, pandan, purple yam. If you’re daring, try a durian-flavored popsicle. This odiferous tropical fruit has famously been described as tasting like everything from gym socks to dead dog.
6. Burnt sugar caramel gelato at Henry’s Gelato in Cary. Or lemon meringue. Or licorice. Or olive oil. Or amaretto. Or, you know, any flavor. New locations of this casual-chic Euro-style joint are popping up all over the Piedmont.
7. Japanese frozen delights at Toyo Shokuhin Japanese market in Cary. Try mochi (ice cream bon bons in a sticky rice flour pastry) in flavors like green tea, mango and strawberry, yam popsicles, and individual cups of red bean ice cream.
8. Lavender vanilla milkshakes from the counter at Ox & Rabbit Sodas and Sundries on 9th Street in Durham, an hipster-cute gift shop and soda fountain where the old McDonald’s Drugstore used to be.
9. Ridiculously rich Midwestern-style frozen custard at Goodberry’s, a small NC-based chain with locations in Cary and Raleigh. Try a Carolina Concrete – your choice of flavors with any number of mix-ins. It’s so thick you can turn it upside-down and it won’t fall out of the cup.
10. Licking a cherry –vanilla snowball (a scoop of ice cream surrounded by flavored shaved ice) at the Pelican stand on Highway 55 in Apex. You can’t miss it – it’s got a giant ice cream cone on the roof. Try the dill pickle flavor, just for kicks.
Bun maker at Grand Asia Market, Cary. Photo from Grand Asia Market.
Growing up in Durham in the 1980s, I remember my Yankee-born parents moaning about the lack of ethnic ingredients in the Triangle. They’d cajole visiting relatives and friends into bringing food from out of state – frozen pierogies, Kosher dills, cans of San Marzano tomatoes, cannolis. The cannolis would be soggy, the tomato cans dented. But it was better than nothing.
Lack of diversity is no longer a problem in these parts, to say the least, as waves of immigration have dramatically transformed the Triangle foodscape. Want a block of Indonesian fermented shrimp paste? A pink dragon fruit? A jar of Russian cherry preserves? A handful of fresh curry leaves? No problem, so long as you know where to look :
1. Mexican/Central American/Caribbean: Compare Foods in Durham. This huge supermarket, popular with immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, carries the area’s best selection of non-standard produce. The chili section is eye popping, with flame-orange habaneros, cheerful green jalapenos, and wine-colored dried guajillos. Also look out for nopales (cactus paddle), yucca and plantains. Aisles are a riot of canned salsas, bags of cinnamon sticks and yerba buena, powdered flan mixes, and two-liter bottles of neon-bright Jarritos sodas in flavors like tamarind and pineapple.
Runner-up: El Mercado Central in Carrboro. This small tienda (’store’ in Spanish) is best-known for its lunch counter, serving up hot griddled tacos and gorditas to a hungry crowd of construction workers and Carrboro hipsters.
2. Pan-Asian: Grand Asia Market in Cary. The Triangle’s largest Asian grocery store stocks Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian and Indian specialties, though the majority of its shelves are dedicated to Chinese cuisine. The large produce section brims with fresh bok choy, banana flowers, mangosteens, green papaya and daikon radish. The freezer cases hold dozens of different kinds of dumplings, wontons and buns, as well as exotic ice creams in flavors like purple yam and coconut-pandan. The canned goods section has everything from twelve kinds of Thai green curry paste to tins of lychee nuts in syrup to fermented duck egg. The fresh fish counter has some of the area’s best values on shrimp, catfish and mussels; the meat case contains some questionable edibles (pork uterus, goat penis). If all this shopping makes you hungry (on weekends, dodging the crowds is an aerobic activity), stop at the attached cafe for a fortifying bowl of congee (Chinese porridge) or a sweet sesame ball.
Runner-up: Oriental Market in Durham. While not as big as Grand Asia, this grocery stocks a similar variety of pan-Asian specialties, with an emphasis on Korean foods like sweet potato noodles and kimchee.
3. Japanese: Toyo Shokuhin in Cary. Run by the charming Sachiko McShea, a native of Osaka who married an American GI during WWII, this modest-sized market specializes in everything from the Land of the Rising Sun. Shelves are densely stocked with packaged soba noodles, soy sauce, miso powder, fish flakes, dried squid, and bright bags of candies in flavors like “milk soda” and “musk melon.” The refrigerator cases have a variety of Japanese fish balls (essential for soup making), ice cream in flavors like green tea and red bean, and homemade tofu floating in brine.
4. Indian: Triangle Indian Market in Cary. This fragrant, overstocked storefront brims with Subcontinental delights: chickpea flour, pickled mangoes, canned curries, sticky cones of jaggery sugar, and bags of spices like cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric and asafetida. The produce section has hard-to-find fruits and veggies such as green papaya, fresh curry leaf, and bitter melon. At the front of the store, oversized plastic bins hold a rainbow of different rice types for bulk sale. Don’t miss the homemade baked goods like samosas and jalebis (a deep-fried, syrup-soaked chickpea pastry), sold out of foil roasting tins at the checkout counter.
5. Middle Eastern: Nur Grocery in Raleigh. Though small, this strip mall market stocks a huge amount of Middle Eastern specialties, from bags of cracked wheat to pomegranate molasses to sheep’s milk cheese. The bulk bins of salt- and oil-cured olives and pickled veggie mix are a steal. If you’re too hungry to wait until you get home with your groceries, order a falafel or kofta (spiced meatball) sandwich at the deli counter.
Runner-up: Al Baraka Market in Raleigh. This Hillsborough Street grocery and butcher is great for halal meat and house-roasted nuts, as well as the usual Middle Eastern staples like hummus, couscous and dried figs.
6. Filipino: Phil Asia in Durham. Stocking many pan-Asian staples like soy sauce, rice and spices, Phil Asia also has some uniquely Filipino treats like purple yam paste, nata (a gelatinous treat made from coconut) and longaniza (a spicy Portuguese-style sausage). My favorite is the coco jam, a thick caramel made from cooking down coconut milk. It’s great as a filling for layer cakes or for a topping on tropical ice cream sundaes.
8. Polish/Eastern European: Halgo in Durham. Got a hankering for pierogies? Halgo’s freezer section has ten varieties of the addictive little Polish dumplings, from cheese to potato to blueberry. They’ve also got a small selection of other Eastern European goodies like Russian tea, plum preserves and homemade chrusciki, a light Polish cookie also known as ‘angel wings.’ Call ahead to have the staff prepare you a lunch of Polish sausage slathered in mustard and heaps of sauerkraut.
Runner-up: Polonez Deli in Raleigh. More pierogies, plus a half-dozen types of sausage and a good selection of canned and frozen goods like pickled mushrooms, stuffed cabbage and cherry jam.
9. UK/Commonwealth: World Market in Durham, Cary or Raleigh. This warehouse-y chain is best known for its cheap, “ethnic” housewares and decorations – Chinese lanterns, Mexican crepe paper, throw pillows made from sari fabric. But as British and Australian expats know, its food aisle is the best place in the Triangle to score hard-to-find Commonwealth favorites like McVitie’s digestive biscuits (UK), Tim Tam cookies (Australia; my personal fave), Malteasers (UK), Vegemite (Australia) and Bisto gravy granules (UK).
10. Western European: A Southern Season in Chapel Hill. Don’t let the name fool you. While this massive gourmet store is best known for Southern specialties like cheese straws and pecan pralines, it’s also a food porn fantasyland of upmarket imported goodies. Think Spanish jamón Ibérico (at, like, $123 a pound), lacy Dutch waffle cookies, French raspberry preserves, Belgian chocolates, and an extensive variety of international cheeses.
The Farmer's Scramble at Watts Grocery in Durham. Photo by sashafatcat/flickr.
Any metro area with 100,000 college students and half a million yuppies is bound to have some decent brunch, and the Triangle is no exception. Here are ten of my favorites, from nouvelle Southern to dim sum.
1. The Orange County Special at Acme in Carrboro, especially when you’re hung over. Biscuits, sausage gravy, melted cheddar…need we say any more? The Eggs Benedict with dayboat scallops is always a favorite too. Order a side of the seasonally changing coffee cake, or – if you’re lucky enough to catch them – the elusive homemade doughnuts. Atmosphere is low-key urban chic, with burgundy walls, exposed brick and a long wooden bar.
2. The build-your-own grits bowl at Watts Grocery, Durham’s simple-local-seasonal cafe du jour. I take mine with chilis, chopped bacon, avocado and fried egg. At $7, it’s a ridiculous value. Other brunch entrees range from decadent (banana-stuffed caramel French toast) to daring (Andouille sausage and chili Benedict with crawfish tail hollandaise). A side of churros (stick-shaped cinnamon donuts) with dark chocolate dipping sauce is mandatory.
3. Lining up with post-church families and post-coital college couples on Sunday at Breadmen’s in Chapel Hill. Omelets are just OK, but the pecan waffles are outstanding and the atmosphere is classic Tar Heel, with worn wooden booths and decades worth of Carolina basketball posters.
4. The three-course Royal Brunch at Jibarra in Raleigh – fruit, coffee, huevos a la Mexicana or enchilada omelets, and flan or coconutty pan de nata for dessert. Plus, guava mimosas! The swanky urban vibe – contemporary furniture, exposed metal roofbeams, blowups of vintage Mexican photographs – makes it a nice place for special occasions.
5. Contemporary French decadence at Rue Cler, a chicly minimalist bistro in Durham. Frisee salads with lardons, frites ‘rue cler’ (topped with bacon, Gruyere and fried eggs), homemade beignets. Grab a baguette from the attached bakery to take home for dinner.
6. Sharing plates of shrimp dumplings, crispy chive pancakes, golden pan-fried turnip cakes, greens in salty-sweet oyster sauce, marigold-colored egg tarts, fluffy barbecue pork buns, and other dim sum at Hong Kong in Durham. The Triangle’s favorite dim sum spot is mobbed on weekends, so prepare to wait. If you’re with a fun group of friends (and you really should be, for sharing purposes), you won’t mind.
7. Country ham biscuits, cowboy omelets and hotcakes at the cafe at the North Carolina State Farmer’s Market in Raleigh. The strong-of-stomach can try the pork brains and eggs (yes, really), a classic Southern breakfast treat. Walk it off afterwards by wandering the stalls of watermelon, tomatoes and sweet corn.
8. Eating in the bamboo-shaded courtyard at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, one of the granddaddies of the Triangle’s New Southern cuisine scene. Their famed shrimp and grits – an upmarket twist on the classic Carolina fisherman’s breakfast – is just as good in the morning as it is at night, and cheaper too! If you have to wait (and you usually will), just hang out at the bar, checking out the quirky local artwork on the walls and chatting with the quirky locals on the barstools.
9. The brunch buffet at Chapel Hill’s Mint. The dishes are standard North Indian fare (chicken korma, aloo gobi, saag paneer, naan) but they’re unusually well-rendered, and the decor forgoes the usual cheesy mirrors-and-pictures-of-the-Taj-Mahal aesthetic in favor of soothing brown and sage tones and plushly upholstered booths. Your $13 gets you a mango lassi or a mimosa too!
10. Crepes with caramelized apples and Brie, Nicoise salad, quiche Lorraine and other well executed Gallic classics at Raleigh’s Coquette. This elegant brasserie blends Parisian flair (black-and-white tiled floors, long pewter bar) with American-style comfort (booths, lots of light). Side dishes of bacon or herbed potatoes = yes. Eggs Benedict = no.
From North Carolina to India to Japan to Mexico and back in a single mile!
Mad traffic in downtown Cary. Photo by Dako.
The fifth in a five-part Foodie Walking Tour series. Previously: Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh.
Admit it. You think it can’t be done. Nobody walks in Cary, right? It’s a sterile bubble of strip malls and sprawling subdivisions, the kind of place where people climb into their Lexus RX to drive down the block to Whole Foods.
I’m not going to pretend that these perceptions are not rooted in truth. Cary has worked hard to promote a bucolic, anti-urban image, at one point even banning neon shop signs (too shiny!!). It is at heart a suburban bedroom community with little downtown to speak of. The vast majority of the city IS unwalkable, at least in the sense we’re talking about (though many would like to see this change).
But the city’s historic center does have a few hidden gems. And just down the street from downtown is Chatham Square, a strip mall sometimes known as “Little India” for its concentration of Indian (and Pakistani, and Japanese, and Korean, and Chinese and Mexican) shops and restaurants. It’s the best place in the Triangle for an afternoon of multi-ethnic nibbling and shopping.
So try to get past Cary’s sometimes foreboding landscape of McMansions and faux-colonnaded Big Box stores to get a taste of the city’s increasingly vibrant and diverse culture.
Start off at Ashworth Drugs, one of downtown Cary’s only longstanding businesses and an icon among those who remember when the city was little more than one street and a railway depot. The retro lunch counter serves up hotdogs, homemade chicken and tuna salad sandwiches, fresh-squeezed orangeade and lemonade, and old-school milkshakes and ice cream floats. Try a footlong with all the fixings, washed down with a soda fountain cherry Coke.
From here, make the pleasant trek east along Chatham Street (on an actual sidewalk, sometimes a rarity in Cary) for about a mile. Here you’ll find Chatham Square, AKA Little India, the Triangle’s highest concentration of ethnic grocery stores and restaurants. Start off with an Indian snack at one of the following:
- Udupi, located just west of Chatham Square proper, is an all-vegetarian South Indian restaurant specializing in dosa, huge, fragile chickpea crepes stuffed with a variety of fillings. I like mine loaded with fresh paneer cheese, masala spices and fried onions. A single dosa will fill you up – they’re as long as your arm.
- Cool Breeze, on the east block of Chatham Square, offers chaat, or Indian street snacks, usually representing a healthy mix of spicy, sweet and sour flavors. Try the pani puri (hollow fried shells filled with chickpeas and onion chutney), bhel puri (a spicy peanut and puffed rice combo, the Indian answer to Chex Mix), and stuffed paratha breads. Cool your mouth with a scoop of chikoo kulfi (kulfi is a milk-based Indian frozen dessert similar to ice cream; chikoo is a sweet tropical fruit sometimes known as ‘Indian butterscotch’).
- Suchi, one of the larger restaurants on the Square, features food from India’s Hyderabad region, which is lighter than your traditional creamy North Indian fare, with lots of bright tamarind and coconut notes. Their lunch buffet is a good way to get a wide range of tastes – biryani, goat curry, lentil soup, carrot pudding.
Top off your Indian meal with dessert at Mithai, on the west side of Chatham Square. This Indian dessert shop specializes in the milk-, grain- and nut-based sweets of the subcontinent, from chartreuse triangles of fudge-like pistachio burfi to rose water-scented rasmalai to syrup-soaked gulub jamun (fried balls of fresh cheese).
If your Indian lunch has made you keen to try some cooking at home, head to Triangle Indian Market. This fragrant, overstocked shop brims with Subcontinental delights: chickpea flour, pickled mangoes, canned curries, sticky cones of jaggery sugar, and bags of spices like cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric and asafetida. The produce section has hard-to-find fruits and veggies such as green papaya, fresh curry leaf, and bitter melon.
Now it’s time to switch continents. Cross the parking lot to Panaderia Loma Bonita, a Mexican bakery whose very own tortilla press cranks out hot fresh corn tortillas all morning. Buy a pound to take home for enchilada-making, or just grab a sweet from the pastry case – conchas (’shells’ in Spanish, sweet rolls named for their seashell-like sugar striping), cuernos (like croissants), polvorones (powdery sugar cookies) and more.
At the western edge of the Square is Toyo Shokuhin, the Triangle’s only all-Japanese market. Run by the charming Sachiko McShea, a native of Osaka who married an American GI during WWII, this small market specializes in everything from the Land of the Rising Sun. Shelves are densely stocked with packaged soba noodles, soy sauce, miso powder, fish flakes, dried squid, and bright bags of candies in flavors like “milk soda” and “musk melon.” Don’t miss the freezer case full of green tea ice cream and frozen mochi (rice flour pastries filled with ice cream).
A few doors down, Mi Paisano, a Mexican tienda, is a good place to pop in for tomatillos or queso fresco or a rice pudding- or banana-flavored paleta (Mexican popsicle).
Take your walking tour full circle (figuratively speaking) by heading across the street to Circus, another vestige of Cary’s Old South past. This drive-through barn, painted in carnival shades of red, pink and yellow, sells $1 footlongs, pecan milkshakes, and chili fries. I guess when you’ve been around for 60 years you’re exempt from Cary’s beige-centric zoning code.
If somehow you’re still hungry (tapeworm?), head around the corner to Super Wok, the Triangle’s best Szechuan restaurant. But more on that later…
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From barbecue sandwiches to bacon-rosemary chocolate in the Capital City
A warm day outside the Raleigh Times. Photo by captainslack/flickr.
The fourth in a five-part Foodie Walking Tour series. Previously: Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham. Coming soon: Cary.
Not so very long ago, downtown Raleigh dropped dead at 5pm. It was a lunch-only town, a place for newspaper reporters, state legislators and local businessmen to schmooze over barbecue sandwiches and sweet tea, their ties flung over their shoulders to avoid grease stains. Growing up in Durham and Chapel Hill, I rarely had reason to venture east except for the occasional punk show at King’s on McDowell Street (RIP).
This is emphatically no longer the case – these days I head to downtown Raleigh to eat probably once a week. Where there was once nothing but luncheonettes and bank buildings there are now bistros, bars and coffee shops galore. You can hit most of the hotspots in an afternoon walking and eating tour, though be sure to stick around after dark for the downtown Raleigh nightlife scene, once an oxymoron.
Start out on East Davie Street at Clyde Cooper’s, which is, in my humble opinion, Raleigh’s best barbecue place (I know many will vehemently, homicidally disagree – that’s the nature of barbecue fandom, right?). This old-school brick storefront is a true Raleigh institution, serving three textures of Carolina pork barbecue – chopped, pulled and sliced – since 1938. Sit in one of the high-backed wooden booths and order a sweet tea and a $3 barbecue sandwich – I like mine chopped, with a heavy splash of Cooper’s kicky vinegar sauce.
Walk one block east and two blocks north to Duck & Dumpling, on the west side of Moore Square. Appetizers are your best bet at this swanky neo-Chinese & Vietnamese bistro. Try a dumpling sampler, your choice of three house-specialty dumplings – pork & cabbage, duck & shiitake, edamame & mushroom, etc.
One block west of Duck & Dumpling is Busy Bee Cafe, a new gastropub in a three-story renovated warehouse. Rare/hard-to-find craft brews and creative small plates are the order of the day here – I’ve raved about their (tater) tots before, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The mac n’ cheese appetizer – penne in a gooey cheddar-herb sauce – has a similar “grownup kid food” appeal.
Continue the pub grub extravaganza at the Raleigh Times, just around the corner on Hargett Street. In a 1900-era brick building that once housed the (long-gone) Raleigh Times newspaper, this bar/cafe does a great job with high-end versions on downmarket classics –chicken-fried pickles, chipotle chicken wings, PBR-battered fish and chips. I’m partial to the BBQ nachos myself, loaded with queso fresco, jalapenos and pico de gallo.
Stroll three blocks west and three blocks south to Poole’s Diner, the retro-chic French-meets-Southern bistro I rave about with regularity (me and everyone else). While the mac ‘n’ cheese is well-documented to be full of heroin and rainbows, the best pick for a quick stop-in is a slice of pie and a cocktail at the bar. Think ultra-luxe takes on classic Southern recipes – roasted banana cream pie with homemade toffee topping, bourbon-spiked chocolate pecan, etc.
By now you could probably use a longer walk. So cut east to Blount Street and go south for about half a mile to Escazu (this location will be open in about two weeks). This “bean to bar” chocolate shop grinds raw cacao on vintage equipment to produce both single-origin solid chocolate bars (try the Venezuela 60% with goat’s milk) and bonbons in flavors like jalapeno-grapefruit, Scotch, and rosemary-bacon. It’s widely considered the best chocolate in the Triangle, if not the state.
Cap your tour off by walking back north to Foundation, an underground (literally) Fayetteville Street bar specializing in NC craft brews and artisan liqueurs. Some of their cocktails are practically food, incorporating things like eggs, brown sugar and coffee. Nondrinkers will appreciate the homemade cola, which is pale gold and has an intriguing peppery kick.
If you’ve got post-bar munchies, you’ve got two choices: 1) Walk across town to Snoopy’s, the iconic Raleigh hot dog stand that serves chili footlongs until 3am, or 2) The Krispy Kreme on Fayetteville Street. Mmmm, Krispy Kreme.
Fish tacos, salted licorice, cupcake trucks and more in the Bull City.
OnlyBurger fresh off the truck in downtown Durham. Photo by justinhenry/flickr.
The third in a five-part Foodie Walking Tour series. Previously: Carrboro, Chapel Hill. Coming soon: Raleigh and Cary.
When I was a kid growing up in southwest Durham in the 1980s, when the wind blew in the right direction we could actually smell the drying tobacco from the downtown warehouses, a sweet, leathery scent. Downtown itself was already a ghost town of abandoned red brick factory buildings and smashed Art Deco storefronts; the cigarette manufacturers had moved on, the shop owners had moved to the suburban shopping malls.
For years, people have been claiming downtown’s on the verge of a comeback. Well, now I think it’s fair to announce that the comeback has done came, as they say. Downtown Durham is one of the most happening parts of the Triangle, with loft apartments, art spaces, boutiques and, of course, restaurants. With nearly 40 eating establishments within a half-mile radius, downtown is the ideal place for a foodie walking tour. These are some of my favorite drop-in spots:
Start your tour by fueling up at Blue Coffee Cafe, the spacious Corcoran Street coffee shop/community gathering place. Try a cup of coffee and a slice of owner Gwen Mathews’ homemade pound cake – that’s exactly what President Obama had when he visited in May 2008 during a campaign stop.
From here, head across the plaza to the LocoPops counter for a funky flavored paleta (Mexican-style popsicle). My standing fave is the Mexican chocolate, kicked up with cinnamon and chili, though I’ll try whatever’s on special (olive oil, yogurt-mint-grapefruit).
If it’s Saturday morning, stroll a few blocks north on Foster Street to the Durham Farmer’s Market for organic squash, fresh bison steaks, basil seedlings and pie (whatever’s in season from Phoebe at Scratch Baking). If you’re extra-lucky, the Daisy Cakes truck (a groovy retro Airstream) will be parked alongside the market, dispensing red velvet and ginger-stout cupcakes to the adoring public. The OnlyBurger gourmet burger truck makes regular stops here too – try a Farmer’s Market special with fried green tomato.
Backtrack a few blocks southeast to the bakery at Rue Cler, a sunny, chicly minimalist Parisian-style bistro, to pick up a baguette to take home for dinner. Or, depending on your appetite, devour a half-dozen of their fresh beignets, which melt in your mouth in a whoosh of hot fragrant air and silky powdered sugar.
For a heartier nibble, walk a block south on Mangum Street for a taco platter and some cheese-stuffed fried plantains at Dos Perros, a quirky modern Mexican joint in a renovated pharmacy. Their fish tacos are the best around, generously garnished with homemade pickled cabbage, and the vintage Mexican movie posters on the walls make for a cheerful vibe.
From here, go northeast on Main Street to Toast, a panini shop with a brief-but-perfect selection of exquisite hot sandwiches – pecorino and truffle oil, tuna with olive and fennel. The high molded ceilings and blackboard menu make you feel like you’ve wandered into a neighborhood cafe in an arty part of Milan. If you’re not very hungry, just nibble a plate of crostini – the warm goat cheese with local honey and cracked pepper is my favorite.
Keep walking the same direction up Main to poke your head into Parker and Otis, the quirky-cute cafe/coffee shop/market in a renovated red brick warehouse. Pick out a treat from their large selection of rare and wonderful candies – Finnish salted licorice, vintage chewing gum, bacon-studded chocolate bars. If you want to put your feet up for a moment, grab a cappuccino and relax on the wide wooden porch.
Finish up across the street with a beer (or two) at the Federal, a down-to-earth local pub with a full menu of domestic craft brews. If, due to some bizarre quirk of metabolism, you’re still hungry, the nachos are some of the best in town.
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From popsicles to pita bread in the “Southern Part of Heaven”
Franklin Street, Chapel Hill. Photo by cc511/flickr.
The second in a five-part Foodie Walking Tour series. Previously: Carrboro. Coming soon: Durham, Raleigh and Cary.
Franklin Street, the most walkable part of Chapel Hill, is adjacent to UNC campus and therefore plagued with mediocre student-oriented burrito joints and chicken franchises. But there are still some gems, if you know where to look between all the bars and boutiques. The further west you go, the more “grownup” the restaurants become. Here are a few of my favorite spots to drop in for a quick bite:
Start out at LocoPops, tucked away in the small plaza behind Subway. This barebones storefront sells nothing but paletas – Mexican-style popsicles in wild flavors like hibiscus and chocolate-chili and olive oil. A local favorite on sweaty summer days.
Cross the street for a drippy cheeseburger or a milkshake at Sutton’s Drug Store, a Chapel Hill institution since 1922. The walls are covered with faded photos of UNC basketball teams past and the booths are crammed with everyone from the Dean Dome janitor to the mayor. Inside tip: Ask for your fries twice-fried, for extra crunch.
Head west on Franklin Street to Mediterranean Deli, a Palestinian-run pan-Middle Eastern cafe, bakery and market that’s packed day and night with customers chowing on falafel, tabouli and fatoush salad. The bakery churns out fresh, pillowy pita and the deli case has a good selection of Mediterranean tidbits, from kalamata olives to Bulgarian sheep’s milk cheese.
Across the street, hidden inside the Courtyard shopping center, Sandwhich has gained national attention for its creative handmade sandwiches. The grilled cheese is the best you’ve ever tasted, and the meatloaf with bacon on grilled sourdough makes me want to use horrible food writer words like ‘revelation.’ If you’re not hungry enough for a sandwich, pick up a jar of the Moroccan owner’s homemade preserved lemons.
Crossing the street again and moving further west you’ll find Chocolate Door, a brand-new handmade chocolate shop with a small collection of bon bons in funky flavors like whipped honey and balsamic fig. Try the house specialty, a salty-sweet haystack of chocolate-covered potato chips.
Double back east and turn left on Martin Luther King Drive to hit Foster’s, a gourmet market and cafe run by Martha Stewart friend and acolyte Sara Foster. While everything looks gorgeous (Martha wouldn’t have it any other way), your best bets are the baked goods – lemon scones, giant oatmeal cookies – and the pretty jars of fancy, gift-y candies and homemade jams.
Head back up to Franklin Street to Sugarland, a bakery and gelato shop cutely done up in mahogany and Tiffany blue to resemble a turn-of-the-century Parisian cafe. Skip the baked goods entirely (they look pretty, yes, but trust me on this one) in favor of the homemade gelato. I like the Donatella, a dark chocolate hazelnut flavor that’s like eating frozen Nutella.
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Chocolate, tacos, pastrami biscuits and more in the “Paris of the Piedmont.”
Typical Weaver Street Market scene, Carrboro. Photo by Brian R/flickr.
The first in a five-part Foodie Walking Tour series. Coming soon: Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh and Cary.
EVERYONE cares about food in Carrboro, the Triangle’s pint-sized hipster-hippie nexus. Just tap a local on the shoulder and ask him his opinion on genetically modified corn. I dare you. Unsurprisingly, the town’s got one of the best local/organic/seasonal dining scenes in the area, and almost everything’s in easy walking distance. Here’s a handful of my favorite spots to get you started:
Begin your journey at Weaver Street Market, a grocery co-op and Carrboro’s de facto town square. Their hot bar and salad bar are popular (especially with vegetarians and vegans), but I prefer their baked goods – no New Age asceticism here! Grab a cranberry-walnut mini tart, or a loaf of olive bread and a wedge of gooey local camembert to eat on the picnic tables on the lawn, one of the Triangle’s best people-watching spots.
From here, head inside Carr Mill Mall, a former hosiery mill turned upscale shopping center, to ogle the baroque confections at Miel Bon Bons. Owner Bonnie Lau, a Hong Kong-born, French-trained pastry chef, makes pastries as ornate as Faberge eggs and exquisite chocolates in flavors like yuzu and mango-mint-coriander. The chocolates are as good as anything I’ve had in the high-end chocolateries in Paris, adding credence to Carrboro’s nickname
Exiting Carr Mill Mall on the Weaver Street side, walk a block south to Neal’s Deli. This tiny slip of a space is owned by Matt and Sheila Neal (he’s the son of Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner fame, she’s the former manager of the Carrboro Farmer’s Market), who have a serious commitment to DIY food culture. Think homemade pastrami and corned beef, fresh-baked granola, and a rotating crop of veggie side dishes straight from the farmer’s market. If it’s before 10:30 am, try a pastrami biscuit – so wrong it’s right.
From Neal’s, cross Greensboro Street and walk a few blocks west on Main to El Mercado Central, a mainstay of Carrboro’s large Hispanic population. This tienda has all the usual Latin American goodies – fresh tomatillos, Jarritos sodas in lurid shades of pink and lime green, spices like epazote and Mexican cinnamon – plus a lunch counter serving excellent tacos.
If it happens to be Saturday morning, head north on Main Street to the venerable Carrboro Farmer’s Market, for organic tomatoes, fresh goat cheese, homemade pecan pie, herb seedlings, sculptures made from old car parts, banjo players, adults dressed as fairies…ah, Carrboro.
If your energy’s flagging a bit, double back down Main Street to Open Eye Cafe, which call itself ‘Carrboro’s living room,’ and justly so – it sometimes seems like half the town’s in here, working on the laptops or making scarves with their Anarchist Knitting Circle. Slump in one of the worn couches with a cup of coffee, all roasted right here in the back room.
Kitty corner from Open Eye is Cliff’s Meat Market, one of the Triangle’s few remaining family-run butcher shops and a Carrboro institution. Owner Cliff Collins loves to talk and will be more than happy to instruct you on the difference between leaf lard and fatback, or tell you how many pounds of chicken you need for that dinner party. Cliff’s crew of Mexican employees make a mean chorizo too – grab a link for tomorrow’s breakfast.
If it’s warm out, make an ice cream pit stop at Maple View Farm’s Carrboro outpost, right across from Weaver Street Market. While it doesn’t have the rustic charm as the original store (out in the county), it’s a good stop for a local cone. My favorite is their chocolate lavender.
For your final stop, head east on Main Street to Milltown. This Belgian-meets-Southern gastropub and beer garden is one of Carrboro’s favorite late afternoon and evening hangouts. Relax with a Belgian brew and a plate of Milltown’s beloved thin-cut frites, which come in three varieties – English (with curry sauce), Belgian (with aioli), and poutine (with gravy and cheese curds, Quebecois-style).
DETOUR: If you’re hungry for more, walk north on Main Street a mile or so to Johnny’s, a bait and tackle shop turned locavore convenience store/community gathering place. The main room of the old blue bungalow features shelves of Farmer’s Daughter jams and pickles, Guglhupf pastries and a refrigerator case of local milk and butter. Out back, chickens run around the yard and humans recline on picnic tables, eating taco truck tacos (weekend evenings) or crepes from the Parlez-Vous crepe truck (Saturdays).
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