Next Saturday November 30th is the Rock & Shop Market in downtown Durham. This event is awesome – tons of great holiday shopping, live music, and 6 food trucks! The event is at the Armory and costs $5. Hope to see you there!
Ashley Christensen has introduced a lot of good food to Raleigh over the years. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that her expansive empire has lent Raleigh a truly unique culinary identity, for me it has begun to dominate the city’s dining scene in the following way: her restaurants are often the first thing that come to mind when I’m asked “what’s good to eat in Raleigh?” Her latest venture to open, Joule, is not far from two of her other restaurants, Chuck’s and Beasley’s, and takes the place of the old Wilmoore Cafe on Wilmington St. Each one of these establishments has a distinct focus – burgers at Chuck’s, fried chicken at Beasley’s, and, at Joule, coffee. Fortunately for me (not a coffee drinker), there’s food to be had at Joule too, and from what I’ve tasted the quality is right on par with the excellent standards for which Ms. Christensen is known.
The Joule space is decidedly more cozy than the austere restaurants down the block. The warmth comes from the low lighting and the rich color palette (orange/deep turquoise), as well as from the long wooden communal table down the center of the space (an element it has in common with Beasley’s). There’s also great bar seating along the inside of the deep windows leading to the front door. This is a great spot for solo diners or laptop warriors. Finally, there is a very small patio that looks out over the alleyway to the bus station. In the evening, Joule is more hushed and dark than boisterous. This is not your average coffee shop – there’s a hostess and full table service, but I’m pretty sure you can get a to-go cup of coffee straight from the counter. There’s an extensive coffee menu (obviously), some breakfast items, an “all day” menu (lunch and dinner) and, to top it off, a great brunch service on the weekends (replacing that which used to be offered at Ashley’s other downtown institution, Poole’s Diner). The “all day” menu includes some salads and a soup or two, as well as about 8 sandwich options.
I went with a pork sandwich ($9.75) and my wife had the BLT ($8.75). We each added some excellent house-made “salt and pepper” potato chips for $2 apiece. My sandwich featured red curry braised pork shoulder, NC peanuts, house-made yogurt, and a spicy cucumber/red onion/cilantro garnish. Served on a house-made hoagie roll/baguette hybrid, it was terrific. But the BLT may have been even better. If featured some outstanding thick-cut tomatoes, malt aioli, and some great bacon. This was served on toasted sourdough (also house-made). My one complaint was that it was exceptionally messy, and the romaine’s crunch was drowned out by all the tomato juices and aioli. But, really, it was superb.
Ms. Christensen has another winner with Joule. I really look forward to trying the weekend brunch at Joule, and to whatever comes next from this talented chef/entrepreneur.
• Baker’s Dozen Donut shop (at South Hills mall) – This place has no website or facebook page, and the sign out front simply reads “Donuts”. They had a pretty big selection, and prices were cheap if I recall correctly – only 8 or 9 bucks for a dozen, and huge apple fritters for a lot less than $2. Donuts are pretty run-of the mill from my very limited sampling. Very sweet, no surprises. It looks like they stay open until 7 or 8 some evenings.
• La Casa De Las Enchiladas – Kind of a house-like ambience. Very good salsa to start off with, along with freshly fried chips. The quesadilla huitlacoche (corn fungus – apparently a Mexican delicacy but a rarity around here) was good enough, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. The mole poblano was fine, other enchiladas were good and decidedly more spicy than most places (a plus for me). The torta cubana was massive and contains seemingly every single meat/ingredient they have. It’s a huge round sandwich that overflows with fillings. It’s good, and could easily feed two. There’s also a nice salsa/condiments bar. I’d definitely go back.
• Lucky 32- We went back again but I have to say I’m consistently underwhelmed. The menu always sounds great though. I Finally tried the voodoo pig bread – pulled pork, red onion, chevre, cilantro, voodoo sauce on ciabatta (+ some melted mozzarellla I think). It was fine but not worth going out of your way for. The service at this place has always been excellent though.
• Bella Mia – We finally went back after a long hiatus (and after their change in ownership a while back). We went with the calzone with ricotta and sausage, which had so wowed us previously. It was very similar, but somehow not quite as amazingly delicious. Still really good. The roasted chicken wings to start were the exact same – very nice!
Trophy Brewing & Pizza Co. is a new spot in Raleigh that brings a bit of Durham cool to this side of the Triangle. This place is the epitome of hip: it’s stylish without feeling forced. Located on a overlooked stretch of Morgan St. heading into downtown, it has promptly become a place to see and be seen, but it functions equally well as just a nice place to hang out with your friends. Inside, it’s small – almost too small. It’s tough to even walk behind the bar on account of a couple rustic barrels that line the glass-fronted space. Sure, there are handful of patio tables, and you can get full service at the lovely, expansively deep bar, but the bottom line is this: expect a crowd. The decor is well executed in yellow ochres and browns. A cadre of trophies lines a high shelf towards the back – it would be cool if these belonged to the owners (also of downtown’s “Busy Bee“) or to the chefs, but I didn’t inquire.
There is a small menu of pizzas and salads. The pie toppings here are gourmet in the style of Durham’s Pizzeria Toro, but don’t sound quite as inviting (you can create your own too). You can order a personal size (9″) or a large (18″). I went with a small “Most Loyal” (basil pesto, chicken, mozzarella blend, tomato, honey, $10) and my wife chose a small “Most Outgoing” (mushrooms, caramelized onions, brie, mozzarella blend, tomato sauce, arugula, also $10). The crusts here are Lilly’s style, thick and doughy, but perhaps not quite as good. The amount of bread means though that even a 9″ pie is probably enough for most folks – neither of us were able to finish an entire one. Overall, I found the pizzas fairly average, even a touch bland. My wife liked hers a good bit, while I went back and forth on which was better. I rather liked the honey on mine, which was just a hint but added some needed complexity. Hers was piled high with fresh arugula and contained some nicely cooked onions, but I kind of missed the brie in there. Not being much of a drinker, I didn’t try the beer, but it’s well regarded from what I hear.
Trophy kind of reminds me of Durham’s Fullsteam (minus the hangar-like space, and the games, and plus the food). It’s got the laid-back vibe, the friendly staff, and the cool factor: it’s an easy place to have a good time. The pizza may not be stellar, or even the best in Raleigh, but this is definitely a place to which I’d return.
I recently traveled to Cincinnati for a work conference. The conference was held right downtown, so I got to do a little walking around the riverfront and Over-the-Rhine districts. The city has a lot of interesting old architecture, and, from what I’ve heard, has enjoyed quite a renaissance over the last few years. I stayed away from the well known local specialty Cincinnati chili, which is basically spaghetti with a cinnamon-inflected meat sauce and (if you like) a mound of shredded cheese or beans on top, but I did score some other delicious eats in my brief time there.
Quan Hapa – This is an Asian street food place that’s small, cute, and modern. I went with two steamed bun sliders: pork belly (garlic scallion, pickled daikon & carrot, peanut aioli) and sweet potato croquette (with coconut creamed spinach). The buns were a little gummy and doughy, but the fillings were great, especially the pork. I also got an order of their chicken wings (marinated in lemongrass & soy, tossed in nuoc mam and honey). These were smoky, sweet, and addictive, not fried terribly crispy but very satisfying. Finally, I could not pass up an order of the “vietnamese coffee bread pudding” – rich little chunks of bread soaked in a thin sweetened condensed milk/coffee liquid with chocolate chips melting everywhere. Wow! It was fantastic.
Taste of Belgium – I walked up here one morning to grab a Belgian (liege) waffle. It was kind of a life-changing experience. I ordered a plain one, and, though I was a little surprised by the density and sweetness of the thing, it was just insanely delicious. I guess I haven’t had that many true liege waffles in my day, but I may just spend the rest of my years attempting to make the perfect one at home.
Senate – Ok, this is the au courant gastropub duck fat kind of place. They’ve got all kinds of gussied up, decadent hot dogs on the menu, and not too many vegetables. The inside is nice, with exposed brick walls and a marble bar. I ordered a lobster BLT (butter braised lobster, bourbon smoked bacon, baked egg bun, basil mayo) and some truffle fries. The sandwich was decent despite some tough, sinewy lobster meat. I think it was saved by the bacon, which was exceptionally good, and a light feathery bun that surprisingly held up to the filling. The truffle fries were good as well, crispy and flavorful.
Graeter’s – Of course I had to try the local ice cream maker, who is known for their chocolate chip varieties. This is because, from what I’ve read, they use the “French pot” method of making ice cream, in which molten chocolate is poured into the churning mix, resulting in randomly sized shards of chocolate rather than uniform pieces. I ordered the black raspberry chip, and was richly rewarded. It was really good. There was actually a massive hunk of chocolate buried in my cup, but I’m not complaining about that.
Another little “European” charm place (see also Mateo, Toro, …) for Durham. Irresistibly cute shop with fantastic ice creams. The also offer indulgent sundae combinations. I got the malted milk chocolate and it was smooth, rich, creamy – superb!
Return visits to Mateo and Pizzeria Toro:
Intial impressions of greatness confirmed! Mateo has got to be one of the top restaurants in the Triangle. And, after visiting Curate in Asheville, I’d say this place is just as good, or even better. We tried a whole host of different things. Standouts were the tortilla espanola, a think quiche-like concoction with tender thick-cut potato slices, some very nice meatballs in a tomato sauce, and a chicken/sherry/shallots/lemon/thyme/grits affair that I will be trying in vain to re-create at home. As for Toro, the mushroom pizza is another winner. Just the right amount of oil and coarse sea salt on a blistery crust, some fine cheese, flavorful local shrooms, and herbs. Perfecto!
Hillsborough BBQ Company:
Well they can’t all be winners. I had been excited to try this place, which cooks over wood. But the BBQ was pretty lifeless and kind of dry. The corn pudding on the side was undersalted. It’s nice that they have three kinds of coleslaw (regular, western, and mustard), but the “regular” was nothing to write home about. The ribs were better, although I didn’t love the ketchupy sauce. The best thing was the hushpuppies, little balls of fried goodness.
Boy, did we feast in Asheville recently. Here’s how it went:
A dive bar with high fallutin’ food. We sat at the bar because they are seemingly booked solid every night, even at 5pm on a Thursday. It’s very dark in this place, and there’s not much atmosphere to speak of. We started with some bread with butter, which was fine. Then we moved on to:
Carbonara: fettuccine/basil/pancetta/egg foam/local ramps/duck confit – It was certainly good, but not mind-blowing. Creamy comfort food. I didn’t get much basil flavor. The egg foam was a little unimpressive but added plenty of richness.
Angus Flat Iron Steak: fingerlings/pickled red onions/spinach/lemon mustard vinaigrette/sriracha maple – The steak was perfectly cooked. The spinach was great too. The roasted potatoes were unusual with the sweet-spicy glaze, but the dish really worked.
House smoked duck breast: mole/orange-fennel salad/sesame seed brittle/salty peanuts – Wow, this was sensational! The duck was cooked beautifully and sliced thinly, stacked high and topped with a little fennel. I loved the mole, and the fact that it was just a smear on the plate. The tiny piece of brittle and the few peanuts were just right too. This was an artfully composed plate whose components really came together wonderfully. This dish also came with a few roasted fingerling potatoes as well, which I thought were unnecessary.
Overall, a bit pricey but undeniably delicious.
White Duck Taco Shop:
In the gritty River Arts district, serving up very non-traditional tacos. We tried the bangkok shrimp, the gyro taco, the carnitas, and the chicken BLT taco, as well as some chips and salsas. The tacos were, without exception, excellent. The shrimp were fried popcorn style with a mustardy-sweet glaze and cucumbers. Pretty addictive. The gyro was just like you’d expect, but done very well. The carnitas taco was also good, with a unique bbq sauce. I felt it was a little much with pinto beans mixed in to the substantial filling. The BLT taco was really good too – fried chicken tenders, some mayo, and shredded lettuce, plenty of bacon shards, and tomato. The chips came with a trio of salsas – green, sour cream/red hybrid, and red. It was way too much salsa, but each was good. I would definitely make it a point to return here next time I’m in Asheville. This place fulfills the true potential of a place like Cary’s Taqueria Del Sol, and adds on to it with a funky vibe and charming atmosphere.
Very nice traditional Spanish tapas bar. Refined setting with an open kitchen. We went for brunch on Saturday and ordered the following:
Bocadillo serrano: the pinnacle of ham & cheese sandwiches: crusty baguette, jamon serrano, sliced manchego, a little crushed tomato, and olive oil. So so good.
Gambas al ajillo : a little overpriced at $11 for a handful of shrimp. They were cooked very nicely, but the white wine broth at the bottom of the bowl was too salty to even consider dipping bread into.
Tortilla Espanola de Chorizo: totally different than a similar dish at Durham’s Mateo. This was was a small “skillet cake” of a hashbrown, with caramelized onions, cheese, bits of sausage. Good but not amazing.
Eggplant: Delicately battered slices of eggplant, fried and topped with rosemary and honey. Really delicious; one I’ll be attempting to re-create at home.
French Broad Chocolate Tour:
Dan, one of the founders, told their crazy story and led us around the place. It was fascinating to see the operation. They are doing great things from a sustainability standpoint, and it was really impressive how homegrown the operation is. You get to try plenty of chocolate samples at the end of the tour; my favorite was the smoked black tea/sea salt variety.
Gourmet Chip Co:
Only in Asheville? An entire shop dedicated to homemade potato chips. They have all kinds of crazy flavors. We went with a cone of “the Parisian” – herbs/feta/truffle oil. I have to say I was a bit unimpressed.
Tupelo Honey Cafe:
Asheville’s famous little cafe which is now a chain, and it looks and feels like one too. I went primarily for their famous sweet potato pancake, and it did not disappoint. It was huge and really nicely spiced, topped with some peach butter and pecans. I preferred it without syrup. The other food we had, including the three enormous biscuits they bring out with each meal, were pretty average.
We went after the chocolate tour and chip adventure, so we weren’t all that hungry. This is a cute little cafe with a line waiting for the place to open. They serve Indian street food. We tried some very good samosas, and some naan with daal and raita. And a mango lassi too. Everything was delicious in our limited sampling.
Asheville is a great city for eating (and other things too!). There were tons of places on my list which we didn’t get to, but we spent plenty of money and probably put on a few pounds, so those will have to wait until next time!
image courtesy of flickr
My experience with this place dates back to the super bowl (sorry), but I encourage you to get over to this place soon and get some Korean fried chicken. The crust is shatteringly crisp (the result of some rice flour and double frying(?)), and the pieces are bathed in your choice of sticky deliciousness: spicy, soy-garlic, or sweet. I’ve tried the latter two, and prefer the sweet. Note that this place has a miniscule, inconquerable parking lot and, perhaps more importantly, that it takes some time for your order to be prepared. Calling ahead is a fine idea. Best of all, the pieces don’t really suffer on the way home or overnight. Their menu has other choices, but I wouldn’t choose take-out (or dine in) wings from anywhere else in the area.
image courtesy of flickr
Everybody’s been going here and writing about it, and I’d say it lived up to the hype. The comparisons to Chipotle are apt, if inevitable, but the food here is fresher and more vibrant. My wife liked the pork with beans arepa, while my favorite, surprisingly, was the steak with caramelized onions (not always a fan of the steak in these kinds of dishes). The fish/plantains special was my least favorite. Next time I’ll create my own arepa. I loved the arepas themselves – think thick, moist corn tortillas. The sauce for each is served on the side, which is nice but a little confusing: do you pour it on? dip it?. The house “guasaca” sauce (somewhat like a chunky guacamole/pico de gallo hybrid) is delicious. The place is super clean and the staff is friendly. I’m eager to go back for more.
image courtesy of flickr
For a long time, finding good donuts in the Triangle was always something I puzzled over – up until quite recently there just weren’t many options. But now we can have a legitimate debate: whose donuts are the best? I’m going to leave that up to you to decide! Here are a few places where you can score some donuts and/or other delicious eats:
Rise (Durham, Southpoint area):
I’d had their donuts before, as well as a day old biscuit, but I’d never been to the storefront. It’s extremely small inside, with very limited seating, but there are some tables out front. Be sure to grab a numbered ticket when you enter; the ordering queue gets a little jumbled as 1/2 the people don’t realize they are supposed to do this (I was guilty the first time through the line). There are biscuits with any number of toppings, and then there are the specialty ones featuring all sorts of gourmet arrangements. I went with a simple fried chicken biscuit ($3). The biscuit itself was super, the fried chicken – a little thin (too must crust/meat). But do try the ham biscuit – you get a nice fat hunk of roasted ham (not a traditional country ham like you might expect). The biscuits are big, but not quite big enough for an entire lunch for me. Thankfully, they have donuts too! Though I love sweets, I think the donuts here are second fiddle to the biscuits. Jelly-filled and chocolate glazed with sprinkles were average; the coconut cake, better. Many of the donuts are gourmet-creative-exotic, but I will say that some plain glazed mini ones we got recently were feathery light and just perfect.
Monuts (Durham, downtown):
Like others in Durham, Monuts has graduated to a genuine store front, in their case beginning as a simple stand at the farmer’s market. The store is super cute, and they also serve home made bagels. And, somewhat perplexingly, wine and beer. But get a donut – you won’t regret it. I’ve tried a chocolate chai (cake) that was really good, an earl grey cake (great flavor, mediocre texture) and an apple cinnamon cake (crumbly and sugary in the best way). I need to get back and try some yeast donuts.
I’ve also tried donuts from Sandra’s Bakery in Sanford and these were quite good, but I wouldn’t go way out of the way for them. I’ve had an excellent buttermilk donut from the Cup 22 coffee shop in Saxapahaw, though donuts at the general store next door have been less than thrilling. I’ve yet to try Daylight Donuts, but people seem to really like them (they are a nation wide chain). And, speaking of chains, last but not least, there’s good ol’ Krispy Kreme, whose “hot now” glazed donuts are pretty hard to beat.