Gather – Boutique/Coffee/Tea/Co-working in downtown Cary, NC

While this post isn’t strictly about food, I’ve just got to tell about this place. Gather is a co-working/boutique/coffe&tea bar in downtown Cary that’s run by my wife. If you didn’t know Cary had a downtown, shame on you! And if you’ve never been down there, it’s a charming sleepy little spot in the middle of the bustling Triangle, with it’s own train station, a handful of good eats, and, of course, this space.

Gather3

Here you can shop for the best of the best in locally made goods, from jewelry to apparel to wallets to artwork to food products, and you can enjoy a coffee or tea while you browse. When the shop is closed, you can rent space as a co-worker or attend one of the awesome classes held there regularly (see the schedule on the website). There’s also an amazing outdoor garden patio out back.

The pictures (by our friend Amanda at Wit & Whistle) capture some of the wonderful vibe of the space, but I encourage you to come check it for yourself – I’m sure you’ll love it.

Gather6

Corbett’s Burger & Soda Bar (Cary, NC)

It seems there’s been a proliferation of burger options around the Triangle in the past few years, so much so that one couldn’t possibly try them all. Many of these have been of the gussied-up variety, offering exotic and/or decadent toppings, putting a premium on the components and ingredients used (a welcome trend, admittedly), and, in some cases, charging you a pretty penny for something you can probably make pretty well at home. But the era of the straightforward burger has certainly not ended – just witness the growth of Five Guys, a chain that does a respectable job with the no-frills variety. Now, I’m a fan of both the high brow burger and the basic burger, and among the best I’ve tried in the latter category here in the Triangle is found at Corbett’s Burger & Soda Bar in Cary.

Some may construe the 240+ sodas available here as a gimmick, and there are some weird options (chocolate covered maple bacon, cucumber, or espresso, anyone?), but I’m here for the food. Corbett’s is located in the remote corner of a semi-forsaken strip mall in Cary. Let’s hope the location doesn’t doom their prospects. It’s clearly a family-run establishment, and an easy place to bring your kids. As for decor, it’s pretty sparse, with an old-fashioned bar lined with stools, some plain wooden tables, and an open kitchen right behind the cash register. The menu is not complicated – burgers, hot dogs, etc – but it is difficult to decipher on the jam-packed board hanging overhead. You can customize your burger or dog in many different ways, or choose one of their specialty options.

I’ve eaten at Corbett’s three times and tried burgers each time. A ¼ lb burger starts at just $3.59, but you’ll add a little bit if you want a “premium” cheese and/or toppings. Impressively, many of these are house-made, like the pimiento cheese, buttermilk slaw, and virtually all of the sauces. A bag of fries (waffle style, seasoned or plain) tacks on another $1.99. The burgers are beautifully seasoned and come on a nicely grilled bun. It’s not fancy, to be sure, but it’s spot on. The fries are also nicely seasoned and cooked, and (for better or worse) you don’t get 50 lbs of them like you do at Five Guy’s. Corbett’s also does a variety of milkshakes, including flavors like root beer-banana and dulce de leche. Although I’ve yet to try one, these are an excellent deal at just $2.69/$3.35.

When you want a classic burger and fries (and your choice of a billion sodas), head over to Corbett’s. This place does it better than Char-Grill, Cook Out, or Five Guys, to name just a few.

Notes from Cary, NC

• 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!

Taqueria Del Sol (Cary, NC)

TaqueriaDelSol_540x242 

Cary’s Taqueria Del Sol is a bit of an odd bird.  It’s part of a “chain” with just a handful of locations – in GA, TN, NC, and PA.  Despite its Mexican name, the restaurant does not serve strictly Mexican food.  The menu runs the gamut from tacos (duh – but with unusual fillings) to chef’s specials like shrimp and grits.  And the atmosphere, it must be said, is kind of strange.  The food we tried was hit or miss, but the hits were sufficient enough to bring me back for another try one day.

The restaurant opened a few months ago in a cavernous lofty space in Cary Crossroads.  We were there the other night, and it was virtually empty.  Of people, yes, but also of decor.  Granted, two of the walls are mostly windows, but the rest of the space was a bit white-washed and rather sterile, mixed with a few oddities here and there.  Witness the 2 or 3 rustic “Corona” tables nestled among the many plain tables and chairs, or a red dresser with a bowl of tangerines sitting incongruously near the front door.  Other than that, the ambiance is strikingly spare.  The pendant lighting is hung up near the ceiling (which is probably 20 ft high); bringing the lighting down several feet would probably make a nice impact, although I’m not sure the pendant style really fits.  Anyway, the overall effect is, despite the spotlessness and abundance of natural light, decidedly un-cozy.  There is a small bar, and they do have a lot of plastic tables with umbrellas outside.  It seems best suited for a quick lunch or dinner.

But enough about that.  As I mentioned, the menu has some quirks.  These are not your classic Mexican tacos.  Their individual price ($2.39) is a bit high considering you can usually score some authentic Mexican ones for under $2, sometimes even as low as $1.50.  There’s a small card of kid’s menu items, for which the prices are inexplicably missing.  You order at the counter and they’ll bring your food to you.  I opted for two tacos, the “Memphis BBQ” and the “fried chicken”.  My wife went with two others, the “carnitas” (one of the few straightforwardly Mexican items on the menu) and “veggie”.  We ordered a cheese enchilada ($3.39) for our daughter.  You can choose your sauce for the enchilada, and I asked for the least spicy one.  This happened to be “lemon cream”, which I probably should have guessed would be a poor choice.  We also ordered chips and guacamole ($3.79).  The food came out alarmingly quickly, within a few minutes for sure.  First was the chips and guac.  These were actually outstanding.  The chips were fresh made and still quite warm, and nicely salted, and the guacamole was fresh, chunky, and just right.  Our main orders followed shortly.  Our taco orders came in little plastic baskets, while the enchilada came served on a real plate.  The tacos (served in flour tortillas) were a fine size, so two with some chips would probably be enough for most diners.  The chips and guac were enough for all three of us to share, so, if you’re by yourself, this place may get little pricey for a quick meal.  Anyway, the bbq taco was good.  It tasted just like you might expect, with a nice tangy, spicy sauce and a bit of coleslaw.  My chicken taco was not so great – a couple of lackluster chicken tenders, some mayo, and not much iceberg lettuce or tomato.  It really had an unappealing fast-food flavor.  My wife reported both of her tacos to be good.  The veggie one was spicy.  As for the cheese enchilada, this looked and tasted fairly bad.  It was smothered in a really thick sauce, and the cheese inside was not really even melted.  Everything was the exact same color – the cheese, the flour tortilla, and the sauce.  It amounted to a cheesy salt bomb with some lemon flavor; even my daughter, who normally would be fine with something of that description, didn’t care too much for it.

With a few tweaks to the dining experience and perhaps to the pricing, Taqueria Del Sol could probably be a consistent winner.  I’ll most likely go elsewhere for my regular taco fix, but, for something different, I might give it another shot.

Enrigo Italian Bistro (Cary, NC)

Cary’s updated Waverly Place shopping center has a lot of nice features – lovely fountains, movies and concerts on the lawn, a small children’s playground, a Whole Foods outpost that is not insanely crowded like Raleigh’s Wade Ave. branch – but it’s a work in progress, and it what it really needs are some great tenants to bring excitement (and people) to the area.  A few decent restaurants and shopping options would help the developers realize their purported goal of emulating the success of Raleigh’s North Hills.

One of the first handful of tenants that is in place is Enrigo Italian Bistro.  It occupies one of the prime spots in the shopping center, with a flowing, expansive, indoor-outdoor setting that allows diners a pleasant view of the courtyard’s grassy field and fountains.  Large glass panel doors that almost always remain wide open mean that the restaurant is really half inside, half out.  The decor is semi-upscale, and the waiters wear all black, but it’s more of a family restaurant than a romantic date spot.

The menu features Italian classics with few, if any, suprises: pastas, pizzas, and panini.  Prices are on the high side, especially for appetizers (for example, fried calamari/shrimp for $12.99).  My wife and I recently split a margherita pizza ($10.99) and a spinach salad ($5.99).  First, there was house-made bread to start off with.  It had a great crumb and was nice and soft, but could have used a touch more salt.  The accompanying olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip was insipid.  The spinach salad was disappointing.  It featured thinly sliced red onions, roasted red peppers (just a few thin strips), and “shaved” parmesan.  The cheese was plentiful, but it was more like little crumbs and tidbits.  The whole thing was brought down by a watery, flavorless balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  The pizza was big, probably around 14″ in diameter, and very thin.  It would be too much food for one person, but not quite enough for two.  The crust was sort of a feathery light crackery-crisp affair that was pleasant enough, but the rest of the ingredients were nothing to get excited about.  The cheese reminded me more of the pre-shredded variety than delicate fresh mozzarella, and the amount of basil on the pie could not have added up to even one leaf.  My wife says the pizza has changed dramatically since Enrigo first opened a few months ago; then, she was thrilled by it, but not this time.

I’d be willing to give Enrigo another shot, because it offers such a pleasant setting, and to try one of their pasta dishes.  And for sure I’ll be back to Waverly Place, especially if they can attract some more good businesses and restaurants.

La Farm Bakery & Cafe (Cary, NC)

croissant image courtesy of flickr

La Farm is one of the Triangle’s premier bakeries, and one of only a very few that make good artisanal loaves of bread (Loaf, Rue Cler’s Bakery, Guglhupf, and Chicken Bridge Bakery are a few others that come to mind).  So this is one of the best places to come – and folks throughout the Triangle  do – to get a good baguette, a loaf of crusty ciabatta, or a croissant.  Or, of course, for one of many delightful treats.

Despite the linguistically hybridized name, this is a thoroughly French boulangerie.  And, though it’s set in a typical Cary strip mall (seemingly far from everything), it actually manages to evoke that small Parisian cafe feel.  It’s charming inside, with delicious looking baked goods all around, and a recently expanded cafe section that spills over onto the narrow sidewalk out front.  Even if the bread wasn’t worth the trip, you’d want to come back.

But enough about the bread for now.  The cafe is tempting in its own right, with breakfast and light lunch/dinner fare on offer.  The menu features a number of sandwiches, salads, and egg dishes – nothing unexpected really, but solid choices, and a superb value for most selections.  You can get a large sandwich with a side of chips for just $6.95, and kids meals are just $2.25.  I’ve had several of the sandwiches, and, it must be said, while the bread is great, the sandwiches are merely average.  I recently had one with smoked turkey/homemade creamy slaw/peach-chipotle bbq sauce (one of this summer’s special menu additions) that was rather boring.  There just wasn’t much flavor.  My wife was similarly underwhelmed with her “Mediterraneo” (fresh mozzeralla/roasted tomatoes/basil/balsamic vinaigrette (+added chicken, $1.95) on foccacia).  Sandwiches are served with a side of homemade hearth-baked potato chips, which are crunchy but a bit lifeless; they are greatly improved by dipping in the accompanying buttermilk ranch dressing.

I’ve yet to try the egg-based or breakfast dishes, but many of them sound appealing.  Then again, if I were here for breakfast, I might just choose a buttery croissant or one of their outstanding white chocolate-cinnamon scones (I’m not a fan of the triple berry variety).  Speaking of white chocolate, everyone seems to love La Farm’s white chocolate mini-baguette, and I am no exception.  So even if you’re a little disappointed by your meal, pick up a pastry or loaf to go, and you won’t be let down.

Note that La Farm also sells at the Raleigh farmer’s market on the weekends.

Salvio’s Pizzeria (Cary, NC)

Salvio’s in Cary appears, in nearly all respects, to be a prototypical (e.g. boring) strip-mall pizza joint.  It’s all there – the nondescript signage, the incongruous burger+fries or wings specials, the bare bones interior.  But it just takes one taste of the pies and to know this is someplace special.

The inside features a number of large booths, a few tables, and a couple of large TVs tuned to ESPN.  A recent remodeling has added a tasteful air to the simple accommodations: fresh black paint and new marble table tops are a step up from the old plain wooden booths.  It’s still a counter service restaurant where you get your own drink, so it’s best for take-out or a quick lunch.

The menu covers all of the standards – pizzas, subs, wings, Italian classics.  Since it’s pretty close to where I work, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Salvio’s numerous times, but I’ve only tried the pies.  For a quick meal, you can order pre-made “gourmet” slices from the counter window display, of which there are generally a half-dozen or so choices.  On a recent visit I chose a slice of mozzarella/feta/spinach/tomatoes and a slice of ricotta/parsley, which, with a soda, came to just $5.75.   The slices are enormous – I can’t imagine eating more than two.  The friendly staff pops them back into the oven, and, a few minutes later, you’ve got piping hot pizza delivered to you (on paper plates).

Salvio’s crust is exceptional – thin and super crisp, you can just about pick up a whole piece without it collapsing.  The crust gives a satisfyingly shatter-like crack, and the crumb still has a nice chew to it.  Toppings are generous but don’t stand out for exceptional quality, the way they do at, say, Bella Mia.  Both pieces were very good, but the winner was the one with soft mounds of delicious ricotta.  It was a fantastic lunch.

Among NY style pizza in the area, Salvio’s stands head and shoulders above a place like Fuhgeddaboutit.  In fact, Salvio’s comes in behind only the aforementioned Bella Mia in my Triangle pizza hierarchy.  And compared to your average strip-mall pizza place, it is awesome.

Able Bar & Grill (Cary, NC)

I had been keen to try Able Bar & Grill in Cary, on account of its proximity to my house, and because it carried the promise of Chinese “street food” as well as the blessing of the N&O’s Greg Cox.  Unfortunately, my recent visit made me pretty skeptical about making a return trip there. 

On a weekday at lunchtime the place was absolutely deserted, save for one young employee.  There’s not much ambience to speak of, except that of a generic strip mall setting.  We waited patiently while he fixed up our food, but it took quite a while.  I ordered the dumpling special ($6.95) and chose pork/cabbage for my filling.  When the food finally arrived (you order at the counter and pick it up yourself, along with self-service utensils), it was one of the most uninspiring presentations I can recall: a bright blue plastic cafeteria tray, about a dozen limp pale steamed dumpling sort of mounded together, and a small tofu-carrot-sesame oil salad.  Unfortunately, the dumplings were almost as bland as they looked, although I did enjoy the vinegar-based dipping sauce.  A colleague of mine ordered the spring wrap combo (also $6.95) with chicken.  This was like a Chinese burrito, and I liked it better than my dumplings.  A side of boiled peanuts that came with it was fairly unremarkable.  A beef hot pot ($4.50) was the best deal of all, and looked good piled high with meat, veggies, noodles, cilantro, and more, although I didn’t get a taste.  Oddly, it was served in a cheap bright orange plastic dish.

Able does offer karaoke at night, and a tempting selection of kabobs.  Combine that with the reasonable prices, and there’s enough reason to go back.  Here’s hoping for a more exciting experience next time.

Bella Mia Pizza (Cary, NC) – revisited

Our second visit to Bella Mia Pizza in Cary confirmed what we experienced the first time around: if you haven’t been yet, you need to go. Their pizza blows other Triangle pizzas right out of the water (or oven). The crust, charred from the coal-fired oven, is incredible. We ordered a “Houston St.” pie ($12) and a “Canal St.” calzone ($11). The pie had smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and basil. It tasted excellent, but suffered a little on the following two counts. First, the crust, though crispy on the edges, was super thin and soggy in the center of the pie. This made it very difficult to eat, because I couldn’t even quite pick it up without the toppings sliding off. Second, there’s a lot of extra crust space where it’s just bread. On the other hand, the calzone might be my choice from now on.  As I noted after our first trip to Bella Mia several months ago, it is amazing – one of the finest things I’ve eaten in the Triangle – and for only $11!  Stuffed simply but amply with sausage and ricotta, you just can’t stop eating it. We also tried the lemon-rosemary roasted chicken wings ($8 for a small order of about 6-8 wings). These were also delicious, served with some very sweet caramelized onions.

To summarize, you can get other good pizzas in the Triangle, but this is the only great pizza I’ve had in the area.  I look forward to many future visits.

Danny’s BBQ (Cary, NC)

Here in North Carolina, people argue passionately about barbecue.  Is it cooked over wood or gas, is whole hog or just the shoulder, is it sauced with a tomato or vinegar-based concoction?  I appreciate the attention to detail, but in the end, for me, it doesn’t much matter.  I like it all.  While Eastern-NC style is what I’m most familiar with, I’ll happily consume just about any variety of tender meat and flavorful sauce.

Which brings me to Danny’s bbq.  Located in a nondescript strip mall off of Tryon Rd, it’s not your typical southern bbq joint, and it doesn’t serve your typical Carolina style bbq either.  I read somewhere that Danny’s was something closer to Florida style, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what that might signify, or whether it’s even remotely true.  I can tell you that I’ve had something similar to Danny’s in Buffalo, NY (at a place called Kentucky Greg’s, of all things).  So, if you can figure out where Danny’s falls on the bbq map, let me know.

Danny’s serves  its meat relatively unadorned.  This is good and bad.  The good is that you can choose from the four sauces that adorn your table, including a sweet dark red sauce, a spicier version of that (though not too hot), a mustard-based concoction, and a simple vinegar-based one.  The bad is that the meat itself, while smoky, can be a little bland and dry, and requires a good bit of sauce.  But add a bunch of that sweet dark sauce and it can be mighty tasty.

The other area that Danny’s suffers a bit is with side items.  Apart from their baked beans, which I find delicious (if overly brown-sugary sweet), everything else I’ve tried is pretty average.  French fries, hushpuppies, and cole slaw are particularly unremarkable.  Speaking of hushpuppies, Danny’s does not offer them automatically, as many traditional southern bbq joints do.  Still, I’d rather order some of those hushuppies than the default giant slice of Texas Toast white bread that comes with most meals

Thankfully, prices are in line with classic down-home bbq joints – a bbq sandwich and side is only $5.50.  Danny’s also does ribs and smoked turkey, and they’ll cater events.  So while it’s definitely not close to being my favorite area bbq, and the NC bbq purist might cringe, for the less discriminating bbq eater like me, Danny’s is worth a try.