Foster’s Market (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of mapandmenu.com

If Bull Street Gourmet is the promising young rookie of market/cafes, Foster’s Market is certainly the steady old veteran.  Established in 1990, Foster’s remains a fixture in the Triangle’s dining scene.  The Durham location is fairly sprawling and expansive, with loads of outdoor seating on the shaded porches and picnic tables.  Inside, it has the feel of a giant coffee shop.  I wouldn’t say it’s cozy, but it’s very casual, and it’s the kind of place where you could easily linger with a group of friends for a few hours.  Indeed, it almost seems deliberately designed as the ideal meeting spot for a university study group.

Navigating your experience at Foster’s can be a little bewildering the first time.  Entering the space, you pass by the cash registers to find shelves and racks of pantry items, gourmet groceries, and such.  Turn around, and you are confronted by their enormous menus overhead as well as display cases of prepared foods and baked goods (of which there are many).  Menu additions and daily specials are posted in various spots; it’s hard to know where to look.  The staff is friendly but not especially helpful in figuring out the ordering process.  You won’t be able to see everything from where you stand (there are just so many options), so it’s probably best to browse around a bit first.  Anyway, once you figure what you want, they’ll record it on a little notepad, and you can go find a seat.  They’ll bring your food out to you, and you bring your receipt (along with any groceries) up to the register to pay when you’re finished.

The menu is extensive and covers all manner of breakfast and lunch options (soups, salads, wraps, sandwiches, entrees, and even pizzas at the Chapel Hill location).  It’s hard to conceive of how they can reliably keep that many ingredients on hand, but, amazingly, everything generally tastes fresh.  I ordered a BBQ turkey sandwich (pulled turkey breast with Foster’s West Tennessee BBQ Sauce, Carolina cole slaw, house-made bread & butter pickles on a brioche bun,  $7.95).  I enjoyed it well enough, but there was no contrast in the dish.  The cole slaw did not offset the meat (they were sauced similarly, a la Lexington style BBQ), and together with the lackluster bread (which resembled a supermarket potato bun), the whole thing tasted of a plain generic one-ness.  My wife ordered “The Cubano” (pulled mojo pork, ham, Swiss, pickles, lettuce, mayo and yellow mustard on grilled soft baguette, $8.95).  Again, I was unimpressed with the bread, but this was the better sandwich.  The pork had good flavor and was well seasoned, and there was just the right amount of the bright mustard.  For side dishes, we had a a summer succotash (corn, lima beans, cherry tomatoes, priced by the pound) that was lovely with a delicate vinaigrette.  A side of lime-marinated raw veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, squash, red onion, grated carrot) was fine if uninspiring.  Resisting the baked goods is nearly impossible, as there is such a variety, and they all look delicious.  I took home a large piece of what I thought was coconut cake ($4.50 if I recall correctly), which turned out to be a key lime cake.  It wasn’t bad, but it was too sweet, and I definitely could not eat all of the frosting.

To sum it up, Foster’s Market is a good place for a relaxing meal with friends or to pick up a quick baked goodie.   They also offer pre-made dinners to go and catering services.  It might not dazzle you, but it’s unlikely to really disappoint you either.  So I’m sure Foster’s will be around for years to come, regardless of whatever newcomers join the scene.

Neo Monde Bakery & Deli (Raleigh, NC)

Despite being situated in an obscure, hidden location near the NC state fair grounds, Neo Monde has a steady and devoted following.  The Mediterranean deli is a favorite of many, including me, for good reason.  The food is consistently delicious, it’s inexpensive, and the staff is supremely friendly.  If that weren’t enough to bring you in, there’s also a bakery and small market/grocery area where you can pick up some wonderful pita bread or a Turkish olive oil, for instance.

Since their menu is relatively large, my favorite way to approach a Neo Monde meal is to get the pick-4 sampler ($7.99).  This enables you to try a variety of their scrumptious items displayed behind the glass case.  Standouts for me are definitely the hummus and baba ghannouj, both of which are the best that I’ve had.  The hummus in particular is creamy and silky smooth.  I almost always get some of their excellent chicken salad, which features raisins and cinnamon.  And I can’t bypass the terrific mjadarah (rice/lentils with caramelized onions).  Other solid choices, if a little less fabulous than the above, include a roasted potato salad with mint, fatoush, tabouli, or stuffed grape leaves.  There are also kabobs and usually one or two other hot entrees to choose from.  You carry your tray along with you, cafeteria-style, so you can’t miss the large dessert case as well.  Neo Monde’s baklava is as good as I’ve had anywhere.  I haven’t tried many of the other desserts or pastries, but I don’t really feel the need to.  Beware, though, as one piece of the baklava is deceptively filling.  If you go with the sampler, pita bread (your choice of white or wheat) comes with it.  All items are also for sale by the pound as well.  After you pay, you can take a seat inside or dine on their pleasant, if unscenic, patio.  Either way, you’re bound to be back soon.

As a side note, Neo Monde also does a great job with catering.  Ordering online is easy, and the staff is gracious and helpful, setting up cards that describe each dish and going out of their way to make your event enjoyable.  They’re thoughtful to place vegetarian and meat dishes apart, and kind enough to follow up with you to see how everything went.