Taqueria El Toro (Raleigh, NC)

For those who consider Durham to be the place to go for authentic Mexican cuisine in the Triangle, you must visit Taqueria El Toro in Raleigh.  Aside from Durham’s Taqueria La Vaquita, this was my favorite taco experience in the Triangle. 

It’s a little hidden, in a small shopping center just south of Raleigh near the intersection of Tryon Rd and Hwy 401, but absolutely worth seeking out.  Inside, the space is suprisingly large and spotlessly clean.  I chose three tacos ($1.59 each): carnitas, al pastor, and chicken tinga.  We also ordered a plate of what appeared to be house-made chips ($1.99), which were very thick, and a large serving of delicious, creamy guacamole (for the astoundingly low price of $1.09).  Taqueria El Toro has an excellent salsa bar, featuring 6 or 8 salsas (complete with labels), plus less common garnishes like blistered peppers, sliced carrots, and a spicy cabbage slaw.

The carnitas taco was excellent – among the best I’ve had.  The pork was maybe a touch dry, but it did offer a nice crispy crust.   The al pastor taco was my least favorite of the bunch, and I’ve had better versions at a handful of other places.  But the chicken tinga was just fantastic – delectable shredded chicken with surprisingly subtle chipotle flavoring.  All tacos are served on double stacks of outstanding corn tortillas.

I encourage you to go check out Taqueria El Toro; in my opinion it rivals just about any place in Durham.  I can’t wait to go back!

Weekend Round-Up: Some of the Triangle’s Best

This weekend I had the chance to visit several Triangle restaurants that just plain rock – these are some of the best the area has to offer:

Thursday night:
Poole’s diner (Raleigh)
Sweet potato soup with burgundy-thyme honey, braised short ribs over smoky collard greens, an excellent baguette with butter, and their renowned macaroni gratin.  I could eat at Poole’s every day.

Friday night:
Carrburritos (Carrboro)
Carnitas mejor burrito – massive, loaded with juicy meat, no rice filler, and deliciously fresh.  Although I’ve always liked this place, I hadn’t been here in quite a while.  I’ll be coming back soon – the burrito was outstanding.

Sunday night:
Chuck’s (Raleigh)
8oz “Spirit Animal” burger – cream cheese, roasted poblanos, grilled tomato, tortilla dust.  A little too much cream cheese, a little too little tomato, and virtually no tortilla dust(?) – but nevertheless sensational.  The best burgers in the Triangle are at Chuck’s.  I wasn’t wowed by the fries on my first visit, but this time they were incredible.

Escazu hot chocolate bar

Escazu just got even better!  The chocolatier is certainly one of the Triangle’s culinary gems, and now, just in time for the cooler weather, they’ve introduced a hot chocolate bar in their cute little shop in Raleigh’s Mordecai neighborhood.

The menu consists of a handful of hot chocolates from which to choose, ranging from the historic to the whimsical.  The historical ones are referred to by country and year: Spain 1549, France 1692, Italy 1670, and, for the purist, Xochiaya (Aztec/pre-Columbian).  The others – with peanut butter, with white chocolate, or “the Southerner” with a dash of Tabasco – are perhaps more off-the-wall but nearly as tempting.  These choices (5oz servings) are all in addition to their delicious classic and spicy varieties (available in 10 or 16oz servings).  The 5oz specialty selections run about $3.50 each.

We recently tried a round of the historical selections.  Spain was potent but good, with a black pepper and licorice bent (courtesy of star anise).  The Xochiaya was borderline undrinkable – the menu claims it is lightly sweetened, but you wouldn’t know it by tasting it.  It was as bitter as baking (unsweetened) chocolate.  France was the clear winner among our group.  It was decidedly creamier even though, for historical accuracy, all are made with water (not milk), and had a strong cinnamon presence.  Although we didn’t try Italy or the other concoctions this time around, there are always lots of reasons to come back to Escazu.

Char-Grill (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

If it’s true that some things never change, then that has to be a big part of why the Char-Grill on Hillsborough St. in Raleigh continues to thrive, having unwavered in its devotion to deliver that most quintessential of American meals – a burger, fries, and a shake -  since 1959.  The large sign out front says all you need to know about the place, and, for over 50 years, there have been no frills and probably no surprises to the steady stream of customers: Char-Grill maintains its commitment to the classicly simple even into this age of gourmet burgers, extravagant toppings, and duck-fat fries.  Place your order on a slip of paper, slide down a little metal chute, wait for the flames to erupt on the grill, and, a few minutes, later, your name is called.  There’s no ambience except the nostalgia of an institution, and there’s hardly anywhere to sit, but where else can you have the exact same experience that your parents, and maybe their parents, did?

As for the food itself, it’s cheap and reliable, even if the burgers and hot crispy fries aren’t much better than average.  For this style of burger and fries, Five Guys does it better, and Only Burger easily surpasses them both, especially with it’s commitment to sustainable beef and the offering of occasional specials.

Over the years, the restaurant has expanded to a handful of locations across the Triangle.  But the atmosphere and history of the Hillsborough St. one lends it a distinct charm.  And that makes Char-Grill something to hold on to in Raleigh.  So here’s hoping that some things never change.

Review: Chuck’s (Raleigh, NC)

Last week I wrote about Beasley’s, Ashley Christensen’s new fried chicken place in downtown Raleigh. Christensen’s ambitious plans for the corner of Wilmington and Martin Streets have now come to fruition with the additional openings of Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar, both of which are directly adjacent to Beasley’s.

Like Beasley’s, Chuck’s is devoted to just one classic American meal. In the case of Chuck’s, it’s the hamburger and fries. And just like at Beasley’s and Poole’s Diner, Christensen elevates this simple cuisine through distinctive ambience, quality ingredients, and, most rewardingly, excellent cooking.

The interior of Chuck’s is bare bones but chic, with a simple palette of white, black, and bright red. To emphasize the restaurant’s main culinary attraction, a large image of a cow adorns the front window (complete with hash marks highlighting the shoulder – source of the ground chuck) and several imposing black bull heads are mounted along one interior wall. Despite the huge communal table at Beasley’s, Chuck’s is the more casual spot, thanks in part to the brighter lighting and lack of table service. But whereas Bull City Burger & Brewery in Durham exudes conviviality and a certain charm, Chuck’s hews closer to the no-frills ambience of a Five Guys. It’s more refined (by a huge margin), but it’s a little cold.

This is not a restaurant for vegetarians: your only options are about a half-dozen specialty burgers ($9 each) and a 1/2 lb of Belgian fries (cooked in duck fat, $4). As far as I know, you can’t create your own burger, as you can at BCBB (or most any other burger joint for that matter), but the choices are all quite tempting. My wife opted for the “The Big House” (cheddar, sorghum-dijon, thyme-caramelized shallots) and I went for the “Spirit Animal” (cream cheese, grilled tomato, roasted poblanos, tortilla dust). With your fries, which are meant to be shared by two people, you get your choice of about 7 different dipping sauces, ranging from green-peppercorn Dijon to the mysterious “comeback sauce”. We went with the roasted garlic aioli, and they’ll give you a side of ketchup as well, if you like. The burgers came out quickly, each wrapped in paper. The fries are cutely presented in Chinese take-out style box. When my burger turned out to be the same as my wife’s (not what I ordered), the staff was exceedingly gracious, and offered me a free milkshake to compensate for their error.

The burgers were amazing. While I prefer the heartier bun at BCBB, the patty at Chuck’s was irreproachable: thick with slight charring on the outside, pink and very juicy on the inside. It simultaneously combined the best attributes of burgers from Only Burger and BCBB. It just doesn’t get much better. The fries were also very good, if not the best in the area. Maybe I’m just not a fan of thick-cut fries, but I prefer the shoestring duck fat frites with rosemary at BCBB. Even the regular ones there, or at Only Burger, or - dare I say-  at Five Guys, are about as satisfying as the fries at Chuck’s. The burgers at Chuck’s are big, but not excessively so, and, while 1/2 lb of fries sounds like an awful lot, it’s about right for two people.

Chuck’s also offers a tempting array of dessert-like milkshakes. I’ve tried both their salted peanut butter/roasted banana and pumpkin latte varities ($5 each). Both were excellent, if a bit more vanilla-y than I expected; I’m not sure I would order another.

Chuck’s fits in right at the top of area burger establishments, along with BCBB and Only Burger, and, like Beasley’s, provides a huge lift to Raleigh’s restaurant scene. But perhaps even more so than with Beasley’s, I have to wonder whether Chuck’s strikes the right note for Raleigh. The ambience is not especially inviting. The menu is extremely limited, and the gourmet burgers sound rather exotic, so a lack of customizability may drive away some customers. When I was there on a recent Saturday evening, it was not particularly crowded, and a group of two or three large guys wandered in, perused the menu, and left. The prices at Chuck’s are a little higher than those at BCBB, but I’d say they’re reasonable for one of the best burger experiences in the entire Triangle. I look forward to going back for more.

 Update (10/28/11): You can now get any burger as a 5oz “little chuck” for $6.75, and a side of fries for $2.50.  I believe they are now offering veggie burgers as well.

Review: Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of raleighcitizen.com

Although I’ve lived in Raleigh for years and enjoy it, I used to consider it’s downtown restaurant scene to be the least appealing of the Triangle’s three cities.    Chapel Hill has a vibrancy, courtesy of the university, that Raleigh lacks, and downtown Durham is both more architecturally interesting and more gastronomically exciting than the capitol city.  But things are starting to change a bit in Raleigh, thanks in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Ashley Christensen.

Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant, has for quite some time been one of the top restaurants in the entire Triangle, and now Christensen has opened two new restaurants (and a liquor bar) on Wilmington St. in downtown Raleigh.  Beasley’s Chicken & Honey and Chuck’s share a clean, modern look, a kitchen, and a commitment to the most straightforward of menus: fried chicken at Beasley’s, burgers and fries at Chuck’s.  Their recent openings generated a lot of buzz and instantly boosted Raleigh’s culinary cachet, and I have been eager to try both.

We almost flipped a coin to pick which one to try first, but ended up going with Beasley’s based on the warmer, more inviting lighting on a recent Friday evening.  The space is clean and modern, with one very long communal table running down the middle of the room as well as numerous smaller tables.  You’re seated on a sturdy metal stool.  The aesthetic is rigorous and austere, with a consistent palette of reds, silvers, and blacks, but the quality of the appointments lends a sophisticated urban feel.  At night, small votive candles on each table give a touch of elegance to the space; I imagine that during the day the space is flooded with sunlight from the huge plate glass windows.  Either way, Beasley’s seems better suited to a casual lunch than to a romantic dinner.

As is the case at Poole’s (and Chuck’s), the menu is displayed on a large chalkboard above the bar.  If it seems as though you’re struggling to read it, they’ll bring you a small card describing your choices.  As mentioned, there aren’t many – the menu is extraordinarily simple: you choose between fried chicken or a chicken biscuit (chicken & waffles being a third option, available only for brunch or late at night).  When we were there, the waitress also offered one special, a spicy chicken salad biscuit.  My wife and I each chose the º chicken, dark meat ($7.50).  There are about seven or so side items to choose from, and they all sound fabulous, but it’s probably best to go with just one, as it’s likely to fill you up, and they are priced individually ($3.50).  I went with the “Kennedy biscuits with honey” and my wife chose the “big bad bacon yukon gold potato salad”.

Our food arrived alarmingly quickly.  In keeping with the overall feel of the place, presentation is starkly simple, with the chicken placed upon a bare bones industrial metal plate.  The skin was thin, dark, and very crispy, and the meat was beautifully moist.  For me, the slight drizzle of honey added almost nothing to the chicken; in fact I’d probably rather have chicken without honey.  Although it’s a reasonable portion – a drumstick and a thigh – my wife and I both picked the bones clean and wanted just a little bit more.  It was certainly delicious, if not incredibly flavorful or terribly exciting.  The side items, on the other hand, were brilliant.  The potato salad was heavy with smoky bacon-ness.  It really packed a punch without being overwhelming.  The biscuits, which were served as three very thick triangular wedges, were my favorite part of the meal.  Being partially soaked through with a liberal amount of honey, they were sweet, dense, moist, and addictive.  The honey did much more for the biscuits than it did for the chicken.  Both side dishes were ample portions, with the biscuits in particular being a lot for one person to finish.  It might be nice if Beasley’s offered just one biscuit, a la carte, to go with your chicken and another side dish.  Otherwise, I think the pricing is just right – $11 for high-quality chicken and a side seems like a good deal to me.

Beasley’s is a spot I would absolutely return to for a casual meal.  The restaurant’s take on traditional Southern fare is comforting enough to keep you coming back, but tweaked enough to make it modern and interesting.  With it’s refined aesthetic and prices to match, Beasley’s is  perhaps a curious fit for Raleigh, but one that certainly enhances the appeal of the city.  After all, this is one of the aspects that’s wonderful about Durham, for instance: ambitious restaurateurs serving great food in neat spaces.  In the case of Beasley’s, the communal seating, friendly service, and a lack of pretentiousness soften the edges enough to capture some of the warmth of a classic Southern joint; if people take to it like I hope they will, over time I could see Beasley’s becoming an institution.  Christensen appears to have another winner with Beasley’s, so here’s hoping that her empire, and indeed Raleigh as a whole, continues to flourish.

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.

Hereghty (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

Even if you’ve never been to France, you probably know that a nice buttery, flaky croissant is one of life’s great pleasures.  Fortunately for those of us in the triangle, you don’t have to go nearly that far to enjoy one.  Tucked away in a bland shopping center at the corner of Oberlin and Glenwood in Raleigh is Hereghty Patisserie and Cafe.   I  consider it something of a hidden gem in Raleigh, and it’s a great place to pick up a light lunch, an excellent pastry, or a decadent dessert.

Inside it’s about what you’d expect – a handful of tables, richly appointed seating, and, of course, a set of long glass cases showcasing all of the tempting options.  On one side are the cakes, tarts, and other fancy desserts; the chocolate desserts, in particular, are well worth the trip.  A chocolate mousse cake and a chocolate tart are memorable for being rich and pretty much perfect.  In the other case are scones, cookies, and, of course, croissants, among other things.  You can get a chocolate, almond, or plain croissant, but it doesn’t matter – they’re all delicious.  As for the other items, a triple berry scone I tried recently was outstanding, if a bit too similar to a muffin.  For lunch, Hereghty offers sandwiches, salads, crepes, quiches, and soup.  A turkey croissant sandwich was just right (with nice ripe tomatoes), although the accompanying green salad was nothing special.  A cup of tomat0-basil soup was fine but a little creamier and a lot less basil-y than I would have liked, though it had a nice subtle spiciness to it.  A surprising letdown was a piece of biscotti that was oddly shaped – a thin flat plank – and lacked all crispiness.

To sum it up, you won’t be disappointed if you go to Hereghty for the desserts or croissants.  If you’ve been to France, it will remind of that lovely country, and if you haven’t been, it will give a taste of it.

Capital Club 16 (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

When my wife and I lived downtown, more than 5 years ago, there wasn’t much going on. Walking around the city at night, we wouldn’t see too many people; it was rather bleak.  This was before Fayetteville St. was transformed from a desolate concrete stretch to an open boulevard and before places like the Raleigh Times existed to draw people away from the entertainment hub of Glenwood South.  A lot has changed since then, but one of the most notable and welcome developments is the opening of some good restaurants downtown.  I’m thinking of places like, among others, Poole’s Diner, The Pit, Dos Taquitos Centro, Sitti, the Busy Bee Cafe,  and, very recently, Beasley’s Chicken & Honey.  Another place that figures squarely in downtown Raleigh’s renaissance is Capital Club 16, a restaurant that, even if it’s culinary star doesn’t shine quite as bright as some of the other places mentioned above, has nevertheless become a hip urban nightlife destination.

The restaurant is housed in a lovely, grand space on the corner of Martin and Salisbury Streets.  It’s inviting and feels sophisticated, even a little luxurious, while retaining it’s pitch-perfect of-the-moment coolness.  Part of what makes it work is the gorgeous furniture – all beautiful rustic dark wood and marble tables along with stately but sleek vintage chairs.  The dark browns and black contrast nicely with the white walls.  It’s as nice of a place to take a date as it is to conduct a lunch time business meeting.

The menu is small and has a bit of a German bent to it, with schnitzel sandwiches and various sausages on offer.  I ordered one of the night’s specials, a “Chicago-style beef” sub with fries ($10), and my wife ordered the burger with pimiento cheese ($9).  Despite arriving au jus, mine was closer to a Philly cheesesteak than to a French dip.  Regardless, it was one of the better renditions of either I’ve had in a while, with a bit of a salty and wine-tinged bite.  The extra jus was completely unnecessary.  Unfortunately, the hoagie roll was a bit weak for the job, and became rather mushy during the course of the meal.  The fries were decent, pleasantly airy and crispy, but nothing memorable.  My entree also came with a very small cup of vegetables in vinegar.  I didn’t care for it, but it wasn’t much to discard: one little crinkle-cut carrot coin, a tomato fragment, a celery sliver.  I also thought the plating could use a little improvement, as my pickle spear was buried under a mountain of fries, along with a few other mysterious pieces of cooked celery.  Service was attentive and professional.  It was a solid meal, but nothing to get too excited about.

Although I’d go back to Capital Club 16, I don’t feel inclined to hurry back, and it wouldn’t be at the top of my list of downtown eateries.  There are too many other good choices now, with even more on the horizon.  Still, thanks in part to places like this, things are looking up for downtown Raleigh,

Exciting Times for Raleigh: New Restaurant Openings

If you love food and live in Raleigh, or indeed anywhere in the Triangle, the following are some exciting developments that will make the city an even more alluring dining destination.

  • The imminent openings of Ashley Christensen’s new ventures: Beasley’s Chicken & Honey (featuring fried chicken, set to open as early as this week), and Chuck’s (featuring burgers).  There’s also the Fox Liquor Bar, which will share a kitchen and taps with the other two joints.  Beasley’s promises to be awesome because, well, it’s fried chicken, and because the former pastry chef from Chapel Hill’s now-defunct Cypress on the Hill will surely craft some great desserts there.  And you can bet that Chuck’s will be great if you’ve ever had the Royale with cheese at Christensen’s flagship establishment, Poole’s Diner.  Check out the recent feature in the Independent weekly for more information (and some pictures of the restaurants’ interiors) or head over to ac-restaurants.com.
  • Word today that Allen & Son’s, the region’s marquee bbq joint, is planning an expansion to Raleigh’s Five Points area.  Not many details yet, but this is definitely an exciting development for bbq lovers who don’t get out to Hillsborough or Pittsboro that often.  Thanks to GoGoRaleigh for this tidbit.