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 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!

Review: Tijauna Flats (Cary, NC)

Another chain, another terrible culinary experience.  You can easily get sucked into these kinds of misadventures with your work colleagues.  That’s one of the reasons that I pack my own lunch about 95% of the time.

You’re greeted at the door of Tijuana Flats in Cary by a friendly staffer who hands you a giant laminated menu and explains the logistics of ordering: tell them what you want and pay at the counter, and it’s full table service from that point on.  The menu features the usual Tex-Mex suspects: burritos, tacos, chimichangas, and the like, with a few twists.  Witness the “bangin’ chicken” burrito, with some kind of buffalo sauce and ranch, or the ceasar or steak-n-cheese burritos.

I wanted to get a baseline experience for the purpose of comparison to Moe’s Southwest Grill or Chipotle, so I ordered the basic burrito with carnitas and added guacamole.  I selected the “Tijuana” size [medium], which I correctly assumed would be way too big for me to finish.  The fillings in the burritos here may not be exactly what you expect.  Standard additions include olives and jalapenos, for example, and exclude rice and beans.  You are offered a choice of either queso, guacamole, or salsa with your chips.  This is a nice, but a little confusing, as one of the claims to fame of the whole place is its huge selection of hot sauces to go with your food.  Not thinking, I chose salsa.  It was unremarkable.  Worse still was my burrito, which was served in one of the worst flour tortillas I’ve ever eaten.  It was just incredibly bland, with mushy mushy meat.  To make my food more flavorful, I experimented with a handful of their hot sauces.  These range from mild and sweet to downright scorching (cartoon faces let you know what’s what: from placid to tearing up to the face of poison death).  Unfortunately, none of them actually tasted good.  The sweet ones in particular had an unpleasant artificial taste to them.

There’s really no reason to visit these types of restaurants considering the abundance of fantastic Mexican food in the area.  So avoid them if you can.  If you can’t, Chipotle heads up the list by a huge margin, followed by Moe’s and then Tijuana Flats.  I haven’t tried Qdoba or Salsarita’s yet, but I’m not really eager to do so.

Chubby’s Tacos (Raleigh, NC)

Chubby’s Tacos is a growing local empire, with locations in Durham, RTP, and Raleigh.  It’s a taqueria for those not brave enough to venture into one of the area’s abundant (and sometimes superb) “authentic” Mexican holes-in-the-wall.  At Chubby’s, it’s nice to everything in English, but you also won’t be able to find some of the more esoteric taco fillings like tongue, tripe, or cactus.  Last night, we went to Chubby’s Lake Boone Trail location in Raleigh.

The tacos are cheap, yes, but taqueria tacos are always cheap.  Chubby’s offers $2 and $3 tacos, depending on your choice of filling, and you can “make it a meal” by adding rice, beans, and chips for only $2 extra.  For just $6-8, you can get two tacos and all the side items, and it will really fill you up.  So you can see the appeal of the place.  For comparison, however, you can get 4 tacos for only $6 ($1.50 each) from Raleigh’s excellent Fonda Y Birreria Jalisco, and most area taquerias offer similar pricing.

Even if Chubby’s pricing matches up favorably with other local haunts, the food, unfortunately, does not.  I’ve been twice to Chubby’s and left a bit disappointed both times.  The rice and beans are particularly bad.  As dry as cardboard and nearly as flavorless, the rice is borderline inedible.  The beans seem to have been poured straight out of a can.  My wife and I left both of these side items virtually untouched.  Chips, on the other hand, were warm and satisfying.  And as for the tacos themselves, they really are just average.  They are served on a nice hot double-stack of corn tortillas, but the meats are lackluster.  The carnitas I tried was quite mushy; in fact its texture was approaching that of eastern Carolina bbq.  The al pastor meat was overcooked but at least had a hit of pineapple flavor to compensate.  Still, I’ve had much better versions elsewhere.

The place on Lake Boone Trail is not without its charms.  It’s a cozy space with cute little booths, and there’s a sizeable outdoor patio as well.  But the area where Chubby’s scores the most points is with its salsa bar.  There are about 10-12 different salsas to choose from, ranging from creamy avocado-tomatillo to fiery habanero.  With the exception of the ultra-hot ones (thankfully), I’ve found them to be extremely poorly labeled, if at all.  But that’s kind of part of the fun – try several and see which one you like the best.

Or, better yet, for a truly satisfying taco experience, get yourself over to La Vaquita or La Superior in Durham, or Fonda Y Birreria Jalisco in Raleigh, or one of the handful of other area taquerias.  Actually, there are two close to my house that I’ve yet to try: Taqueria El Toro in Raleigh and Taqueria Rancho Grande in Cary.  Those are next on my list.