Backyard Bistro (Raleigh, NC)

Backyard Bistro is the closest restaurant to the PNC center in Raleigh, and it’s adjacent to a large hotel.  From these facts alone you might surmise that the menu features burgers, wings, and beer, and that the ambiance caters to those who desire the the closest approximation to being in the stadium for a sporting event, without having to actually purchase tickets.  You’d be correct.  For some, tailgating is the event.

The restaurant was sparsely populated on a recent event-free night at the stadium.  We were seated at a huge booth that was angled for better viewing of an enormous wall of TVs, each tuned to a variety of – you guessed it – sports programming.  In fact, scarcely a free surface in the place remains untouched by sports theming or memorabilia.  With the lights dimmed, the experience felt more like being in a theater than in a restaurant.  Backyard Bistro does have an appealing, and big, outdoor tented area, a large bar, and a section of tables a little farther removed from the wall of sports TVs. They will soon have an Axe Throwing section as another form of entertainment.  But they clearly know their audience: the game comes first; food is more of an afterthought.

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 where you can expect the best draft beer system installers.  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  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.

The menu is expansive and includes pretty much all of what you’d usually find at a large suburban American restaurant.  I ordered a bbq sandwich with regular fries.  My wife ordered a taco salad ($9).  In keeping with the nature of the restaurant, and the general status quo of such establishments, the portions were enormous.  My dinner in particular was a great value at only $7.  Sandwiches are served on light, airy La Farm brioche buns, which is a nice touch.  The meat part of my dish was fine, tender and moist, but the vinegary slaw and odd sauce (served in a little plastic cup on the side) were really underwhelming.  That said, the worst part of my meal were the fries, which were soggy and seemed almost uncooked.  I couldn’t eat them.  My wife reported her entree to be pretty run-of-the mill.

It’s just one visit, to be sure.  The fries might have been an aberration, and the guys over at The Straight Beef liked their burgers just fine.  Still, I doubt that I’d return, even if I had a nearby event to attend.

The Eddy Pub (Saxapahaw, NC)

photo courtesy of flickr

Having made the trek twice out to the wonderfully quirky and delicious Saxapahaw General Store (see reviews here and here), I’ve been excited to try their newer, more formalized restaurant, the Eddy Pub.  Both continue to generate plenty of buzz – see the recent NYTimes article about the town here.  But whereas the former lacks any ambience (being literally within a gas station), the latter offers a more refined gastropub dining experience.

To begin with, the space is lovely.  A sign just inside the massive door encourages you to “seat yourself, make a friend”.  Saxapahaw is a small community, and you definitely feel as though you’re part of it at the Eddy.  Seating is a hodgepodge of thrift store furniture and regular wood tables and chairs; a small bookshelf adds to the casual coffeeshop-like feel.  It’s as much a gathering place for a beer with friends as it is a typical dining room.  Indeed, a sizeable portion of the space is occupied by the bar.  In the evening, the place is cozy with very dim lighting, but I imagine that during the day the large windows and inviting deck (pictured above, perched high overlooking the river) make the restaurant feel rather expansive.  Either way, it packs an awful lot of charm, and it’s a very pleasant spot to eat a meal.

The menu is generally similar to that down at the general store, with a heavy focus on local meat and produce.  It changes frequently, but some dishes, like a burger, or fish & chips, appear to be mainstays.  Many entrees feature “mashers” (mashed potatoes) alongside a protein and vegetable side.  My wife selected the burger ($12) with farmhouse cheddar, Dijon, and mango chutney.  The burger comes with potato salad or fries, and when asked which she preferred, the server simply said “it depends who is making [the potato salad]”, offering no further elaboration.  Fries it was.  I went with the stuffed chicken breast ($18), which featured “house made white wine rosemary sausage & mushroom stuffing”, a squash gratin, and, of course, mashers).

As with our experiences at the general store, the food took a good while to emerge from the kitchen.  The burger patty was deeply charred and crusty, although the inside turned out to be remarkably closer to medium.  But the main downfall of the burger was the overwhelming amount of horseradish (an element unfortunately not mentioned in the menu description).  Even for fans of char-grilled burgers or horseradish, it was a bit much.  My wife didn’t enjoy it, though she thought the cheese was excellent.  The fries were pretty standard.  My chicken dish was equally disappointing.  The meat was cooked fairly well, but the tucked-under-the-skin stuffing was barely present, adding little to the dish.  The squash gratin was crippled by under-seasoning and what tasted like canned bread crumbs.  The best part of my meal was the creamy, garlicky mashed potatoes.  Overall, it was a bland and uninspiring dinner.  Interestingly, my plate also featured a large unidentified chunk (crouton??) of charred material.  Both portions were massive.

While we love the town, the general store, and the setting and vibe of the Eddy Pub, on our next visit we’ll be dining down at the gas station.

Geer St. Garden (Durham, NC)

Geer St. Garden is the kind of place you want to love.  Located in a former gas station in a happening part of Durham, it has plenty of appeal.  It aims for that classic neighborhood joint, and definitely achieves the part in terms of ambience with a small but very charming interior to go along with sprawling outdoor picnic table seating. [In colder weather, plastic sheeting and heaters keep the outdoor section warm and cozy].  The restaurant cultivates a relaxed, easy feel, and it’s a great place to hang out with friends.

The menu is classic American fare, with a few Southern (fried chicken, collards, sweet potato stew) and Latin American dishes (tamales, fish tacos) as well.  Like any good self-respecting Durham restaurant, Geer St. Garden touts the use of local, sustainable ingredients.  I opted for the “pasture-raised” burger ($10) with cheese (additional $1).  My burger arrived next to an enormous mountain of fries.  It featured some nice fresh tomato and crisp lettuce, but the whole thing was just too plain.  The patty was under-seasoned and surprisingly thin.  The fries were similarly very average.  It was a very unexciting meal.  I was pretty hungry, so we chose to have dessert too – a brownie with ice cream and salty peanut caramel sauce.  It was a good concept, but the execution was really disappointing.  The brownie was exceedingly dry and lifeless – one of the worst brownies I’ve ever had.  There wasn’t enough of the sauce, and it wasn’t really salty either, even though the dish was loaded with peanuts.  The one bright spot in the dessert was the  creamy, silky ice cream.

In the end, I would go back to Geer St. Garden to enjoy the nice patio for a casual meal with friends, but I’d try something different and hope for better results.

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.

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: Sandwhich (Chapel Hill, NC)

image courtesy of

You can get a sandwich at a lot of restaurants, but an excellent spot that features sandwiches can be hard to come by.  Leaving out for the time being delis and sub shops (though those have their merits), I’m thinking here of those gourmet cafes that feature fabulous crusty breads, fine meats, cheeses, and produce, and interesting and tasty side items.  Chapel Hill’s Sandwhich is one place that aims to fit this bill.

Situated next to the McDonald’s on Franklin Street, the space is surprisingly sleek and refined on the inside, with dark wood tables and subtle lighting.  Open shelves are stacked neatly with chunky white plates and fancy Moroccan-looking teapots.  It’s a sophisticated feel for a casual restaurant.  After you place your order at the counter and help yourself to a drink, the unfailingly friendly staff will bring it to your table.  Each sandwich is served on a small jelly-roll pan covered with a sheet of parchment, with side items presented in diverse ways: roasted beets in an elegant porcelain cup, fries in a red-and-white checkered paper cone, chips in their own little bag.

The Moroccan theme carries over in subtle ways on the menu – the house special iced tea (with mint and sage), spicy harissa ketchup, a carrot salad garnish.  Other than that, the hot and cold sandwich offerings range from the straightforward (burgers) to the inventive (corn, cremini, bacon, and blue cheese on sourdough).  These are accompanied by a nice selection of side items, priced a la carte.

I ordered the “GMC” (grilled chicken, almond pesto, peppers and onions, and provolone, $8.50) with a side of their hand-cut, twice-cooked fries ($3), and my wife ordered a “Mr. Crunch” (prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, lettuce, mint/lemon oil, $9.25) as a combo with their chips and tea (an extra $3).  Both sandwiches were served on crusty but unremarkable bread – mine on a toasted hoagie roll and my wife’s on a crispy baguette.  Both were good, but neither sandwich really had enough flavor.  Mine suffered from a lack of pesto punch; my wife’s may have benefited from a bit more of that prosciutto (i.e. more fat and salt) and/or a nice juicy tomato, although the fresh mint on her sandwich was a nice touch.  A side of the roasted beets ($3) was also a little too plain.  The opposite was true for the chips, which were dusted with fresh herbs, heavy on the salt, and a bit oily.  Each sandwich also came with a few sliced, quick-marinated pickles, which were sweet and refreshing.  The fries were really just average, but I did like the spicy, smoky ketchup.  The iced tea ($2.50 if purchased a la carte) was quite strongly flavored but I enjoyed it (though my wife – the tea aficionado – did not), and it’s nice that you can sweeten it to your liking with some simple syrup.

I don’t want to make it sound like a bad meal; it wasn’t.  Everything was satisfying enough, but there was just nothing to get excited about.  The prices at Sandwhich, while reflective of the scratch preparations, quality ingredients (real prosciutto de parma, fresh mozzarella) and care in execution, are definitely on the high side.  Portion sizes are reasonable (e.g. not insanely huge), but $10-12 is still a lot to pay for a sandwich and a side item.  For comparison, a sandwich at the La Farm Bakery Café in Cary (featuring their amazing bread) costs about $7, including a side of chips, or a panino from Durham’s excellent Toast, with a side of soup or salad, runs about $8.50.   In the end, Sandwhich holds a lot of promise as a gourmet destination, and it’s a nice place to have a meal, but there are better values to be had – and indeed better sandwiches – elsewhere in the Triangle.

Review: Only Burger (Durham, NC)

May has somehow become the month of burgers and fries on this blog – two nights ago I followed up recent trips to MoJoe’s in Raleigh and Bull City Burger & Brewery (BCBB) in Durham with a visit to Only Burger.  I’d tried their burgers once before, from their truck, and didn’t especially love them (though I did enjoy the fries), but I was eager to check out their new storefront off of Shannon Rd. in Durham.

The space itself is tiny, with only a handful of tables.  Cavernous ceilings make it exceptionally loud, even if only a few patrons are present.  Despite the starkly limited menu, ordering at Only Burger is a bit tricky.  Your choices are spelled out on an array of placards above the counter, but they aren’t really arranged logically, and they don’t tell the whole story.  I think it would be helpful if the types of cheeses available were listed, and to mention, for example, that you can get your onions grilled, if you like.  I ordered a single ($4.75) with cheddar (an extra $0.50) and fries ($1.75), and my wife got a single with cheese and a side of onion rings ($2.75).  This, especially the former, is a good deal – for $7 you get a burger and a hefty cup full of fries (enough to split).

Your order is packed up in a paper bag when it’s ready.  Truckside, this is a necessity, but in the restaurant it’s just cumbersome.  It’s difficult to remove the fries and especially the onion rings from the bag without spilling some, and there’s really nowhere to put things – your burger’s foil wrapper immediately becomes your plate.  But these are minor quibbles.  The burger itself was quite good.  By comparison, BCBB’s burger was downright elegant (and a good bit juicier), but lacked the nice charry crustiness of Only Burger’s version.  The patty was well cooked and appropriately seasoned.  The fries were good but not great; similar to those from Five Guys, if a little less greasy.  The onion rings, on the other hand, were just bad.  The onions were cut too thickly, and there was almost no seasoning.  The accompanying dipping sauce was equally as forgettable.

The use of local, fresh ground meat and the varieties of cheese available – American, cheddar, swiss, pepperjack, pimiento, and maybe one other – puts Only Burger squarely ahead of Five Guys in my burger hierarchy, even if the overall experiences are roughly equivalent.  Only Burger also routinely offers specials, some of which are very enticing.  On the night I was there, they were offering 2oz lamb sliders with feta and tzatziki sauce.  It was very tempting, but, as you can probably tell from my last few posts, so is a good old-fashioned hamburger.

Review: Bull City Burger & Brewery (Durham, NC)

Perhaps no other area restaurant in recent memory has been as eagerly anticipated as Durham’s Bull City Burger & Brewery (BCBB henceforth).  Since well before their late March opening, people have been talking this place up as the next great thing.  With such lofty expectations, perhaps the restaurant was bound to disappoint some.  Indeed, reports of a shaky start cropped up immediately after the place finally opened its doors.  Waits were too long, portions were too small, prices too high.  After reading all of the pre and post-opening comments, I finally got the chance to try it myself yesterday.

BCBB is situated in a rather vast space right in the heart of downtown Durham.  It’s in an old building with high ceilings, but the feel of the place is modern, casual, and welcoming.  There’s an attractive bar, an Enomatic wine dispenser, and a small kid’s play area tucked away in one corner.  Rows and rows of communal seating fills the majority of the floor space, but there are some smaller, more private tables available as well, in addition to a handful of outdoor picnic tables.  Just place your order and pick your seat, and the friendly staff will bring your food right to you.

Much of the hype surrounding BCBB stems from their farm-to-table approach and their dedication to crafting everything in-house, from the buns down to the condiments.  This homey approach is slightly skewered by the “Five Guys” style industrial size boxes of flour and frying oil sitting right beside the order counter.  The menu is straightforward – burgers, dogs, and fries – but offers quite a bit of choice for personalization.  I ordered a “Green Monster” (gruyere, roasted poblanos, shaved raw red onion, $8) and my wife opted for a custom burger with cheddar, mushrooms, and “BCBB sauce”, which turned out to be a tarragon mayonnaise.  With cheese and mushrooms at $1 each, her burger also totaled $8.  Fries are separate, and BCBB offers either “Dirty Fries” (hand-cut, skin-on, peanut oil, $2) or “Duck Frites” (shoestring, finished with duck fat, fresh rosemary, and fleur de sel, $3).  The former were very good, but he latter are the way to go.  The lovely fresh rosemary and perfect seasoning made for some amazing fries.  As for the burgers, both were perfectly pink and very juicy.  The tarragon mayo on my wife’s burger was incredible.  Although mine was also very good, I thought it could have benefited from a little salt and the roasted peppers contributed surprisingly little flavor.  The substantial homemade buns were perhaps a little dense but complemented the juicy patties nicely.  The whole experience was completely satisfying – the best burger and fries we’ve had in the Triangle.

I didn’t try any of the home brews, but BCBB does offer a Boylan soda fountain instead of the usual Coke-Pepsi HFCS-containing selections.  Beverages are served in hefty glass mason jars.  Score two more points for BCBB.

To address some comments I’ve seen: our orders came out promptly, and the portions were huge – I left completely stuffed.  I regard $10 or $11 as a great price for a fantastic burger and fry experience, and I will be gladly coming back as soon as possible.  Next time, I look forward to trying the pretzel-crusted fried pickles and the bacon “bull” peanuts.


MoJoe’s Burger Joint (Raleigh, NC)

I’ve been to MoJoe’s a number of times over the course of the past several years.  What stands out for me about the place is not necessarily the supremacy of their burgers, but rather their striking consistency.  I know exactly what I’m getting here, and I’ve never had a bad experience.

To begin with, you must deal with the tiny, tricky parking lot.  The indoor dining room is also especially small, but is complemented by a wonderful, sprawling outdoor patio with varying degrees of cover/privacy.  Just pick your seat and a handful of servers will swing by to address your needs.  The menu is limited, to be sure, but, as the name implies, people come here for the burgers, and I haven’t sampled anything else.  I can’t say that it’s the best burger in Raleigh, but it can be thoroughly enjoyable.

I ordered the “inferno”, with grilled onions, jalapenos, and pepper jack cheese.  The patties are most definitely frozen (note their perfect shape), but they’re well seasoned and cook up surprisingly juicy.  My burger was spicy and quite satisfying, thanks in part to some nicely caramelized onions and an above-average bun.  My wife ordered a mushroom-swiss burger, and was equally pleased.  Fries are crinkle-cut (also frozen) but are remarkably crispy.  They are perhaps a little heavy-handed with the vaguely cajun seasoning.

Overall, MoJoe’s provides a good burger at a good price (about $5-8, plus extra for fries) with great consistency.  Combined with the delightful patio space, it’s enough to bring me back repeatedly.