Ah, the hot stuff. Our readers' poll echoes what we hear from RTP listservs over and over again.
Tandoor Indian Restaurant on N.C. Highway 55 is your place for Indian food. Lunchtime buffets spell heaven for the Park's madding crowd. Durham's Sitar India Palace,next to the ghost of South Square Mall, was close on Tandoor's heels in the poll. Maybe when the big box Target and Sam's Warehouse open next door, everyone will stop by for a spicy bite after bargain shopping.
Best Unagi (Sushi)
Everyone's got an opinion about who makes the best sushi. It seems one gets points not just for liking the Japanese treats, but rather by labeling their favorite spot as the "best." Next time someone mentions sushi, drop this line for bonus cool points: "I hear Carrboro's Akai Hana has the best sushi around." Based on our poll, you'd get several nods of agreement, especially from the many folks who named them our winner. Other popular joints: Sushi Blues, Sushi Breeze and Waraji in Raleigh, and Sushi Yoshi in Chapel Hill.
A good samosa (like some other good things we could mention) is hard to find! Too often, the stuffed, fried, triangular snacks that look so tempting on the menu, end up greasy and tired by the time they arrive on the plate. Not so at Safari Cuisine, a new Kenyan restaurant in downtown Durham. Here, samosas are cooked to order and served up for $1 apiece. They come piping hot, full of fresh vegetables or ground meat, and are just spicy enough to get your attention (though you can ask for more seasoning, if you're feeling bold). The sign outside the restaurant still says The Plaza Restaurant, but inside, it's clear there's been a change. A counter lined with stools covered in red-and-brown patterned cloth looks out on East Chapel Hill Street. The back wall is decorated with pictures of African wildlife and Masai farmers. The air smells of hot oil, flour and spices that put a slight sting in the air. The menu features specialties like goat curry and roasted goat (available on Tuesdays and Fridays), mukimo (a mashed blend of corn, peas and potatoes) and fish stew. But you can also get burgers, fries and breakfast all day. [At lunchtime on a recent weekday, a woman came in and ordered 10 samosas, followed by a young, artsy-looking guy who wanted beef curry (he said was renovating his kitchen and would be back for every meal), then a city parking meter attendant strolled in and asked for a bacon and egg biscuit.] Safari's owners, Rosa and Elijah Mjogu, started out doing private catering, then decided to open their own place last December. They commute every day from their home in Knightdale and are already hip to the current business climate in downtown Durham: "Our busiest time is between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and after that, it's pretty dead," Rosa says, good naturedly. They still do some catering and Safari also delivers. Call 956-6460, 616-6362 or stop by and order a few samosas. Safari Cuisine, 101 East Chapel Hill Street, Durham. 956-6460.
Best Pad Thai (Thai)
Pad Thai is the dish you order to test the mettle of any Thai restaurant. If it's good, you know pretty much everything else will be great. Our readers snarf down peanut covered noodles at Thai Palace in Glenwood Square in Chapel Hill. Raleigh's Sawasdee (its name is a Thai greeting) also got great feedback in our poll.
Best Dim Sum (Chinese)
Dim sum, or "little bits of heart," and its service are an interesting cultural tradition (read more about it: www.indyweek.com/durham/2001-10-03/dish4.html)--but not every Chinese restaurant makes dim sum. It takes time to prepare, so generally restaurants will set aside a special day of the week for it. Our winnner, Cary's Neo China serves dim sum on Sundays (and yeah, it's only at the Cary location). A close second is Durham's Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, which serves the bite sized creations on Saturdays and Sundays. There were some readers who voted for their favorite straight-up Chinese restaurant and of these, Charlie's Chinese in Chapel Hill's Village Plaza took the prize--however, they don't serve dim sum.
Drive up the ramshackle strip of low-rent businesses that line Guess Road in Durham, turn left at the car wash and hunt for a parking space near the Hong Kong. The homey interior (it can't help being homey, it used to be a house) becomes a dim sum palace 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. As the carts go by, troll for the turnip cakes, bamboo shoots in bean curd wrapper and the baby greens.
If you are of the occidental persuasion, some lids may not be lifted for your perusal. Investigate anyway, because the tripe is really good. Chicken feet optional. Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, 3003 Guess Road, Durham. 479-8339.
Best Calamari (Greek)
How can you question a winner in the Greek category whose name is Spartacus? For years we've heard the Durham restaurant's calamari is the best and the readers have confirmed it. And there always seems to be some confusion about the dish. To clarify: Yep, it is deep fried squid. Also ran: Zorba's in Chapel Hill and Taverna Nikos in Durham's Brightleaf Square.
Best Cannoli (Italian)
According to y'all, Tony Soprano should check out Chapel Hill's 411 West--or its twin sister at 518 Glenwood in Raleigh--next time he's in town. The Franklin Street restaurant officially won our poll but we can't imagine 518's version being much different, so this info coupled with its votes put them over Chappie's Vespa and Durham's Cinelli's, which also made good showings.
Best Collards (Soul food)
Mildred Council is a Triangle institution when it comes to soul food, that's why it's no surprise her place, Dips' Kitchen in Chapel Hill, takes our best collards prize. And while her popular cookbook will teach you how to create your own soulful snacks, there's nothing quite like having them cook it for you. Sit a spell on the porch with a plate and watch the cars go by on Rosemary Street.
It's gotta be Clyde Cooper's Barbeque, the legendary barbecue spot in downtown Raleigh that's one of the few reminders of the old days, when you had to decide whether to go there, the Mecca, the Upstairs, the cafeteria at Belk's, or Poole's Luncheonette for lunch. The cracklins (fried pork rinds, to the uninitiated) are served with every meal, the way hot, sweet hush puppies are at other fine barbecue establishments and bad white bread is at the chains. These cracklins aren't out of a convenience store bag, they're fresh and crunchy and tastier than their gas station counterparts. And you can get some good 'cue or Brunswick stew to go with them. Just make sure to pick up a peppermint patty on your way out. Cooper's Barbeque, 109 E. Davie St., Raleigh. 832-7614.
Those of you who weren't indignant over our category choice (responses of "eww!" "yuck!" and "don't eat it" aren't real helpful) voted for Raleigh's nationally famous Angus Barn. One reader even added a "duh!" for emphasis. In Durham, Chianti's (too bad it closed) came out on top and in Chapel Hill, the surprising answer was Acme, with the addendum "when they have it." Call before you go.
Best Biscuits Not Made by a Burger Chain
We're always amazed by the intellect of our readers. In our attempt to steer you (you were feeling manipulated? yep, we're guilty) toward a locally owned joint with the wording of our category, you reacted by voting for Bojangles--well, they don't serve burgers, now, do they? We did say "burger" chain, so the answer is legitimate, and really, it is hard to deny the goodness of a Bojangles biscuit, especially in Raleigh. In Durham, readers evaded our scheme by voting for Biscuitville. But to our ultimate relief, our major winner in Chapel Hill is Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen.
Best Saturday morning breakfast
Screw your old ways of looking at breakfast. As comforting as it is to have two eggs, bacon, grits, etc., what really makes a good morning (as any cop can tell you) is some fried dough. But this ain't no Krispy Kreme. Beignets are New Orleanians' answer to doughnuts--greasy, powdered, good. Anyone who would sell all of these you can eat on a Saturday morning has got to be your new best friend. Meet Chef Rameaux at his place, Chef Rameaux's School of Cooking and Louisiana Market, at 10 a.m. this weekend. And don't forget the chicory coffee, Cafe Du Monde-style. Chef Rameaux's School of Cooking and Louisiana Market, 704 N. Person Street, Raleigh. 834-2510.
The Best Vestige of Old Raleigh
George Poniros of Raleigh is passionate about hot dogs. Family owned and operated since 1940, The Roast Grill serves hot dogs and little else. No chips, no fries, no sandwiches of any other sort--just hot dogs. Except these are "just hot dogs" like the Hope Diamond is just some jewelry. Grill-blackened wieners blistered with such exquisite care, what else do you need? Well, maybe some of the scrumptious chili, baklava, or pound cake still made from his grandmother's 1920's recipes.
We're talking hot dog fanatics, where the blunder of asking for ketchup will hush the room like a drunken insult in an Old West saloon. Dogs so delicious that a competing local hot dog kingpin holds his own staff meetings here.
What do Jesse Helms, Jim Hunt, Dennis Hopper, Ralph Campbell, and most of the state legislature and city council have in common with The Independent Weekly? We all agree that The Roast Grill is THE place for hot dog perfection! The Roast Grill, 7 S. West St., Raleigh, 832-8292, Mon-Sat: 11a.m.-4p.m., www.geocities.com/roastgrill
Best Babaganouj (Middle Eastern)
This is one category we should have broken down for the three corners of the Triangle because our poll results point to three roasted-eggplant-pureeing establishments, one in each city. In Raleigh, readers love their Neomonde, tucked away behind Waffle House off Hillsborough Street; in Durham, people count on Ninth Street's ketchup-shunning International Delights; and in Chapel Hill, readers drop by the Mediterranean Deli for a bite in the restaurant or for a pint to take home.
Best Cup of Coffee Not Made by a Seattle-based Company
Clever answers abounded in this category too (you're right, Dunkin Donuts and 7-Eleven aren't based in Seattle), but they weren't our winners. People in general are earnest about their coffee: In Raleigh, check out Helios on Glenwood; in Durham, Francesca's dessert cafe is good to the last drop; and in Chapel Hill, readers celebrated the sylvan Caffe Driade.
The preconditions for good espresso are stringent: trained baristas, freshly and properly roasted beans, well-maintained machines and owners who obsess about coffee. In a surprising blooming, from desert to oasis, Raleigh boasts now two geysers of the tiny cup.
Global Village, on Hillsborough Street across from N.C. State also boasts solely organic beans and a calm, smoke-free atmosphere.
Helios, a slicker but equally obsessive cafe on Glenwood Street, is the other Raleigh refuge for the seekers of the well-tended bean. Their different styles make for a pleasant, if caffeine-fueled, oscillation. Global Village, 2428 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, 828-4567; Helios, 413 Glenwood, Raleigh, 838-5177.
Best Homemade French Fries
We have a tie: Carrboro's Tyler's Taproom and Hector's in Chapel Hill. One reader emphasized that Tyler's is "hands down the best," but for a fast grab, Hector's might do you better with its fast-food pace.
Best Tuna Salad Sandwich
La Farm Bakery in Cary ties with Cafe Carolina (in Raleigh and Chapel Hill) for their celebrated chicken-of-the-sea sammies. Word has it La Farm has an honest-to-god master baker baking the bread, and Cafe Carolina at Cameron Village has been successful enough to survive in a building that has seen some pretty high turnover. They must be doing something right.
Well, we don't pretend to be New York around here (or do we? See page 48), so it's no surprise that folks roll up to Bruegger's Bagels for some of that boiled dough. We dunno better. For the lefties among us who avoid all things franchised, Bagels on the Hill in Chapel Hill is the place to go, landing it in a nice second place to the land of travel mugs and "Javahhh."
Sorry. You'll need an airline ticket for this one. There are no bagels in the Triangle. "Bagels" maybe. But not bagels.
Best Late Night Food
Based on readers' responses, it seems Raleighites don't do a lot of late-night noshing--or maybe it's just a lack of consensus or too many options. Those who did vote chose Five Star, which is down in the one of Raleigh's key late-night districts and feeds night owls Chinese food. Durhamites were stymied, especially with the closure of Pan Pan Diner, but put Cosmic Cantina forth as its winner--conveniently close to Duke's campus for all the kiddies cramming for finals. But Chapel Hill has the king of late night eateries, Time Out, which has been joined by the rebuilt Hector's and the Chapel Hill location of Cosmic Cantina in feeding the hungry masses.
Most Kid-friendly Restaurant Without a Play Structure
Elmo's Diner is like Kix cereal: Kid-tested, mother-approved. Elmo's has two locations, Carrboro and Durham, but some readers singled out the Carrboro spot, perhaps because it's attached to Carr Mill Mall's long hallways, which are good for toddling feet. And for the reader who proposed Thee Dollhouse, it's disqualified because it does have a "play structure." (Please keep this reader from breeding.)
Eating a decent meal, while simutaeously plying a baby with Cheerios and wrangling a 2-year-old from under the table can be a challenge. Peace and quiet is a lot to ask for, for that, you'll need a babysitter. If you want something enjoyable to eat, swift, kid-friendly wait staff, and like-minded family oriented customers who will not snarl when the brats get bratty, Milton's in North Raleigh is the place for your brood. Located at the corner of Six Forks and Strickland, Milton's serves up Greek tinged Italian pizzas, pasta, sandwiches, as well as a great salad bar. Quiet it is not; but soccer teams and soccer moms can all dine in comfort without wacky dancing bears and pre-fabricated food. Milton's, 8853 Six Forks Road, Raleigh. 847-0604. www.miltonspizza.com.
Best Restaurant to Eat Solo
If you're one of those people who stays home with a package of ramen and a pot of boiling water rather than face eating by yourself in public, Kurama Sushi and Noodle Express in Chapel Hill can change your life. Or at least your diet.
Tucked into the heart of downtown on North Columbia Street, Kurama offers no-stress dining for one. For entertainment, a couple dozen perches around a center island offer a fascinating close-up view of the sushi chefs slicing and dicing, and a parade of interesting plates traveling at eye level along a self-serve chain-link trolley.
If bar seats cramp your style, a handful of booths also provide room to spread out a newspaper or a work project. If you need a CNN fix with lunch or dinner, there's a monster-sized television that's visible from every seat, tuned, thankfully, low enough to ignore.
The sushi itself is fresh, yummy and moderately priced, with color-coded plates that start at pink for $1 each and range up to gold-speckled, which go for $5, though the lower priced ones offer a wide variety. A selection of hot dishes is also available from a regular menu, including bowls of udon for $4.50 a piece, and several Japanese beers are served.
It's walking distance from the UNC campus and convenient to the free bus. If you refuse to eat in downtown Chapel Hill because the restaurants don't have their own sprawl-size parking, use the public lots along Rosemary, where one dollar and a short walk will give you plenty of time to scarf some raw fish.
The best part is you seat yourself, so you can avoid the cringe that comes with "Table for one?" Kurama Sushi and Noodle Express, 105 N. Columbia St., Chapel Hill. 968-4747.
The Best Place to Have Wings ... if you're not a bar-goer
We're sure plenty of people out there would enjoy going someplace to sit, drink a few beers, and eat fatty food while watching the latest sporting event, but just don't go for the bar atmosphere. If this sounds like you, the solution to your problem has recently opened in Cary. That's right folks, Beef O'Bradys caters to just such a crowd. The establishment is clean, practically smoke-free, and has plenty of TVs, one of which is guaranteed to be tuned to your desired sporting event, and the food is fantastic. Although Beef O'Bradys is a chain, the owners at this location make you feel right at home. On more than one occasion, I've been in the bar when they have been giving out free chicken wings for people to eat. And while we're on the subject of wings, the Honey BBQ wings at this place can't be beat! Stop in when you get a chance. Beef O'Bradys, 1275 N.W. Maynard Road, Cary. 468-9494.