Food » First Bite

Oak City Meatball Shoppe still needs to marinate



People cheered the playful meatball-focused menu at Oak City Meatball Shoppe when it opened last month in downtown Raleigh. It continues to attract waiting-list crowds on weekends. It is a clever concept that makes it both family-friendly and an ideal spot for those who need to sop up late-night drinking with a hearty dose of carbs.

For those in-between—especially anyone confident in making meatballs—it's a mixed bag of options that are either overcooked, underseasoned or not quite as described.

To its credit, Oak City Meatball, operated by the same folks as Calavera Empanadas & Tequila Bar next door, makes no pretense of fine dining. The service is friendly and attentive and the reasonably priced menu encourages diners to exercise their inner chef to, with reasonable limitations, "create your plate."

Meatballs (traditional beef, spicy pork, chicken, veggie or daily special, such as jambalaya) may be ordered four to a plate ($7, with focaccia); three to a French bread hoagie ($10, with salad); two on a brioche bun ($9, with salad), or one per slider (mix-n-match, three for $8). Hoagie or bun add-ons include bacon, fried egg and extra cheese ($1–$2 each).

Sauce choices include tomato, parmesan cream, pesto, meat sauce or sauce of the day. Curiously, the sauce of the day on our visit was the same tomato listed on the menu.

The four-ball option was delivered to most tables in the noisy dining room. There was debate at ours regarding which meatball was best. The beef was mild but had a zesty kick from the meat sauce. The pork balls with tomato sauce had one-note heat with little complexity. The chicken was light but dry, saved by dollops of creamy, fresh-tasting pesto.

There was no such discussion about the veggie option, which looked like falafel forgotten in the fryer and was borderline inedible, even with the parmesan cream sauce. Our server later described it as "lentil-based" and "maybe with mushrooms." Lentils are an excellent source of protein but they are not vegetables, and the balls were too burned to detect evidence of mushrooms. It's a missed opportunity to deliver a creative and delicious vegetable choice for those who don't eat meat.

Plated meatballs can be served atop carb-heavy sides (such as spaghetti, polenta and mac 'n' cheese) or lighter salads for an extra $3; for $5, order them in shareable bowls. The skin-on smashed potatoes were, without a doubt, the best thing brought to our table all night. The risotto was creamy but bland, lacking both salt and the anticipated savory bite of parmesan.

The featured salad, boasting marinated artichoke hearts, roasted portobello mushrooms and pickled fennel with champagne vinaigrette, undoubtedly was a better choice than the kale salad. Oak City's version was eye-wateringly tangy with an excess of vinegar. The only thing accompanying the bite-size curls of kale was a handful of untoasted pine nuts.

The "daily green" actually was orange. The delivered dish barely met the menu board's description of roasted garlic herbed carrots. Roasted garlic turns brown and buttery sweet, but the al dente carrot chunks were flavored with white bits of garlic, limp diced onion and an indistinguishable smattering of herb (parsley?), all of which tasted like it was scooped from a steam tray.

Dessert options are limited to a few flavors of cake pops (two for $3). Cake pops typically are composed of meatball-shaped cake bites on lollipop sticks, but these were stickless and served with a drizzle of syrup. Each cake pop seemed to be a different size and shape but all of them tasted like they had been pulled from the fridge just before serving. This dulled flavors and especially affected the King Kong, a (hard) chocolate-enrobed choice topped by a tempting slice of caramelized banana that was, sadly, also unbendingly cold.The bar list includes a welcome array of regional craft beers, wine by the glass or bottle and a handful of satisfying specialty cocktails.

Note that Oak City Meatball does not take reservations and has no waiting area for those who arrive when all tables and bar seats are taken. It does, however, take your name and number so you can be alerted while waiting elsewhere for the call or text.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Small potatoes."

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