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Burrito supreme

Pittsboro General Store Cafe serves it hot--music, food and art

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From the outside, the place looks like the car dealership it once was. But a peek through the massive front windows reveals a collection of mismatched chairs and an assortment of tables, something one might find in an aging diner. Inside, that image is questionable, too, walls covered with an assortment of paintings, every other flat surface supporting sculpture, pottery or geegaws. But the diner image fades with the noise, and a look at the weekend dinner menu (fresh seared flounder with mango cilantro sauce or grilled salmon with organic salad and strawberries) banishes the idea altogether. If you've come on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, the band working away over in the corner--playing in something from jazz to blues to bluegrass--makes it clear: This is no ordinary country-cooked joint.

Welcome to the Pittsboro General Store Cafe, where art, music and food are served in equal portions by new owners Joyce and Vance Remick.

"My kids all sat on Colonel Sanders' lap and I knew him pretty well," says Vance Remick, whose dad had one of the first KFC franchises on the West Coast. But Remick became an interior designer instead of following in his father's footsteps. He finds that his 30 years of experience in retail design, including designing the retail space for the N.C. Zoo, helped in his new business as well: "I always told them, I can get people in the store, I can build it, but you have to make sure they come back."

He found that many times people couldn't stand their own success. They could get people in, but they just didn't serve them right. Remick says that means more than delivering good food in a timely fashion.

"A lot of that is working with local artists, local musicians and staying close to the community," Remick says. "Every month we have a 'Burrito Bash,' in which we give all the burritos and fixings to locals and then they sell tickets and have music and raise funds that way." That concept has given the cafe a loyal local base, and word of mouth has been important in finding and keeping new customers.

The weekend fare is more sumptuous, but the lowly burrito is responsible for a great deal of the cafe's popularity. The cafe's signature dishes, green chili burritos and Mayan burritos with chicken, are big draws.

"If it was just the burrito, you'd say fine, it's got sweet potatoes or whatever," Remick says, "but you put that into our green sauce that we make and our red sauce and it makes for a special taste that keeps people coming back."

Remick says he holds his chefs to a high standard, and that carries over in the special weekend menus.

"I'm not a chef, but I do eat a lot, and complain about it a lot. We really are trying to specialize in hormone-free beef, and hormone-free, free-range chickens. Our fish we get fresh, too," Remick says.

While Remick commands the interior and the chefs, wife Joyce is in charge of the music.

"I think we have some of the best jazz you're going to find in the area," Vance Remick says of their Thursday night shows, adding that jazz names known worldwide call often, asking to play gigs. Bluegrass, folk, blues and a tad of rock dominate other nights. Sure, it's dinner music for the most part, but at times the dinner party turns rowdy. A Russian folk singer had 20 fans in a circle dancing, and Remick says Kickin' Grass always puts on a party there.

Local musician Armand Lenchek, who frequently plays the cafe, has found the crowd to be generally attentive to performers. "It's a wide range of people that come there, and yet, all in all, everybody seems to be very respectful of the music."

Some musicians who regularly play supper-club gigs complain that they're treated like wallpaper by the audience. But Lenchek says when he plays acoustic guitar at the cafe, backed by the Bluesolojettes, his music is more than just a backdrop.

"Maybe it's because I'm louder than anybody else," he laughs, "but they do definitely seem to interact with what we do a lot. When I'm playing there, they sit there and listen."

There may soon be more room to listen. Remick's looking to expand into the rest of the building, which would triple the cafe's size and make room for a bigger stage in back, or perhaps relocate to another, larger building.

Meanwhile, he'll continue to entertain visiting royalty like Al Roker, who came in for a taste, and his daughter, who attends school in the area and has become a regular. The folks from the TV show North Carolina Now also stopped by and did a piece on the cafe. But it's Roker who made Remick's day, with his reaction to some of the cafe's more down-home cuisine.

"He came in and had a quesadilla and some of our well-known cobbler," Remick says, "and left happy, I can tell you."

For dates, directions and dishes, see www.thegeneralstorecafe.com.

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