The West Franklin-Carrboro corridor has birthed a national storyline about the sleepy college town that sets an example of organic, locally sourced cooking for the otherwise hydrogenated South. Though laudable, the program has become a bit prim. At this point, I would happily ship every last fried green tomato to Yucca Mountain.
Into this atmosphere of quiet moral purpose roars Calavera—"Skull"—with its blood-red walls, spider-webbing of holiday lights, votive candles and Day-of-the-Dead frippery. If Under the Volcano were to breathe its spirit into an empanada joint, you'd have Calavera.
Flamboyance becomes annoying unless the food is good. And it is. The confidently minimal menu includes salads, guacamoles, salsas, tinga- and pastor-topped nachos and empanadas. Everything is subtle, precise and assertive, suggesting a real kitchen rather than a bar-food conveyor belt. Three hours after dinner I was not chain-guzzling glasses of water at the fridge—a pleasant reprieve from the salt assault of so much restaurant fare.
Calavera, which has a sister restaurant in downtown Raleigh, is not the neighborhood's only purveyor of Goth Latin Fare. Lucha Tigre ("Tiger Fight") opened in 2012, displaying a similar Tumblr/Pinterest-influenced visual pop. The latter's "Latin-Asian fusion cuisine" has its defenders, but continents, like good whiskeys, are best served neat. I prefer Calavera's tighter focus and cleaner execution.
Sarah's Empanadas, a popular mom-and-pop cafe in the strip mall wilderness of South Durham, is more sedate. I appreciate an attitude-free zone in my parental middle-age. ("Why are the girl's lips sewn shut?" my daughter wondered as she scanned Calavera's lurid wall art.) But food is what counts, and Calavera makes the better empanada. Sarah's are chewy and heavy while Calavera's approximate good puff pastry: crisp, flaky and delicately layered without being greasy or rich. Easy on both the stomach and the wallet at $3.50 each, these empanadas dangerously encourage excess.
Empanada choices include chicken tinga (paprika-braised chicken, cilantro, tomato), picadillo (ground beef, potato, onion, tomato, green chili), The Champ (Portobello, shiitake, cremini, onion, carrot, celery, Oaxacan cheese), Piggly Wiggly (Carolina-style pulled pork), pastor (guajillo-marinated pork, pineapple), habanero pork (pork, corn, red pepper), Holy Frijoles (black bean, sweet potato, onion, Oaxacan cheese), Poblano Loco (tequila-marinated poblano, onion, Duranguense cheese) and Havana Jerk (jerk chicken, mango salsa).
The fillings all deserve loyal followings. The Piggly Wiggly seems to pander to game-day nativism but turns out to be terrific: a pocket of pure smoke. I only wish you could order a mound of the pork with hushpuppies and slaw. The Poblano Loco is perhaps least enticing. The flavor is complex enough, but the relatively wet pepper-onion ragout slightly softens the pastry and lacks texture. The dessert empanadas—Nutella and banana, key lime custard—may be slavish concessions to the American sweet tooth, but they're undeniably delectable.
The menu includes a famous Latin American street snack: a cayenne-, cotija- and mayonnaise-coated corncob on a stick called an Elote. Carrboro wisdom says respect the ingredient. Street wisdom says smother it. Call it a draw.
The food, however, is merely preliminary (and likely to become a hazy memory as the evening progresses). Like Lucha Tigre, Calavera is a shrine to the goddess Agave. It serves 63 tequilas and a slew of tequila-based mixological concoctions. Calavera closes at 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and the nighthawks presumably do not sip seltzer.
A full tequila survey—best undertaken following a divorce or with Armageddon clearly visible on the horizon—would cost $673. I decided to blow my entire drinks budget on the Don Julio 1942, Calavera's most expensive tequila at $25 per dollhouse-scale snifter. Before leaving home, I filled a McCormick garlic powder bottle with Jose Cuervo Especial Gold—an $8.95 bargain at the ABC—in order to measure what a 50X price difference gets you.
The Don Julio—the "choice of connoisseurs around the globe," according to Don Julio himself—has an intense vanilla fragrance and a silky finish that recalls Tennyson at his most euphonious. The Jose Cuervo is caustic and nasal invading by comparison, and the accidental garlic note didn't help. The distinction is basically honey/turpentine. Add tequila to the list of things—cheese, chocolate, beer, lingerie—that don't lend themselves to bargain shopping.
West Franklin Street and downtown Carrboro haven't had much luck lately. Venable (2012), Kipos (2013) and Bella's (2014) came but did not conquer. Mellow Mushroom (2013), Old Chicago (2014) and Spicy 9 (2014) cater to students who've never tried the real thing. Miel Bon Bons, wedding European-caliber confections to an inchoate retail plan, migrated to Durham. Bonne Soiree and Panzanella were interred amid teary mourners.
Calaveras and Al's Burger Shack—another recent arrival—have the right idea. Keep it simple; cook it right; don't skimp or gouge.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Viva Calavera."