Several weeks ago, I asked more than a dozen writers to tell me what they loved—specifically, the dishes they craved, the potential meals that compelled them to leave home after long workdays, the drinks for which they were happy to part with their wages.
Two surprising findings soon emerged: First was the sheer volume of items in demand, from fried appetizers and complex cocktails to simple sides and strange brews. A glut of tantalizing dishes crawled from every corner of the Triangle—from downtowns and hinterlands, from strip malls and cosmopolitan restaurants, from old shacks and new spaces, from food trucks and hotel bars. I'd asked for just 50 dishes and drinks. I ended up mulling more than 200. We've published 60 of the best here.
The second—and perhaps more surprising but certainly more important—aspect is affordability. In the past several years, the economics of our local food supply have become a flashpoint that's only intensified as our city centers have skyrocketed in density and cost. James Beard Award winners and hopefuls alike have opened pristine, pricy new restaurants, while more modest options have decamped to cheaper districts or disappeared altogether. But most of the items the writers extolled were surprisingly affordable, suggesting less pampered chefs and posh customers than a dining scene in tune with its diners' abilities and desires. Yes, costs are a rising concern, and one that our communities will have to confront sooner rather than later. But the writers' collective tally said that, at least for this moment, An and One and Death & Taxes remain rare indulgences, surrounded by a relatively sweet spot of food and finances.
The area's food scene earns a lot of national talk for its buzzing restaurants and coffee shops, bars and breweries, cafes and confectioners. We've got culinary awards, food festivals and an influx of talented new chefs. All those accolades and assets mean little unless the dishes deliver on the hype. Our survey of 60 current favorites in and around the Triangle suggests they do—and that, hey, we can mostly afford it. —Grayson Haver Currin
Shrimp Heads | Dashi Izakaya, Durham
Americans waste one-third of our food. Order the fried shrimp heads at Dashi and relish the chance to minimize what gets tossed. Dashi buys fresh, whole shrimp via Locals Seafood, caught the same morning in state waters. With a nod to Japanese cooking styles, chef and co-owner Billy Cotter tosses the heads in water chestnut flour, salt, pepper and Korean chili flakes and then dunks them in the deep fryer. They sizzle for about 40 seconds before he throws in slices of Fresno chilies for another 15. Piled high in a small bowl, they look like fried extras from Alien. Glossy black eyeballs the size of pinholes peer from beneath a tangle of antennae. Eat them whole and hot, as the shrimp's flavor seems to stay in the brain. —VB
Goes well with: Like any crispy bar snack, this fried treat goes well with a cold beer.
Gobi Manchurian | Himalayan Nepali Cuisine, Cary
"Tastes just like chicken": That line often serves to entice unadventurous eaters to try a new meat, with the hope that they'll try anything that plays to their comfort zone. But you don't often hear it applied to vegetables, unless you're talking about the adaptable and woefully underrated cauliflower. The "dry" version of gobi manchurian, a dish popular in and around India, is a kissing cousin of General Tso's chicken, only lighter and more succulent. The cauliflower is first blanched, so that it's tender like a chicken breast. It's battered, deep fried and then doused in a sauce that lives on the border of spicy and sweet. It's cheap here in the international nexus of Chatham Square, but trek across Morrisville to try it at the great Sai Krishna Bhavan, too. —GC
Goes well with: An order of naan or papad
Pimento Cheese and Fig Crostini | Capital Club 16, Raleigh
In Southern cuisine, pimento cheese is an old but active battleground, where warring theories about what makes it best or authentic or bankrupt abound. You could write a tome about the conflicting ideas and never leave the Triangle. At Capital Club 16, chef Jake Wolf nods to the pimento past—see those bright, sharp cheddar slivers and rest assured that, yes, that's Duke's Mayonnaise—and escapes it with a generous heaping of smoked paprika. As such, Capital Club's pimento cheese tastes like it was raised in a barbeque pit that emitted embers without melting the cheese. After smearing the stuff across plain white crostini, the kitchen staff adds a dab of apple jelly and a preserved fig, offsetting the savory intensity with a little sweet delicacy. You, the diner, win this war. —GC
Goes well with: For a balanced meal, follow it with the kale salad.
Lady Edison Country Ham | Lady Edison Ham, Chapel Hill
Near the turn of the 20th century, Raleigh-born Beulah Louise Henry churned out invention after invention—a hair curler, a Poodle Dog Doll, a bobbin-less sewing machine—that earned her the name Lady Edison. Now in Chapel Hill, Sam Suchoff of the Pig has teamed with Rufus Brown of Johnston County Hams in Smithfield to reinvent the image of country ham under Lady's name. Thinly sliced, Lady Edison ham is more akin to Spain's dry-cured prosciutto than a thick wedge of the country stuff that's tucked into biscuits or fried to make red eye gravy. Why not expand country ham's place beyond breakfast? Mateo Tapas and Pizzeria Toro do just that, finding a seat for Lady among a menu of fine hams and wines from Spain and Italy, respectively. —EW
Goes well with: Order the charcuterie at Mateo or Toro, and enjoy it with wine and cheese.
Tomato Pie | Poole's Downtown Diner, Raleigh
Even without the bacon, which the very accommodating Poole's kitchen is happy to omit, this tiny tomato pie is the best dish I've ever had in an Ashley Christensen restaurant. They start with a small, ribbed piecrust that's flaky and tender to the bite and stuff it with chunks of chopped tomato, a simple blend of herbs and a dense cream that gives the filling a density somewhere between a porridge and a stew. The round is topped with buttermilk cheddar, baked and—in a masterstroke I can barely comprehend—crowned with a bird's nest-like salad of watercress doused in a sherry vinaigrette that's then ladled around the pie. The vinegar versus the cream, the green crunch versus the milky red center, the cheese versus the crust: It's a stunning reminder of the Poole's credo for trying to create new classics with old molds. Good thing Christensen is planning to include the recipe in her forthcoming cookbook. —GC
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Revisit cauliflower with gobi manchurian at Himalayan Nepali Cuisine.
Goes well with: A flavorful Unibroue Blanche de Chambly
Dukboki | Kimbap Café, Raleigh
The first time I saw dukboki, I was shocked by its vivid orange color. I'd only ever seen such a hue—best described as the "shade of fried Texas Pete"—on hot wings. Kimbap's version of crispy rice cakes, served as cylinders the length of an index finger, gets its vibrant hue from an ample supply of gochujang sauce. The savory and spicy paste consists of chili peppers, fermented soybeans, sticky rice and salt. A base ingredient in miso soup, the fermented soybeans are responsible for the dish's sensation of savory, salty delight, or umami. At Kimbap, eight sticks of dukboki come in Jenga-like formation, sprinkled with black sesame and sliced green onions. Despite the baleful color, it's only pleasantly warm, with a firm outer layer that gives way to a pillowy interior when you take a bite. —TC
Goes well with: Kimbap's house-made kimchi
Fried Moss | Piedmont Restaurant, Durham
Gregory Gettles recently took the helm as head chef of Piedmont. He aims to explore all that our local palette has to offer, right down to its moss. Deep-frying the spindly plant appears to be a Nordic practice, popularized by a famous restaurant in Denmark called Noma. Gettles has brought this obscure snack to Durham, relying on the patience of his suppliers and staff to harvest it by hand and painstakingly pluck it free of debris with tweezers. It's then deep-fried 10 times and sprinkled with barbeque seasoning. The moss, though brittle, has a crunch that resolves into a vanishing act, like a grassy cotton candy. It's a delicate, salty treat that packs a surprising amount of flavor. All hail the young chef, not afraid to get a little weird. Call ahead to request the dish. —TC
Goes well with: Coon Rock Farm's beets and an open mind
Rosie's Robiola | Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, Cedar Grove
What do you do for an incredible goat that reportedly survived "a barn fire, a blood infection, a dog attack and azalea poisoning?" Make an incredible cow's-milk cheese that, depending on the season, sometimes gets a dose of goat's milk. Rosie's Robiola, an Italian-inspired cheese by Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, honors Rosie the goat. It combines a soft, smooth interior with a dry rind using milk sourced from herds near Cedar Grove. From Wine Authorities and Whole Foods to Durham Co-Op and Rose's Meat Market, ask for it by name. —EW
Goes well with: Crackers from Hillsborough's The Accidental Baker
Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread | Acme Food & Beverage Co., Carrboro
Acme chef Kevin Callaghan is adored for menu mainstays like fried green tomatoes and pecan-crusted fried chicken. But his real superpower may be his cornbread's distinction. Years ago, when I inherited my grandmother's cast iron skillet, I was told it was already "seasoned." I assumed it meant she had coated the skillet with a magical blend of soul food oils, which would transfer into the food. That's what I imagine Callaghan has done to his cornbread skillets. His wondrously sweet, eight-inch cornmeal rapture makes Grandma's taste like rock cake. When the cornbread arrives with some breaks, the peppered butter drips down the rugged surface and into the cracks, adding more moistness to the decadence. Acme's Tuesday night $13.95 entrée special saves you a few bucks; take home a second cornbread beauty for lunch. —ET
Goes well with: The flash-fried catfish
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Esoteric produce: Fried Moss at Piedmont
Picnic Eggs | The Durham, Durham
The 3,000-square-foot rooftop of the Durham Hotel offers sweeping views of the city below. With the breeze in your hair and a cocktail in your fist, it's easy to feel like you're on top of the world. What does one eat in the penthouse, other than a decadent egg topped with even tinier, more expensive eggs? Don't be fooled by the plural in the name, as this dish is really just one deviled egg, sliced in half to produce two stuffed white cups. Finished with a generous dollop of trout roe—among the largest and firmest roes around—each bite delivers a distinct, salty pop that pairs wonderfully with the deviled yolk. —TC
Goes well with: The view and a cocktail
Masala Uttapam | Vimala's Curryblossom Café, Chapel Hill
Like a dosa but more quiche than crepe, the Indian dish called uttapam is capable of suspending many ingredients in its fermented lentil-and-rice batter. I never visit Vimala's without getting a Masala Uttapam for the table. Stuffed with savory potatoes, the sourdough pancake fills a wide, deep metal pan with yellow hillocks of nourishment. Three chutneys—one red and spicy, a greenish-white coconut concoction that looks like toothpaste but tastes divine, and a nutty one in ocher—add bright splashes of flavor and color. The food radiates Vimala's usual warmth, freshness and care. —BH
Goes well with: Wash it all down with a pint of Indian lager, Kingfisher. Its clean, clear taste doesn't get muddled with the meal's bold flavors.
Goat Cheese, Honey and Pepper Crostini | Toast Paninoteca, Durham
For a two- or three-bite snack, you can't do better than the most delectable crostini in Durham. They're found at Toast, which devotes almost all its attention to yummy things on crunchy bread. The most minimal yet most decadent of these small, toasted slices sports a pillow of warm goat cheese, spiked with cracked black pepper and coated in local honey that oozes down onto the plate. There is no denying the grassy sweetness of the honey, though the forward savory flavors keep it out of dessert-land. —BH
Goes well with: For a modular meal, try three different crostini, with a simple, immaculate green salad for $9.50.
Brick Oven Okra| Tazza Kitchen, Raleigh
Tazza, an oft-overlooked Southeastern chain of five restaurants with a spot in Cameron Village, has a solid menu from start to finish, which is saying something for a joint that dives into both pizza and tacos, not to mention an excellent shrimp and polenta meal. But the standout is the Brick Oven Okra, a simple appetizer of okra, roasted garlic, carrot chowchow and chili flakes. It's savory and garlicky and memorably delectable, weeks and months after the meal. —JB
Goes well with: Stick with the South, and have a Sazerac.
Crispy Rice Lettuce Wrap | Bida Manda, Raleigh
America, we've been crisping rice all wrong. I'd sooner leave Snap, Crackle and Pop at home and travel eastward to Laos. There, rice is deep-fried, bundled in lettuce leaves and doused with sweet chili sauce—a snack so savory and satisfying, it puts the best Rice Krispies Treats to shame. This was the sort of humble yet punchy food that Bida Manda owners (and siblings) Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha ate growing up. Now they serve it as an appetizer at their hip Raleigh restaurant, and I can't get enough. Egg, coconut, cilantro, garlic and lemongrass accent fragrant jasmine rice that's been fried, then pulled apart. Scoop it up with lettuce, dunk it all in the garlic-heavy sauce and repeat. In Laos, it's customary to share the dish, but whenever I'm at Bida Manda, I want it all to myself. —EL
Goes well with: Piña colada—embrace the beachy Bida spirit, and pretend you're on vacation.
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Salad for dinner? The Cilantro Lime Salad at Calavera is the way to go.
Pan con Tomate | Mateo bar de tapas, Durham
The subject, though in Spanish, says it all for this most elemental and irresistible Mateo staple: bread with tomato. The high-end tapas spot's kitchen loads in an armada of bread from Toast, the excellent postage-stamp-size bakery a few blocks away, splits it in half and toasts it. They then ladle tomatoes that have been crushed and wrenched in a glorious bath of olive oil and salt across the open face, smearing it in a thick pile from one end to the next. The slices are plopped onto a plate and served up quickly, so that the near-fluorescent oil and pale red juice soak just into the top of the bread without turning it into a soggy goop. You can add thin strips of Manchego, anchovies or ham, but save your money for the rest of the mesmerizing Mateo menu. There's no need to prop up this savory bit of perfection. —GC
Goes well with: A bottle of Vichy Catalan, high-mineral sparkling water from Spain, with a slice of lime
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Thick and nontraditional: the bialy at Boulted Bread
Crispy Cheese Grit Fries | Beasley's, Raleigh
When you see a line of people curling around the corner of South Wilmington and East Martin streets in Raleigh, it's safe to say most of the queue awaits honey-slick fried chicken. But I'm in it for the crispy, cheesy grit fries. Beasley's abandons everything French about the original and offers a Southern, stars-and-stripes makeover. First, the kitchen cooks a batch of stone-ground white grits, then stirs in sharp cheddar and parmesan. After that mixture chills, they portion thick rectangles, which are dredged in cornmeal and fried until crusty on the outside and creamy in the middle. There are six per order, as each is like a stick of butter. Alongside, you have malt vinegar aioli for dipping and house-made chowchow. These are our freedom fries. —EL
Goes well with: I said I wasn't in line for the chicken, but no trip to Beasley's is complete without some yard bird. Just skip the biscuits and waffles—the fries are plenty filling.