Garland in downtown Raleigh is literally a hole in the wall. Place your order at a window and your food is brought to you in paper bowls and boxes. Eat with a plastic fork at one of a handful of tables on the sidewalk, or while standing up, or on the go.
It's alfresco. It's urban. It may not sound very glamorous but don't be fooled: The fare is sumptuous, and hanging out by the street is noisy but fun. You'll be able to sit inside soon as Garland is expected to have its full dining room open sometime next month.
Garland opened in June as the token eatery to the Kings and Neptune's barcade complex on Martin Street. Cheetie Kumar, Kings co-owner, bartender and Birds of Avalon guitarist, is running the show out of the old Martin Street Pizza building.
Garland's lunch and dinner menus could be described as Asian fusion. It is inspired by the Silk Road, the series of trade routes that ran all through Southeast Asia, opening the East to the European west—and draws from Latin American culinary traditions.
"With the menu, we're exploring the connections between different places," Kumar said, "and sharing the different spices."
Most portions are small—snack-like even—so if you're really hungry it's wise to order a few things.
My favorite is the rice bowl, which you can get with pork or tofu. It's a bed of sticky brown rice, cooked to crispy perfection and topped with kimchee-style pickles, bok choy, mung bean sprouts, chili sauce and a local fried egg. All of the produce and meat are local; the pork comes from Heritage Farms in Seven Springs.
The tanginess of the kimchee and the fresh, crunchy sprouts meld with the spicy chili sauce to make this plate great; the rice and the fried egg will fill you up, and the sesame tofu has a golden braise to it. I didn't try the slow-cooked Korean glazed pork shoulder, but my dining companion, a self-proclaimed carnivore, did, and he was content.
Upon our return, we ordered the potato croquettes stuffed with coconut, cashew and raisin filling. The sweet and savory, doughnut-like amalgamations are good plain, but they're served with two sauces—a sweet chili and a cilantro-mint chutney that you want to douse everything in.
And douse I did, as we also ordered the Chicken "65": fried boneless chicken thighs smothered in turmeric-yogurt sauce, curry leaves, fresh chilies, lime, cilantro and house-pickled green chilies. We had high expectations for the "65" but, while tasty, it was essentially fried chicken sprinkled with hot peppers. We got bored after a few bites, so I smothered the chicken some more, in leftover sauce, and happily moved on; Chicken "65" (you also can get Cauliflower "65") is good for a snack or an appetizer, but don't make it your whole meal.
Finally, we tried the veggie roti—seasonal vegetables and yogurt sauce rolled in homemade clay-oven flatbread. The flatbread is like Indian naan, the yogurt sauce resembles tzatziki; the overall concept verges into taco territory, and the vegetable medley, with its pickled red onion and local squash and tandoor flavoring, is zesty, crisp and delicious.
I can't imagine the roti being better with chicken, also an option, but the chicken version comes with the aforementioned cilantro-mint chutney. I would eat bowls of that chutney with a spoon, on its own, so in choosing roti between chicken and veggie, you can't lose either way.
If you're craving sugar, the house-made pocket cookies with jammy centers are a great bet. At three dollars a pop, they're the size of little saucers but worth every cent; choose between the sugar cookie, with fig and honey goat cheese, or the chocolate Asian pear, with frangipane and ginger sugar, almost brownie-like in its cocoa goodness.
The only lunch item I've sampled thus far is the Mezze Maza. There's an arugula salad with a lovely light lemon vinaigrette, sprinkled with puffed sorghum (think tiny, popped kernels of popcorn) and crème-fraiche-covered tomatoes and cucumbers. You get buttery-tasting roti "chips," and you can add tandoori chicken salad or French lentil and quinoa tabouleh (I chose both). It's a lunch you can feel good about, not heavy enough to put you to sleep but nutritious and satisfying enough to get you through the day.
Kumar said Garland's menu will change and expand when the restaurant goes full-service in October. The window will remain in operation for lunch and late night. You can get canned beer and bottled water, and you might choose to pair your food with a cocktail from Kings.
I asked Kumar what she does now when it's raining outside or the weather is bad.
"Cry," she replied.
With food this tasty and just a stone's throw from dance parties and good libations, the forecast is sunny for Garland.