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New restaurants and happenings

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How many Tex-Mex restaurants can downtown Chapel Hill sustain? Just added to the already-salsa-saturated area is Chipotle (301 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 942-2091), a chain of "gourmet burritos and tacos." The Denver-based company also dishes out its "focused menu of burritos, tacos, burrito bols and salads made from fresh, high-quality raw ingredients" at two Raleigh locations: 6602 Glenwood Ave. (781-5115) and 6102 Falls of Neuse Road (877-8554).

An interesting factoid about Chipotle: According to its Web site, it follows a philosophy of "Food With Integrity," which means "things like unprocessed, seasonal, family-farmed, sustainable, nutritious, naturally raised, added hormone free, organic, and artisanal." All of its pork is currently from family farms, not CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The company, which completed a separation from onetime investor McDonald's Corp. in October 2006, is moving toward serving entirely CAFO-free chicken and beef, too.

But the most interesting (cake-related) thing happening on Franklin Street is a few blocks down, where Crook's Corner chef Bill Smith is spending his summer experimenting with old-fashioned Southern cakes. Turns out cookbook author (and High Point native) Nancie McDermott lives in Chapel Hill. A few months ago, she dropped off a copy of her new book, Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations, as a gift, and Smith has been making his way through it, offering the results on the Crook's dessert menu.

"This is like ol' grandma cakes, is what this is," Smith says. The first cake to appear on the Crook's dessert menu was a hybrid: Smith made Mississippi Vanity Cake using McDermott's recipe for buttermilk layer cake and Moreton Neal's recipe for apple custard filling. Then he moved on to McDermott's Red Velvet cake. "We ran that for about six weeks, and people went crazy over it," he says.

My despair at missing the first two creations was eliminated by the sugar high induced by the third: Lane Cake. Smith's version has white cake layers filled with bourbon-laced, dried cherry custard, covered in fluffy seven-minute frosting and served with whipped cream. Holy fluffy bourbon-laced heaven! What's next? Smith says he may move on to McDermott's old-fashioned coconut cake, or a chocolate mayonnaise cake. And I may start loitering outside his kitchen door.

It's blackberry season, but it's not a good year for local blackberries, courtesy of the Easter Weekend frost. I feared that, but it was confirmed for me by calling Herndon Hills Farm (7110 Massey Chapel Road, Durham, 544-3313), whose answering machine says the crop this year is light. Herndon Hills also has pick-your-own blueberries and muscadine grapes; it's open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays through September. As with all you-pick farms, it's best to call before you go.

For more you-pick farm locations, check out the searchable directory maintained by the N.C. Department of Agriculture: www.ncfarmfresh.com.

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