Sure, there are lots of great streets in Durham. On Ninth Street, breakfast is served all day at Elmo's Diner, cool stuff is brimming from the shelves at Vaguely Reminiscent, and the best authors in the country can be heard reading almost nightly at The Regulator Bookshop. On "the Boulevard"--Chapel Hill Boulevard to the uninitiated--fresh quarkstollen can be bought at Guglhopf Bakery, the Shrimp Boat offers killer fish sandwiches, and Foster's does a good Martha Stewart impression. But for me, the quintessential street, the one that captures the confluence of people that makes Durham the funkiest city in North Carolina, is Guess Road. Starting at Northgate Mall at the edge of Trinity Park and stretching for miles into the horse farms of northern Orange County, Guess Road is a cacophony of the funky, the delicious and the beautiful--Durham in microcosm. It's an old-fashioned retail boulevard with a mix of churches and hair salons, nail shops and insurance offices with working-class neighborhoods behind them. It stretches from a vibrant city streetscape along the southern end to a miserable expanse of newly widened, DOT-issue black asphalt to the north. But in between are some of the most interesting stops in the city. Here are the highlights, heading north:
Best Best: Need a Bobcat? Or a wedding canopy? The best rental store in Durham is (what else?) Best Rent All, 2410 Guess Road (286-3708). And it's part of a rich stretch on either side of the road. Across the street is a series of international delights: the Tienda Mexicana Mi Barrio (need tomatillos? merlitons?); the Carolina Martial Arts Center (where Sensei Kevin Gurganus has his young students recite the credo at the end of every class: "We are ... RESPONSIBLE ... Actions have ... CONSEQUENCES ..."); Dance Plus dance studio, where sexy ballroom dancers swing and dip in black tights in front of full-length mirrors; and Hog Heaven (286-7447), which serves up the best chopped pig this side of ... Guess Road. And if the name Hog Heaven doesn't make you groan, there's always Xsightment Video across the street.
Best nem nuong cuon banh trang (grilled Vietnamese pork sausage): Kim Son Vietnamese Restaurant, 2425 Guess Road (416-9009). Kim Son is an unlikely find across the street from a Holiday Inn and just off Interstate 85. The nem nuong cuon banh trang is like a do-it-yourself spring roll, with crisp rice paper you soak in warm water to soften and then use to roll in salad, peanut sauce and homemade pork sausage. The spring rolls that come already fixed are good, too.
Best late-night diner: Honey's, 2700 Guess Road at I-85 (477-2181). Downtown and Duke may be where Durham is happening until 2 a.m. when the clubs and bars close, but after that it's Honey's, a 24-hour diner that is rocking at 4 a.m., especially Fridays and Saturdays. The packed house of students and middle-aged partyers are all having a great time with their eggs and sausage or hot-fudge ice-cream cakes.
Best teddies: Priscilla's, 2802 Guess Road (620-6881), "Where fun and fantasy meet," is a brightly lit sex superstore featuring videos and toys. But much of the space is dedicated to sexy outfits geared toward professional (and at-home) performers. We wanted to talk a little about the store and its philosophy but Kelly, the manager, said we had to talk to the owner herself. "Priscilla is particular," she said. I guess that bodes well for the inventory.
Best chicken feet: Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant, 3003 Guess Road (479-8339). In an old house painted red and yellow with Chinese characters on the front, Hong Kong is a full-service Chinese restaurant that also offers dim sum on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays that is the real thing--cart after cart of dumplings, shrimp balls and 30 other tiny plates of pleasure. And yes, they have chicken feet.
Best junk: Everything but Granny's Panties, 2926 Guess Road (471-0996). Don't believe it's the best? Just ask Elizabeth Allen, a nurse who moved to Creedmoor a month ago and has already made the drive to Granny's (as everyone calls it) four times. It's a beautiful turn-of-the-century house in which every square inch--and I mean every one--has been filled with vintage clothes, cool furniture, kids' stuff and lots and lots and lots of ... junk. Need a casket key from Batesville Casket? $1. A 1950s bedroom suite? $450. A copy of Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers (after your trip to Priscilla's)? $1. A pair of raccoon-head slippers (fuzzy, not real)? $2 (they're among dozens of other shoes lining the stairs). Owner Kim Shaffler says she goes to two or three estate sales a week to keep the house (and the front yard, and the side yard, and the back yard) constantly filled. And ask her about when she's having her next sale at Decades, the Hillsborough Road house she only opens five or six times a year to sell the coolest, most collectible stuff that she pulls aside. (If you're on a special junk mission, also check out Finders Keepers across the street at 2917 Guess Road and Knick Knacks at 2915 Guess Road while you're in the neighborhood.)
Most spiritual radio station (tie): WRTP, 3013 Guess Road, www.hisradiowrtp.com. This tiny house is the studio for 15 FM radio frequencies that broadcast Christian music all over central North Carolina and southern Virginia under the name HIS Radio. Turns out it's one of several stations in the Southeast set up by the owner of Watkins Trucking as a training ground for Christian broadcasters. Its programming is more underwritten by sponsors than paid for by advertising, and the station holds community events throughout the year such as Thanksgiving food drives, the World's Largest Baby Shower to collect clothing for needy families, and Christian music concerts. Don't expect to find it on the frequencies listed on the sign out front--1000 AM Raleigh or 1060 AM Mebane. Those frequencies were recently sold to a Spanish-language broadcasting company.
Most spiritual radio station (tie): Who knew Guess Road was a center for broadcasting? Across the street from WRTP is WSRC-LOVE 1410 AM, 3202 Guess Road (477-7999), an African-American gospel station whose 5,000 watts reach throughout the Triangle. Program Director Harold Jackson says it's focused on traditional with some contemporary gospel aimed at an adult audience. The station has been in business since 1954 and is currently owned by Bishop L.E. Willis, who runs a string of gospel stations out of Norfolk, Va.
Best frozen tamales: Tucked into a small strip center in the 3100 block is the immaculate and orderly Tienda Salvadorena Kinberly, featuring case after case of spices, canned goods, sodas (such as watermelon) and Salvadoran freezer-case specialties like jocote (a grape-like fruit you eat while still frozen) and loroco, tiny flowers used to make delicious, cheesy tortilla creations called pupusas. But the Salvadoran highlight, explains dueno Henrry Acevedo, is frozen tamales de elote made from green corn. It's gotta be better than Lean Cuisine.
Best pizza in a weird building: Pizza Palace, 3218 Guess Road (620-9700). A Durham landmark for years at its location off Ninth Street, the Pizza Palace set off alarms all over town when it announced it had lost its lease. But the restaurant has come back better than ever in a bizarre building that's part barn, part geodesic dome, set way back off Guess Road. It's still owned by the same family it always was--Faye Bricker, daughter of longtime owner (and former Durham mayor) Harry Rodenhizer, and her husband, Tim Bricker, who's the chef. The pizza's as good as ever, and Tim has expanded the menu to include homemade desserts. He also has expanded into entertainment--there's a giant TV projection screen, jazz on Tuesday nights, karaoke on Thursday nights and live music on weekends.
Best camera store not quite on Guess Road: Camera Works is becoming a vestige of a bygone era--a locally run photographic equipment store and repair shop where they can talk about cameras and help you decide what's best for you. Sebastian McGilbary used to do camera repairs at University Camera 'til he opened shop in 1996 at 2611 Carver St. (477-1189), just off Guess. There, working with Marlan McMinds, he stocks the same supplies you saw in camera stores 50 years ago--chemicals like rapid selenium toner, photographic paper and enlargers. And, of course, they fix cameras (especially old ones) and sell used ones. They also stock digital cameras, and can tell you how they work. But, let's face it; they really like the old ones.
Best cheesesteak: The most unsung chain in the Triangle are the Italian Pizzerias, this one in the Willowdaile Shopping Center, 3823 Guess Road (471-0664). They serve the best cheesesteaks around, and the pizza's not bad, either. A great place to go before or after visiting the Willowdaile 8 cinemas. If you're on a fad diet, nearby is the Low Carb Store ("Soft Serve Flavor of the Week: Peanut Butter").
Best roadhouse: The last, best stop on Guess Road is the All People's Grill, 6122 Guess Road (620-9591) way up in the country, across the Eno River almost to Orange County. It's a homey diner that features some of the best R&B and jazz in the Triangle crammed into the adjoining pair of rooms. For several years it was the home of brilliant guitarist Cool John Ferguson, and other talents discovered by Music Makers, the nonprofit that supports blues artists, often start out playing there. Finally, it's the best place to take someone before you head home to try out your purchases at Priscilla's, or go for a breakfast of homemade biscuits the next morning.