We go to our favorite fancy Southern restaurants for the main course. Sure, everyone adores coleslaw and cornbread, potato salad and macaroni salad, fried okra and baked sweet potatoes. But they are backup dancers, not Rihannas. The veggie plate packed with sides is reserved for a meat-and-three—and even then, meat is the highlight.
The Skylight Inn has its signature cornbread, but you go for the whole hog. Beasley's has mac and cheese custard, but you go for the fried chicken. And Tap + Table, the newest addition from Trophy Brewing Company, has red beans and rice, but you go for the rotisserie chicken and tacos.
But here's some advice: go for the red beans and rice and a slew of other sides. There's crispy, craggly sweet potato fries with a garlicky cashew dip. Or fingerling potatoes, smashed, fried, and jolted awake by a paprika-sherry vinaigrette. And the succotash with okra and beans, tomatoes and corn, salty and warm, the way you feel alongside the ocean on a summer day.
This isn't to say that the chicken and tacos are bad. The sides are just better—punchier in flavor, sharper in execution. Like Trophy's beers, they grab your attention and hold on.
The company, co-owned by Chris Powers, David "Woody" Lockwood, and David Meeker, opened its original brewery-meets-pizzeria in 2012. Since then, they've added another, larger brewery and taproom and, most recently, Tap + Table. The restaurant occupies the space where the almost eight-year-old Busy Bee Café—and its upstairs counterpart, Mash and Lauter—used to live. It's worth noting that Powers, Lockwood, and Meeker owned those ventures, as well.
Which raises the question: Why change?
In an interview with WRAL in late 2016, Powers elaborated on the decision: "Trophy is where we want to be focused. Craft beer has always been the base of our business."
That is the common thread between three strange bedfellows: pizza, rotisserie chicken, and tacos. They are all well suited to beer. And, perhaps more importantly, they are all Americanized, adapted into our comfort food canon for lazy weeknights and sloppy weekends.
If you're like me, you associate rotisserie chicken with two things: Boston Market (you know, that chain with the cake-like cornbread and gooey mac and cheese?) and any supermarket, where the birds are lacquered, like plastic, with meat that's juicy and sweet.
But, the standards are complicated. In his book, American Taste, Jim Villas writes, "To know about fried chicken, you have to be weaned and reared on it in the South. Period." Rotisserie chicken, however, holds no stakes around here.
The word—derived from the French rôtir, to roast—denotes skewered meat, which spins like a ballerina in a music box. This spinning not only encourages the chicken to baste itself, but also to cook evenly. In essence, rotisserie chicken means a really good roast chicken, prepared in a really good oven. And, unlike with fried, there's little competition in the Triangle aside from Alpaca Peruvian Charcoal Chicken.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
At Tap + Table, you can order a quarter (breast and wing or leg and thigh), a half, or a whole. You can even order a "Winner Winner Chicken Dinner," with a whole chicken, one starter, three large sides, and two desserts. It is fun-spirited, family-style options like this that bring me back to my Boston Market glory days. And I like to imagine that some little kid, somewhere in Raleigh, is begging for a Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.
This chicken is a lot better than Boston Market. It's also less consistent. The meat is well seasoned—savory, not supermarket-sweet—and well cooked, but the skin teeters toward flaccid. Sultry varnish? Totally. Crisp crackle? Not so much. Luckily, the three accompanying sauces, Alabama white, beer mustard, and sambal, make up for any mishaps.
If your server remembers to bring the sauces. On my first visit—a hot Sunday, made for baking in the sun on Tap + Table's cozy rooftop—our server couldn't seem to remember his own name, let alone the sauces, or my partner's beer, or our water, or our check. The word "sorry" was uttered, often, at our table, and at most tables around us.
It seems to have been a rough night. Because on my second visit, things couldn't have gone smoother. When we asked for a beer pairing, our server rattled off three, then brought samples to try. The CITRA D.A.V.E., a New England-style single hop pale ale, really did complement those grilled shrimp tacos. They were topped with a pineapple salsa, some cilantro, and some lime-spiked crema. They were good. The mushroom-poblano ones, with queso fresco and kale slaw, were also good. You know, not bad, not great.
Would I go back for the tacos? Probably not. But I would go back for a beer.
And if you give me a cold beer on a summer night, I'm going to ask for hushpuppies. And if you give me hushpuppies, I'm going to ask for another beer. And if you give me another beer, I'm going to ask for some tacos (why not?) with some red beans and rice on the side—and, man, those red beans and rice. I'd go back for them, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Choosing Sides"