From the straightforward to the sophisticated, the authentic to the artisanal, Triangle burrito aficionados have a broad, diverse array of choices. In Carrboro, there’s the locally famous and consistently great Carrburritos. Durham has the popular Cosmic Cantina, as well as Pokéworks, where the Poké Burrito is a thing. In Raleigh, Baja Burrito upholds a beloved California-style tradition, while Jose and Sons has crafted a sentimental fusion of Tex-Mex-meets-Southern-hospitality with the lunchtime Diablo Burrito. Local Lucha-libre-laden chain Gonza Tacos y Tequila has its own adaptation in the Burrito El Guapo, a colorful education in Colombian-Mexican cuisine.
But, especially in downtown Raleigh, there’s increasing demand for the convenience of good, clean, handcrafted street fare—burritos made quickly, but not greasy, fatty fast food. And that’s the niche thirty-seven-year-old Morehead City chef Clarke Merrell hopes to fill with the third location of Dank Burrito, which opened Friday in Transfer Co. Food Hall.
Friday, April 19—the day before 4/20.
Dank Burrito. Get it? Of course you do.
“I’m kind of silly, so I thought it [Dank] would make a good idea for a burrito shop, but it has nothing to do with marijuana,” Merrell says. It’s instead a reference to freshness and quality, according to the restaurant’s website.
At a soft opening earlier this week, Cajun-style fried shrimp or jerk chicken and mango tacos, accompanied by spicy, well-seasoned tortilla chips and black bean and corn salsa, satisfied my cravings for flavorful Mexican-American street food, even though that the stars of the show, the namesake burritos, wouldn’t make their debut until the place’s formal launch.
A return visit on Saturday confirmed the burritos’ dankness and choice composition, though they’re probably more unique than authentic—solid beach food “rolled to order” that gets an extra kick from house-made hot sauces like Mango Garlic Gringo and Wise Guy Chipotle. The graffiti-heavy interior’s vibe has a similar aesthetic, inspired by urban street art with a decidedly West Coast feel, though Merrell has no particular connection to Cali. (The artist he employs does, however.) It was also impossible to ignore the graffiti-splattered Dankmobile parked out just outside of the food hall.
Dank Burrito originated in 2014 as a food truck in Morehead City, a small bayfront town that, according to Merrell, was devoid of tacos and burritos save for Taco Bell. He wanted to do something different with the typical Southern burrito joint: pair his fine-dining cred with his food-trend savvy. Quality, “fresh to death” ingredients (as he puts it), locally sourced when possible, served in inventive combinations that go beyond mere Southern fusion—Asian pulled pork burritos, pork belly burritos (with kimchi), honey truffle buffalo chicken burritos, and so on.
Following the success of Merrell’s other food concepts on the Crystal Coast, including the tapas restaurant Circa 81 and the Beaufort Olive Oil Company, he bought a food truck knowing that he could always try something else if his burritos didn’t take off. But they did.
Within weeks, locals, tourists, and military personnel lined up in droves to scarf them down. In 2015, he opened a brick-and-mortar flagship location in town, and eventually another one in Beaufort. The ambitious restauranteur from Carteret County knew the limitations that come with small towns, so he signed on with Transfer Co. in June 2018, just a few months before Hurricane Florence ravaged the coast. Though the powerful storm set him back—Florence filled one of his retail stores with ten feet of mud—he recovered and moved forward with his expansion plans.
Dank Burrito’s flavor profiles might invoke anything from a hot summer night’s stroll through the streets of Oaxaca City, to something you’d find in Seoul or Saigon, to an evening in NOLA’s French Quarter. And, yeah, maybe a food truck in front of a dispensary in Oakland, too.