Several weeks ago, I asked more than a dozen writers to tell me what they lovedspecifically, the dishes they craved, the potential meals that compelled them to leave home after long workdays, the drinks for which they were happy to part with their wages.

Two surprising findings soon emerged: First was the sheer volume of items in demand, from fried appetizers and complex cocktails to simple sides and strange brews. A glut of tantalizing dishes crawled from every corner of the Trianglefrom downtowns and hinterlands, from strip malls and cosmopolitan restaurants, from old shacks and new spaces, from food trucks and hotel bars. I’d asked for just 50 dishes and drinks. I ended up mulling more than 200. We’ve published 60 of the best here.

The secondand perhaps more surprising but certainly more importantaspect is affordability. In the past several years, the economics of our local food supply have become a flashpoint that’s only intensified as our city centers have skyrocketed in density and cost. James Beard Award winners and hopefuls alike have opened pristine, pricy new restaurants, while more modest options have decamped to cheaper districts or disappeared altogether. But most of the items the writers extolled were surprisingly affordable, suggesting less pampered chefs and posh customers than a dining scene in tune with its diners’ abilities and desires. Yes, costs are a rising concern, and one that our communities will have to confront sooner rather than later. But the writers’ collective tally said that, at least for this moment, An and One and Death & Taxes remain rare indulgences, surrounded by a relatively sweet spot of food and finances.

The area’s food scene earns a lot of national talk for its buzzing restaurants and coffee shops, bars and breweries, cafes and confectioners. We’ve got culinary awards, food festivals and an influx of talented new chefs. All those accolades and assets mean little unless the dishes deliver on the hype. Our survey of 60 current favorites in and around the Triangle suggests they doand that, hey, we can mostly afford it. Grayson Haver Currin


Shrimp Heads | Dashi Izakaya, Durham, $6

Americans waste one-third of our food. Order the fried shrimp heads at Dashi and relish the chance to minimize what gets tossed. Dashi buys fresh, whole shrimp via Locals Seafood, caught the same morning in state waters. With a nod to Japanese cooking styles, chef and co-owner Billy Cotter tosses the heads in water chestnut flour, salt, pepper and Korean chili flakes and then dunks them in the deep fryer. They sizzle for about 40 seconds before he throws in slices of Fresno chilies for another 15. Piled high in a small bowl, they look like fried extras from Alien. Glossy black eyeballs the size of pinholes peer from beneath a tangle of antennae. Eat them whole and hot, as the shrimp’s flavor seems to stay in the brain. VB

Goes well with: Like any crispy bar snack, this fried treat goes well with a cold beer.

Gobi Manchurian | Himalayan Nepali Cuisine, Cary, $3.99

“Tastes just like chicken”: That line often serves to entice unadventurous eaters to try a new meat, with the hope that they’ll try anything that plays to their comfort zone. But you don’t often hear it applied to vegetables, unless you’re talking about the adaptable and woefully underrated cauliflower. The “dry” version of gobi manchurian, a dish popular in and around India, is a kissing cousin of General Tso’s chicken, only lighter and more succulent. The cauliflower is first blanched, so that it’s tender like a chicken breast. It’s battered, deep fried and then doused in a sauce that lives on the border of spicy and sweet. It’s cheap here in the international nexus of Chatham Square, but trek across Morrisville to try it at the great Sai Krishna Bhavan, too. GC

Goes well with: An order of naan or papad

Pimento Cheese and Fig Crostini | Capital Club 16, Raleigh, $9

In Southern cuisine, pimento cheese is an old but active battleground, where warring theories about what makes it best or authentic or bankrupt abound. You could write a tome about the conflicting ideas and never leave the Triangle. At Capital Club 16, chef Jake Wolf nods to the pimento pastsee those bright, sharp cheddar slivers and rest assured that, yes, that’s Duke’s Mayonnaiseand escapes it with a generous heaping of smoked paprika. As such, Capital Club’s pimento cheese tastes like it was raised in a barbeque pit that emitted embers without melting the cheese. After smearing the stuff across plain white crostini, the kitchen staff adds a dab of apple jelly and a preserved fig, offsetting the savory intensity with a little sweet delicacy. You, the diner, win this war. GC

Goes well with: For a balanced meal, follow it with the kale salad.

Lady Edison Country Ham | Lady Edison Ham, Chapel Hill

Near the turn of the 20th century, Raleigh-born Beulah Louise Henry churned out invention after inventiona hair curler, a Poodle Dog Doll, a bobbin-less sewing machinethat earned her the name Lady Edison. Now in Chapel Hill, Sam Suchoff of the Pig has teamed with Rufus Brown of Johnston County Hams in Smithfield to reinvent the image of country ham under Lady’s name. Thinly sliced, Lady Edison ham is more akin to Spain’s dry-cured prosciutto than a thick wedge of the country stuff that’s tucked into biscuits or fried to make red eye gravy. Why not expand country ham’s place beyond breakfast? Mateo Tapas and Pizzeria Toro do just that, finding a seat for Lady among a menu of fine hams and wines from Spain and Italy, respectively. EW

Goes well with: Order the charcuterie at Mateo or Toro, and enjoy it with wine and cheese.

Tomato Pie | Poole’s Downtown Diner, Raleigh, $13

Even without the bacon, which the very accommodating Poole’s kitchen is happy to omit, this tiny tomato pie is the best dish I’ve ever had in an Ashley Christensen restaurant. They start with a small, ribbed piecrust that’s flaky and tender to the bite and stuff it with chunks of chopped tomato, a simple blend of herbs and a dense cream that gives the filling a density somewhere between a porridge and a stew. The round is topped with buttermilk cheddar, baked andin a masterstroke I can barely comprehendcrowned with a bird’s nest-like salad of watercress doused in a sherry vinaigrette that’s then ladled around the pie. The vinegar versus the cream, the green crunch versus the milky red center, the cheese versus the crust: It’s a stunning reminder of the Poole’s credo for trying to create new classics with old molds. Good thing Christensen is planning to include the recipe in her forthcoming cookbook. GC

Goes well with: A flavorful Unibroue Blanche de Chambly

Dukboki | Kimbap Café, Raleigh, $4

The first time I saw dukboki, I was shocked by its vivid orange color. I’d only ever seen such a huebest described as the “shade of fried Texas Pete”on hot wings. Kimbap’s version of crispy rice cakes, served as cylinders the length of an index finger, gets its vibrant hue from an ample supply of gochujang sauce. The savory and spicy paste consists of chili peppers, fermented soybeans, sticky rice and salt. A base ingredient in miso soup, the fermented soybeans are responsible for the dish’s sensation of savory, salty delight, or umami. At Kimbap, eight sticks of dukboki come in Jenga-like formation, sprinkled with black sesame and sliced green onions. Despite the baleful color, it’s only pleasantly warm, with a firm outer layer that gives way to a pillowy interior when you take a bite. TC

Goes well with: Kimbap’s house-made kimchi

Fried Moss | Piedmont Restaurant, Durham, $15

Gregory Gettles recently took the helm as head chef of Piedmont. He aims to explore all that our local palette has to offer, right down to its moss. Deep-frying the spindly plant appears to be a Nordic practice, popularized by a famous restaurant in Denmark called Noma. Gettles has brought this obscure snack to Durham, relying on the patience of his suppliers and staff to harvest it by hand and painstakingly pluck it free of debris with tweezers. It’s then deep-fried 10 times and sprinkled with barbeque seasoning. The moss, though brittle, has a crunch that resolves into a vanishing act, like a grassy cotton candy. It’s a delicate, salty treat that packs a surprising amount of flavor. All hail the young chef, not afraid to get a little weird. Call ahead to request the dish. TC

Goes well with: Coon Rock Farm’s beets and an open mind

Rosie’s Robiola | Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, Cedar Grove, $19.99/lb.

What do you do for an incredible goat that reportedly survived “a barn fire, a blood infection, a dog attack and azalea poisoning?” Make an incredible cow’s-milk cheese that, depending on the season, sometimes gets a dose of goat’s milk. Rosie’s Robiola, an Italian-inspired cheese by Boxcarr Handmade Cheese, honors Rosie the goat. It combines a soft, smooth interior with a dry rind using milk sourced from herds near Cedar Grove. From Wine Authorities and Whole Foods to Durham Co-Op and Rose’s Meat Market, ask for it by name. EW

Goes well with: Crackers from Hillsborough’s The Accidental Baker

Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread | Acme Food & Beverage Co., Carrboro, $8

Acme chef Kevin Callaghan is adored for menu mainstays like fried green tomatoes and pecan-crusted fried chicken. But his real superpower may be his cornbread’s distinction. Years ago, when I inherited my grandmother’s cast iron skillet, I was told it was already “seasoned.” I assumed it meant she had coated the skillet with a magical blend of soul food oils, which would transfer into the food. That’s what I imagine Callaghan has done to his cornbread skillets. His wondrously sweet, eight-inch cornmeal rapture makes Grandma’s taste like rock cake. When the cornbread arrives with some breaks, the peppered butter drips down the rugged surface and into the cracks, adding more moistness to the decadence. Acme’s Tuesday night $13.95 entrée special saves you a few bucks; take home a second cornbread beauty for lunch. ET

Goes well with: The flash-fried catfish

Picnic Eggs | The Durham, Durham, $4

The 3,000-square-foot rooftop of the Durham Hotel offers sweeping views of the city below. With the breeze in your hair and a cocktail in your fist, it’s easy to feel like you’re on top of the world. What does one eat in the penthouse, other than a decadent egg topped with even tinier, more expensive eggs? Don’t be fooled by the plural in the name, as this dish is really just one deviled egg, sliced in half to produce two stuffed white cups. Finished with a generous dollop of trout roeamong the largest and firmest roes aroundeach bite delivers a distinct, salty pop that pairs wonderfully with the deviled yolk. TC

Goes well with: The view and a cocktail

Masala Uttapam | Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, Chapel Hill, $9

Like a dosa but more quiche than crepe, the Indian dish called uttapam is capable of suspending many ingredients in its fermented lentil-and-rice batter. I never visit Vimala’s without getting a Masala Uttapam for the table. Stuffed with savory potatoes, the sourdough pancake fills a wide, deep metal pan with yellow hillocks of nourishment. Three chutneysone red and spicy, a greenish-white coconut concoction that looks like toothpaste but tastes divine, and a nutty one in ocheradd bright splashes of flavor and color. The food radiates Vimala’s usual warmth, freshness and care. BH

Goes well with: Wash it all down with a pint of Indian lager, Kingfisher. Its clean, clear taste doesn’t get muddled with the meal’s bold flavors.

Goat Cheese, Honey and Pepper Crostini | Toast Paninoteca, Durham, $2.50

For a two- or three-bite snack, you can’t do better than the most delectable crostini in Durham. They’re found at Toast, which devotes almost all its attention to yummy things on crunchy bread. The most minimal yet most decadent of these small, toasted slices sports a pillow of warm goat cheese, spiked with cracked black pepper and coated in local honey that oozes down onto the plate. There is no denying the grassy sweetness of the honey, though the forward savory flavors keep it out of dessert-land. BH

Goes well with: For a modular meal, try three different crostini, with a simple, immaculate green salad for $9.50.

Brick Oven Okra| Tazza Kitchen, Raleigh, $6

Tazza, an oft-overlooked Southeastern chain of five restaurants with a spot in Cameron Village, has a solid menu from start to finish, which is saying something for a joint that dives into both pizza and tacos, not to mention an excellent shrimp and polenta meal. But the standout is the Brick Oven Okra, a simple appetizer of okra, roasted garlic, carrot chowchow and chili flakes. It’s savory and garlicky and memorably delectable, weeks and months after the meal. JB

Goes well with: Stick with the South, and have a Sazerac.

Crispy Rice Lettuce Wrap | Bida Manda, Raleigh, $8.90

America, we’ve been crisping rice all wrong. I’d sooner leave Snap, Crackle and Pop at home and travel eastward to Laos. There, rice is deep-fried, bundled in lettuce leaves and doused with sweet chili saucea snack so savory and satisfying, it puts the best Rice Krispies Treats to shame. This was the sort of humble yet punchy food that Bida Manda owners (and siblings) Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha ate growing up. Now they serve it as an appetizer at their hip Raleigh restaurant, and I can’t get enough. Egg, coconut, cilantro, garlic and lemongrass accent fragrant jasmine rice that’s been fried, then pulled apart. Scoop it up with lettuce, dunk it all in the garlic-heavy sauce and repeat. In Laos, it’s customary to share the dish, but whenever I’m at Bida Manda, I want it all to myself. EL

Goes well with: Piña coladaembrace the beachy Bida spirit, and pretend you’re on vacation.

Pan con Tomate | Mateo bar de tapas, Durham, $3–$5

The subject, though in Spanish, says it all for this most elemental and irresistible Mateo staple: bread with tomato. The high-end tapas spot’s kitchen loads in an armada of bread from Toast, the excellent postage-stamp-size bakery a few blocks away, splits it in half and toasts it. They then ladle tomatoes that have been crushed and wrenched in a glorious bath of olive oil and salt across the open face, smearing it in a thick pile from one end to the next. The slices are plopped onto a plate and served up quickly, so that the near-fluorescent oil and pale red juice soak just into the top of the bread without turning it into a soggy goop. You can add thin strips of Manchego, anchovies or ham, but save your money for the rest of the mesmerizing Mateo menu. There’s no need to prop up this savory bit of perfection. GC

Goes well with: A bottle of Vichy Catalan, high-mineral sparkling water from Spain, with a slice of lime

Crispy Cheese Grit Fries | Beasley’s, Raleigh, $6.50

When you see a line of people curling around the corner of South Wilmington and East Martin streets in Raleigh, it’s safe to say most of the queue awaits honey-slick fried chicken. But I’m in it for the crispy, cheesy grit fries. Beasley’s abandons everything French about the original and offers a Southern, stars-and-stripes makeover. First, the kitchen cooks a batch of stone-ground white grits, then stirs in sharp cheddar and parmesan. After that mixture chills, they portion thick rectangles, which are dredged in cornmeal and fried until crusty on the outside and creamy in the middle. There are six per order, as each is like a stick of butter. Alongside, you have malt vinegar aioli for dipping and house-made chowchow. These are our freedom fries. EL

Goes well with: I said I wasn’t in line for the chicken, but no trip to Beasley’s is complete without some yard bird. Just skip the biscuits and wafflesthe fries are plenty filling.

UP NEXT: Drinks



Coco Frio | El Restaurante Ixtapa, Hillsborough, $6.50

When you order “coco frio,” or a whole green coconut, at Restaurante Ixtapa, peek around the corner to the back of the building. You’ll see a teenager wielding a machete, chopping off the top of your drinking vessel before plopping a straw into the middle. This sweet, cool coconut water is ideally enjoyed outside on one of the restaurant’s picnic tables. And the Muñoz family also lets you take your coconut to go, especially if you can’t finish the meat inside. VB

Goes well with: A smartphone, as you’ve got to Instagram that rare Carolina coco.

Scuppernong Tipper | Fair Game Beverage, Pittsboro, $16.99–$17.95

Once or twice a year, my father would emerge from his garden, holding a few clusters of big, bulbous grapes he’d been cultivating, largely in vain, for most of my childhood. Those vines were never very productive, but the sweetness that poured from beneath the thick skin of each scuppernongthe state’s official fruitmade all the effort worth it, if only for a moment. I can taste that memory in Scuppernong Tipper, a fortified wine from Pittsboro’s brilliant new Fair Game Beverage Co. They distill the grapes into a high-alcohol brandy that is, in turn, added back to the wine itself. The process creates an intensely flavorful concoction that speaks as much to the pleasant fruit as it does to the alcohol’s tingle. Sip slowly, and relish the labor of the late-summer harvest. GC

Goes well with: Sitting still after a big dinner

Bartender’s Coffee | Bittersweet, Raleigh, $10

Fernet makes you feel like an old Italian grandfather, chilling with a hand-rolled cigarette between two fingers and a stout glass of liquor. Your round belly is full from lunch. The bartender’s coffee mixes the sharp licorice flavor of Fernet with smooth Counter Culture espresso, a little Demerara raw sugar simple syrup and Maple View Farm cream, whipped into a slight froth on top. Bartender Tony Ursone recommends this as a nightcap, an homage to long nights and cigarette breaks. “After many cocktails, your palate tends to suffer from fatigue. With Fernet, you get the shock to your palate that you need, the dryness to cut through the overall sweetness of the night,” he says. “It turns down the noise in your mind.” VB

Goes well with: A cigarette or morning hangover

Double Death Spiral | Trophy Brewing Company, Raleigh, $6

We’re already spoiled by the options and availability of local craft brew that surround us. Sours might currently be the king of the scene, but I can’t pass up a well-balanced IPA. At nearly 8 percent ABV, Trophy Brewing’s Double Death Spiral is billed as a double IPA. And if you like citrus notes, you’ll get huge ones with this beer. But it’s not a bitter, hoppy palate wrecker, either, as the malt bill adds hints of caramel and toffee. If it’s on tap where I’m at, it’s what I order. GB

Goes well with: Dry roasted peanuts

SteakCake Stout | Double Barley Brewing, Smithfield, $5.50

It may be a hard concept for some Triangle residents, but life thrives east of Raleigh. Smithfield’s Double Barley Brewing might be new to the craft beer scene, but it’s emerged as a new leader, especially by virtue of its great porter, Thrilla in Vanilla. But with brisk autumn weather approaching, I prefer the SteakCake Stout. There is neither steak nor cake in the beer, whose name reflects an age-old argument about what should be paired with it. The booze is hidden in this imperial stout, but flavor is not. It’s silky and smooth, with hints of Heath bar, roasted malt notes and, no joke, a chocolate chip-scone finish. GB

Goes well with: Toss a scoop of ice cream in your pint glass and make a beer float.

Tart Cherry Cider | Bull City Ciderworks, Durham, $5

Don’t be fooled into thinking ciders are a soft option meant for the lot who just can’t handle beer. Bull City Ciderworks offers an array of delicious ciders, ranging from classic sweet stuff to dry, hoppy varieties that simply offer an alternative. The sweet, tangy tart cherry cider outshines its peers. It’s got a deep, fruity taste that feels integral to its flavor profile, not a slapped-on afterthought. A close runner-up to consider is the strawberry cider slushy, a treat that makes you feel like a kid … who has been drinking. AH

Goes well with: Sitting outside in cool weather and yelling with friends over a spirited game of Uno

UP NEXT: Breakfast



Fried Duck Egg Sandwich | Scratch, Durham, $9

The weekend brunch menu at Scratch offers all sorts of Southern comforthalf-inch-thick toast and bacon smothered in roasted pepper gravy and a poached egg; avocado toast with buttermilk dressing and seasonal vegetables; bowls of cheesy grits. But it’s the fried duck egg sandwich for me. The bun develops a paper-thin crust that browns into a perfect bump. Chef and owner Phoebe Lawless says it’s her attempt to reproduce the commercial buns that comforted many of us as kids. It softens in my grip, pressuring the giant duck egg to spill its brilliant yolk. The goo picks up a bit of the pesto mayonnaise, and each bite packs a bit of smoky, maple-sweet bacon jam and lingering sharp cheddar. It’s a big hedonistic mess, cradled in the palm of a hand. VB

Goes well with: A strong cup of black coffee

Bialy | Boulted Bread, Raleigh, $2

For the sudden wealth of bakeries in the area, from Loaf in Durham to Yellow Dog in Raleigh and La Farm in Cary, a good, old-fashioned bialy can be near impossible to find, though I’m always on the lookout. A bialy is an age-old Jewish pastry that’s a little like a flattened bagel (but not boiled, just baked), where the central hole has been swapped for an indentation filled with onions, poppy seeds and sometimes olive oil. Rest assured, Boulted doesn’t go for a faithful re-creation. In fact, one version of their bialy, loaded as it is with country ham, is a bit heretical. And their basic model has a tough, chewy crust at the top and a pungent, padded interior as you move toward the bottom”a Southern take on tradition,” a friend recently called it. But when the largesse of oil and onions begins to empty into the cooked, vaguely sour dough, I care about the future of the next bite more than the past of the staple. GC

Goes well with: You carbo-loaded, so go for a walk. Head in any direction, and you’ll wind up downtown, in Boylan Heights, near Garner or on the hills of Dorothea Dix.

Pimento Cheese and Jalapeno Fried Chicken Biscuit | Rise Biscuits and Donuts, Durham, $6.35

Poor New Yorkers: When they finally get access to a decent fast-food chicken biscuit, it comes with Chick-fil-A’s discriminatory baggage chain. Down here, we have enough non-bigoted biscuit establishments to have intense chicken biscuit arguments. To many, the softball-size chicken biscuits of Chapel Hill’s Sunrise dominate the argument, but when Rise joined the field in 2012, its south Durham location was close enough to Chapel Hill to steal some of Sunrise’s biscuit eaters. While Rise’s rotating donut selection gets most of the shop’s love, its chicken biscuits do my heavy lifting. You can select pimento cheese from its menu. I also demand that my cheese live on the spicy edge, so a handful of pickled jalapenos adds both heat and crunch for when the dough turns to mush and the batter gets gooey. ET

Goes well with: You’re going to need a cup of coffee with this monster.

lucettegrace Cereal | lucettegrace, Raleigh, $3.50

Do you fondly recall mornings spent shoveling super-sweet cereal down your gullet, of chasing marshmallow balloons lost in milk with a light-up superhero spoon? Good news: Raleigh patisserie lucettegrace is a culinary playground for sweet-toothed adults, but their offerings aren’t limited to fancy cakes and delicate cookies. Spy the small black bag to the left of the pastry case; it is filled with cereal. This breakfast begins with a base of healthy, feel-good stuff, like maple-rolled granola and tart dried raspberries. Turning devilish with the addition of chocolate nibs and mini-macarons, it is Cookie Crisp for adults. I counted 16 macarons in a recent bowl, though the bulk of the cereal is good enough that I was content to refrain from fishing around for just the cookies. Sorry, though, no prize included. TC

Goes well with: Full-fat milk or Greek yogurt

Pimento Cheese Biscuit | Jubala Village Coffee, Raleigh, $3.25

Jubala Coffee strikes the rare balance of exceptional coffee and affordable, expeditious, amazing food. Sweet liege, oatmeal and sandwiches are always on offer, but my favorite item, by far, is the biscuit. Baked with a touch of sugar because it was developed as an adaptation of a failed scone recipe, this biscuit is dense, rather than fluffy, and rough around the edges. You can fill it with lots of things, and they’re all good options. But it was born to pair with pimento cheese. Jubala’s versiona gooey, zippy cheese that’s melted well before servingturns this biscuit into a real softie and a total winner. TC

Goes well with: A Jubala latte, for which you’re allowed to choose your own latte art

White Chocolate Mini Baguette | La Farm Bakery, Cary, $3.79

La Farm’s white chocolate mini baguette is a big seller for the Cary bakery, and for good reason. Its lightly crisp outer crust yields to a dense interior with just the right amount of white chocolate chips. The flavors of the bread and chocolate are well balanced, so you don’t feel as if you’re having some chocolate with your dough, or vice versa. La Farm’s specialty is baking, after all, and Lionel Vatinet and company know better than to let simple sugar overpower their craft. The white chocolate mini baguette is versatile, too, making for a fine dessert, an ample breakfast or a dinner-spoiling snack. AH

Goes well with: An onion soup gratinée

“Calm” Cashew and Cinnamon Juice | Humdinger Juice, Raleigh, $9

When it comes to juice, the iconic image of maximum health is that of an emerald nutritional powerhouse, almost algal in nature. At Humdinger, Raleigh’s original cold-press juice company, they press something less expected: raw cashews. The result is smooth and creamy, milky in color but dairy-free. Seasoned with cinnamon, maple syrup and vanilla, the drink isn’t far off from horchata. Because this cashew milk is cold-pressed, none of the ingredients are heated or ground. The milk packs eight grams of protein per 16-ounce bottle, with up to nine pounds of ingredients in each bottle. The area’s only organic option, it’s great as a post-workout protein boost or as a dairy substitute for morning coffee. TC

Goes well with: A big glass of Slingshot cold-brew coffee

Yellow Dog Bread Company’s “Pop Tart” | Weekend, Raleigh, $4

I’ve long been Team Pop-Tart. I carried on eating them through adolescence, and when Pop-Tart came out with collegiate (read: Carolina blue) versions of their morning snack, I bought those, too. I eventually traded in the frosted treat for spelt flakes and fresh blueberries. Then I discovered the massive homemade pop-tarts at Weekend, the coffee shop owned by Jonathan and Jenny Bonchak of Slingshot Coffee. Made fresh each Friday by Yellow Dog Bakery, the pastries are sold exclusively at the cafe a mile away. Though the tarts depend upon what’s seasonally available at the state farmers market and Raleigh City Farm, they always come in both sweet and savory versions, like apple pie or cauliflower and kale. Sometimes they even have sprinkles. TC

Goes well with: A Weekend pour-over

Basic Breakfast | Saxapahaw General Store, Saxapahaw, $7.99

As a hungover 20-something, I would make bleary treks to Breadmen’s or Elmo’s Diner for my Saturday morning grease-antidote of eggs with salt and pepper, home fries with ketchup, toast and grits with butter. But the best classic breakfast around is at the Saxapahaw General Store. The Basic Breakfast, served every day but Monday until 2 p.m., includes eggs in any style (try them scrambled), grits or home fries (I get both by forgoing bacon or sausage) and an English muffin, buttermilk biscuit or toast. The local ingredients are fresh. The grits are thick and smooth. The eggs are nice and dry. And the home fries, my main draw, are always expertly warmed and browned, with skins crisply flaked. BH

Goes well with: A white diner mug of coffee, followed by a drifting walk along the Haw River

UP NEXT: Lunch



Huitlacoche (Corn Smut) and Squash Blossom Quesadillas | Don Beto El Poblano Taco Truck, Raleigh, $3–$4

Huitlacoche is commonly known as corn smut. The edible fungus overtakes ears of corn with a cloudy gray growth. I read somewhere that American farmers sometimes call huitlacoche (pronounced weet-la-COH-cheh) the “devil’s corn.” But corn smut is a gift from God. When thrown on the grill, huitlacoche turns a slimy black. Oaxacans have been perfecting corn smut way before any conquistador arrived. At Don Beto, I order a large quesadilla with huitlacoche and fresh squash blossom, another traditional pearl of Mexican cooking. Oaxacan cheese merges the two into a delightful combination of earthy and sweet. Don Beto can be elusive, but call the phone number on their Facebook page and track them down. VB

Goes well with: Don Beto’s hottest salsa

Muffuletta| Neal’s Deli, Carrboro, $7.50

With two types of meat (smoked ham and soppressata), two types of cheese (provolone and Swiss) and liberal amounts of olive salad, this sandwich is a monster. Because it hails from New Orleans’ French Quarter, where it was commonly consumed by Italian immigrants, the muffuletta makes me ponder my ancestry. Best thing about it? That pickled green tomato. Remember, you can swap out the meat for wilted spinach to make a vegetarian version of this staple. GB

Goes well with: A sazerac or some sips of limoncello

Chipotle Slaw| Centro, Raleigh, $2

Culinary portmanteaus of cuisine from South America and the American South (South American South?) are spicy local commodities lately, given the success of Jose & Sons, Luna Rotisserie and Gallo Pelón. But I’ve found no manifestation of that hybrid more efficient, economical and delicious than the slaw downstairs at Centro. The dish is guilelessly simple, with white cabbage, mayonnaise, onion and salt forming most of the indulgently creamy concoction, much like Mama used to make it. But there’s chipotle mixed in the mayo, too, which seems to seep deep into the diced tomatoes. Combined with the kick of pungent cider vinegar, Centro’s cole slaw is a lovable riposte to easy Southern comfort. It’s served in a small, circular taco shell, too. I break off the sides first, scoop up a little slop and eat the rest of it like an open-face sandwich that Mama never imagined. GC

Goes well with: A lunchtime torta

Moroccan “Hummus” | Garland, Raleigh, $8

Don’t order this expecting the customary smooth fare of pureed chickpeas. Instead, Garland’s variation on Moroccan hummus, which typically favors the whole chickpea, does what the restaurant does bestdistills Cheetie Kumar’s polyglot love of many food cultures on one plate. Some of the chickpeas remain intact, while others have been blended into a sort of paste that holds together a medley of pickled onions, diced tomatoes, jasmine rice and chopped cilantro. It comes topped with crème fraiche and accompanied by tortillas that have been sliced, seasoned and fried. It’s an adult upgrade of bean dip and Fritos, conjured by a kitchen that views borders as opportunities for exercise. GC

Goes well with: At lunch, combine it with a cucumber salad.

King’s Wings Combo | King’s Sandwich Shop, Durham, $4.75

In some ways, Durham “yuccies”that is, young urban creatives with art and food pretensionshave ruined the way we enjoy food by forcing vegan propaganda, farm-to-table fanaticism and beer snobbery on us all. It ain’t cheap. Fortunately, the revived grub shack at King’s still upholds the sanctity of the cheap and tasty blue-collar meal. On café workdays, I try to stretch my $2 drip coffee at Cocoa Cinnamon until lunchtime, when the King’s walkup window beckons me to a heavy combo plate of wet and salty buffalo wings thrown on top of an abundant amount of fat fries. The serving is arbitrary, dependent on which employee stacks your plate. But the friendly folks at the window are pretty dutiful about making sure you get your money’s worth. ET

Goes well with: Wash down the grease with a local IPA.

Vegan Beef Taco | Gringo A Go Go, Raleigh, $3

Gringo’s tacos are served without the riffraff (read: cheese, guacamole, sauce); rather, the protein is piled atop a fresh corn tortilla and paired with diced onions and cilantro. Given this purism, it’s surprising to see abundant veganchicken and beefofferings on the menu. After more than 15 years of vegetarianism, I’ve tried more faux-meat than I care to admit. More often than not, the soy-based proteins are dry, flavorless or texturally off. It’s a small victory when the imposter tastes good, though it might not recall the thing it’s trying to emulate. Gringo’s vegan beef is so realistic, I worried someone might have switched my order like a NICU baby. Here is a taco that is juicy, savory and, above all, so meaty it’s scary. TC

Goes well with: A basket of chips and creamy guacamole

Veggie Lovers Arepa | Arepa Culture, Raleigh, $6

Pancake-like flatbreads popular in Venezuelan and Colombian cuisines, arepas are made from white corn meal mixed with water and salt and then grilled atop an oversize pat of butter. One year ago, the Triangle got its own Venezuelan food truck, a family affair led by Hannia Jara. Arepa Culture’s handmade arepas are pressed into thick patties, thrown on the grill and then stuffed full of delicious fixings. My favorite, the Veggie Lovers, is a mix of spinach, chard and kale, plus sautéed onions and peppers, smothered by fresh mozzarella. The arepa comes piping hot in a paper boat. The plump shell is chewy and buttery, but with the zing of the grilled peppers and piquant greensplus a side of zesty cilantro sauceit’s heavenly. TC

Goes well with: A second arepa

Falafel Sandwich | Ninth Street Bakery, Durham, $6.95

I used to get my falafel fix at International Delights, on Durham’s Ninth Street. Now I get it at Ninth Street Bakery, on Durham’s Main Street. It’s all very confusing, but the upshot is simple: At International Delights, each falafel is about the size of a baby’s fist and as dense as the heart of a star. A big, crusty pita full of them, though delicious, can incapacitate. Ninth Street Bakery’s falafel, though, is light and dainty by comparison. The pureed chickpea patties are about the size of potato medallions, and they taste light. Tucked neatly inside a paper-thin pita with lots of leafy lettuce, and accompanied by sides of tahini sauce and mixed vegetables, this is a lunchtime meal I can handle without slumping over my desk by the afternoon. BH

Goes well with: A hearty Wheels of Steel cookie

Hot Cheese | Wimpy’s Grill, Durham, $1.99

Listed below the hot dog, even below the cheese dog, the Hot Cheese at Wimpy’s appears on the menu like an inferior option. But it’s anything but, well, wimpy. An order for a “Hot Cheese all-the-way” finds a soft, white hot dog bun decked with two slices of gooey cheese, chopped slaw, heaped onions, requisite smears of ketchup and mustard, and a heavy hand of finely ground chili. EW

Goes well with: Another dish that deserves its due, a side of stewed pinto beans topped with diced white onions

Under the Volcano | The Remedy Diner, Raleigh, $9.35

If you do this well, you’ll get out of this meal satisfied but not clean. When an Under the Volcano arrives on a 12-inch pizza pan, pick off the poppy seed bun and ask for some extra hot sauceTexas Pete, the house-made buffalo sauce, Tabasco, your choice. Now, douse the bottom half of the sandwich and reapply the bun’s top, pressing until the hot sauce begins to ooze from the sides like lava from a ruptured mountaintop. Lift and eat, stopping every few bites to dredge the sandwich back through the accumulated red sauce on the plate. The substance of the sandwich is a fried patty of mock chicken called Delight Soy, soaked in buffalo sauce before being cooked. Scraps of fresh lettuce and slices of tomatoes ride on top, just beneath creamy chunks of complex gorgonzola cheese that have been pressed into the bun in much the same way hot caramel sticks to the roof of one’s mouth. This is a necessary upgrade of fast-food-style spicy chicken sandwiches and one of the Triangle’s most compulsive dishes. GC

Goes well with: An appetizer of fried broccoli

UP NEXT: Dinner



The Pile | Geer Street Garden, Durham, $12.50

“I’ve been to the mountaintop,” I say every time the heaping mound of comfort food known as The Pile lands on my table. “Mine eyes have seen the gastro glory.” The discomfort comes later. Meanwhile, I imagine I’m Adam Richman on Man v. Food as I try to conquer the Bull City’s variation on poutine. The menu lists The Pile as an appetizer for sharing, but tackle this solo and personalize your pile. Ask for your mile-high French fries and dark-toned fried chicken base with jalapenos, house gravy and srirachanaise and garlic aioli. Request that the cooks switch out the cheddar cheese for pimento cheese. Do 100 sit-ups and await your fate. Wave the last cheese-stamped French fry in the air. You did it. ET

Goes well with: Celebrate your triumph with a glass of the house sangria.

Braised + Grilled Tempeh Sandwich | Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh, $13

I’d long heard rumors about a sandwich that would soon arrive at Fiction Kitchen. Some said it would be a burger, while others suggested something much more elaborate and original, possibly involving ingenuously prepared vegetables. The result lands happily in the middle, with thick, juicy slabs of braised tempeh piled high and pushed between slices of herb-laced focaccia. Inside, you’ll find more herbs, plus a generous helping of cooked tomatoes and onions and a mustard-like spread that tickles the mouth just so. You can also add dairy or vegan cheese, an option that I couldn’t resist when I finally encountered Fiction Kitchen’s big sandwich premiere. Go with something smoky, and walk out feeling like a primal champion. GC

Goes well with: A mound of herb-flecked and salty root vegetable chips

Vegetarian Empanada | Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas, Durham, $3.50

Because of its trendiness, quinoa, like kale, has become a punch line. But there’s a reason quinoa is popular: Packed with nutrition, it imparts a nutty overtone to dishes like this empanada, also studded with black beans and pepper jack cheese. The unfairly maligned lima beanit’s not the legume’s fault your mom didn’t know how to cook themgets a second chance in a combination of Yukon gold potatoes and sweet corn, brightened by sharp cheddar. LS

Goes well with: A side of steamed kale, made tart by cider vinaigrette, and a refreshing agua fresca

Taco de Birria | Restaurante Guanajuato, Durham, $2

When Los Comales closed, Durham almost lost it. Thankfully, Restaurante Guanajuato quickly opened in the same spot with the same menu. That menu lists goat as taco de birria. (You can also order it as “chivo.”) My previous experience with birria included a bowl of rich bone stock, flavored and made thick by chilies. When my spoon grazed the broth, shredded goat meat bobbed up through the broth. This meatstewed, though lightly flavored, if at allis served in Guanajuato’s goat tacos, too. Pair them with an off-menu side of grilled nopal, or cactus leaf, and add pickled red onion and habanero, minced cilantro and lime from the condiment bar. VB

Goes well with: A super fizzy Topo Chico

Stuffed Grape Leaves | Neomonde, Raleigh, 8.99/lb.

If I told you a dish made from flecks of tomato, rice and leaves could be addictingcrave-it-while-awake, dream-about-it-while-asleep addictingyou might have doubts. But confirm the hypothesis with a visit to Mediterranean eatery Neomonde, where gorging on stuffed grape leaves is acceptable behavior. The leaves, which serve as a vessel for spiced rice and diced tomato, look like a jade version of a three-pronged maple leaf. Every morning, cooks pack hundreds by hand before rolling them into cylinders that resemble stubby green cigars. The tangy leaves aren’t nearly as bad for you, though they may be equally habit-forming. TC

Goes well with: Labneh for dipping, or pita bread if you like stuffing stuffed stuff into other stuff

Burger and Shake | Cook Out Restaurant, Raleigh & Durham, $3.38–$5.67

When I ask my boys what they want for dinner and they give me that no-idea look, gratification comes from a burger and a shake at Cook Out. I’m not necessarily a big fan of fast food, but the burgers at Cook Out are char-grilled and cheap. And you can load them up with a smattering of complimentary toppings. The burger pairs like lock and key with one of 40-plus shakes; a recent favorite is the Oreo Mint. You’ll notice a Biblical reference (usually something from Proverbs) printed on the cup, tooa great way to prompt theological discussions with kids and test my institutional knowledge from 12 years of parochial school. GB

Goes well with: The New Testament

Market Veggies | Pompieri Pizza, Durham, $6

On the rare days when pizza sounds too heavy, I pop in to Pompieri Pizza for a kale salad and a plate of market veggies. The latter’s array depends on the season. In early summer, I enjoyed a light lunch of tomato and roasted asparagus, accompanied by a crisp Kolsch from Wake Forest’s White Street Brewing Co. By September, I was digging the roasted eggplantthere was not a hint of bitternessdraped with sliced and marinated mushrooms and complemented by a glass of malbec. Now that it’s fall, Pompieri is fire-roasting the last of the summer squash and charring the year’s final tomatoes. It’s served with a complex, zesty viniagrette of mint, mustard and the sweet red Peppadew pepper. LS

Goes well with: A Parrish Street Pale Ale, from Pompieri’s sister burger joint and brewery at Bull City

Tiradito de Mero | Mi Peru Peruvian Cuisine, Durham, $17.99

A Peruvian restaurant hidden in a strip mall, Mi Peru delivers delicious food with a spartan vibe. Seafood reigns here, specifically the cevicheraw fish cured with citrus juices and spiced with chili peppers. The ceviche is available both as an appetizer and an entrée, but the Tiradito de Mero is the way to go. The dish features sliced grouper, marinated in lime juice and accompanied by corn, lettuce and steamed sweet potato. GB

Goes well with: Follow it with alfajoresa sort of honey, almond cookie sandwich with sweet, caramel-like filling.

Cilantro Lime Salad | Calavera Empanada & Tequila Bar, Raleigh & Carrboro, $9.99

Finding a salad substantive enough for dinner isn’t easy. Though we’ve graduated from aqueous iceberg to kale and mixed greens, most servers still prompt their patrons to “add chicken or shrimp” to round out the dish. But Calavera, whose motto is “We do two things: empanadas and tequila,” shouldn’t hesitate to own a third: their amazing cilantro lime salad. The generous helping of mixed greens comes topped with roasted red peppers, bacon, Oaxacan cheese and thick slabs of creamy avocado. The thin coat of tangy cilantro-lime dressing is the proper finish. TC

Goes well with: Healthy dinner? Banana-nutella empanada for dessert.

Sicilian Pizza | Frank’s Pizza and Restaurant, Raleigh, $19.75

In any region with a food scene as strong as the Triangle’s, wars are frequently waged about which parlor has the best pizza. Some ride loyally for Lilly’s or Amedeo’s, for Randy’s or Moonlight. Others prefer the newer fare of Pompieri or Toro, Radius or Tazza. (RIP and FML, my beloved Bella Mia.) But the Sicilian from Frank’sa strip-mall joint so old-school you could repurpose the dust on the walls into a placematis the Goliath determined to crush all conversation. So thick, wide and long you need to order it an hour in advance, this 16-slice behemoth weighs in like a large toddler. The crust is tough on the bottom and chewy toward the top, suggesting bread that’s been pulled from the oven just before it’s finished baking. When the sauce and cheese ooze against and into the dough, the resulting bite is sticky and thick. This isn’t the fanciest dish around, but let my tombstone read: “My Frank’s Sicilian beat the shit out of your wood-fired artisanal pie.” GC

Goes well with: Top it with jalapeno and eggplant. Finish it with diet and exercise.

Veggie Sliders & Fries | The Federal, Durham, $9

A paradox in beans and buns, The Federal’s Veggie Sliders are the unholy union of meat shape and veggie substanceand of Dagwood and slider. Though only as big around as a yo-yo, the spicy black bean burgers are towering slabs layered with salsa, creamy guacamole, crunchy Romaine and jalapeno aioli. They arrive like a brazen challenge between puffed, crisp buns: How tall can you make your mouth? They come by the pair, fortressed in an absurdly large pile of dangerously addictive, garlic-slathered shoestring fries. It’s a very satisfying, very heavy bar-food dinner. For a buck more, you can add bacon, cheddar, Swiss or provolone, the only sane choice. If it seems weird to add meat or cheese to a veggie burger, think again: This dish is tasty and filling enough for any omnivore, because it mimics meat without trying to taste like it. BH

Goes well with: Cool off and lighten up with an Allagash White with lemon.

Hotdog & Fries | Dain’s Place, Durham, $3.50–$12.49

With their mystery-meat reputation, hotdogs are one of America’s grossest but most delicious food staples. Dain’s Place, tucked away in Durham’s Ninth Street zone, does the tradition justice. Their all-beef kosher dogs are split, grilled and then stuffed with whatever you require. I tend to keep it simple with cheddar cheese and Tabasco sauce, but you can go wild with additions that include chili, pimento cheese, sauerkraut and marinara sauce. Upgrade the side of potato chips to fries, tooyes, Dain’s tots are lauded, but the crispy fries and special-spice sprinkling are tops. AH

Goes well with: A balanced Foothills Torch Pilsner

UP NEXT: Desserts



Home-Baked Blackberry Cobbler | The Mecca Restaurant, Raleigh, $2.10–$2.25

After 85 years in business on Raleigh’s Martin Street, this downtown mecca has its staples in order. One is blackberry cobbler. You can order the dessert to go with your lunch or dinner, but it satisfies best late at night. With its golden brown crust and warm, rich filling, the cheap treat makes for a wonderful, warm pick-me-up. The blackberries do most of the heavy lifting in the sweetness department and add a slight, welcome tartness. Feeling extra-decadent? Order it à la mode. AH

Goes well with: Black coffee or a Genesee Cream Ale

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream | The Parlour, Durham, $3–$7.40

The salted caramel tsunami swept the States in 2008. Seven years later, I was over it. Then I tried The Parlour’s salted butter caramel ice cream. “It’s our most popular flavor,” head ice cream maker Jerris Gibbs told me. I credit this less to the dated trend and more to the shop’s execution of velvety ice cream, burnt sienna caramel and plenty of sea salt. It tastes, miraculously, new. The recipe doesn’t actually use salted butter. The saltabout one tablespoon per gallon of ice creamgets added to the churning machine first, followed by buttery caramel custard. This yields a delightfully thick result. If you want more, go for a “Drunken Sailor,” the salted butter caramel sundae with chocolate-covered pretzels, crushed potato chips and dark chocolate sauce. Just don’t swim afterward. EL

Goes well with: Made with dark chocolate and coconut milk, vegan chocolate ice cream is the opposites-attract lover for your salted caramel scoop.

Hot Shot| Videri Chocolate, Raleigh, $3.50

Do you ever ponder who first tried to eat certain vegetables or animals, plucking them from the wild and taking the plunge so as to test their edibility for everyone else? That’s the question that circulates in my mind every time I try a Hot Shot from Videri Chocolate Factory. This unlikely marriage of two of my favorite realms of food gilds two ounces of sipping chocolatethat is, half melted chocolate and half milk and heavy cream from the nearby Homeland Creamerywith a generous crust of “dry hot sauce” made in Raleigh by Benny T’s Vesta. Videri goes full flame, too, using the “Very Hot” version that features some of the world’s more shocking peppers, including the Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. I don’t know how it works or why, but it’s a slow-sip war between the scorch and the sweet. The rich, viscous chocolate creates a force field of sorts, and the capsaicin does its best to rip through the wall. What lovely violence. GC

Goes well with: Marijuana? Sunshine? Cold weather?

Masticha Ice Cream | Kipos, Chapel Hill, $3.50–$5.50

My Greek family delights in making “spoon sweets”: sour cherries, watermelon rind, whole chestnuts and even rose petals preserved in simple syrup. When company arrives, a spoonful settles onto the tiniest glass dish and is served with a glass of cold well water. One spoon sweet we can’t make ourselves is masticha. This rare ingredient grows as a gum on trees found mostly on the island of Xios. It is stretched with sugar into a sticky spoon sweet, sold in Krinos jars. Absolutely nothing else takes like masticha. It is like anise, but sweeter. Kipos’ simple masticha-flavored ice cream is a single scoop on a glass dish, colored the same deep blue as the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t find this flavor anywhere else in the worldexcept at home and in Chapel Hill’s own little Greek corner. VB

Goes well with: A walk around the block

Chocolate Halva | Mediterranean Deli, Chapel Hill, $8.99/lb.

As one peers into the dessert case at Med Deli (and, sometimes, at Neomonde), halva presents itself as a deceptive option for the uninitiated. Standing on end, with ridges and swirls and striations that suggest dairy-heavy fudge, halva can look like a creamy dream. Instead, the nut-butter-based confection is a dry, almost sand-like substance, where the morsels disintegrate into a clump of tiny confetti as you push your fork from top to bottom and from side to side. For starters, try Med Deli’s chocolate halva. The thick sides of chocolate counterbalance the strange internal texture with ridges rich and moist enough to make it seem as though you’re eating two desserts at once. It’s sandy and silky, foreign and familiar, dense and delicate. GC

Goes well with: A bout of trance eating




Blue Cheese Dressing | Pie Pushers, Durham, $0.50/cup

Blue cheese dressing might have been the first food for which I ever fell. At least once a week, my family would make the half-hour drive from the country to a particular pizza parlor, where the blue cheese was pungent and vinegar-drivento my young taste buds, the most fascinating flavor imaginable. In the years since, I’ve tried the blue cheese almost anywhere it’s available. Of them all, the cheap little cups doled out by the food truck Pie Pushers scratch the nostalgic itch best. Powered by vinegar and accented by red pepper flakes, their mix falls exquisitely between thick and thin and aims to complement the cheese itself without concealing its natural richness. On occasion, I can’t resist, and begin dipping my slice of pie into the sauce before I’ve even encountered the crust. GC

Goes well with: A pizza slice, of course

Capsicana Gourmet Zing Sauce | Home Industries, Mebane, $3.95–$6.99

Texas Pete is the North Carolina hot sauce that everyone knows, and for good reasonits simple cayenne flavor offers a versatile zest to lots of different dishes. But the best hot sauce in the state comes from an hour east of Texas Pete’s Winston-Salem headquarters, courtesy of Malaysian expatriates Cheng and Weng Ng. A blended mix of raisins, hot peppers, garlic, vinegar and a set of spices they prefer to keep secret, the mild and irresistible Zing is a flavor booster as much as a proper hot sauce. Its balance of sweet and savory is uncanny, as is its ability to make you want just a little more. In recent years, Texas Pete has tried to expand its portfolio of sauces, but none have come close to the sublime allure of Zing. GC

Goes well with: Scrambled eggs