Have you ever been to La Farm on a Sunday morning?
The Cary bakery’s brunch rush is a zoo, with folks queuing up in lines almost out the door to order their bacon and eggs. One recent morning, I couldn’t face the hustle, so I hit the takeout counter for a sausage- asiago-herb scone.
“Goddamn, this is delicious,” I exclaimed as I ate in my car.
Then it hit me: This wasn’t some French concoction from the noted patisserie.
It was a new and sophisticated version of a Southern breakfast staple—a good ol’ sausage biscuit.
Sausage biscuits are part of the Southern food canon, a long list of iconic dishes that includes pimento cheese, deviled eggs, black-eyed peas, collards, catfish, pulled pork, cornbread, mac ’n’ cheese, biscuits ’n’ gravy, shrimp ’n’ grits, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, and fried okra—things we generally agree are “genuine.”
But to understand the state of Southern food in the Triangle, we need to look at something else: evolution.
The French have held sacred their five “mother sauces” since the mid-1800s, and their chefs are required to master them. But Southern cuisine is beloved beyond the Mason-Dixon not just because mason jars are cute and fried chicken is delicious, but because our way of cooking is flexible and inclusive.
We’ve had no choice.
While our temperate region’s soil, winds, and weather give us a long growing season, the South has also struggled with periods of crushing poverty. So we’ve learned how to be thrifty, to make our meat and our veggies last. We are picklers, preservers, user-uppers of leftovers, nose-to-tail butchers, farmers, and gardeners.
Because of this “elegant sufficiency”—a term coined by Southern historian John Egerton—our cuisine is mutable in the best sense.
But we also just like variety. You think your grandmother’s biscuits are the best, but I think my grandmother’s are better—though we recognize that the world is big enough for more than one version of a delicious Southern biscuit. (I can, in fact, name ten kinds of Southern biscuits off the top of my head: angel biscuits, beaten biscuits, buttermilk biscuits, catheads, cream biscuits, cream cheese biscuits, drop biscuits, hardtack, raised biscuits, sweet potato biscuits.) Appalachian studies folklorists have found more than one hundred versions of cornbread in South Carolina alone.
All of this shows that, while Southern food certainly has a playbook, chefs and home cooks interpret and express it in very different ways, and as they do, Southern cuisine keeps evolving. I’m here to celebrate the cooks in the Triangle who keep Southern food traditions alive by helping them evolve, by reinventing classics or blending them with cuisines from around the world or through sheer force of imagination.
The following list pairs places and people creating particularly exciting expressions of what Southern food is—and what it can be.
Crook’s Corner has been a mainstay not only locally but also of Southern cuisine in the nation since it opened thirty-six years ago; it has twice won the James Beard Foundation’s Award for America’s Classics, which recognizes regional restaurants that “carry the torch” between the past and the future. Original chef-owner Bill Neal elevated Southern dishes to their most stylish iterations on a menu that managed to be both homey and haute. His shrimp ’n’ grits showcases the elegance that a peasant dish can achieve; his rich and warming persimmon pudding is as luxurious as it is heartfelt.
After Neal died in 1991, Bill Smith (see page 92) picked up the reins and imbued Neal’s graceful vision with his own whimsical humor. Smith’s honeysuckle sorbet is a lark in a glass, a thing of subtle-sweet beauty. His “Cheese Pork!” (listed on the menu with an exclamation point after it) is the best Southern take on schnitzel I’ve ever seen.
As new owners Gary Crunkleton and Shannon Healy, both of whom have long histories with the restaurant, prepare to take over with new head chef Justin Burdett, all eyes will be on them. While the shrimp ‘n’ grits will remain a forever staple, Burdett has already begun putting his stamp on the menu with dishes that push the boundaries of Southern cuisine. Take, for example, his funky “cassoulet,” which reimagines a French classic with Southern ingredients, including house-made duck sausage, sautéed mustard greens, and Anson Mills heirloom peas.
All eyes have been on Andrea Reusing’s Southern-chic dining room The Durham since it opened in 2015. The best thing about dining there is that you can experience a new and sophisticated version of Southern entertaining—an upscale picnic, if you will. You’ll feel that vibe immediately when you see the relish tray, a modern version of old-school Southern hors d’oeuvres lined with pickled and preserved radishes, carrots, and cauliflower along with olives and hickory-smoked pecans, or the charcuterie board with little jars of hand-cut homemade potato chips and slices of local ham.
These fancy shareable snacks make you feel like a cool kid while you sip your equally fancy cocktail—the “Undeniable Truth,” with Durham Distillery’s Conniption Gin, orange bitters, and dry vermouth, is killer—in a space with a soaring ceiling and elegant upholstery. If Mad Men had been filmed in the South, it would take place here.
There are other re-imaginings of Southern food on the menu as well, including a pig tail lacquered with cider vinegar and honey, which combines what was once considered the lowliest part of the hog with a very sophisticated set of flavors to highlight just how high that tail can climb.
From the day it opened in 2016, Pizzeria Mercato had pedigree: Chef-owner Gabe Barker is the son of Ben and Karen Barker, whose now-defunct but much admired Magnolia Grill put Durham on the culinary map in the nineties. Barker doesn’t see his brick-oven Neapolitan-style pizzas as definitively Southern, but he makes a huge effort to live up to the “mercato” part of the name by showcasing produce from the nearby Carrboro Farmers Market.
Sure, you can find a trusty pizza Margherita here, but you can also find salads of Sun Gold tomatoes and bowls of sweet potato soup garnished with a Southern essential: spicy pig jowl. And longtime Barker fans will be delighted to discover that Gabe carries a small torch of Magnolia Grill with the desserts his mother created: The ethereal lemon custard cake is made with a bit of cornmeal to give it a nice heft, and the changing gelato flavors always show off the South. (If you’re a boiled-peanuts person, the “peanut butter blondie” gelato, all sweet and mushy, will make you weep.)
Durham’s Gocciolina, on the other hand, felt like it came out of nowhere when it opened among a rather dull strip of shops in 2014; the pedigree only showed in the food.
Chef Aaron Benjamin’s deceptively simple-sounding dishes are all touched by northern Italian rusticity (the restaurant’s name means “droplet,” by the way). You can easily discern the South if you pair the grilled sea bass or the local Lady Edison pork chop (the preparation changes daily) with a few of the farmers market vegetable sides, such as whole roasted heads of broccoli, brussels sprouts, or sautéed greens with good olive oil, lemon juice, and chili flake. Imagine an Italian-style meat-and-three—one where you can get fresh pasta on the side instead of cornbread or grits—and you’ve got the idea of how Benjamin fits the South into his menu.
The Southeast Asians
Vimala’s Curryblossom Café quietly grows in Chapel Hill’s Courtyard.
What opened in 2010 as a tiny fifteen-seat spot serving soulful versions of Vimala Rajendran’s native Bombay street food is today a community center of sorts, a place twice its original size but with even more heart, where local music performances, reading series, and social justice meetings thrive alongside the vegetable curries, addictive dosas, and wild mushroom or green chile-and-cheese uttapams (mercy, they’re good).
Historian Marcie Cohen Ferris has described the ways in which food fueled “intentional communities” committed to countercultural causes in the South as early as the racial protests in Tuskegee, and at times you can feel that air of resistance brewing at Vimala’s. That said, her food is hardly just fuel. Her commitment to local sourcing and her connection to area farmers is all over the menu—you don’t have to look beyond the bhaji (an Indian-style fritter fried in chickpea flour) with okra and diced potatoes to see how even something as basic as Southern fried okra can take on a new personality.
Raleigh’s Bhavana Brewery is as fashionable as Vimala’s is comfortable. The sister restaurant of popular Laotian hotspot Bida Manda bills itself as a place devoted to creating “encounters”—in other words, where fancy homebrews meet dim sum. There’s something distinctly Southern about the way the restaurant has a flower shop and a bookstore situated right in its center, which gives it the kind of intentionally thrown-together feeling Flannery O’Connor described when she wrote that Southerners are graced with seeing “the comical side of life.” It’s a feeling of lightness and whimsy, but it’s curated quite intentionally—the books of Rumi poems, the artfully arranged native wildflowers, all anchored by really good food.
There are pan-fried turnip cakes that cushion dried shrimp and Chinese sausage in a way that combines the coastal South with Southeast Asia; steamed spareribs with boiled peanuts, two distinctly Southern favorites that get slathered in garlicky black bean sauce; and crispy pig ears—a Southern peasant snack if ever there was one—paired with that most Asian of all condiments, nước chấm, a Vietnamese fish sauce, for dipping.
Those are some beautifully eclectic encounters.
La Farm pays homage to the finest boulangeries of France, but master baker Lionel Vatinet does it in a way that feels distinctly Southern. Look no further than his breadbasket, which overflows with offerings baked with local and heirloom grains like Abruzzi rye (originally a Roman variety that, for the last fifty years, has been one of the South’s most versatile crops) and Piedmont wheat flour. Your croque madame is stuffed with local Firsthand Foods city ham; there’s Carolina-grown rye in your black bean burger (the bun is, of course, homemade); and N.C.-ground wheat berries dot your kale salad.
Also, La Farm offers an exceptional people-watching opportunity, a great way to take in the vast spectrum of diners—locals, transplants, and tourists—in the Triangle.
If La Farm’s parking lot is lined with too many Lexuses, find a different cross-section of locals at Ali Rudel and Ben Filippo’s East Durham Bake Shop, where there is no parking lot at all but instead a hotdog stand, a pupusa truck, and a historic church across the street. EDBS’s list of local farmers, producers, and suppliers is way too long to list. Best known for its quirky pies—rosemary honey apple and sour cherry honeysuckle are two favorites—this lovable spot also offers the single best croissant this side of Paris: flaky-crispy, tenderly caramelized, and buttery through-and-through.
C’est maginifique. It’s so good you don’t mind shelling out $3.50 for one.
All of the pastries are made by hand, which means that butter is folded in not by a machine but by an actual person. Machine-made pastries can be delicious, but handmade ones are homier, a little less perfect, and require more of the kind of passed-down knowledge that Southern cooks are famous for sharing.
If you like your madeleines (made with Raleigh’s Videri chocolate and Southwind Produce buckwheat), buttermilk scones, and breakfast burritos with a side of man-buns, you’ll find that EDBS offers a cozy a mom-and-pop experience that feels like it couldn’t exist anywhere but in Durham.