Living in the South has taught me a few absolute truths: Southern hospitality is real, barbecue is revered (and contentious), and Duke’s mayo rules. I’ve also discovered that while dishes such as fried chicken and biscuits remain a vital part of the South’s foodways, the definition of Southern food—and what it means to eat like a Southerner—is evolving along with the diversity of the people contributing to it. Let’s dig in.
North Carolina barbecue typically means pork, though you’ll see differences between the western and eastern parts of the state. Western-style ‘cue favors slow-cooked pork shoulder and sweet, tomato-based sauces, while eastern favors a whole-hog approach and vinegar-based sauces. In Durham, Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue (bullocks-bbq.com) has served pulled and chopped pork ‘cue to locals and celebs since 1952 (the fried chicken is very good, too). At Picnic (picnicdurham.com), feast on locally sourced, whole hog ‘cue (save room for banana pudding). At Backyard BBQ Pit (sweetribs.com), west meets east with hickory-smoked pork shoulder and a vinegary sauce. In Raleigh, hit up Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque (clydecoopersbbq.com), a downtown joint that has served pork shoulder ‘cue since 1938, or The Pit (thepit-raleigh.com), which serves whole hog, pit-cooked ‘cue in the Warehouse District (there’s a Durham location, too).
Biscuits have been a Southern breakfast staple long before it was a trendy Brooklyn brunch thing. N.C.-born chains like Biscuitville (biscuitville.com) and Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits (bojangles.com) have their place, but we’re partial to local spots. Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken (risebiscuitsdonuts.com), a chainlet with locations across the Triangle, and Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen (sunrisebiscuits.com) in Chapel Hill are consistent standbys. In Raleigh, don’t miss Mandolin’s (mandolinraleigh.com) Sunday brunch-only buttermilk biscuits. In Durham, True Flavors Diner’s (trueflavorsdiner.com) biscuits and mushroom gravy are a modern classic, and Monuts’ (monutsdonuts.com) biscuits make an excellent base for a build-your-own breakfast sandwich. In Carrboro, Neal’s Deli’s (nealsdeli.com) pastrami-topped biscuit gives country ham a run for its money. Acme Food & Beverage Co.’s (acmecarrboro.com) Angel Biscuits, served warm in a cast iron pan, are a great brunch opener.
Fried Chicken, Seafood & Meat-and-Three
In Durham, tear into ripping-hot, juicy fried chicken at The Chicken Hut (chickenhutnc.weebly.com), a meat-and-three that’s been around since the 1960s. (For the uninitiated, a meat-and-three is just what it sounds like: pick your protein—say, fried chicken—plus three sides and cornbread to mop up your plate.) Choose your own fried-chicken-and-waffles destiny at Dame’s Chicken & Waffles (dameschickenwaffles.com) with endless combos and flavored schmears (there’s a Cary location, as well).
In Raleigh, all-star chef Ashleigh Christensen’s Beasley’s Chicken + Honey’s (ac-restaurants.com/beasleys) golden, fried birds star on biscuits, salads, and sandwiches (if you like heat, get the Carolina Reaper). For less than $10 at downtown institution Mecca (mecca-restaurant.com), you get two pieces of fried chicken, rice, and gravy, plus two sides, a roll, and a glass of sweet tea (Southern iced tea is really sweet, so ask for it “half-and-half” to dilute it). In Chapel Hill, don’t miss Lula’s (lulaschapelhill.com) cast-iron-fried chicken.
For top-notch seafood, chef Ricky Moore’s two Saltbox Seafood Joint (saltboxseafoodjoint.com) locations are ace. A basket of fried, seasonal N.C. seafood with potatoes and slaw is a sure bet, but don’t sleep on whole-fish dishes such as griddled croaker. Pair with an order of hush honeys, Moore’s genius take on hush puppies.
The Global South
Eating like a Southerner means recognizing the diversity of the people who live here and embracing their influence on the Global South’s foodways. At Zweli’s Piri Piri Kitchen (zwelis.com) in Durham, chef Zwelibanzi Williams’s Zimbabwean-inspired sides—peanut butter collards, fried curry cabbage—are mostly vegan, which is how Southerners, particularly enslaved Africans who had limited access to meat, have been eating since before veganism was a thing. In Raleigh, chef Cheetie Kumar seamlessly melds local ingredients and Indian flavors at Garland (garlandraleigh.com), with dishes like N.C. shrimp marinated in green coconut chutney, served peel-and-eat style with charred okra and onions. The words “Hola Y’all” on Jose and Sons’ (joseandsons.com) doors sum up chef Oscar Diaz’s cooking style, reflected in dishes such as braised collard green tamales or N.C. snapper ceviche with sweet potatoes at Diaz’s other Raleigh restaurant, The Cortez Seafood + Cocktail (cortezraleigh.com).
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