A Traveler Feature Article By Kat Sunlove & Layne Winklebleck
Finding really good, out-of-the-way places to eat in a vacation city can be a challenge. Avoiding tourist traps while figuring out where the locals go is tough. If you want organic or locally grown ingredients, that’s tougher still – unless you are in the Triangle metro area of North Carolina. When visiting the oak tree-studded Capital City of Raleigh, or her neighbors, Durham and Chapel Hill, you may get lucky and happen upon one of the many farm-to-table restaurants sprinkled throughout the region. Then again, you may not.
An easier and more dependable solution is a Taste Carolina gourmet food walking tour. The brainchild of self-proclaimed food junkie Joe Philipose, a former lawyer and “corporate drone,” as he puts it, and local gourmand Lesley Stracks-Mullem, Taste Carolina prides itself on guiding visitors to “restaurants and shops serving innovative food sourced locally from farm-to-table.” The pair met only a few months ago in a fortuitous coincidence. While researching her business concept, Lesley talked with Kelli Cotter, manager at Toast Paninoteca in Durham. As she was explaining her vision of a company that would offer farm-to-table restaurant walking tours, Kelli commented that someone else had just been there with the same idea. Intrigued to know her competition, Lesley got in touch with Joe and Taste Carolina was born.
Lesley conducted our mid-day tour of downtown Raleigh, hitting five deliciously distinctive food establishments in a little over two hours. This mid-day jaunt is just one of many options available from Taste Carolina, which offers unique outings that range from the Taqueria Tour to the Happy Hour Tapas Crawl, or the Southern Comforts Tour to a Whole Hog Barbeque Bus Tour. You can even customize your own excursion.
As we hiked along Raleigh’s mostly level streets, Lesley filled us in on the burgeoning organic and locally sourced food movement, which finds expression in farmers markets and upscale restaurants throughout the Triangle area. Working with the national group, Slow Food USA, the regional chapter works to preserve food traditions, promote “gastronomic culture and provide support to local agriculture. A recent initiative was planting heirloom apple trees at an elementary school in Durham.
The first stop on our excursion was Dos Taquitos Centro, a colorful Mexican lunch spot popular with locals. As we enjoyed one of the best steak tacos ever alongside a small salad topped with a delicate cilantro vinaigrette, manager Natalia explained that they keep their menu small so that they can maintain high quality and reasonable prices. Using mostly organic ingredients, they offer a seasonal menu that changes as products become available. In late spring the choices included Gorditas, Tortas, a Whole Wheat Burrito, Quesadillas, Tamales, plus Sopa de Pollo and Mexican salad. Accompanied by Hibiscus Infused Agua, one of their signature Aguas Frescas, and Horchata Original, a yummy tiger’s milk, cinnamon and sugar concoction, the small taco plate was a perfect start to our tour.
Our next stop was The Mint, a remodeled former bank complete with a one-ton vault door and a dramatic interior featuring original etchings that soar two stories high up one wall. Open for lunch, cocktails and dinner, The Mint prides itself on offering “the freshest organic ingredients sourced locally,” paired with delicious local wines. We missed sampling any wines on our mid-day tour, but Chef Eric Foster had prepared a unique Tuna Tartare for our group, spiced with jalapeno and pineapple and accompanied by mango sorbet on a bed of pickled onion, of all things! But it worked beautifully, the mango softening the tang of the tuna dish. But the highlight for me was the fabulous Soft Shell Crab dish, so delicately breaded and quick-fried that, after the initial crunch, the meat simply melted in the mouth. We learned that the crab dish originated as a seasonal specialty, but turned out to be such a favorite, it was added as a regular menu item. Ironically, the soft shell crabs are not really local, as they come from Maryland and their pasture-fed beef travels all the way from Australia.
As we sauntered along to our next stop, Lesley informed us that fresh out of college, she had yearned to open her own sandwich shop, one with “chalkboard menu, the finest meats, cheeses, locally grown produce, and fresh baked bread….” Her involvement in Taste Carolina is satisfying that passion for finding good food at good prices and enjoying it as she shares her food fetish with the rest of us.
To cleanse the palate in a delightfully tasty way, we visited Escazu Artisan Chocolates on Glenwood Avenue, just off the downtown area. There we met co-founder and chocolatier Hallot Parson, who treated us to samples of the creative varieties made on the premises, all produced directly from the bean. Starting with a very dark and bitter selection made of 81% cocoa content Carenero bean from Venezuela, we graduated to a 41% milk chocolate bar with a deep sweet flavor that lingered on the tongue. The founders took their name from Escazu, a city in Costa Rica, which served as inspiration for the business. After meeting a farmer there who had turned his struggling business around by changing to organic methods, Hallot and his partner Robert Henkens decided to open their business offering all natural chocolates with Latin American influences. Thus, you will find flavorings such as Chipotle chili, Brazil nuts, Guajillo Chili, Costa Rican coffee beans and dried organic bananas. Available by mail order as well as in many stores, these are probably the best chocolates you’ll ever eat.
Just down the street was Zely and Ritz restaurant, a family-run operation that boasts its own farm, Coon Rock Farm, which delivers over half the restaurant ingredients daily. Talk about fresh! The farm raises organically grown heirloom vegetables and heritage breed pasture-raised meat and eggs. Those eggs were presented in a wonderfully flavorful quiche for our sampling as we chatted with Chef Sarig about his youth on a kibbutz in northern Israel. It was there that he came to appreciate the importance of fresh foods and the bounty that is provided by a well-cultivated and cherished earth. His menu highlights in green ink all the locally sourced ingredients used in each dish, turning dinner into an exercise in tough decision-making.
The last stop on our Taste Carolina tour was The Cupcake Shoppe, which predictably offers a cornucopia of cupcake flavors, from the “Plain Jane” vanilla to “Lemon Zinger,” which hides a squirt of lemon curd in its center. Although the icing on my “Pretty in Pink” concoction was overly sweet for my taste, the strawberry cake beneath was moist and delicious.
Walking your way to a “locavore” restaurant in Raleigh or a neighboring city is certain to whet the appetite and satisfy the stomach with the best of local foods. After all, good healthy ingredients are the foundation on which gourmet meals are built. So when in Raleigh, take a bite of North Carolina’s farm-fresh edibles with a Taste Carolina culinary tour.