THE CHAPEL HILL/CARRBORO FOOD TOUR.
(THIS IS A CONTINUATION OF MY PREVIOUS POST ‘ON THE WAY TO DINNER‘)
After a good night’s sleep on a belly full of biscuits and raspberry bars, we wake up ready for the day ahead. We drive straight to Carrboro, a town adjacent to Chapel Hill. We skip breakfast in anticipation of what lies ahead – THE food tour. Carrboro is the home of the University of North Carolina, which, unlike the ‘walled’ Duke campus, sprawls through the streets. We feel like we are in a College town with students walking, talking, hanging out everywhere we look.
We meet Susan, our guide from Taste Carolina Food Tours . This crew has a most comprehensive website with many tour options. There was nothing available for the day we needed, so they put together the (usually Saturday) Carrboro/Chapel Hill tour for us on a Wednesday. It’s just the three of us – Esther, Stef and moi – so we have our own private tour for $50 each. Not bad at all.
First stop is a highlight. It is Neal’s Deli where we meet Sheila, wife and partner of Matt Neal, who takes time out to chat to us. The minute we are seated, plates of the most delicious looking biscuits are put in front of us. This is a biscuit they make from scratch every day, using butter and shortening as well as local buttermilk.
They also make their own ‘New York Style’ pastrami, which, Shelia says, has been hot-smoked for around 8 hours with juniper berries, coriander seed and pepper. It is so very good. The biscuit is perfect. There is a swath of mustard on the biscuit and it is one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in a while. I think it’s worth coming to Carrboro just for this sandwich.
We don’t have time to try their best seller, a hot-dog-roll-shaped brezel (pretzel) with a NYC hot dog and all the toppings. Next visit for sure. Sheila and Matt work very hard to make their business a success. The Deli started up thanks to the local Revolving Loan Fund that enables to town to support the creation and growth of local business.
Next door is the Open Eye Café, where we are treated to a lesson in perfect fair trade coffee filtration at Carrboro Coffee Roasters. It was quite alluring. Perhaps we should all ditch out Nespresso machines and go back to the real and honest basics of coffee making?
Walking about 1 km to the adjacent Chapel Hill, we stop in at Vimala’s Curryblossom Café. We do think it is a bit odd for a (Southern) food tour in NC to include an Indian restaurant on its itinerary. When we hear Vimala’s heartwarming story, we understand. Vimala moved here many years ago from India and fed the needy for years and years until the council shut her kitchen down. The community pooled together and purchased the restaurant where she now cooks the most delicious Indian fare.
We sit down for a taste and we are literally served a feast. Highlights are the tender tandoori chicken and her two versions of dosa. One is prepared like a crepe which is then rolled up in a sort of triangular prism. The other is cooked like a frittata with potato and spices. Both are very good. We meet Vimala and she is quite lovely, sharing snippets of her life and her cooking.
It seems that Vimala’s is indeed a strong part of the Carrboro/Chapel hill landscape.
A few blocks down the road we go to TOPO distillery , a microbrewery in the middle of town. We meet Esteban, the very charming ‘spirit-guide’, who gives us a great tour of the small but impressive outfit.We are amazed that the same organic Carolina grains of wheat can produce completely different spirits thanks in part to their gleaming German copper and stainless steel stills.
The tasting is fun. Esteban gives us moonshine (ewwww), freshly distilled whisky (less ewwww but ewwww), slightly aged whisky (getting better) and freshly distilled vodka (not bad at all). This is the only organic and local distillery in the area, and it is interesting to see how it works. I do wish I could bring home a couple of ‘Age your own Whisky’ kits for whisky-drinking friends, complete with mini aging-barrel.
Most interesting is the liquor control system in NC. You can’t buy hard liquor (spirits) from any ordinary store or bottle shop, as those stores only sell wine and beer. For spirits you need to go to the State-run ABC stores. You may think it sounds restrictive but it actually makes distribution much easier for a producer as they only have to deliver to the central ABC depot, which then sends out to 400+ stores across the State.
Next stop (we haven’t eaten for 30 minutes) is Acme, a popular Carrboro restaurant owned and manned by local chef Kevin Callaghan . The restaurant is closed, but we are ushered in and seated. We meet the delightful Kevin, who brings us one of his specialties to try. It is a pickled shrimp salad. The shrimp have been boiled and then steeped in a pickling brine of lemon juice, olive oil, onion, garlic and peppers. He serves the shrimp with a simple salad of arugula (rocket) and black eyed peas. And I now know that black eyed beans and peas are the same thing.
Acme is definitely on my list of restaurants to visit when I return.
We miss out on the most famous of restaurants in Chapel Hill, Crook’s Corner. It is only open for dinner during the week and is sadly not part of our tour. We don’t have the time to eat there, so it will have to wait till next time.
We hop in the car for our final stop at what must be the standout food store of the State, Southern Season . It is certainly the most iconic. In planning my trip, every person I asked told me that I MUST go to Southern Season.
This is quite a store! Actually, not just a store. It is the size of a small department store and comprises superb coffee and tea bars, fresh food (bakery, salads, cooked food), packaged food (delicacies from around the world), confectionary, wine and beer, cookbooks, cooking equipment, tableware and homewares galore. We have just missed Curtis Stone who was here demonstrating his new cookware range last week. And if this isn’t enough, there is a GORGEOUS state of the art cooking school kitchen upstairs. Maybe one day the MMCC girls will be ‘on stage’ here…we can only hope!
We taste a sorghum molasses salted caramel. We nibble of piece of pie from a Betty Crocker lookalike. We have a few sips of different wines and a local ale. We snack on locally produced cheese crackers. I find a perfect gift for the lazy cook (me). I buy packets of pre-cut baking paper circles and rings to fit all sizes of cake pan. How lazy is that!
If this were my hometown, Southern Season would be on my weekly route for sure.
Our food tour ends here and we are full. Stuffed to the brim once again. I think it was the Indian feast after the pastrami sandwich that pushed us over the edge.
Back at the ranch, later in the evening, we get a message from the lovely Lisa S, who was one of our party last night at Poole’s. She wants us to pop by her place (she won’t be home) as she has made us a little something. Stef drives us over to her house. The door is open and we walk inside. In her gorgeous kitchen, she has left two treats for us: a chocolate malt pie and a tray of raspberry crumble bars. We had been chatting to her last night about these two dishes, and what do you know, next thing she has made them for us. There is a pile of plates and forks, as well as some takeaway containers and serviettes, and a note for us that we are to help ourselves. WOW. What a gorgeous surprise and yet another experience of true Southern hospitality. We take a piece each to have later when our appetites return.
The Raspberry Crumble Bars recipe that Lisa made comes from The Barefoot Contessa. They are outstanding!
It’s farewell to Raleigh, Stef and the Tech Triangle. We have experienced the MOST wonderful hospitality here, from Stef and her family, from Lisa S, from Nancie, Jill, Sandra, Beth and the Southern #letslunch crew, and every single person we came across in our travels. It has been awesome. Thanks y’all!
We are heading off to Charleston in the morning for the next part of our adventure. Stay tuned. Goodnight!
DETAILS OF PLACES VISITED TODAY:
Neal’s Deli – 100 E. Main St, Carrboro
Open Eye Cafe – 101 South Greensboro Street, Carrboro
TOPO Distillery – 505C West Franklin St, Chapel Hill
Acme – 110 E Main Street, Carrboro
Southern Season – University Mall – 201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill