I recently obtained a job with the popular nerdy clothing site teeturtle.com where I get to go and run their booths at various pop culture conventions around the world (awesome!). My first assignment was the Japanese Pop-culture convention “Animazement” in Raleigh, North Carolina where I was hit with the unforgiving humidity of the Southern United States. Being a native Californian, I was ill prepared for the moisture in the air mixed with the temperature. I was working so I didn’t get to explore much of Raleigh, but I was lucky enough to experience a small amount of the city’s food culture.
Barbecue in North Carolina
North Carolina’s Barbecue culture has a long and storied past rooted in the cultures of the state’s past and has generally been split up into two styles. I am by no means an expert, but from what I have been able to read, the Piedmont region and Western parts of the state tend to like a style called Lexington Style which uses a base of tomato, vinegar, and spices with an emphasis on the use of pork shoulder. The Eastern Style (which I assumed that I ate) is absent of tomato, where apple cider vinegar and peppers take the main stage and the “whole hog” approach, where everything is used. There has been much contention as to what is the official Barbecue style of the state, but because I am not one to get involved with divisive politics, I’m not going to get into the intricacies of it all.
Smokey’s Barbecue Shack
10800 Chapel Hill Rd, Morrisville, NC
Before I even got into the city of Raleigh, I stopped off at a Barbecue restaurant in Morrisville (which is quite close to the Raleigh-Durham international airport) called “Smokey’s Barbecue Shack.” Somewhere on the side of a 2 lane road is a small white building with red benches and an awning it is so unassuming that my Uber driver almost missed it. I showed up 10 minutes before it opened, there were already 7 people waiting for Smokey’s to open (an excellent sign in my opinion). The walls are filled with funny signs and little oddities and the interior felt like a room inside of your quirky aunt’s house. Behind the restaurant past the smokehouse is an open area among the trees where you can eat on picnic tables and enjoy the tranquility of nature (I wouldn’t be able to eat barbecue in the humidity so I opted to stay inside). According to the menu, Smokey’s is a marriage between the Lexington & Eastern styles of barbecue, as they consider Raleigh to be central in the state.
I was told by friends who have been to North Carolina that pork is the king meat of Carolina barbecue, so I naturally ordered a beef brisket sandwich(my memory is not what it used to be, plus I don’t listen to what my friends say, it’s a strategy to maintain the power in my relationships). I chose to have slaw on my sandwich as well (which only comes by request) as well as fried okra, hush puppies, and their very popular sweet potato tater tots. The coleslaw was a mayonnaise based one, that’s important because apparently Lexington style slaw is tomato based and red rather than white. My basket came and I was found myself so excited that I almost started eating without taking a thousand pictures of it (how dare I, right?). The chopped beef brisket was an excellent balance of fat and lean protein, creating a soft and meaty texture that was beautifully enhanced by the slightly sweet white slaw. There was something almost buttery about the meat, it was unlike any beef brisket I’ve had in California. It wasn’t as smokey as I thought it would be (given the name of the restaurant) but I didn’t have much of an issue with that. The table had several different squeeze bottles of sauce, varying from thick and spicy to thin and oily. I had to try all of it obviously, and “Smokey’s Signature spicy sauce” was the winner, a pepper forward thick barbecue sauce with just a stroke of sweetness. This was the first time that I’ve had fried okra and it was excellent. Okra’s soft and almost jelly like texture can be off putting to a lot of people but the crispy batter around it makes it an absolute marvel in both texture and flavor. The star side for a lot of people here is Smokey’s sweet potato tater tots, chopped and fried sweet potatoes dusted with cinnamon. That sweetness and spice was a perfect compliment to the crispy texture and an amazing side to the savory and vinegary brisket sandwich.
Jimmy V’s osteria + bar
420 Fayetteville Street,
Once I went into downtown Raleigh for Animazement I only ate at places that I could walk to from the convention center. The restaurant attached to the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel “Jimmy V.’s Osteria & Bar” serves up classic Italian fare with a beautiful open kitchen. The interior of the restaurant is a wonderful respite from the humidity of the city and a place that can please people who are looking for something simple. The Arancini (Breaded balls of Rissotto with marinara sauce) is quite nice and their Bruschetta is also good to ease the humid outdoor weather (although it was a little heavy on the cheese and sweet balsamic reduction).
They’ve also got a nice patio, with an excellent view for people watching. There were a bunch of people dressed up like Jedi & Sith lightsaber dueling in the courtyard (these are my people, we know no shame, and never deal in absolutes).
The Raleigh Warehouse district
The Raleigh Warehouse district is only a 10 minute walk from the convention center and has some incredible interesting places to explore. The following (except for Poole’s) were the places that I noticed while walking down W Davie street (a spot that I went to two nights in a row)
The Pit Authentic Barbecue
328 W Davie St
“The Pit” had a line out of the door and a 45 minute wait when I put my name in, it was totally worth it. With features in several Food Network shows, it boasts some excellent modern twists on traditional barbecue with roots in the Eastern North Carolina “Whole Hog” style (The saying is: “Everything but the Squeal”). I found myself somewhat paralyzed by what I was going to order, when would I ever be here again? As a basket of hush puppies and biscuits came out, I found myself wanting fried green tomatoes and gravitating towards fried chicken as a main course (I know it’s a barbecue restaurant, but fried chicken just sounded so good). When asking the server, he told me that the chopped whole hog is a must, free-range locally raised pigs smoked and cook with a sauce of apple cider vinegar, peppers, and fat. I had a hard time deciding, luckily there was a plate with both fried chicken and chopped pork with 2 sides of my choosing. I went with fried okra (again) and Heirloom cabbage collards cooked in oil and garlic.
The fried green tomatoes had a beautifully crisp crust with tart goat cheese, basil, and a side of chilled smoked tomato vinaigrette. That under ripe acidity of the tomatoes mixed with the tartness of the cheese and herbs was enough to keep me satisfied, but the crispy crust and smokey/oily vinaigrette cut the acidity to make it something absolutely perfect. A fine start to an amazing meal.
The chopped pork was just a a little spicy from the barbecue sauce, I decided to add just a touch more. The peppers and apple cider vinegar really came out of the soft chopped meat while that oily and crispy fried chicken provided a stark contrast with it’s salty palette and crunchy texture. The cabbage collards were soft and rich with flavors of garlic and black pepper and nice mix for the fried chicken. My dining companions ordered Carolina style ribs with a thicker, more sweet vinegar based barbecue sauce. They fell of the bone (naturally) and had a thicker bone than the baby back ribs that I am used to eating in California.
Videri Chocolate factory
Across the street from “The Pit” is a chocolate house and cafe known as “Videri Chocolate Factory“, where some of the finest chocolates from South America are refined and crafted into bonbons, ganaches, and truffles. The smell of coffee beans wafts through the doors of the brick building and we found ourselves taken in by the rich and earthy flavors of Videri’s 70% Cocao sea salt chocolate (which we then sampled). You can tour the facilities and see all the stations in which the chocolatiers craft their dessert morsels and enjoy some of the best coffee Raleigh has to offer. For those of you who enjoy the outdoors, they have a wonderful patio covered in trees that is quiet and cozy. Every person working here that we interacted with was extremely pleasant and very knowledgeable about their selection, if there was a cafe that I could see myself going to several times a week, Videri Chocolate factory would be it.
330 West Davie Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
Next door to “The Pit” there is “Boxcar Bar+Arcade,” a full bar themed with 90’s arcade games, live music, and pinball. It’s like a Chuck E. Cheese for my generation, were you can enjoy some beautiful beers and liquor while playing the classic throwbacks such as “The Simpsons Arcade Game” and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time.” Outside in the alley, they had a live band, picnic benches, and some classic bar games. The games are pretty cheap, usually only needing 1 token (25 cents) per play and there is free popcorn and drink specials. The walls are decorated with the familiar characters of my childhood, Mario and Princess Peach, The X-men, and Pac-man. Fancy some Skee Ball or air hockey? they have those too. The 80/90’s kid in you will be absolutely giddy with this place and it won’t just be because you took those 3 shots of Maker’s Mark. Incidentally, it took my friend Brent & I only $4 to beat “The Simpsons Arcade Game.”
Fancy some more drinks? “Crank Arm Brewing Company” is on W Davie street as well (they have a stout that uses Videri Chocolate Factory chocolate). It was too dark to take pictures and I didn’t spend much time here, but I feel like it’s a must for all of you future cicerones out there.
319 W Davie St
Raleigh, NC 27601
How about getting your cardio in while you’re imbibing? the “Trolley Pub” is also here and you can do biking tours about the city while enjoying your alcohol. I was walking back to my hotel and one of these trolley pubs rolled by and everyone was singing “Seasons of Love” by the cast of “Rent.”
323 W Davie St
Raleigh, NC 27603
Poole’s Downtown Diner
426 S. McDowell St
Raleigh NC, 27601
As my time in Raleigh was coming to a close, I knew I had to have my last dinner in the city somewhere really special. My server at “The Pit” told me about a famous local chef Ashley Christensen, who was awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation award in 2014. “Poole’s Downtown Diner” is one of the many restaurants in Raleigh attached to Chef Christensen (along with Beasley’s Chicken + Honey,Joule Coffee,Chuck’s, and the wonderfully named: Death & Taxes) and it serves an ever revolving seasonal menu of new American Comfort foods.
They don’t take reservations and the wait was about 45 minutes when we got there, keep that in mind if you ever want to try it. There is no printed menu, as their selections change constantly (always a good sign). Instead there is a series of chalk boards along the wall (and one big one), with several dishes for each course as well as an excellent choice of liquor for your imbibing pleasure.
You’ll have to excuse me for the pictures, the lighting wasn’t particularly good in the restaurant so I couldn’t capture the dishes the way that I wanted to. We started with a simple plate of “Tribeca Oven Baguette with House made Butter and Fleur De Sel.” Essentially a hot baguette, with a house made butter and fancy sea salt. We also had a “Pimento Cheese” with sharp Hook’s Cheddar and smokey cherry peppers served with crostinis.
We were off to an excellent cheesy carb loaded start, with no deference to the much required fiber in a human’s diet we pressed on with the meal. The standard for any table that goes to “Poole’s” is their Macaroni Au Gratin, a baked macaroni and cheese with Jarlsberg cheese, White cheddar, and a baked shell of nutty Grana Padano. None of my pictures looked good enough to post, so trust that it was delicious and incredibly generous in its portions (we could only eat half of it). For the main course, duck confit (duck slow cooked in its own fat) with smoked cheese tortellini (because we need more carbs and cheese) Kale Rutabaga & crispy chicken skin gremolata. Whereas the Macaroni Au Gratin was heavier and somewhat over the top, this was decadent and rich with softer flavors and a more complex finish.
We also ordered the Sunday special, an interesting take on a burger called the “10oz Royale” with Carr Valley Shepard’s blend (ground cow, goat, and sheep) on grilled brioche bread with a red wine & shallot jus. This was a special that became so popular that they elected to keep it on the menu somewhat permanently but only served on Sundays. The ground meat is formed into a ball on top of sliced and grilled buttery brioche bread, with cow,goat, and sheep’s milk cheese melted on top. The red wine jus is a touch sweet and served on the side, perfect for the blend of ground meat and sharp cheeses. It was pretty good, but I honestly enjoyed the duck more.
My time in Raleigh, North Carolina was an eye opening experience to what the cuisine of the Southern United States has to offer. While I was limited, due to the fact that I was working, to be able to discover some of Downtown Raleigh’s food spots was really something special. This was a wonderful introduction to the city and I really look forward to coming back (maybe when it’s less humid). Traveling within the United States is something that I have not done much of, so this was an exciting adventure for me. On a side note, I’ve never enjoyed sweet tea, but in high humidity it really does help.
Of course I appreciate any suggestions or information about Raleigh as I hope to come back and really explore the city (and the rest of the state).
Thank you to the wonderful people of Raleigh & the whole of North Carolina.