Newcomers on a culinary Embassy Row

N&O Restaurant Critic and Food WriterOctober 18, 2006 

Boasting nearly a score of restaurants within a three-block stretch -- a widely diverse assortment covering the spectrum from French bistro to Mongolian barbecue -- Ninth Street in Durham has a well-earned reputation as something of an Embassy Row of ethnic dining. That reputation just got stronger with the addition of two newcomers, both featuring dual-cuisine menus unlike any other in the Triangle. As it happens, the two restaurants are next door neighbors.

At 746 Ninth Street, Metro 8 Steakhouse is, in the words of husband- and wife owners Francisco Pirillo and Cassandra Ramos, an American steakhouse with an Argentinean flair. That means you can begin your meal with, say, a Caesar salad or crab-stuffed shrimp, follow with a New York strip, lamb chops or filet mignon au poivre, and finish with tiramisu. Or you can start off with South American empanadas or provoleta, Argentina's grilled-provolone answer to saganaki, move on to churrasco-style steak with chimichurri, and conclude with dulce de leche crepes.

You'll dine in pleasant surroundings, too, thanks to the owners' extensive renovations to the space they inherited from Bakus Tapas & Wine Bar, the previous tenant. They've opened up and brightened the dining room by removing the booths at the front, installing new lighting and painting the walls in soft hues of pink and beige. New lighting, fans and plants have considerably spiffed up the deck in the back of the restaurant, as well. Metro 8 serves dinner nightly, remaining open late with a limited menu on Friday and Saturday nights.

Just next door at number 748 -- but worlds apart in terms of style and cuisine -- is Xiloa (pronounced HEE-lo-ah), which promises "a taste of the tropics and a twist of the Southwest." The first half of that slogan translates to the native Nicaraguan fare of owner/chef Anar Rodriguez, and the second half refers to the Southwestern fare she came to love while living in Albuquerque, N.M., for seven years.

Regardless of which side of the menu you order from, you can be sure that Rodriguez will go to great lengths to ensure that your food is as authentic and freshly made as she can make it. She roasts and grinds cacao beans herself, for instance, to make one of the many Nicaraguan specialty beverages called refrescos (others include tamarind, hibiscus, cantaloupe and mango, all made from scratch). And she uses the famous chiles from Hatch, N.M., to make her Southwestern-style chile verde.

Rodriguez' passion for good, healthy food also embraces vegetarian fare. The menu is liberally peppered with vegetarian and vegan dishes, and many others (Indian taco and nacatamales, Nicaraguan tamales wrapped in a banana leaf, to name two) may be prepared as vegetarian. Xiloa is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Greg's Hot List: A Taste of the Tropics

You knew it was coming. Even in the sunny South, the leaves inevitably fall from the trees. The sky turns gray, and for many of us, so do our moods.

The solution? Denial, of course, in the form of dinner in any of these restaurants where the mood is always tropical and summer never ends.

Azitra, 8411-101 Brier Creek Pkwy., in Brier Creek Commons, Raleigh. Indian cuisine a sleek, sparkling and modern atmosphere.

Carmen's Cuban Cafe, 108 Factory Shops Rd., Morrisville; Cuban cuisine in vintage Havana.

Cool Breeze, Chatham Square, 740 E. Chatham St., Cary; exotic Indian snack shop/ice cream parlor.

Jibarra, 7420 Six Forks Road, in Peachtree Market, Raleigh; Mexican fine dining in a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Lotus Leaf Cafe, Northwoods Market, 969 N. Harrison Ave., Cary; Vietnamese cuisine in a cozy bistro setting with a Southeast Asian accent.

Merlion, 410 Market Square, in Southern Village, Chapel Hill; Singaporean cuisine in an understated Indonesian atmosphere, with a tiki bar in the back.

Thai House Cuisine, 1408 Hardimont Road, Raleigh; Thai cuisine in a contemporary Asian atmosphere with clean lines, lots of blond wood.

Vallarta, 3177 Capital Blvd., Raleigh; Mexican and seafood in a setting of tropical pastels, potted plants and sombreros.

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