Lucky 32 has been redefining itself since the original location opened in Greensboro in 1989.
The restaurant's claim to fame is its specials menu, a rotating tribute to American regional cuisines that changes every six weeks or so. The standing menu has evolved gradually over the years, too, as baked brie morphed into pecan-crusted goat cheese and popular specials earned a permanent spot among enduring favorites ranging from meatloaf to fried green tomatoes. The formula became the foundation of a modest expansion that peaked at four restaurants in the early 2000s.
Only two of those restaurants - the Greensboro original and the one in Cary (the subject of this review) - remain. It's tempting to speculate that one factor contributing to the mini-chain's retrenchment was that it tried a little too hard to be all things to all people. Compounding the problem of a meandering menu that failed to establish a definable personality was the decor, a hodgepodge of art-deco details and dramatic modern lighting that offered loads of visual stimulation but in the end came off as unfocused.
The dining room hasn't changed noticeably since the restaurant opened in 2001, but a change in the kitchen has increased Lucky 32's appeal considerably. Executive chef Jay Pierce, who oversees the menus at both restaurants, came to Lucky 32 in 2007 from New Orleans, where he worked for Emeril Lagasse.
In more than name
Pierce's influence is evident in the restaurant's signature rotating menu, which had previously wandered from South Beach to the Pacific Northwest, but now stays at home in the South. His passion for sourcing locally is reflected through the entire offering, from the Benton's country ham in the Carolina Cobb salad to a selection of side dishes that would be the envy of many a meat-and-three diner. The changes are so fundamental that they're reflected in a new name: Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.
Execution in the kitchen has risen substantially, too. There are still occasional misses - sweet potato hushpuppies with a doughy center or an inexplicably dry medley of black-eyed peas and kale - but they're far outnumbered by the hits.
A luxuriously thick chilled cucumber and avocado soup is a sure cure for the summertime blues. At the other end of the starter spectrum, but equally rewarding, are Whistle Bite sliders, which serve up house-cured pork belly and green tomato chow-chow on soft bamboo-skewered yeast rolls. Nor will you go wrong with okra popcorn, a textbook rendition of fried okra served with fresh herb-flecked buttermilk dressing and a sassy, aptly named voodoo glaze for dipping.
Shrimp and grits is a popular entree, though the abundantly andouille-studded Tasso ham gravy tends to overpower the delicate flavor of the wild-caught shrimp. The clean simplicity of cornmeal-crusted Carolina catfish, garnished with a judicious squiggle of Creole mayonnaise, is more to my taste. And I could certainly go for an encore performance of the grilled pork medallions, which turn out to be expertly grilled boneless loin chops under a spice-fragrant mound of bourbon stewed apples.
Side dishes star
Most entrees come with a choice of two or three sides, which are also worthy of praise. You could make a splendid old-fashioned Southern vegetable plate supper of pinto beans (topped with some of that excellent house-made chow-chow), deviled eggs with Benton's ham, collard greens and cornbread, served with a steaming cup of pot liquor for sopping.
Lucky 32's Wine Spectator-award-winning wine list offers dozens of options by the bottle or three-, six- or nine-ounce pour. There's also a respectable selection of beers (including a few local drafts) and cocktails made with top shelf liquors and fresh squeezed juices.
For dessert, your server will likely recommend the brownie sundae and the chocolate peanut butter pie. Both are longtime favorites and served in shareable portions. I'd be inclined to go for Mamaw Millie's scuppernong wine jelly cocktail, served with a dollop of homemade custard. Now that's what I call focused.