You’d be hard-pressed to find two restaurateurs with more widely differing styles than Ashley Christensen and Ben Shelton.
Christensen, named the 2014 James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast, is a gifted and versatile chef with laser-like focus on details, disarmingly cloaked in casual presentation. Her boundless energy and seemingly bottomless well of ideas have enabled her, in just seven years, to build a small epicurean empire in downtown Raleigh. Fans of Poole’s Diner, her nationally acclaimed first restaurant, were not surprised at the success of the eclectic string of establishments that followed: Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, a gourmet burger joint called Chuck’s and Fox Liquor Bar. Or that Joule Coffee, her newest venture, also lives up to the high standard that has become a Christensen trademark.
Shelton has left his mark on the Raleigh dining scene, too, though his style is decidedly more laid-back. He founded the Five Points landmark Lilly’s Pizza in 1993, then sold the restaurant a few years later. A trip to Mexico inspired Shelton to open a taco truck in the early 2000s. That was long before the food truck craze, though, and the venture was short-lived. Now, eight months after opening Gringo a Go Go, Shelton’s brick-and-mortar re-imagining of the Mexican theme, the restaurant’s website still says “Coming Soon.” Like I said, laid-back.
For all their differences, though, Shelton and Christensen share a couple of key traits. Both have an innate gift for hospitality that makes them want to feed people well. And, as their latest ventures prove, both still have the knack of putting satisfied smiles on faces.
Gringo a Go Go
From the Virgin Mary candles on the tables to the horseshoes and cowboy hats on the dining room walls, to the bar bespangled with tinsel and Day of the Dead figurines, everything about this funky little joint winks at you with a whimsical style that will be instantly recognized as classic Ben Shelton. But if the decor is as tongue-in-cheek as the restaurant’s name, the food is anything but.
That’s not to say that Shelton takes himself too seriously as a chef. He is serious, however, about the food he developed a passion for during an extended stay in Mexico. And he’s dedicated to reproducing that experience – with, as anyone who knows Shelton won’t be surprised to learn, an occasional personal twist.
That means rustically thick chips fried to order, for starters, available with made-to-order guacamole or your choice of two salsas from a list of seven, ranging from traditional (pico de gallo, chipotle) to offbeat (orange, peanut, sesame).
That’s the extent of the appetizer offering, though any of the delicately crisp-crusted empanadas listed under the entree heading would serve nicely as well. If you’re sharing, get one of each: Mexican style ricotta, spinach and cheese, and black bean and corn with roasted poblanos.
Soft tacos are well-filled with the usual taqueria suspects (I’m partial to the asada, pastor and chorizo), as well as four vegetarian options (nopales, potato, vegan “beef” or “chicken”). They’re authentically topped with chopped onion and cilantro and served with a wedge of lime on the side, but for an extra $2.50 you can supplement your garnishing options – and score a few bonus nibbles to boot – with a generous condiment tray. The shredded cabbage and pickled onions on that tray also come in handy on the excellent fish tacos.
Rounding out the offering are a quesadilla, enchiladas (cheese or chicken), and chilaquiles with an addictive tomatillo cream sauce. Buñuelos – a rustic street food version made by frying flour tortillas until crisp and then dusting them with cinnamon and sugar – are the only dessert option. Fortunately, they’re as delightful as they are simple.
Which, come to think of it, is a good description for Gringo a Go Go.
Despite the name, Joule Coffee is not just a coffeehouse. Depending on the time of day and your mood, it can be any number of things:
• Diner – where, weekday mornings starting at 7 a.m., breakfast options range from house-made yogurt with fresh blueberries and North Carolina pecan granola to Cheshire pig sausage gravy over Ashe County cheddar cheese buttermilk biscuits. At lunchtime (and on Saturdays starting at 5 p.m.), the “All Day” menu kicks in and the choosing gets even harder. Escarole Caesar with lemon-boqueron vinaigrette? Maybe add olive oil-poached albacore tuna for an extra $4? Or something hearty like duck confit nachos, or a braised short rib sandwich with Jarlsberg cheese, pepper jelly and whole grain mustard on grilled sourdough?
Okay, definitely not your father’s diner.
• Bakery – where, all morning long, buttery croissants come out of the oven every hour, on the hour. If you miss them, you’ll find sweet consolation in a changing assortment of pastries. If lemon meringue “pie” and Videri dark chocolate cherry cake are options, get both and worry about the consequences tomorrow.
• Weekend brunch hot spot – where, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Carolina shrimp and grits, sweet potato hotcakes (with real maple syrup), and porchetta eggs Benedict are just a few of the reasons for sleeping in.
• Bar – where serious cocktails such as the Negroni Spagliato (Carpano Antica, Campari and Casteller cava brut) compete for your attention with an intelligently chosen wine and beer selection.
• Farm-to-fork bistro – where a chalkboard lists a selection of nightly features offered after 5 p.m. The list is short, but you really can’t miss with a selection that might include a chilled cucumber and Sun Gold tomato soup, fried catfish tacos, brisket meatballs, and Heritage Farms pork shoulder with charred summer squash and fava beans.
And, of course, Joule Coffee is also a. . .
• Coffeehouse – where, working with a rotating selection of single-origin beans, thoroughly trained baristas brew a superb drip coffee and pull a mean espresso. They’ve also got you covered if tea is your, um, cup of tea. But fair warning: If you try the pourover coffee, it might just spoil you for any other form of caffeine consumption.
Joule Coffee is pretty much your typical urban-casual space with exposed brick and ductwork and refinished hardwood floors, though Christensen has added a few thoughtful touches. One is a mirror running the length of the wall opposite the bar, hung at the precise angle to allow diners facing the wall to watch the baristas and bartenders in action.
She also converted the narrow storefront space, behind windows that once served as a display area for a pawn shop, to counter seating. Christensen also pays subtle word-play tribute to the building’s history with her restaurant’s name, which can be heard either as a unit of energy reflecting the importance of precision in coffee-brewing (joule) or an item that one imagines was once on display in that window (jewel).
Now that’s what I call attention to detail.
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