The first meal I ate in Cary, back in 1986, sounded far more exotic than it actually was. I was here on a house-hunting trip, and my real estate agent took me to lunch at Serendipity, a quaint little sandwich shop downtown. I ordered a sandwich called the Mideastern Mystery – which turned out to be a pita pocket filled with lentils, cheese, lettuce, tomato and sour cream.
Looking back, I suppose the Mideastern Mystery was what passed for exotic at the time in Cary. This was the town, after all, that locals jokingly called Beige Town – because of its strict architectural covenants, according to my new neighbors – but the nickname could just as well have referred to the monochromatic mainstream palette of its restaurant options.
My, what a difference three decades make. While the town’s population has more than tripled since I moved here, the burgeoning diversity of that population has brought with it a gastronomic windfall on a scale I could never have imagined as I munched on that Mideastern Mystery. Cary’s beige palette has broadened to include a full rainbow spectrum of global flavors.
Nowhere is this variety more evident – or more concentrated – than in a cluster of unassuming strip malls near the intersection of East Chatham Street and Maynard Road. Within a few blocks of that intersection you can explore the cuisines of more than a dozen cultures, from Ethiopian to Nepalese (both of which you’ll find in nearby Reedy Creek Plaza).
Say you’re in the mood for Indian? You’ll have to be more specific. Northern curry or Southern dosa? Strictly vegetarian? Buffet? Indo-Chinese? You’ll find them all here. And if it’s biryani you’re craving, you can take your pick of three that specialize in the spice-fragrant rice dish, all within a naan’s throw of one another.
Sprinkled among the restaurants are a dozen specialty shops and groceries selling sweet and savory wares from all over the world. Halal meats, tropical produce, fresh baked breads and pastries, exotic canned and frozen goods – the selection is a boon to home cooks who no longer need to scour the Triangle for that hard-to-find ingredient.
Even if you don’t cook – and even if you have to drive a few miles to get here – this compact maze of shops and restaurants is a worthy destination for an adventurous foodie. Pick a restaurant and stop in for a bite. Explore the markets, even if you’re only window shopping. Take in the sights and smells, absorb the culture. It won’t be long before, like me, you’ll be thinking of this little corner of Cary as Little U.N.
906 NE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Popular Chinese-American takeout joint — exotic eats with training wheels, you might say.
1401-L SE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Order from the menu of authentic Szechwan cuisine. Try the “squirrel tail” fried fish, so named because of its appearance (no squirrels were harmed in the making of this dish).
904 NE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Meat and veggie samplers, served on a spongy bread called injera, are excellent introductions to the spicy Ethiopian fare that is this restaurant’s specialty. The injera also serves as your eating utensil. Tear off pieces and use them to pick up bits of food.
GREECE AND THE MIDDLE EAST
908 NE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Mezze samplers offer a tour of Greece and the Mediterranean, from baba ghanoush to lamb kebabs. Save room for some of the best baklava around. NOTE: La Shish has been closed due to staffing difficulties, but the owner says she plans to reopen soon.
INDIA AND PAKISTAN
744-A E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The oldest of three (count ’em!) biryani specialists on this stretch of Chatham Street, and still a prime spot for the fragrant meat-and-rice dish, as well as other Indian and Pakistani favorites.
590-102 E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The modest setting suggests fast food joint, but the goat biryani – moist chunks buried under a mound of saffron- and turmeric-scented rice – is the real deal.
748-A E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The XPRX stands for Express, but you don’t have to get takeout. You can also enjoy your meal – choose from a broad selection of Indian and Indo-Chinese dishes – at one of a handful of tables in this compact, cheery eatery.
Madras Dosa & Curry
740-E E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The owners of Sri Meenakshi Bhavan recently renamed the place and expanded the menu to include both vegetarian and non-vegetarian Southern Indian fare.
590-112 E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The lunch buffet is a popular way to sample widely from the vegetarian Southern Indian offering that has made Udupi a local favorite since 2002.
Taste of Jamaica
600-B E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: Tiny takeout joint with just a handful of tables, but the menu covers all the bases from jerk chicken to brown stew fish. Can’t decide? The Happy Meal Combo offers your choice of three meats with sides.
1401-J SE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Little Tokyo celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, making it the venerable grandfather of Japanese restaurants in Wake County – and second only to Yamazushi in Durham (by a few months) for that honor in the entire Triangle.
748-E E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The place looks a little timeworn (it’s been here since 1999), but the Korean barbecue is still the main attraction.
MEXICO AND CENTRAL AMERICA
1383 SE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Resist the urge to order your favorite Mexican dish, and turn to the Salvadoran section of the menu. Order the Plato Tipico (pupusa, fried yuca, sweet plantains, tamal and chicken pastelito). Plan on taking home leftovers.
748-J E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: Brand new brick-and-mortar location of a popular Morrisville taco truck, with a menu that runs the gamut from fajitas to siete mares, a seafood feast in a bowl of chile-reddened broth. And, of course, tacos.
1401-E SE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Authentic taqueria with well-filled soft corn tacos that rival the best the area, plus a staff that’s welcoming to non-Spanish speakers. What more could you ask for?
Tacos Estilo Hidalgo #2 y Pupuseria
748-B E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The #2 in the name refers to the fact that the original “location” is a taco truck. The restaurant expands on the mobile offering to include an assortment of Mexican specialties and Salvadoran pupusas.
Himalayan Nepali Cuisine
746-A E. Chatham St.
Stamp your passport: The friendly staff will help you navigate an exotic offering that includes chow chow soup, Himalayan dal fry, and steamed dumplings called momo.
910 NE Maynard Road
Stamp your passport: Sprinkled among the familiar names of Indian curries, dishes with names like momo (steamed dumplings) and momo (noodle soup) are your tickets to Nepalese adventure.
INTERNATIONAL SHOPS AND MARKETS
Baghdad Bakery & Market
744-E E. Chatham St.
Samoon, a diamond-shaped Iraqi variation on pita baked in a stone oven, is the specialty at this Iraqi bakery.
Cary African Market
748-H E. Chatham St.
Small market specializes in African groceries, but also sells a limited selection of Caribbean, Asian and Hispanic products.
1365 SE Maynard Road
Mediterranean market sells halal meats, house-baked breads and a wide assortment of imported goods.
Fresh International Grocery
748-G E. Chatham St.
Market specializing in fresh fish and halal meats; also Indian spices, Mediterranean goods and fresh produce.
Las Tres Fronteras Super Mercado
748-D E. Chatham St.
Latino grocery and market with a wide selection of dry goods and fresh produce.
Mithai House of Indian Desserts
744-F E. Chatham St.
Shop selling a tempting assortment of Indian pastries and sweets.
1379 SE Maynard Road
Mexican bakery sells breads, pastries and fresh tortillas.
802 E. Chatham St.
National Indian supermarket chain sells pretty much everything, from the ingredients for your favorite curry to the implements you need to cook it.
The Sea Depot
750-G E. Chatham St.
Fresh seafood from the N.C. coast run by a family from Taiwan; buy to take home, or they’ll fry your selection to order.
Tibetan Himalayan Gift Shop
746-B E. Chatham St.
Shop selling gifts, books and clothing as well as Himalayan teas and herbal products.
Toyo Shokuhin & Gifts
748-L E. Chatham St.
Japanese market and gift shop also offers a selection of Asian groceries.
Triangle Indian Market
740-A E. Chatham St.
Indian grocery and market with a broad selection of dry goods, spices, grains and fresh produce.