Given the burgeoning local food scene, it’s entirely possible to scratch your foodie itch for weeks on end without ever venturing more than a few miles from your front door.
But you’d be missing out. A sense of adventure can lead to discoveries such as these gastronomic gems scattered around the margins of the Triangle. With apologies to the good citizens of Knightdale, Hillsborough and Pittsboro for spilling the beans about their best kept secret, here’s your treasure map.
2009 Village Park Drive, Knightdale
Not long after Annette Brown opened her fresh seafood market in 2009, she started getting the question from customers that is familiar to fishmongers everywhere: “How do I cook this?” Brown, who had moved to Knightdale from Topsail Island (where, she says, “living off the land” included catching your own shrimp, clams, oysters and fish), was happy to oblige. Her over-the-counter instructions and cooking classes must have been impressive, because she soon started getting another question: “How about you cook this?”
Brown responded by squeezing a counter service restaurant into her little strip mall shop in 2011. It’s a modest setup with just five booths, but the menu covers a broad spectrum from oysters Rockefeller to fish tacos to Lowcountry shrimp boil. The fried fish sandwich (flounder, catfish, trout or whiting), served on Texas toast with slaw and crinkle cut fries, is a bargain for $5.99. (Ask for the special tartar sauce, made with fat-free yogurt and avocado.) Order a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp, and they’ll be weighed out as you stand there, then steamed and dusted with Old Bay or with Brown’s signature spice blend.
For that matter, you can take your pick from the selection of fish and shellfish in the market’s refrigerated display cases and have your selection fried, steamed or grilled to order for just $1.50 per pound more than the take-it-home-and-cook-it-yourself price. If, on the other hand, you’re the cook-it-yourself type, you’ll have dozens of options, from wild-caught Atlantic salmon for the grill to jumbo lump crab cakes ready-made for the pan.
Much – but not all – of the seafood at A’Nets Katch comes from Carolina waters. Jumbo snow crab legs from Canada are a best-seller. “They’re the biggest around,” Brown says with obvious pride – and then her homegrown loyalty becomes evident when, in her next breath, she adds, “but blue crab season is just around the corner.”
El Restaurante Ixtapa
162 Exchange Park Lane, Hillsborough
You could stroll around downtown Hillsborough for hours, browsing among the quaint shops and restaurants of the historic Colonial-era town, and never know that another world is just a block or so away. Venture past Weaver Street Market and across the old bridge that crosses the Eno River, and you’ll come to the low-slung cinder block building that houses El Restaurante Ixtapa.
Inside, the dining room is a colorful jumble of folk art on the walls (and hanging from the ceiling), Mexican snacks for sale by the cash register, a basket overflowing with green coconuts in one corner, and a handful of tables covered in plasticized fabric with an exuberant fruit pattern. The look is so unapologetically authentic that you’re surprised to be greeted in fluent English by Zuri Muñoz, the restaurant’s charming young hostess, and daughter of owners Pedro and Nicolasa Muñoz.
Happily, the menu is also bilingual – both literally and figuratively, from well-filled taqueria-style soft tacos on house-made tortillas to Angus beef burgers and fries. And the list of specials – including fish tacos, chicken flautas and other traditional favorites from the owners’ native coastal resort town of Ixtapa – is written in English on a whiteboard. The Spanish-language exception is “mojarra,” which Zuri Muñoz will explain is a whole fish (not the common tilapia, she’ll tell you, but black sea bass), deep-fried to a golden, crisp-skinned turn. Served with rice, beans and a small avocado salad, it’s a keeper.
Listed at the bottom of the specials board, “chilled coconut” turns out to be just what it says: a whole green coconut (now you know what those coconuts in the corner of the room are for), hole punched and straw inserted. Sipping its cool, tropical nectar on a balmy evening (the restaurant has a few patio tables and picnic tables out front), you’ll find that indeed you are a world away from downtown Hillsborough.
The Modern Life Deli & Drinks
46 Sanford Road, Pittsboro
OK, the name is a mouthful. What’s more, it overlooks the wood-fired pizzas that are one of the restaurant’s chief attractions. Baked in an oven built by the owner, engineer-turned-restaurateur Tim Goodwin, these authentic Neapolitan style pies are themselves worth a drive. Except for the 00 Sicilian flour he uses in the crust (which, aficionados will tell you, is an unmistakable sign of dedication to authenticity), Goodwin sources locally as much as possible. That includes everything from the Chatham County red oak that fuels the oven to the slow-roasted Seven Springs Farm pork on the Porco Rosso pizza.
The locavore focus also applies to the deli offering, which – to be fair – does deserve its place in the restaurant’s name. That local pork makes a few more appearances on the sandwich menu, including a Cuban that shares best-seller status with an old-school Reuben on thick slices of marbled rye. (If you’re looking for the lean stuff that passes for corned beef in a lot of places, look elsewhere.) Preservative-free meats are the rule across the board, from the Belgian beer-braised bratwurst on a pretzel bun to the addictive bacon on the BLT. Vegetarians are well-served by sandwiches such as the roasted portobello with rosemary pesto, and by a generous selection of salads.
As for the “Drinks”: 13 beers on tap (a changing selection chosen by blind tastings of the restaurant-sponsored Craft Beer Society), a modest but thoughtfully chosen wine list, and specialty cocktails such as the Green Bullfrog (organic lime, agave syrup, Absolut vodka and club soda) and Cask of Ole Calcutta (chai tea and Maker’s Mark).
The place earns the “Modern Life” part of its name, too, with a vibrant contemporary-casual vibe and a crowd that spills out onto the patio on warm nights. Add a friendly, attentive wait staff (counter service by day, table service in the evening), and you’ve got lots of reasons to make the drive to this friendly spot just south of the courthouse circle in Pittsboro. No wonder the locals just call it The Mod.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals.