If fine dining establishments are the thoroughbreds of the restaurant world, then counter service eateries are the workhorses. As dependable as they are unassuming, the best of them thrive on delivering the goods quickly and cheaply.
On rare occasion, a counter service restaurant comes along that stands out from the crowd, making you wonder if there’s a little purebred in its pedigree. Here are three that, if they were running in this year’s Kentucky Derby, I’d put my money on.
Blue Stingray Seafood
3600-28 N. Duke St., Durham
The only hint that Blue Stingray Seafood’s husband-and-wife owners are natives of Vietnam is the lone bottle of Sriracha on the condiment shelf, where it’s surrounded by bottles of Louisiana hot sauce and Slap Ya Mama Cajun seasoning blend. But Vinh Tran and Yen Nguyen’s heritage played a key role in the restaurant’s development. Among their extended family, who immigrated to the Louisiana Gulf Coast in the wake of the Vietnam War, are restaurant owners and fishermen who were instrumental in providing advice and fresh seafood connections for Blue Stingray’s menu of Cajun and Southern fried seafood.
Written in neon dry-erase markers on boards behind the order counter, the menu is as colorful figuratively as it is literally, covering the spectrum from fried whiting to blackened catfish to red velvet cake. Fried seafood, fresh-tasting in a light cornmeal breading, is a winning proposition any time of day. But it’s a special bargain from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when a combo platter – options include shrimp (large or popcorn), oysters, scallops and five fresh- and saltwater fish varieties – will set you back around $9, including hush puppies and two sides. The oysters in particular would put a few upscale Southern restaurants to shame, as would the collards and cheese grits.
Good as it is, fried seafood isn’t the main thing that makes Blue Stingray special. That honor goes to the restaurant’s specialty, Cajun-style seafood boils. The boiled Cajun bag combo – snow crab clusters, crawfish, shrimp, andouille sausage, corn on the cob and potatoes – is a shareable feast and a bargain ($26.49 recently). Alternatively, you can mix and match your way to seafood bliss from an à la carte list. Either way, your order is served in the heat-resistant plastic bag it was cooked in, either plain or tossed in the house Cajun garlic butter sauce – three heat levels, from mild (a decent kick) to extra spicy (they’re not kidding).
For those of you who are already setting your GPS for Blue Stingray’s Duke Street address, a word of caution: The restaurant’s entrance is on the back side of a strip mall, facing Roxboro Road – a hidden gem indeed.
Cilantro Indian Cafe
107-107 Edinburgh South Drive, Cary
Around noon, the line at the counter is ample evidence that Cilantro India Cafe has found a strong following in the two years since it opened in MacGregor Village. It’s a good bet that a few people standing in line have been fans of owner/chef Tavassum Rahmen since she ran a little takeout shop out of a convenience store in Apex.
The menu has grown substantially since those days, but it’s still rooted in the cuisine of Rahmen’s native state of Bihar in northeastern India, and it is still characterized by fresh produce and halal meats. She describes her style of cooking as “homestyle food with a little twist.”
It doesn’t get much more homestyle than Ammi’s chicken ka salan (“Ammi” means “Mom”), which features bone-in chicken, marinated in spices and simmered in a rustic curry gravy riddled with onions and bay leaves. And the “little twist” reveals itself in a number of ways, from cardamom-scented mango lassis to the chickpea salad and roghani naan (which the website accurately describes as “a round yeast bread that falls between a traditional tandoori naan and a pita bread”) that accompany many entrees.
Rahmen appears to be equally comfortable whether she stays close to home with Northern Indian favorites such as lamb korma and saag aloo, or venturing afield for a delightful coconut and fish soup whose perfume is evocative of a Thai curry, and a Moroccan “hummus” of whole chickpeas in a complex spice-reddened sauce, served warm. Given the menu’s ambitious scope, misses are commendably few and minor – chicken tikka kebabs that are a bit too salty, say, or slightly dry lamb in a biryani.
Located in the space that longtime locals will recognize as the erstwhile home of Horwitz’s Deli, Cilantro’s main dining room and mezzanine are larger – and more attractively furnished – than most counter service eateries. Service is friendly and reasonably quick, though I wouldn’t count on squeezing a meal into a half hour lunch break. But if you’ve got the time, it’s well worth the wait.
1125-304 W. N.C. 54, Durham
In the competitive fast food market, where the temptation is great to try to be all things to all people – even Burger King is now selling hot dogs – the menu at Makus Empanadas is a model of restraint. They sell empanadas, and that’s it.
OK, they do sell a few other items – a handful of sides, homemade cookies (lemon, cinnamon or vanilla), and an addictive cheese bread called chipa bread. But if you’re at Makus, you’re there for the empanadas – Argentinean style, with a wheat flour crust that’s baked to a light and tender turn with a crispy crimped seam.
That’s not to say you won’t have plenty of choices to make. You’ve got nine filling options, some of them authentic street food classics and others contemporary creations of the restaurant’s owners, brothers Hernan and Santiago Moyano and their childhood friend, Ricky Yofre. Beef empanadas, made from a recipe handed down from the owners’ grandparents, are a must. Bacon and cheese is a best-seller, and deservedly so. Sweet corn and cumin-scented shredded chicken are also worthy options, compounding the dilemma of keeping your order to a manageable two or three empanadas per person.
The Makus Meal combo comes to the rescue with three empanadas (your choice of filling, feel free to mix them up) plus one side (black beans and rice, slaw or chips), sauce (chimichurri or “red hot”) and a fountain drink. Add an order of cookies (I like the cinnamon; and by all means spring for some dulce de leche to dip them in), and you’ve got a meal that will put a smile on your face for around $12.
And if the mere mention of a hot dog has awakened the tube steak beast in you, be advised that Makus sells one more item: the Empadog, a hot dog wrapped in empanada dough.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.