Imagine a strip mall where the food ranges from Chinese to Persian vegetarian with Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Italian and southwestern/Mexican stuffed in between, flanked by a Subway and a Dominos for the less adventurous with a local coffee shop and a frozen yogurt parlor sprinkled in.
You’d be at Timberlyne, at the north end of Chapel Hill where this unexpected feast of international cuisine is the distinguishing feature. As my friend David DiGiuseppie put it when I ran into him grabbing some take-out last week, “The amazing thing is that they’re all really good restaurants.”
In a foodie town like this, you don’t survive just because of low prices or a well-known name, though you can get those here, but rather word of mouth and consistently good food. Some of the restaurants like Margaret’s Cantina, have been here more than 20 years followed by Oishi (“delicious” in Japanese) at 14 years followed closely by Sage with 12 years.
My wife Rebekah and I are at Margaret’s often. The prices are in our range; the service and quality are consistently good. I am a big fan of their French fries, Greek salads, black beans and messy tempeh enchiladas. Rebekah always devours their chicken enichilada plate with “Christmas’ – that’s a combo of red and green salsas. The half a roast chicken harks back to the original “Chick It Out’ take out that Margaret Lundy started on West Franklin Street in the mid-’80s. Sadly she is no longer at the restaurant as she battles Parkinson’s, but her spirit carries on.
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Oishi, owned by a Korean fellow named Hong Kim, serves a great bento box lunch including miso soup and some outstanding tempura. The vegetarian one is the deal at $6.95 with the shrimp and chicken bento also under nine bucks. I’ve had a few of the conventional sushi rolls but haven’t yet tried the Super Duper Roll, Crazy Monkey Ball, Rock & Roll, Viagra Roll or Dirty Old Man Roll.
China Wok has been there eight years and the hostess may look familiar to former patrons of the late Ming Garden as she was its co-owner before selling the business. Owner Brian Zheng was a bit enigmatic about his “secret” recipes but I found the lo mein, pork fried rice and the General Tso’s chicken rather typical American Chinese. Hey, no one’s complaining for a lunch under $7, and the Sunday night take-out crowd has customers lining up every weekend.
I love Sage for three reasons: The food is authentically good and fresh, no one would have believed that a vegetarian Persian café in a strip mall would not only survive but thrive, filling the little jewel box of a dining room for lunch and dinner – and the owners are from my hometown of Westbury, Long Island. Freydoon “Fred” Jahan and his wife presided at the previous incarnation Mama’s Pizza and Pasta Café; they’re lovely charming people who made a good pizza. When their kids started Sage I found we were both graduated from West Tresper Clarke High – they class of ’98, me ‘68. They apparently knew Chapel Hill was ready for old country cooking with a modern vegetarian twist. It’s always well prepared and I adore the rich walnut pomegranate stew called Fesen Joon. The only problem is mine – I don’t often want to part with more than $10 for lunch and to eat well, you’re definitely going north of that. Clearly by the crowds, that’s not everyone’s problem.
When I am short on cash or time or both, I can be found in the Subway usually for the footlong meatball or vegetarian patty. While this Subway may not differ from their other 44,500 stores, the service is always good and the same faces are behind the counter year over year. I’ve had some pretty good banter with the staff while they patiently count out my maximum three jalapenos.
Around the corner at Joe van Gogh I treat myself to a rare Japanese iced coffee – twice a year at least and miss the plumes of blue aromatic coffee smoke that their little in-house roaster used to emit.
The latest addition is the long-anticpated Magone’s whose owner Rino Magone (say “Reno”) hails from Naples via New Jersey and New York. This is his fourth restaurant in the Triangle in 12 years and the single slice of his cheese pizza I grabbed opening night made me ready to sit down and dig in, so a few days later I tried their sausage and peppers sandwich – one of my test meals for authentic Italian American and Magone’s did not disappoint.
The unsung jewel of Timberlyne, however, may be Friesh Dabei’s Queen of Sheba that I’ve only recently sampled. I’d never eaten Ethiopian before but if our taste buds were our guide, it was not only delicious but authentic. We ate traditional style using injera, the crepe-like spongy bread, to pick up the food. Both the vegetarian Yemitten Shiro Watt stew and the Yebeg Alicha lamb were spiced unlike any cuisine I’ve had and as I’m not a food writer, I won’t try to fake it. I’ll just say, go there for dinner – there is no lunch served.
So you don’t have to go to LA to take your palette around the world it’s all there at Timberlyne.
You can reach Blair Pollock at email@example.com.