Fire and smoke is the theme for the latest round of newcomers to the Triangle dining scene. Make that a double dose of smoke.
The fire comes in the form of a Mexican restaurant in Cary that's so hot I wasn't able to get a table the first two times I tried. La Cocina (100 MacGregor Pines Drive; 467-0780) is the seventh in a North Carolina chain of restaurants, most of which are on the outskirts of the Triangle. Besides the new location's high-traffic location just off U.S. 64, the appeal is presumably an extensive menu that covers the spectrum of Mexican and Tex-Mex fare, from combination plates to fajitas. Under the "Especialidades de la Casa" heading alone, you'll find 49 listings, from the ubiquitous camarones a la diabla to more esoteric fare such as higado encebollado (liver and onions, Mexican style). A dish listed as A.C.P. (arroz con pollo) is, I'm told, a crowd favorite, as is its shrimp variation, A.C.C. (arroz con camarones). I'm guessing that the fact that La Cocina has both a full bar and a kids' menu doesn't hurt the restaurant's early popularity, either.
Also in Cary, hickory-smoked St. Louis-style ribs (wet or dry) and Texas-style beef brisket are the early hot ticket items at Hawg Wild Smoke House & Grill (243 Grande Heights Drive, in Harrison Pointe Shopping Center; 466-9453; www.hawgwildsmokehouse.com). The brisket, at least, should come as no surprise, considering that the owners are Dallas natives Kyle and Karen Westerman. The casual eatery's decor features a chopper motorcycle (a hawg, get it?), and the menu covers the smoky spectrum from pulled pork to smoked turkey to pork sausage to chicken wings as well as an assortment of sandwiches and pub fare, and a half dozen draft beers (including two locals) to wash it all down. Dessert lovers should try a slice of Karen Westerman's homemade sweet potato pie.
There are no dramatic decor highlights -- in fact, there's no decor at all -- at Pig Out Express (5126 N. Roxboro Road; 477-7441; www.pigoutexpress.com) in Durham. That's because it's a drive-up-and-takeout only shop, housed in the old Just Wing It kiosk in Riverview Shopping Center. The barbecue is the real deal, however, cooked on site over hardwood coals. The specialty of the, um, house is "fall-off-the-bone" ribs whose secret sauce and rub recipes were developed by owners Janelle Powers and Mary Ellen Shaw. The partners are also proud of their hickory-smoked pork (available as a plate with your choice of two sides, or in three sandwich variations: traditional, wrap, or the 3 Little Pigs, a trio of slider-size miniature sandwiches), and of the fact that most of their offering, from coleslaw to fruit cobbler, is homemade.