Among all the pleasures of exploring the local dining scene, discovering a hidden gem of a restaurant is a rare and special experience.
Here are three of the brightest — a miniature treasure chest, if you will, sparkling with gastronomic jewels from India, Japan and Korea.
The details: 590-102 E. Chatham St., Cary, 919-377-0346, biryanimaxx.com
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Nestled among a cluster of unassuming strip malls near the intersection of East Chatham Street and Maynard Road, Biryani Maxx is one of nearly three dozen restaurants whose globe-spanning diversity are earning the area the nickname “Cary’s little U.N.” You could practically throw a naan bread from the front door of this modest Indian eatery and hit two other restaurants with Biryani in their names.
But Biryani Maxx earns that brash extra “x” in its name with some of the best biryani around. I’m partial to the Hyderabadi goat dum biryani, and will happily work around the bones for those moist, borderline gamey chunks of meat buried under a mound of saffron- and turmeric-scented rice. Chicken and vegetable biryanis are deservedly popular options, too, among the list of six variations on the theme.
The restaurant’s namesake specialty is by no means its only attraction. I’d especially recommend the corn pepper fry as a starter: clusters of kernels fried in a light cornstarch batter that gets its bite – and its brassy color – from a spice blend of garlic, ginger and chiles. Other winning starters include an exemplary rendition of chicken 65, and stuffed cut mirchi (potato-stuffed green chiles) that will get your taste buds firing on all cylinders.
The kitchen turns out a surprising number and variety of entrees for such a small restaurant (only 10 or so tables). Besides the usual curry and tandoori suspects, rewarding options include Kerala fish curry (an intoxicating tomato-red elixir redolent of coconut and spices) and Kodie korma, a Hyderabadi regional specialty featuring boneless chicken breast in a fragrant gravy of yogurt, cream and ground cashews.
Vegetarian entrees cover a similarly broad and colorful spectrum, from bendakaya pulusu, a vibrant stew of okra and tomatoes, to creamy, jade green palak paneer. Just looking at these dishes, sitting on the table next to, say, a bronze gongura mutton curry and a gold-spangled mound of biryani rice, it occurs to you that – both figuratively and literally – it’s the food that gives this hidden gem its color and sparkle.
Kashin Japanese Restaurant
The details: 309 Crossroads Blvd., Cary, 919-851-7101, kashin.com
Kashin, open since 1991, is one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in the Triangle. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it. You could easily spend several hours shopping at Crossroads Plaza and miss this little bento box of a restaurant tucked in among the sprawling collection of national chain retailers and restaurants.
Those who stumble across it discover an oasis of serenity where the sushi is fresh, the tempura crisp, and noodle soups soul-satisfying. I’ve been getting my noodle fix at Kashin since the place opened.
I know I can count on fat, properly chewy-tender udon and the gratifyingly coarse buckwheat bite of soba, either one in a broth that I know will avoid the all-too-common fault of excessive saltiness.
My go-to bowl is nabeyaki udon, slicked with runny egg yolk and chockablock with shiitakes, fish cake, spinach, scallions, morsels of chicken and a little dish of tempura shrimp on the side. On hot days, I may switch over to zaru soba, served cold with a soy-based umami bomb of a dipping sauce called tsuyu on the side.
I’ve somehow never gotten around to ordering the ramen at Kashin, but last time I was there I discovered – and heartily enjoyed – a noodle dish I don’t recall seeing on the menu in the past. Called Nagasaki chanpon, the dish serves up a medley of seafood, pork and noodles (which our server accurately described as somewhere between udon and soba) in a “creamy pork-based broth” that ramen aficionados will recognize as tonkotsu.
The seven-seat sushi bar won’t let you down, either, but be advised that if you’re looking for BOGO rolls you should look elsewhere. What you’ll find here are properly sized single-bite nigiri and rolls that are fairly priced with a generous fish-to-rice ratio. While you’re waiting for your sushi to be assembled, it couldn’t hurt to prime your palate with an order of shrimp or vegetable tempura.
Kashin’s compact size gets part of the credit for its cozy feel, but I credit the restaurant’s owners with the lion’s share of the welcoming vibe. Chances are good you’ll be greeted or waited on by Miyuki Su, daughter of the restaurant’s original owners.
Su and her husband, sushi chef Paul Su, took over the restaurant in 1999, though her mom, Kimie Kono, still does the cooking. With two generations of a family working together to feed you, it’s no wonder you feel at home at Kashin.
The details: 311-B Holland St., Durham, 919-908-9332, facebook.com/mkokkodurham
Strictly speaking in terms of location, gems don’t get much more hidden than M Kokko. Open since last fall in downtown Durham, the restaurant’s entrance is on a side alley around the corner from its sibling establishment, M Sushi – which itself is located on an alley.
But people have had no trouble finding the place, judging by how quickly its 20 seats fill up after the restaurant opens for lunch or dinner. That should come as no surprise, given the reputation of owner/chef Mike Lee, who already has earned a loyal fan base at M Sushi and at Sono in downtown Raleigh.
At both those restaurants, the Korean-born Lee built a reputation as one of the area’s premier sushi chefs. With his latest venture, as its name wittily suggests (kokko is Korean slang for chicken), he turns to his native cuisine – and, you might say, spreads his wings a bit – with a menu focused on chicken.
It’s a very brief menu – barely half a dozen options on a typical night, each dish artfully illustrated in colored chalk on a blackboard spanning one wall of the narrow dining room. You can’t go wrong, though, so that’s plenty of choices.
The house specialty is “KFC” wings, the K standing for Korean – as in that country’s famously extra-crispy twice-fried chicken. Twelve bucks gets you eight wings (more if they’re small; Lee explains that his locally sourced chickens are variable in size), glazed with a classic soy-garlic sauce or a spicy-sweet sauce riddled with freshly toasted red chiles. That price also gets you a small dish of house-pickled daikon and a seasonal vegetable side – sautéed kale, last time I ate there.
I also scored a first-rate bowl of ramen with soy-braised pork belly, wood ear mushrooms and soft-boiled egg in a paitan broth, a chicken-bone variation on the classic tonkotsu broth that gets its rich flavor and milky color from long-simmered pork bones.
Lee’s respectful take on another Korean classic, jjiajang men, serves up ramen noodles and soy-marinated chicken tossed in black bean sauce, garnished with quail eggs and cucumber. And his chicken sandwich features a boneless breast marinated in leftover juices from the house-pickled daikon and cucumber, then drenched in buttermilk and fried in a light Korean-style tempura batter.
With successful restaurants focused on seafood and chicken under his belt, chef Lee has set his sights on the other protein groups. M BBQ and M Taco are on the drawing board, as is a yet-to-be-named vegetarian concept. It’s too early to say whether their locations will qualify as hidden, but it’s a good bet that they’ll be gems.