Pickle Jar Cafe already had a loyal following the day it opened last March in Pittsboro. The restaurant had been winning fans for a year, in fact, since opening in its original location in the tiny rural community of Silk Hope.
Owner/chef Mario Robledo also enjoyed a culinary windfall at that first location. Robledo, who had become a devotee of local sourcing over the course of a career that spanned from L.A. to Charlotte, was able to build strong relationships with the farmers and food artisans in the surrounding countryside.
When the chef learned that the former Oakleaf space had become available, he couldn’t resist the allure of the higher profile location — not to mention much roomier digs and a larger kitchen. The move clearly paid off. Those farmers and artisans are still just a few miles down the road, and the new Pickle Jar Cafe has quickly become a popular spot for locals.
But is it worth a drive from, say, Raleigh or Durham? Absolutely, though you might not think so if you just looked at the restaurant’s website, where you’ll find a streamlined menu of sandwiches and salads, a handful of appetizers, and just two entrees.
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Would it help if I told you that Robledo is as committed to a take-no-shortcuts cooking style as he is to the locavore ethic? I’d drive to Pittsboro just for his buttermilk fried chicken, which owes its exceptional juiciness to the fact that he confits the chicken.
It might not surprise you, given the chef’s passion for local produce, to find not one but three veggie burger variations on that menu, all on a locally baked brioche bun, and served with excellent house-cut fries: black bean, portobello, and (taking a little creative license with the term “burger”) a medley of sautéed onions and poblanos topped with gruyere and chipotle crema.
Surely you’ll raise an eyebrow, though, when you learn that Robledo doesn’t just grind the beef for his classic burger. He buys whole cows from a farm in Silk Hope (one of only six in the state whose cattle are certified both organic and grass-fed), and breaks them down himself.
Still not convinced? Wait until I tell you about the other menu. You’ll find it on an enormous chalkboard in the dining room, where it’s the focal point in a large, open dining room (formerly a textile mill) whose eclectic decorations — antique bottles, vintage kitchen scale, framed lacework over the bar — give the place a suitably rustic, homey feel.
The very size of that chalkboard (I’m guessing 8 feet tall) is symbolic of its importance. These are the daily specials that allow chef Robledo to respond quickly to the local harvest — by which he means from Chatham County, for the most part, and seafood from N.C. waters.
Here’s where you’ll learn what the chef does with the rest of those whole cows. The filet turned up recently as part of a surf and turf, sharing top billing with expertly seared scallops and blackened shrimp, and a strong supporting cast of potatoes Romanoff and marinated button mushrooms.
On another night, Robledo featured 18-hour braised beef ribs with three-cheese mac and cheese. And he backed up his nose-to-tail philosophy with a rustic, atavistically satisfying beef heart and tongue soup.
A thyme- and rosemary-rubbed airline breast of chicken, served over fettuccine in a lemon caper sauce, proves that the chef isn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to poultry. Still, I confess I’d be hard-pressed to order it as long as that fried chicken is tempting me from the regular menu.
Local pork might take a star turn as a thick, juicy chop with sweet potato mash and lemon-parmesan Brussels sprouts. Or it might just make a cameo appearance as an appetizer of pork and pineapple skewers, glazed with a barbecue sauce reminiscent of hoisin.
You might also find a vibrant tomato and basil soup among the handful of appetizers on the board. Or, depending on the season, maybe a turmeric-tinged gazpacho of cantaloupe and honeydew melons.
The chalkboard doesn’t always offer a vegetarian entree, but if you’re lucky, you may score something along the lines of the earthy white truffle mushroom ragu that was served over tricolor tortellini a couple of weeks ago.
If you’d rather not take any chances, you can get a sneak peek at the daily offering before committing to the drive to Pittsboro. Just check the restaurant’s Facebook page a few hours before the start of any meal service. Having made the drive a couple of times myself, though, I’m willing to bet that, even if you don’t check the menu in advance, you’ll find the trip a rewarding one.
Pickle Jar Cafe
480 Hillsboro St., Pittsboro
Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: open, rustic and homey in a converted textile mill
Noise level: moderate
Service: friendly and eager to please, occasionally spotty attentiveness
Recommended: fried chicken, burgers, chalkboard specials (including key lime pie if it’s available)
Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday, brunch on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of each month.
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.