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When I had first started to explore the Triangle in college, Cary’s MacGregor’s Village captured my interest. Tucked away off of Highway 64, the shopping center was once a hive of activity. With well established eateries like Wasabi and Jimmy V’s Steakhouse paired with entertainment hubs like Six Strings Cafe, MacGregor’s Village became a destination. 

But the years since hasn’t been particularly kind to the shopping center. One of it’s centerpieces , Bistro 64, sat vacant for years. The facade of the thirty year old shopping center started to show it’s age. Vacant store fronts were plentiful. But new ownership took over in 2018, giving the plaza a facelift and bringing in new tenants. One being Asali Cafe and Desserts.

Visibly tired, baker and owner Hanadi Asad, sat down across from me with as if it was the first time she got to get off her feet for weeks. Although she was happy that I accepted the invitation to come and visit Asali, the restaurant had been slammed since they soft opened allowing her no rest. 

The catalyst for the interest in Asali is their collection of unique treats. None has as much fan fare as the kenafa.  From hunky dudes dancing and serving kenafa from a food truck to videos of luscious cheese pulls, kenafa has become one of those dishes that has lit up social media. 

Typically served from big pan and cooked over an open fire, Hanadi painstakingly engineered a way to serve a personal size kenafa. From the cooking method to the right kind of cheese, Hanadi took everything to account to ensure she got the kenafa experience just right. 

And she succeed with a desserts thats has layers of textures, some sweetness and gooey cheese, which may be awkward for some to grasp but it works. 

Drinks are as much a feature on Asali’s menu as the desserts. While I was pleasantly surprised that the cafe was offering Counter Culture for drip coffee or espresso drinks, my eye was on its more exotic options. 

As Hanadi went over the large selection of drink offerings, the drink satlab glared out from the menu as something that was a complete mystery to me. According to Hanadi, the milk-based drink is a popular winter drink around the Middle East.

Sipping pass the lovely top layer of shredded coconut and pistachios, the drink had me think of a Mexican Horchata. Think and warm, I can see how its popular in the winter but even with the heat of summer it was enjoyable.

Excitingly, Hanadi kept mentioning her blooming tea options due to its beauty and taste. Unconvinced, we placed the unassuming bulb into the pot of water and waited for few minutes. 

As if watching National Geographic, the bulb delicately started to unravel itself  until it sprung open to a fully bloomed flower inside of its pot. The tea itself was a refreshing mix of lemon and ginger. 

While I was more familiar with Turkish Coffee, granted most of those experiences were at the old Turkish Delights on Glenwood, Asail made the drink  their own. 

Unexpectedly notes of anise cut through the strong coffee from first sip. It makes for an interesting flavor profile that kept me coming back to the cup for more. Served as a palate cleaner, the cup of water with a hint of rose helped mellow my taste buds.

Hanadi’s baking talents aren’t just reserved for sweet things. Savory pies and dips like tabouleh expand Asali’s menu beyond the end of a meal. 

My buddy Ryan glowed about the tabouleh’s freshness. I, however, focused most of my attention to the flavorful zatar pie.

Though Asali has a catalog of unique treats, the cafe does not neglect Middle Eastern staples like baklava and macaroons.

Asali shows off a side of Middle Eastern desserts that go beyond baklava, but it does more than that. It shows off a side of the hopeful new look MacGregor’s Village that can return the plaza to its former glory. 

Asali Desserts and Cafe
https://www.asalievents.com/cafe
107 Edinburgh S Dr Suite 106-A, Cary, NC 27511 

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If Hillsborough Street is the constantly changing face of NC State, Mission Valley is its sturdy and consistent backbone. Mission Valley flies under the radar with a diverse, longstanding, and mostly local catalog of shops and eateries. 

One of Mission Valley’s longtime standouts is local favorite Cloos’ Coney Island. From hipster foodie millennials to old school NC State grads, everyone I’ve ever talked to about Cloos’ glows about the joint. 

Cloos’ success is no secret. The Mission Valley restaurant excels at the simple things - in their case, tasty hot dogs cooked on a flat top with classic toppings. 

The dogs snap when you bite into them. It’s almost a shame to cover them up with toppings. Cloos’ piles them on, so much so that my Dixie dog toppled over on to the table. 

The Detroit Red Wings paraphernalia doesn’t take away from the loaded Chicago dog, complete with a steamed poppy seed bun.

Cloos’ skinny fries came out popping hot and fresh, but fairly basic. Given another chance, I’d rather spend my money and stomach space on another dog. 

Cloos’ is an example of all the things Mission Valley does right, like consistent and straight-forward food. That’s why it’s been such a hallmark of the NC State community and will continue to be for years to come. 

Cloos’ Coney Island
https://www.facebook.com/cloosconeyisland/
233-102 Avent Ferry Rd, Raleigh, NC 27606

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“I finally got to try the garbage plate truck!” my co-worker excitedly yelled over our cubical wall to me. Hailing from Western New York, my co-worker had been following the Trash Talk Food Truck for weeks once she learned of its existence. The garage plate, or the trash plate to avoid any trademark infringements, is one of those legendary regional dishes that NY transplants fawn over. The anatomy of the dish is to throw all the starchiest and greasiest items on a plate in hopes it can soak the excess alcohol in one’s stomach. The piece that ties this culinary puzzle together is called hot sauce, which isn’t dashes of Valentinas but rather a meaty red sauce that resembles what you serve for sloppy joes.

The hot sauce covers a burger patty or a split hot dog, or if you’re especially hungry or drunk, both. At the bottom of the plate are servings of home fries and pasta salad. For an added touch of authenticity, the food truck’s hot dogs come from the Rochester, NY’s supplier Zweigle’s.

The whole experience felt like taking a Cookout tray and piling all the stuff on top of each other. And just like a Cookout experience, it would’ve probably would’ve been transcendent if I had been inebriated but still enjoyable sober. 

“It was good!” my coworker replied when I ask her if it lived up to her memories. But behind her response there was that slight tinge that something was missing. “It was pretty authentic” she reassured me, and possible herself. But I think nostalgic dishes from the past hardly ever live up to the hype of present day, not because a dip in quality or a difference in product. Rather its the distance away from the good ol’ days. That while smells and flavors can remind you of past heartfelt memories, nothing can actually bring you back. 

Trash Talk Food Truck
https://www.trashtalkfoodtruck.com

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Chef Eric Montagne is no stranger to critical acclaim. First as the executive chef of Vivian Howard’s Boiler Room in Kinston, then moving the the Capital City to take the helm of Standard Foods. When he over the kitchen for renowned chef Scott Crawford, Standard Foods maintained, even in some eyes exceeded, its already stellar reputation. 

When Standard Foods closed, I wondered what was next for the chef, hoping he’d keep cooking in the City of Oaks. Turns out he left the heat of the kitchen and headed for the water. Chef Eric started to cut fish for Local Seafood, a business dedicated to responsibly sourcing fresh coastal seafood to landlocked Raleigh. Then Person Street Bar and Locals Seafood collaborated to launch one of the earliest announced vendors in the Transfer Co Food Hall, Local Oyster Bar.

Although the restaurant prides itself on its raw bar, I went the fried route. The fried oyster roll is indulgent, a no nonsense mound of fried oysters stuffed inside a grilled New England bun. 

Coming fresh out of the fryer, the oysters were nicely breaded, providing a crunch with each bite. 

While it seems like Locals will always sell you a heap of fried oysters on a roll, their fish and chips offering is dependent on the catch of the day. 

Served melt-the-skin-of-the-roof-of-your-mouth hot out of the oil (I would know), the servings of fresh fish were generous. Local’s batter for the fish and chips formed a thick crust around the fish and I was a fan. I did feel like another sprinkle of salt would’ve been been a nice touch for the dish, but it could’ve also been I was so impatient that I burned my palate biting into the hot fish. 

Local’s fries didn’t have any problems with seasoning. Similar to the fries you’d find at Chuck’s, they are crispy sticks of potatoes fine for snacking even if not accompanied by fresh seafood. 

Chef Eric continues to impress by heading another kitchen, and Locals Oyster Bar shows why Transfer Co Food Hall has been one of the most exciting additions to Raleigh’s food scene in the past few years.

Locals Oyster Bar
in the Transfer Co Food Hall
http://www.localsoysterbar.com/
500 E. Davie Street, Raleigh NC

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Pressed sounds like a place where you can order a really great Cuban sandwich. And it is. But what the name doesn’t convey is the solid Puerto Rican dishes found in it’s menu.

The restaurant’s history sounds like your modern day, food truck to brick to mortar success story. There was a successful Kickstarter. A well-received food truck. A move into a brick and mortar establishment. But a fire crippled the business, leaving their truck in a pile of charred metal. 

If there was a silver-lining in the hardship, its that the Spanglish was able to shift focus to Pressed.  True to it’s name, Pressed offers a menu of hot sandwiches, most offering a flair of Latin America. The Gaucho sandwich, with it’s shaved eye round and chimichurri, read like a hunger crushing sandwich.

Overflowing with beef and dripping with sauce, the Gaucho sandwich is powerhouse of flavor and meat. But as much as the sandwich has to offer in terms of portions, it offers equally as much in mess. Dripping sauce and somewhat awkwardly sliced bread did make the sandwich a little bit difficult to handle. 

Unfortunately, the sandwich’s description may have been the only thing I read correctly on the menu as I got confused by how items were listed and ordered an excessive amount of sides. We were about to get through the double order of crunchy yuca bravas just fine through.

Continuing in our parade of starches, the maduros provided a little sweetness from our savory yuca. The sprinkle of cheese provided a nice counterbalance. 

Beyond sandwiches and sides, Pressed serves plentiful amounts of Latin America dishes. Flaky empanadas so popular, it has earned a spot on both Pressed’s menu and Spanglish’s food truck. Fillings include options like beef and maduros and Abuel’a’s chicken. Some are more flavorful than others, with out favorite being the pork-n-pineapple. 

Served as a special the day we visited was a generously portioned stuffed avacado. Much like my sandwich, the avacado was overflowing with meat. The moist chicken and ripe avacado was a much needed alternative to the heavy sandwich. 

Offering more than its name suggested, Pressed’s menu of Puerto Rican dishes goes beyond just paninis and sandwiches. 

Pressed by Spanglish
http://www.eatspanglish.com
10630 Durant Rd #104, Raleigh, NC 27614

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Despite the continuous changes on Downtown Raleigh’s marquee street, Sono has become the quiet constant, even as the restaurant itself has experience change since its opening in 2008. 

Sono opened as a partnership between Eschelon Hospitality and rising star, Chef Michael Lee, who eventually owned the restaurant. When Chef Lee went to Durham to start his own franchise of restaurants there, a team that included Chef Hyun-Woo Kim from An Cuisine in Cary took the reigns. 

Admittedly, our recent choices in sushi restaurants have been motivated by quantity rather than quality. The invitation to rediscover the new Sono was a welcome break from the norm. Just the first bite reminded us of the vast gap between okay sushi and quality sushi. 

Sono’s dishes weren’t gimmicky or unnecessarily deep fried, nor was there any cream cheese interiors. Dishes shined with technique, clean flavors, and creativity.

Dishes like Sono’s “raw-raw” showcased incredible seafood but also unexpected twists like a mustard ponzu and a 48 hour marinated squid. 

Nigiri sushi might not be interesting to some, but the chef’s selection goes beyond just fish and rice. 

Each piece of fish was thoughtfully and individually prepared. A sear to the mackerel, roe on top of the oysters, a creamy dollop on top of the salmon. 

But Sono isn’t just all about its fish. The downtown restaurant’s Korean fried chicken were crispy, delicious morsels. 

Sono also serves a solid rendition of gyoza, which was tender dough enveloing a flavorful pork filling.

In a ramen craving world, Sono’s bowl of tonkatsu is here to satisfy.

The tonkatsu featured tender noodles swimming in a bowl of perfectly umami pork broth. A soft boiled egg had just the right consistency of yoke to glaze the pork and other ingredients.

Sono has faced a lot of changes in its ten year existence, but through them all, tremendous food has been the constant.

Sono
http://www.sonoraleigh.com/
319 Fayetteville St #101, Raleigh, NC 27601

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Our So Hot experience was a tale of bad timing. We arrived during peak time and had a long wait for a table. The stove at our table wasn’t set hot enough, so we had to wait till our vast pot of broths got to a simmer. I got impatient and threw in dumpling too early. Then pulled them out when they were still raw. But despite all the missteps, So Hot was an fun experience I’m looking forward to do again.

Typically, nothing substantial ever comes across the sponsored space on Yelp but when I was trying to find a convenient dinner spot for us to meet up with our dear friend Tessa, So Hot’s billing on the top of my search results got me interested. Visiting home before going back to Korea for another year of teaching, the last thing I thought Tessa would want was East Asian food. But the all-you-can-eat aspect was something we were all able to rally behind.

Considering So Hit advertise their AYCE price at $25 dollars, it’s surprising to learn that it didn’t cover the price of your broth. So Hot offers a few different bowl options that allows you to try different broths. You could order a pot that has as much as nine different sections. But we settled for splitting our pot into three, trying the original broth, the mushroom broth, and a spicy broth (which was more expensive than the other two)

The extra cost for the spicy broth is worth it for both the taste and the theatrics. Frozen inside of a Hello Kitty mold is all the spices for So Hot’s spicy broth, which slowly melts away as the restaurant pours the base broth in. Morbid but also satisfying. 

So Hot has an impressive collection of meats, vegetables, seafood, and noodles that makes up for the odd pricing structure. Everything from the gnarly bits like tripe to beloved pork belly to Spam. 

The first 15 minutes of our So Hot experience consisted of waiting for the pot to heat up. We fiddled with the knob at our table, had the our server check it a few times but the massive pot just took time. With a table full of uncooked meat just waiting there, we started to throw in a few items, which in hindsight lowered the broths’ temperature even more. 

The saving grace during all this was the fried rice cakes, which were sweet but a welcome treat as we helplessly waited for our food to finally cook. 

It took the second round of meats and seafood to get our broth hot enough and our barrings on the process of what we wanted to stick in there. But by that point we had already fulled ourselves on the first batch of food. 

We left with pants unbuttoned and the smell of spicy broths attached to our clothes. So Hot may have had some challenges but it was mostly a fun time with a dear friend. 

So Hot
www.sohotrestaurant.com
1937 High House Rd, Cary, NC 27519

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Most of the time, I feel most Filipino when I’m the only Filipino in the room. Its then that no one is there to question my lack of Tagalog or why I don’t point with my lips.Or make me feel less Filipino. Maybe that is why my first time at Filipino Express was so uncomfortable that I thought the restaurant itself was bad. It was actual me. Me and my own insecurities of my culture. 

My first experience at Capital Boulevard’s Filipino Express was a filled with me so badly pronouncing the dish sisig that the kind Filipina woman working behind the counter had to come over to the white board so she could see to what dish I was pointing at. I felt embarrassed I could not communicate with someone I share heritage with. But it was even more than just feeling self-conscious, I was ashamed. 

Filipino food as always been my safe place with a culture I often feel isolated from. The common thread I could always go back to when others failed. But even that felt questioned at my visit to Filipino Express, it was devastating. So I avoided the restaurant, disregarded their food as no good and even as cravings of adobo or lumpia creep up. 

But as time passed and I found myself more secure in my identity, I decided to give Filipino Express another chance. Specially since we noticed that online ordering was available. We went with all the classics. Pancit, Lumpia and the recently popular Sisig. 

It was good. Not this-is-my-as-good-as-my-mothers-cooking good but close enough without having to drive down to Angier. The lumpia was the best thing served, fried to a delicious crisp with a savory pork filling. Sisig was a solid rendition but lacked the amount of chilies I wanted to give it some heat. The pancit was serviceable, though the portions more than made up for any imperfections I found with the dish. 

When you grow up Asian-American, you find yourself at the margins of two cultures. Not being American or Asian enough. For a while, that’s what Filipino Express used to represent for me. A gap in my identity that could never be crossed. But now, its food and its well stocked grocery is a place to discover. Discover more about a culture that me and my family come from. A place to discover more about myself.

Filipino Express
https://www.filipinoexpressnc.com/
3601 Capital Blvd, Raleigh, NC 27604

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Zanyu Noodles is as much an autobiography of chef and owner Michael Bongiorno as it is a noodles restaurant. After taking gigs that took him all over the world (seriously check out his LinkedIn), the globetrotting chef landed in Raleigh to cook, as he put it, “just the stuff that I like to eat.”

And apparently the stuff Chef Michael likes to eat is tasty noodles. His cozy restaurant in North Raleigh’s Lafayette Village is dedicated to satisfying broths and slurp-able noodles. Inviting us out to celebrate their first year of business, the chilly winter day was the ideal setting for a warm noodle soup. 

Zanyu’s menu isn’t going to overwhelm you with choices, a total of ten. My server directed me the curry laksa as the spiciest soup.

It was a treat to dig around the rich curry broth for all the goodies that completed the soup. Fried bean curds and hard boiled eggs were little treasures. 

At the bottom of the bowl was a plentiful pile of noodles. The egg noodles had a great chew and complimented the flavorful soup. 

Though Chef Michael didn’t name the restaurant after his steamed buns, they are just as delectable as the noodles. Enveloped inside of warm soft bun, shrimp featured a creamy mayo with a tolerable kick. 

Restaurants like Zanyu are what makes the Raleigh food scene exciting - passionate chefs bringing their life experiences and sharing it with the Oak of Oaks. 

Zanyu Asian Noodles
https://www.zanyunoodles.com/
8450 Honeycutt Rd Unit 112, Raleigh, NC 27615

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The debut of Benchwarmers Bagels was as palpable as the opening of Transfer Co. Food Hall itself. The brainchild of local powerhouses Jubala Coffee and Bolted Bread, Benchwarmers brings a sorely needed bagel shop to downtown, and in a wood fire oven at that.

The wood fire isn’t just a gimmick or a cosmetic move - though it’s entertaining to watch the bakers lay down dozens of bagels into the oven’s roaring fire. The fire gives the bagels a delightful texture, with a nice bite on the outside and soft an chewy on the inside.

Benchwarmers’ lineup of bagels includes plenty of classics. Everything and poppy seed bagels are available, but look for some subtle twists to the tried and true.

Maple raisin is Benchwarmers’ offering for the sweet tooth. A sweet glaze of maple coats the outside of the bagel, giving it a slight brulee-like crunch as you bite in. Raisin are not something I typical care for, but in this bagel they’re tolerable. 

Grits on a bagel makes so much sense that it’s hard to understand why other shops haven’t baked them previously. The tiny pieces of the corn byproduct dust the bagel, and was surprisingly they don’t make the texture too course. The grits finish offers a crunchy texture contrast for softer spreads and fillings.

Benchwarrmers features a multitude of spreads to smear on your bagel. To pair with my grit bagel, I chose the honey bacon butter, which was considerably sweeter than I had expected.

Benchwarmers offers an extensive list of interesting sandwiches and none are more interesting than their smoked fish dip, pickle of the day, potato chips, and roe sandwich. Sounding like the creation of a desperate college student throwing something together from what’s left in the fridge, this sandwich resembled a refined tuna sandwich. The right amounts of smokiness and crunch complemented the creaminess of the dip and the brine of the pickle. It was Sara’s dream sandwich.

Deviled egg spread added a fun Southern kick to the traditional lox bagel. The spread had a nice tang that worked well with a briny salmon. 

No fuss egg sandwiches are also on the menu. While the egg was perfectly cooked, the za’atar and sea salt bagel made it special. The bagel tasted like Neomonde.

The bagel shop serves brews of the same quality I would expect from Jubala. We ordered a salted butterscotch latte that was able to achieve a tasty butterscotch flavor while not being overly sweet sugar bomb. 

Food halls were created for concepts like Benchwarmers - innovative and fun, but maybe would have difficulty spearheading its own location. Raleigh’s long desired bagel shop lives up to its lofty expectations. 

Benchwarmers Bagels
In the Transfer Company Food Hall
https://www.transfercofoodhall.com/vendors/benchwarmers-bagels
500 E. Davie St. Suite 107, Raleigh, NC 27601 

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