Where the Chefs Eat

In Feature Stories, September 2020 by Lauren Kruchten1 Comment

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A lot has changed in three years, when we last asked Raleigh chefs to give us the scoop on their favorite places to eat while they’re off the clock. An international pandemic forced restaurants to close for months, in the City of Oaks and all over the country. Many simply never reopened, and the ones that have had to find creative ways to serve their customers at a limited capacity. Still, six months into our new COVID reality, eating out—whether in a restaurant’s dining room or on its patio, via curbside pickup or delivery—remains a popular pastime among Raleighites, including among our city’s many chefs. So, in our annual restaurants issue (and in order to support our local culinary scene), we figured now is the perfect time to bring back our popular feature, “Where the Chefs Eat.” We asked more than two dozen local chefs to share their favorite spots, with the caveat that these eateries would be a little more under the radar than the places we’re used to hearing about. From a food truck that doesn’t serve drinks to a 28-year-old mom and pop diner to a strip mall shopping center spot you likely wouldn’t look at twice, here are some gems recommended to you by the folks at the forefront of the city’s food scene.

Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar

309 N Dawson Street | mulinoraleigh.com

Hidden in plain sight at the entrance to downtown Raleigh via Capital Boulevard is Mulino and its serene, Italian-inspired patio and garden. The gorgeous outdoor space centers around a brilliant blue pool and overflows with lush greenery, the perfect atmosphere to enjoy authentic Italian dishes and wines. “Dining at Mulino transports you to another place,” says Chris Hylton of ORO Restaurant & Lounge. “The outdoor dining area has been beautifully curated to create an incredible atmosphere that truly enhances the experience.” When Hylton visits the restaurant, he orders the octopus and tagliatelle bolognese made with fresh pasta, beef and pork ragu, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, a traditional dish from the Tuscan region of Italy.


Gonza Tacos y Tequila

2100 Hillsborough Street; 7713 Lead Mine Road | gonzatacosytequila.com

There are several traditions that people look forward to when visiting Angus Barn, an iconic Raleigh steakhouse that’s been around for 60 years, including the complimentary cheese and cracker bar, the polished red apples guests take home as “after-dinner mints” as well as charming customs such as the annual Christmas decorations. When it comes to dining at someone else’s restaurant, Angus Barn chef Walter Royal heads to Gonza to receive the same friendly customer service he practices at his own restaurant every day. Royal’s regular order? The ceviche. “It’s fresh and the blended flavors are unique and amazing,” Royal says. That’s not to mention the refreshing margaritas that come in a variety of fruity flavors.


Photo by Jennifer Robertson

The Cowfish

4208 Six Forks Road | thecowfish.com

When Winston’s Grille’s chef Scott Waters can’t decide between burgers and sushi, he heads to Cowfish, North Hills’ famed restaurant and home to burgushi, a unique fusion of burgers and sushi that arrive in the form of cheeseburger-filled sushi rolls and bento boxes. When Waters visits Cowfish, he says he opts for a burger (there are a variety on offer) sushi, or the grilled salmon salad. Winston’s Grille, a Raleigh mainstay since 1986, offers its own sought-after menu items including a creamy Carolina crab dip, shrimp and grits and flame-grilled filet mignon wrapped in sweet applewood smoked bacon. Winston’s even offers hand-rolled sushi of its own. 


Char-Grill
Photo by Felicia Perry Trujillo

Char-Grill

3211 Edwards Mill Road; 618 Hillsborough Street; 9601 Strickland Road; 4621 Atlantic Avenue | chargrillusa.com

You can’t beat a classic, and that’s why Char-Grill is Whiskey Kitchen executive chef Kyle Teears’ favorite spot to eat. A Raleigh institution since 1959, the beloved burger joint specializes in hamburgers cooked over charcoal flames, resulting in what some might say are the best burgers in the city, along with hot dogs, hand-cut fries and other sandwiches. Teears appreciates the spot for its late-night hours; he often finds himself grabbing a Char-Burger and a milkshake—chocolate, of course—after a long shift. While there are several Char-Grill locations throughout the Triangle, Teears heads to the original downtown location on Hillsborough Street. Personally, we think Char-Grill’s burgers are up there with Whiskey Kitchen’s own lamb burger, a unique and flavorful take on an American classic.


Taipei 101

121 E Chatham Street, Cary | carytaipei101nc.com

Chef Drew Smith is extremely passionate about Asian flavors, as seen in his Cary restaurant kō•än, so it’s no surprise that he’s a fan of Taipei 101, a popular eatery in downtown Cary specializing in Taiwanese and Chinese cuisine. Not only is the food at Taipei 101 delicious, Smith says, but the staff is very friendly. Before COVID, Smith was a lunchtime regular, but now, he often uses the restaurant’s convenient takeout service to get his fix of Chong Qing Chicken, the best chicken dish Smith claims to have ever had. “Not exaggerating, our team of chefs literally craves this dish on a daily basis,” Smith says. Other popular dishes at Taipei 101 include the scallion beef pancake roll, Szechuan-style beef noodle soup and mini-steamed buns.


Pho Far East

4011 Capital Boulevard | facebook.com/phofareast

Coleen SpeaksHummingbird restaurant is very much inspired by her time spent living in New Orleans, where there’s also a prominent Vietnamese community. After moving to Raleigh, Speaks spent a good deal of time searching for restaurants that would satisfy her cravings for international cuisine. Pho Far East, the popular Vietnamese restaurant located in an unassuming strip mall off of Capital Boulevard, was one of Speaks’ first promising discoveries. “It’s a lovely family business with consistently delicious food,” she says. “Such a cultural gem for Raleigh.” Speaks’ summertime favorite is the grilled pork with vermicelli noodles; during the winter months she opts for the delicious pho. And, of course, she’ll enjoy the restaurant’s famous banh mi at any time of the year.


Taqueria El Toro

3601 Junction Boulevard | facebook.com/taqueriaeltororaleigh

Despite opening in the middle of a pandemic, Jake Wood’s Lawrence Barbecue has quickly become a local go-to for sticky ribs, thick slabs of Texas-style brisket, smoked wings—dunk them in the addicting Leroy’s Bama White Sauce for optimal deliciousness—and other barbecue delights. Because spending hours on end cooking meat in a smoker can make you hungry, Wood heads to Taqueria El Toro, a strip mall gem serving authentic Mexican food, when he wants a quick bite. Wood’s go-to order is four carne asada tacos, topped with the restaurant’s spicy green sauce made with avocado, cilantro and onions, and a Mexican Coke. Always a Mexican Coke. Wood also likes to buy meat and freshly made tortillas from the taqueria’s supermarket located next door.


Chuan Xia Cafe

2004 New Bern Avenue | chuanxiacafe.com

For Eric Montagne, the executive chef of Locals Oyster Bar in Transfer Co. Food Hall, Chuan Xia Cafe is a recent discovery. He says he found himself ordering takeout from the restaurant that serves traditional Chinese dishes often during the coronavirus shutdown. “Their staff has always been incredibly friendly and accommodating of any questions I’ve had about their restaurant or menu,” Montagne says. “They clearly know and respect their food culture and are an amazing addition to the Raleigh restaurant community.” Chuan Xia Cafe’s menu offers several traditional dishes, including General Tso’s Chicken, lo mein and fried pork dumplings, along with more unique dishes that Montagne generally chooses, such as Dan Dan noodles, Mapo tofu, toothpick lamb and Wood Ear mushrooms with wild peppers.


Las Marias

1600 Ronald Drive | restaurantelasmarias.com

As at chef Oscar Diaz’s hip seafood and cocktail lounge Cortez, during pre-COVID times, Las Marias hosted a DJ bumping music throughout the night while patrons drank, ate and danced at the casual Mexican restaurant. Diaz admits that, though he’d like to try more dishes at Las Marias, which specializes in tacos and pupusas, he can’t stop ordering the tacos dorados de barbacoa or the birria de res o borrego. The dorados are pan fried on one side and stuffed with juicy lamb birria, Diaz explains, while the birria dish is a brothy mixture of braised lamb. “That dish is poppin,’ y’all,” he says of the tacos. “Like, for real, go and get it.” Ask for the spicy salsa as well to douse over everything. 


Royal India

3901 Capital Boulevard | royalindiannc.com

When Royal India opened its doors in Raleigh in 1990, it was one of the only Indian restaurants in the Triangle. Since then, a number of international restaurants have opened in the area, but customers have stayed true to the award-winning Royal India for its authentic Indian cuisine and homey atmosphere. Chef Andrew Pettifer of Margaux’s Restaurant is a dedicated fan of Royal India’s variety of dishes and styles, especially the curries, which remind him of the curries he can get in his native England. Royal India’s menu is broken down via types of protein: seafood, chicken, lamb, goat and vegetarian, supplemented with appetizers, tandoori specialties, biryani and Indian breads. Pettifer often orders the lamb and chicken specialties, though he has high praise for the vegetarian dishes as well.


Grand Street Pizza

909 McKnight Drive, Knightdale | mygrandstreetpizza.com

While there are plenty of pizza places in the Triangle, Rosewater Kitchen and Bar chef Brian Jenzer and his family head to Grand Street Pizza in Knightdale when a pizza craving hits. The family-owned restaurant is a Sunday dinner go-to for the Jenzers, who have kids ages 4 and 8 months and who love the pizza there, too—especially topped with bacon and black olives. Grand Street offers three types of pizza—New York-style (thin crust), Sicilian-style (thick crust) and stuffed pizza—along with signature Italian dishes passed down from the owners’ previous generations, including homemade lasagna, baked ziti and eggplant rollatini. 


Jack’s Seafood & Soul Food

1516 New Bern Avenue | jacksseafoodandsoulfood.com

Fried seafood is a delicacy on the North Carolina coast and a staple of summertime. Here in Raleigh, we’re blessed with Jack’s Seafood & Soul Food, lauded by Garland chef-owner Cheetie Kumar as serving the best fried chicken and fish she’s found in the area. Seafood dinners include fried catfish, flounder, shrimp and tilapia, all of which are served with two sides and hushpuppies, which Kumar says are “perfectly crunchy on the outside and just tender and corny enough on the inside.” Kumar’s go-to order? Fried chicken with greens (turnip or collards, whichever is available), cabbage, coleslaw, mac and cheese—and extra hushpuppies.


Mami’s

2401 Wake Forest Road | mamislatinrotisserie.com

When Papa Shogun came onto the Raleigh restaurant scene in 2018, guests were fascinated—and ultimately very impressed—by the unique Japanese-Italian menu. Chef Tom Cuomo’s chicken parm ramen and fresh pulled mozzarella with kombu garlic bread quickly became a sought-after specialty in town. While Papa Shogun continues to mix it up with exciting new dishes, Mami’s sticks to what it’s most known for and what it does best: Latin-style rotisserie chicken. When Cuomo visits the Raleigh mainstay, he typically orders the roasted chicken, cooked to perfection in a charcoal-based oven imported from Peru, with tostones and maduros on the side. “The food is consistently delicious,” Cuomo says. “And the people who work there are amazing!”


Poppyseed Market Cafe & Wine Bar

8801 Lead Mine Road | poppyseedmkt.com

Food and wine are just two things that both Vivace and Poppyseed Market take very seriously. At Vivace, the wine list spans five pages, boasting a variety of mostly Italian bottles that pair perfectly with Italian-inspired pasta, soup, antipasti and meat-centered entrees, while Poppyseed Market sources wines from all over the world to supplement the gourmet café menu. Vivace chef Ian Sullivan likes Poppyseed for its elevated regional favorites and warm, welcoming staff. When he visits the café, he opts for one of the hot sandwiches, of which there’s a variety—Philly Cheese Steak, Grilled Pimento Cheese and Chicken Parmesan, to name just a few.


Bua Thai

5850 Fayetteville Road, Durham | buathaidurham.com

Samad Hachby, owner of Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar, can’t choose just one favorite dish from Durham’s Bua Thai restaurant. Some days he orders the papaya salad, other days the seafood salad and sometimes he opts for the Thai sausage or duck noodle soup. The popular Bull City eatery specializes in authentic Isaan-style Thai food, along with unique fusion dishes and decadent desserts. “This is the go-to restaurant for me when I need some great combinations of flavors that are bold, balanced and fresh,” Hachby says. “The owners and chefs elevate Thai cuisine with the use of fresh ingredients and modern cooking techniques.”


Taza Grill 

6325 Falls of Neuse Road; 10940 Raven Ridge Road | tazagrill.com

You haven’t had a proper breakfast in Raleigh if you haven’t been to Big Ed’s City Market restaurant. “Big Ed” Watkins opened the downtown mainstay in 1989, with Sammy Hobgood taking over in 2006 and continuing Big Ed’s traditional recipes for omelets, hot cakes, French toast, biscuits and other popular breakfast dishes. Hobgood’s favorite restaurant is an equally time-honored Raleigh establishment, albeit one known for Mediterranean cuisine: Taza Grill. Hobgood praises Taza Grill’s friendly service, along with its lamb gyro platter—a simple yet flavorful plate, he says. “Every person who goes inside is referred to as ‘friend,’” Hobgood says. “The food is great, and that is an important feature of any restaurant, but I highly value being welcomed and treated well.”


Dharani

3281 Avent Ferry Road; 1000 Lower Shiloh Way, Morrisville |dharanius.com

One of the best parts of any Indian dining experience is sopping up the leftover sauces on your plate with Indian breads. At Dharani, a fine dining Indian restaurant in Morrisville, and its express location in Raleigh, Stanbury’s chef Drew Maykuth always orders butter naan and dosas, a crispy rice pancake made with fermented batter, to go with his favorite dish, the goat sukha. “Always the goat sukha,” Maykuth exclaims. “One of the most flavorful dishes I’ve had in Raleigh.” He advises visiting the restaurant with a group so you can order and sample the variety of traditional Indian dishes offered, including korma, biryani, curry and more.


Lilly’s Pizza

1813 Glenwood Ave | lillyspizza.com

Caroline Morrison’s restaurant Fiction Kitchen specializes in delectable vegan and vegetarian dishes that are so good you won’t even miss the meat—think crispy fried mock chicken and waffles and vegan crab cakes. A vegetarian herself, Morrison treasures Raleigh’s iconic Lilly’s Pizza for its abundance of vegan and vegetarian options. Her favorite item on the menu is the Bantam Weight salad, which she orders with tofu instead of chicken and lemon tahini dressing, and a side of the pita, made with Lilly’s pizza dough, served with mango chutney, hummus and creamy artichoke dip. “This eclectic pizza joint deserves being known as a gem in Raleigh,” Morrison says. “There is nothing like it anywhere else.”


El Rey Del Taco

600 Capital Boulevard | facebook.com/elreydeltaconc

It’s simple things like house made bread or sauces that make any dish go from good to great. Mandolin’s chef Sean Fowler goes out of his way to prepare items such as buckwheat waffles, chimichurri and fresh corn grits for his elevated Southern food menu. At El Rey Del Taco, a popular food truck situated on Capital Boulevard, it’s the handmade tortillas that really make the tacos stand out from the rest; Fowler lauds them as the best tacos in Raleigh. He typically goes for the al pastor, lengua and chorizo tacos, “but don’t sleep on their tortas,” he adds. “Their Cubano is ridiculous!” The food truck also boasts reasonable prices—you can fill up for under $10.


Barry’s Cafe

2851 Jones Franklin Road | barryscafe.com

When STIR’s new executive chef Heather Miro craves biscuits and gravy and a nice chat, she goes to Barry’s Cafe, her go-to diner in Raleigh that’s been serving comforting meals for nearly three decades. Miro says sitting at the bar and talking with the cooks while they cook her breakfast is one of her favorite things. “The waitstaff is always super friendly and just makes you feel like you walked into your grandparents’ house on a Sunday afternoon after church,” Miro says. Miro, who previously worked for Disney, Yard House and Seasons 52, joined the STIR team in June as the North Hills restaurant’s first female executive chef and has played a role in creating new lunch, dinner and dessert items.


Red Pepper Asian

4121 New Bern Avenue | redpepper-nc.com

A fun fact about Krystle Swenson, the James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef for Scott Crawford’s Jolie and Crawford & Son, is that she grew up on Hawaii’s Oahu island. When she wants to get back to her roots, she goes to Red Pepper Asian, a restaurant specializing in Malaysian, Thai and Chinese cuisine—all of which are rooted in Hawaii’s rich culinary culture. “The food is comforting, consistent and delicious,” Swenson says. “We’ve tried a lot of the menu and I don’t think you can go wrong with anything.” Her favorite dishes, she says, are the Malay sambal beef, Szechuan green beans and egg noodles with roast pork. She even repurposes the sauce from the beef and green beans in her fried rice leftovers. 


Don Beto’s Tacos & Mariscos

421 Chapanoke Road | donbetostacosnc.com

Nunzio Scordo likes Mexican food so much that he recently changed the concept of his Southern-centric restaurant Driftwood Kitchen + Bar to Driftwood Cantina, a tropical-themed taco joint specializing in handmade tortillas and craft cocktails. So it’s no wonder his favorite spot to eat around Raleigh is the Mexican restaurant Don Beto’s Tacos & Mariscos, known for its colorful dishes including tostadas, seafood platters, botanas and loaded shrimp cocktails. Scordo’s favorite menu items are the ceviche-style shrimp tostadas and huaraches—a fried masa dough base—topped with cow tongue and spicy salsa. He also praises the restaurant for being quick and consistently delicious.


Soo Cafe

2815 Brentwood Road | facebook.com/pages/Soo-Cafe/431103257023485

On the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but try Soo Cafe’s Korean fried chicken and you’ll be blown away, just as The Players Retreat’s chef Beth Littlejohn was. “Soo Cafe has incredibly delicious, spicy, crispy Korean fried chicken,” she says. Littlejohn knows a thing or two about chicken herself. On any given game day, North Carolina sports fans flock to Players Retreat to cheer on their teams while chowing down on chicken wings—doused in their special PR sauce or buffalo sauce—or “chicken retreats,” Littlejohn’s addictive take on chicken tenders. At Soo Cafe, Littlejohn also goes for the chicken wings and tenders, with Soo’s original sauce and a side of rice and kimchi.


Dante’s Italiano

13200 Falls of Neuse Road | dantesitaliano.com

Neuse River Brewing pleased many a Raleighite last year when it added the Brasserie, serving European bistro-inspired fare with a North Carolina twist. Chef Steven Jankowski helms the kitchen, crafting delicious dishes such as duck poutine, croque monsieur and pan roasted chicken to be enjoyed with Neuse’s superb craft beers. When Jankowski was just opening up the restaurant, he didn’t want to spend the time he had at home cooking, so he and his family often headed out to eat. Dante’s Italiano is one of his favorite spots for the authentic Italian pasta dishes and $10 pizza on Tuesdays, which his kids love. “It’s nice to have great quality food that’s not too far from the house,” Jankowski says.


Que Huong Oriental Market

3312 Capital Boulevard | facebook.com/quehuongmarketnc

Although it’s technically an Asian market rather than a restaurant, Mofu Shoppe chef Dallas Frentz argues that Que Huong serves the best bahn mi sandwiches in all of the Triangle. And since he cooks up delicious Asian-inspired food at Mofu Shoppe on a daily basis, his word shouldn’t be taken lightly. Frentz joined the Mofu Shoppe team after serving three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and then attending culinary school at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. When visiting Que Huong, he advises letting the employee working at the front of the market know how many banh mi you want—there are no options as to what kind—and they’ll relay your order to the back of the grocery. “Perfection,” Frentz says.


Biryani Xprx

748 East Chatham Street, Cary | biryanixprx.com

While Angela Salamanca’s colorful Mexican restaurant Centro has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been doing a lot of cooking at home, only venturing out for takeout or dine-in a few times. On her way to adopt a foster dog (a quarantine addition that’s sure to keep her busy) she stumbled upon an Indian restaurant in Cary called Biryani Xprx. Biryani, a dish consisting of rice, meat or paneer, vegetables and spices in a rich gravy, serves as the restaurant’s signature house made dish, but the restaurant also serves paneer tikka masala, butter chicken, samosas and more. Six different types of naan ensure no leftover sauces go to waste.


Photo by Melissa Kahan / @foodpunsandbuns

Gym Tacos

220 E Six Forks Road | facebook.com/pages/category/food-truck/gym-tacos-1422142561256157

Andrew Ullom’s year-old bakery Union Special has quickly become a hotspot for freshly baked loaves of sourdough bread and flaky croissants, loaded breakfast and lunch sandwiches and savory brunch specials that often run out before noon. Behind the scenes, Ullom fuels all that baking and prep work with grub from Gym Tacos, “the dopest tacos around,” in his words. Ullom appreciates the food truck’s menu of regional favorites, such as borrachitas, or tortillas with grilled cheese and carne asada, as well as signature Mexican dishes like gringas, small quesadillas with adobo and chicken. Ullom’s favorites, however, are the surf and turf burrito and quesadillas with chorizo. “I also always get way too much food and feel very accomplished at the end of the meal,” Ullom says.

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