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Friday, August 26, 2011

Meet-and-Three: Raleigh's Mecca

Posted by on Fri, Aug 26, 2011 at 9:38 AM

Mecca, Raleigh’s oldest family-owned restaurant, seems like a tattered, cardigan-wearing grandfather compared to the minimalist hip style of its new down-the-street neighbor, Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, a modern meat-and-three. It is. But well-worn cardigans are cool, and Mecca has managed to keep up with the times.

Inside the dark, narrow restaurant, a long counter with red vinyl stools recalls Mecca’s start as a lunch counter that served Raleigh’s downtown workers. At the time it was located on Fayetteville and Hargett streets. Five years later, the entire restaurant and its furniture—dark wooden booths and a mirrored-backed drink counter—moved to the current spot on Martin Street. Back then, Mecca was one of the first, if not the only, restaurants in the area. “If you worked downtown, you probably had to eat here,” says Floye Dombalis, whose father-in-law, Nick Dombalis, started the business.

From the beginning, Mecca served a hot meal, three meals a day—a style of cooking that harkened back to the traditional family farm dinner. There was no need for advertising. Customers filed into the restaurant out of necessity, sticking around out of loyalty or habit once the competition moved in with other offers.

Today, some 80 years later, things are about the same. Businessmen and women pack the restaurant’s booths on their lunch breaks and before and after work, and they order from a menu that is practically unchanged. A tribute to Nick Dombalis’ Greek heritage, the restaurant has long featured Zorba’s marinated beef tips on rice with garlic bread and a salad ($9.35, plus an additional 75 cents for a Greek salad). There’s also the Gary Dorn Burger, veal cutlet topped with lettuce, tomato and onion.

“Who’s Gary Dorn?” two customers asked a server on Monday night. She shook her head and looked at another employee, who shrugged. “We should brush up on our history to work here.”

To do so would require a lengthy course. The restaurant is a hodgepodge of memorabilia. Displayed high above the counter are cartoonish figurines, each about 1 foot tall, of Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan and The Three Stooges. Floye Dombalis says her husband, John Dombalis, ordered them from Saks Fifth Avenue in collaboration with a regular customer who was also the voice of the Wolfpack, Gary Dornburg.

Other restaurant relics include faded framed pictures of folks like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and baseball giant Carl Yastrzemski (the latter photo is signed). “That picture has caused more comment among men and women than anything else,” Floye Dombalis says. (It got a shout-out in The Boston Herald in 2009.)

But most of the talk about Mecca has to do with a ham. “The old ham is so ugly you can taste it,” read a headline from 2007 in the Chicago Tribune.

The story goes that in 1937, Nick Dombalis bought a 44-pound country ham from a man who was passing through town. He placed it in Mecca’s window, where it sat and rotted for 33 years and became a local celebrity. Now preserved in a freezer in the restaurant’s basement, the black ham is carted out for special events, including Mecca’s 80th anniversary last year. Aside from the deteriorating ham, however, most of Mecca’s food is fresh. “Locally grown sides,” a display board advertises from the restaurant’s front sidewalk.

Ideas are fresh, too. After 81 years, they have to be to keep Mecca relevant and running. In January, the restaurant extended its hours to midnight during the week, and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. In its early days, Mecca was open from 6—12:30 a.m. with the slogan, “It is the Mecca’s purpose to please you at all times.”

It is, however, the first time the restaurant has doubled as a bar. Cocktails, bottled beers and wine are stocked as a means to “bring in more revenue,” says Floye Dombalis. Her son, current owner Paul Dombalis, came up with the bar concept. His son, fourth-generation Mecca employee John Dombalis, who spends most days as a banker, oversees the turnout on Saturday nights. Manager Alec Barrows oversees the turnout on evenings and weekends. “I’m the old school,” says Floye Dombalis. “I was not in favor it.” But with the success of the new venture, she sees the point. Mecca is old fashioned with a twist. And these days, you can order that sentiment as an actual drink, complete with a side of greens.

Mecca (13 E. Martin St., Raleigh) is open 7:30a.m. - 12 a.m., Monday through Thursday, and 7:30 a.m. - 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday.

Correction (Sept. 1, 2011): See comments below.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Meet and Three: J.C.'s Kitchen in Durham

Posted by on Thu, Aug 11, 2011 at 4:00 PM

Hand lettering on the side of J.C.s Kitchen advertises the restaurant's specials.
  • Hand lettering on the side of J.C.'s Kitchen advertises the restaurant's weekly specials.
J.C. doesn’t cook. That’s no news to the slew of regulars at J.C.’s Kitchen, a home-style restaurant in a buttery yellow building on the corner of Main and Fayetteville streets in Durham. But new folks, explains owner Phyllis Terry, often expect to find the namesake behind the counter.

“It’s a form of witnessing to say they stand for Jesus Christ,” Terry says of the restaurant’s initials. The definition, if not explicitly explained, can be inferred from the interior of the building, where Scripture and inspirational plaques adorn the walls, gospel music pipes from a CD player, a Bible rests open by the cash register, and Terry, a petite woman with wide eyes and an inviting grin, moves about as a model of warmth and hospitality.

“We serve real food for the soul,” Terry says of J.C.’s. Or as crisp hand-painted lettering on the side of the building puts it: “Where the food is anointed and you won’t be disappointed.”

Earlier in the week, I felt that only part of the motto might be true. I had no doubt of the anointing. As Terry told me and I experienced, the restaurant is a spiritual place. But the food gave me pause when Terry confessed that most of the vegetables are cooked with turkey in place of a more traditional slab of pork.

My hesitance was unnecessary. The greens—a mix of chopped collards and cabbage—were an excellent blend of bitter, sweet and smoky flavors. And the fried okra was just as it should be: slightly crisp (not soggy from a deep-fryer) and lightly breaded. I also had one of the day’s specials, a heaping portion of fried chicken drenched in a sweet batch of barbecue sauce. But the coveted food is oxtails, available on Fridays. “People call in on Monday and Tuesday to order those,” says Terry, noting that they always sell out before the dish is even prepped at the end of each week.

J.C.s owner, Phyllis Terry, performs one of her many roles at the restaurant.
  • J.C.'s owner, Phyllis Terry, performs one of her many roles at the restaurant.
Terry has long been acquainted with a kitchen. She says that her mother, who prepared food for church and a family of nine children, was “the number one cook in Durham.” As a result, all of the Lee kids learned her recipes. “We grew up knowing what it was to cook. That was inherited,” she says.

But Terry never intended to make food professionally or own a restaurant. Instead, she spent nearly 20 years with her husband as a missionary, living and working in Africa, India and most recently, Japan. It was two of Terry’s siblings, Charles and Sheilah Lee, who set out for a career in cooking.

Around 1997, Charles turned what used to be Parker’s restaurant into his own place called Lee’s. A year later, he gave it over to Sheilah, who refashioned the place as J.C.’s and came up with the restaurant’s slogan.

Under Sheilah’s watch, the place became much more than a restaurant. “It was an outreach center to help the destitute and down and out,” says Terry. “It was her passion. She clothed people and fed them.”

But in 2008, Lee became ill with cancer. Upon her death that year, the Herald-Sun wrote, “If you were down on your luck, you didn't so much need to have a grip on your bootstraps if the late Sheilah Lee had any say in the matter—she was the type who'd pull you up herself.”

Terry didn’t want her sister’s mission to fade, so she left Japan in order to take over the restaurant. “We’re living out of seeds she planted in the community,” she says of the current business. And Terry’s ministry hasn’t ended. “It’s still our form of witnessing. There are all walks of life coming through here,” she says.

Terry recently saw through one of her sister’s dreams in hopes to make the restaurant more inviting. She remodeled the interior of the building, removing a long lunch counter to make room for new booths and tables. The flooring was redone and the walls were painted bright brick orange, teal and yellow. Terry hopes the updates will draw more people to the spot, because as she sees it, “That’s what J.C.’s is about. It’s about people.”

J.C.'s Kitchen (706 E. Main St., Durham, 680-6227) is open 6 a.m.—8 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Classroom Allergy alert letter - substitute the allergen your child has

Posted by on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 at 6:08 PM

This is a letter that I formulated some years ago when my son entered preschool and elementary school. It can be tweaked to meet your child's specific needs. If your child's teacher or principal is willing, this can be distributed in weekly folders the first week of school. Your child's name does not have to be identified.

Dear Parent,

One of the students in your child's class this year has a life-threatening allergy to nuts and peanuts. This means that nuts (pecans, almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, etc.) and peanuts, peanut butter or foods with even the slightest trace of nuts and peanuts or peanut oil may cause a severe reaction that could cause death.

For this reason, we are asking that you not send any food containing nuts or peanuts to school with your child this year. This includes foods and snacks for field trips; foods for potlucks/picnics, holiday parties or birthday celebrations. Please check the ingredients of foods your children bring to school, and be aware that even things such as plain M&Ms, plain chocolate bars and cookies, unless homemade by you, often contain trace elements of nuts that can be problematic to children with allergies. (Coconut is not a nut and does not pose any risk.)

Thanks for your consideration in helping to ensure the safety of all of our children.


(The teacher, caregiver or administrator. There is no need to specifically identify your child unless you desire to)

Some foods that often contain "hidden" nuts:

Chocolate, even "plain" chocolate, which is often manufactured on equipment that processes nuts and peanuts.
Sunflower seeds (many brands are produced on equipment shared with nuts)
Pesto/sauce/pasta (Pesto is almost always made from pine nuts)
Health food and granola bars
Ice Cream (butter pecan, pistachio, etc.)
Cookies (labels should indicate whether they have been processed with nuts)
Egg rolls
Asian foods (especially pad thai and satays, which is made with peanut butter)
Cakes and pastries with unknown ingredients (especially carrot cake, pumpkin cake or pie)

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Rice flour Playdough recipe

Posted by on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 at 6:07 PM

1 1/4 cups rice flour
1/2 cup salt
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 cup water
1 tbsp. oil
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
Food coloring or sparkles (optional)

Mix flour, salt, and cream of tartar in a large pot. Add water and oil.

Cook over medium heat until the mixture pulls away from the sides of the pan (about 5 minutes), stirring constantly.

Add vanilla extract (this is purely to add aroma). Mix thoroughly. Put playdough on a clean surface. When cool enough to handle, knead lightly.

Store in airtight container.

Add food coloring to the water to make colored play dough. Add sparkles during the handmixing time for sparkly play dough. Wear gloves.

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Wheat-free, gluten-free Playdough recipe

Posted by on Wed, Aug 10, 2011 at 6:05 PM

2 c. cornstarch
1 c. salt
1 tbsp. shortening
1 1/2 c. water
1/2 tbsp of vegetable oil

Mix all of the ingredients in a large stockpot and cook over low heat until mixture leaves edge of pan. It will thicken and be a little hard to stir initially. You can add a little water to it. Take it out and knead it while still warm, adding food color, if you like. You may want to wear gloves to keep the dye from staining your hands. Knead until smooth. Store it in a plastic bag or container at room temperature.


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Friday, August 5, 2011

North Carolina ranks 10th in U.S. in number of farmers markets

Posted by on Fri, Aug 5, 2011 at 3:52 PM

North Carolina ranks 10th in the number of farmers markets in the U.S., according to a report released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With 217 farmers markets, N.C. is the only Southern state in the top 10.

California ranks first with 729.

The numbers are self-reported, said Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, during a media briefing, and thus likely are undercounted. The report was released in conjunction with National Farmers Market week, which runs Aug. 7-13.

Nationwide, there are 7,175 farmers markets—an increase of 17 percent over last year.

“It goes back to the yearning for the 99 percent of Americans who are no longer connected to the farm to reconnect [with it],” Merrigan said. “To know your farmer, to know your food.”

These markets also help launch the careers of young farmers. The average age of an American farmer is 57. “We are on the threshold of a generational transfer and we need strategies to bring in young people,” Merrigan said.

Of the nation’s farmers markets, only 12 percent reported that they accept SNAP benefits—formerly known as food stamps—onsite. (Several Triangle-area markets, including Carrboro, accept these benefits.) While that number is small, it nonetheless represents a 16 percent increase over last year.

People enrolled in the SNAP program made 453,711 purchases at farmers markets and direct farm marketing outlets nationwide, with an average purchase amount of $16.69, the report stated.

“People are looking for fresh—and for that taste experience,” Merrigan said. “People are looking for community; farmers markets are where people come together.”

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Pretty sure some band named R.E.M. played their first gig outside of Georgia at the Station as well.

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