Best quickie mart
The Key Food Mart at 325 W. Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill is a daily experiment in multicultural interaction. The convenience store sits on the fault line between Northside, one of the town's few historic African-American neighborhoods, and the traditionally white shopping strip along West Franklin Street that also hosts establishments run by people from Turkey, China, India and Italy. Key's customers hail from all walks of life. You're just as likely to encounter a construction worker, a civil servant, a co-ed or a crack head.
The mostly Arab-American staff of the store add another ingredient to the mix. Where else are you going to overhear a Latino police officer, on the day before Eid Al Adha (the Muslim "festival of sacrifice") ask a clerk: "So, tomorrow's your Christmas, huh?"
Seven days out of seven, you'll find Khalid Mahmoud, a Palestinian who grew up in Kuwait, manning the store during daylight hours. Soft-spoken but outgoing, Mahmoud makes a sport of learning and employing American phrases. His way with words injects a little quickie-mart magic into even the most ordinary days. One rainy afternoon last summer, when a customer asked if the weather was hurting business, he raised his hands in mock futility and replied with an impromptu poem: "No sunny, no funny. No funny, no money."
Best local baker for consumers with special dietary needs
For anyone coping with special dietary needs yet wanting to partake in post-meal pleasures, Wellspring in Chapel Hill is the place for you. Baker Lee Tobin offers a delectable assortment of goodies for your particular dietary requirements.
Specializing in products for those with an intolerance to gluten--a naturally occurring substance in wheat, rye, barley and oats, and used as an additive in a large number of foods--the Elliott Road store offers a sizable selection of desserts for those suffering from a number of ailments. Included are a variety of cakes, scones, breads, cookies and pies. Other items are available upon request as well. And make sure you try the cream biscuits. They'll make your mama jealous.
Best bean pie
Nobody does a bean pie like The Know Bookstore and Deli on Fayetteville Street in Durham. ... Nobody.
For those who've never had a bean pie, stop by The Know and grab a slice. Because of its borderline-oxymoronic name, this smooth, sweet mixture of navy beans, cinnamon and sugar, will entice few to ask you for a bite of yours. This is a good thing. These pies are too good to be shared casually.
If you have friends or family who have experienced one, and they happen to spot your slice out on the kitchen countertop, tell them to slowly put their hands out where you can see them, and step away from the pie.
Quail Ridge Books, located in Quail Ridge Shopping Center off Wade Avenue in Raleigh, garners a well-deserved nod as the Triangle's best bookseller, sans cappuccino and comfy chairs. Between readings and book signings by literary giants such as Amy Tan, local authors and luminaries in their own right such as Tim McLaurin, Lee Smith and The Independent's own Hal Crowther, and salespeople who know their customers on a first-name basis--well, how could literate folk opt for the incompetent salespeople inside that generic corporate giant down the road?
Best multipurpose restaurant
As if a bodacious buffet weren't enough, Carrboro's El Chilango, at 506 Jones Ferry Road, also features a nearly nightly series of activities that makes this restaurant feel like a community center. On Tuesday nights, kitchen worker Ranulso Franco leads free conversational Spanish classes that accommodate everyone from the novice to the expert. Thursday is old-time music night, which brings out dozens of players of traditional tunes and their fans. Friday nights feature Latin dancing with a DJ; show up at 9 p.m. for free merengue and salsa lessons, then try your steps with the pros until closing at 1 a.m.
Monthly events complement the weekly roster. The first Saturday night of the month is reserved for freewheeling, multicultural karaoke--hits from Latin America interlaced with The Beatles and Garth Brooks. The second is all tango, organized by the Triangle Tangueros, who lead an hour of free instruction starting at 8 p.m.
Lisa Domby, one of the owners, says that El Chilango set up shop not only to bring fine Mexican fare to the Triangle, but to bring diverse communities together. "The idea is to create a space where the Latin community feels comfortable and where there will be a genuine mixing of Latinos with locals." Patrons--be they dancers, fiddlers, Spanish students or merely the hungry sort--can testify that it's a delicious mix.
Best tomato sandwich
Restaurants don't make tomato sandwiches--you do. Tomato sandwiches are very personal, much like PB&J (Crusts on or off? Jelly or jam? Cut lengthwise or diagonally?) so we're not about to push our favorite combo on you--just nudge a bit, like a mama who knows what's good for you. Pick yourself up on a Saturday morning around 8:30 a.m. and get down to the Carrboro Farmer's Market. Hook yourself up with a tomato or two--almost all of the stands will carry tomatoes, some have really cheap, really ugly, deformed ones. Next hustle over to The Celebrity Dairy's table and ask the Pfanns for a container of spreadable chevre, Garbo variety (garlic and basil flavored). Scout out a farmer with fresh bread--we found sun-dried tomato bread once--sit down, pull out your handy-dandy pocketknife and slap it all together.
Best new independent record store
While it's harder than ever to support a small business in these days of mega-chains, there is something about a small, independent record store--where the owner-clerks are tastemakers and fans as well as employees--that will forever elude the Blockbusters and Best Buys of the world. In other words, if you must have Stereolab's Aluminum Tunes vinyl box set, or the Dead Boys' Young, Loud and Snotty reissue, you're going to have to look a little harder. That's why Radio Free Records, a funky converted house on Hillsborough Street in Durham, seems like such a find for alternative-rock aficionados and collectors.
Owner Ethan Samsky started the store in a 250-square-foot location back in San Jose, Calif., where he ran the store for four years. "The store kind of followed me here," says Samsky, a Southern California native who moved to North Carolina with his fiancée after checking out other hipster towns like Austin. A big fan of the North Carolina music scene, Samsky was a follower of many of the Merge Records acts, as well as former locals Milemarker (who played at his San Jose store), and figured there were enough record heads here to support a specialized record shop.
From the lime green and ocean blue CD and record racks, to the old fireplace and hardwood floors, Radio Free has a hip, funky vibe; and you can also get your small-press rock mags (Punk Planet and the like) there as well. Even the sign on the front is homemade, but Samsky doesn't need neon, his inventory speaks for itself.
Best Country Store
Need a hunk of really high-class cheese and a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco? Fine wine, a roll of toilet paper and maybe some Epsom salts? If you're driving down N.C. 87, about halfway from Pittsboro to Graham, you're in luck. Remy's Corner Market is the perfect blend of the old rural store, with its seeds and essential clutter, and the post-hippie, back-to-the-land aesthetic that just isn't complete without an occasional vegan cookie. The sign out front says "Tofu to Fatback," and Remy's has customers that grew up on both. There's a table out front, in case you want to drink a Guiness in a plastic cup and watch the logging trucks go by. Or you can sit by the gas burner and read the paper while you wait for your sausage biscuit. If you want to know about anything that's going on in Upper Chatham-Lower Alamance (UCLA), just ask Veronica Remy, she probably knows. Once in awhile, there's live bluegrass, or an art show and oyster roast. Stop in and let the smell of warm pastries and shabby furniture wash over you. This is what the good life is all about.