Last month before the Dog Days of summer set in, I spent the most perfect evening on Juju's patio. Cooled by a breeze strong enough to flap the menus on my table, I relaxed with my husband and a friend of 28 years, drinking, reminiscing and watching the sun dip below the horizon. Cue the soundtrack from Pretty in Pink.
At some point toward the bottom of a very potent Manhattan, I realized I was sitting where a Rite Aid used to be, possibly in the analgesics aisle or maybe eye and ear care. Then I remembered that I could not remember what else had been on this property, other than George's Garage, where I used to eat overpriced mashed potatoes. Was there grass? Trees? Was the lot hilly or flat?
Bulldozers have a way of erasing the past as well as memories of it. And so it is with Juju at the Shops at Erwin Mills, a mixed-used development on Ninth Street consisting of a big-box grocery store, upscale apartments and 70 percent chain stores. Through no fault of Juju's, which is the bright spot in the entire complex, the Shops at Erwin Mills threaten to transform the former happy-go-lucky neighborhood of buskers and eccentrics into Southpoint Lite.
Nonetheless, I'm fond of the Ninth Street neighborhood, and since that evening, I've returned to Juju several times—and may have to get a second job to afford it—because I cannot get enough of its food. Juju—the word translates roughly to magic charm—is brought to you by Charlie Deal. He also owns well-regarded eateries Jujube, an Asian fusion restaurant in Chapel Hill, and Dos Perros, which serves upscale Mexican dishes in downtown Durham.
Deal's latest venture specializes in Asian tapas, small plates, which, licked clean, quickly accumulate on your table. Start with two wild mushroom wontons, fried in a light batter and garnished with cilantro mint pesto. Or, if you have a cilantro aversion, substitute them with salad rolls dipped in a zesty peanut sauce.
Brighten your palate with a tomato salad featuring assorted varieties of the fruit pulled directly from the vines at Funny Girl Farm just a few miles away. Now, rest and sip that stiff Manhattan. We have a long way to go.
Dashi may serve the best Brussels sprouts in town, but Juju is gaining fast. Jazzed up with crushed peanuts, dried apricots and pickled onions, the crispy sprouts were the best item on the menu—at least until they were dethroned by grilled corn on the cob. The miso butter, chives and Korean chili flakes add a new dimension to the summer mainstay of my Indiana childhood.
If you're in to eating mammals and birds, then choose from the many dishes featuring pork, duck and wild boar. That's not for me, but the glazed salmon, cooked medium-well, melted in my mouth.
Chocolate flan, creamy and rich, is a no-brainer, but I've become obsessed with yuzu, that my well-informed server told me, is an East Asian citrus fruit. Juju uses its juice in many dishes: the tart brûléed lemon curd with raspberry yogurt, graham crackers and blackberry shiso; the orange-yuzu viniagrette that accompanies the lunchtime salad rolls; the sweet chili yuzu sauce that begs to be dabbed on grilled shrimp.
The waitstaff is professional, cheerful, attentive but not hovering, and they deserve a handsome tip. They patiently fielded my questions about yuzu, and even asked the chef where the restaurant gets it—from Asia, via plane to RDU.
If the weather (or space) does not allow you to sit on the patio, the inside, is no less lovely. Open, minimalist, doused with natural light in the front (hey is that where the Rite Aid counter used to be?) it includes dimmer spots in the back (was this the pharmacy?) that set a more intimate mood.
Now that I've enticed you with the food, we must consider a practical matter: Parking.
Juju is located in a parking combat zone. You can park at the Shops of Erwin Mills and eat at Juju, no problem. But don't even think about crossing the street; in fact, avert your gaze.
Regency Centers, which operates the development, has posted signs daring you, no, double daring you, to saunter across the street while parked in its lot. So if you plan to dine at Juju and then head say, to The Regulator to buy a book or attend an author's talk, heed those towing advisories and move your car to the street after your meal. Better yet, if you're headed to Juju for lunch, ride the free Bull City Connector. Get off at Iredell and walk three blocks. No car, no hassle.
On the way to Juju, stroll down Ninth, buy something from a local business, and toss a dollar in a busker's violin case. You never miss anything until it's gone.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The mojo of Juju."