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The gastro-ethnic highlights of Chapel Hill and Carrboro 

My latest cravinggorditas de pollo

Butcher Manuel De Jesus serves a customer at Toledo's in Carrboro.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Butcher Manuel De Jesus serves a customer at Toledo's in Carrboro.

I owe Graig Meyer, a self-described connoisseur of Mexican food, for introducing me to my latest craving—gorditas de pollo. In 1998, Meyer moved to Carrboro with his wife, Jen, and newly adopted daughter, Ashley, to enjoy the warm weather, cultural activities and friendly, welcoming community. With a social awareness that grows from his appetite, his unique family—Meyer and his wife are white, their daughter is black—and his work bridging the achievement gap in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, Meyer knows his way around Chapel Hill and Carrboro's ethnic neighborhoods and haunts, and he doesn't mind sharing his knowledge with friends and employees.

"I do a tour where they get a sense of where African-American and Latino families live," Meyer says. "If you look at the community through African-American eyes or a Latino lens, what's important?"

We start at Carrboro's Tienda, Taqueria y Carniceria Toledo's (506 Jones Ferry Road, Carrboro, 967-1556), where it helps to speak a little Spanish. A large metal tray of pink chicken feet sits in a cooler behind sloped glass, next to several slabs of thinly sliced beef. The opposite display case is filled with over-the-counter meds and stacks of cowboy hats. The matching boots on a raised shelf behind the counter sit just within reach of the woman working the register, who waits patiently for me to eye the food menu. I consider tortas, tacos and gorditas stuffed with bistek, choriqueso, chorizo, lengua or barbacoa, but settle on gorditas de pollo, thick, toasted corn tortillas stuffed with chicken, refried beans, queso fresco and lettuce.

Toledo's, which shares a parking lot with a gas station and coin laundry, sits just off the intersection of Jones Ferry and Davie roads, probably the busiest corner for day laborers in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Almost all of the patrons are Latino men. They sit at tables and booths set against peach walls and watch a mounted television that plays Spanish soap operas and movies. Their dialogue mixes with the traditional Mexican music piped through the store's speakers.

Meyer also enjoys the food at Carrboro's Don Jose Tienda Mexicana (708 Rosemary St., Carrboro, 969-8568) and the taco trucks that set up in downtown Carrboro in the evenings. He has also tapped in to Carrboro's "underground network of tamale makers," women who cook Mexican food from their homes (but you'll have to track them down on your own).

Angela Bynum, the cook at Walt's Grill on South Merritt Mill Road in Chapel Hill - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Walt's Grill (111 S. Merritt Mill Road, Chapel Hill, 933-1744) serves another kind of home cooking to a different group of customers. "It's where all the older black guys in Chapel Hill hang out," Meyer says. "I've never seen more than one other white person. I've seen maybe three or four white people, total." The place feels like someone's home, not so much because of the furniture or décor, but because of the familiarity between the customers and the cooks. Patrons sit around the table playing cards, with an old television blasting some sporting event or another sitting on a stand in front of them. The cooks are right there, too, and only retreat to the kitchen when someone wants a plate of something. The soul food menu is written in cursive each day in a spiral-bound notebook: Pig feet. Fried chicken and fish. Corn. Black-eyed peas. String beans. "Most of the people that grew up around here come up here," says Ms. Angie, who comes in before lunch to do most of the frying. "Everybody knows everybody by name. We don't have any other place to hang out."

Down on Rosemary Street, once Chapel Hill's black business corridor, you can find Eastern Market (505 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill, 968-1703), a small Asian grocery store. Cross the threshold and you breathe in what I can only describe as the quintessential Asian-grocery-store smell. Three aisles are packed with imported goodies, including some Indian ingredients. Statues of Buddha are for sale behind the counter. Four Frigidaire freezers stand against the far wall; the posters taped to their doors provide makeshift windows onto their contents: Pork and cilantro dumplings. Roasted eel. Spring roll skin. Meyer digs through the freezers to find alternatives to frozen chicken nuggets for his family.

Meyer finds Chapel Hill and Carrboro's heterogeneous places just as interesting as those dominated by one ethnic group or another. Tom Robinson's Carolina Seafood (207 Roberson St., Carrboro, 942-1221) fits that bill. Housed in a modest, cinderblock building that looks more like a storage garage than a fresh fish market, Tom Robinson's attracts all kinds of people. "It's not unusual for there to be four people in here and all of them come from different continents," says Robinson, who likes to call the place United Nations seafood. On Thursdays, he drives down to the coast to sift through the catch and bring back the kinds of seafood his diverse clientele demands. Meyer says his wife wonders how he can buy fish in the hole-in-the-wall market. "It's not about how the place looks on the outside," Meyer says.

The legendary "world famous BLT" at Merritt's Store & Grill in Chapel Hill - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

Another of Meyer's favorite crossroads is Merritt's Store & Grill (1009 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill, 942-4897), an old general store and grill in Chapel Hill, where Meyer sees students, professors, old-timers and Latino work crews gather around lunchtime. A wooden sign in the parking lot describes the main attraction: "World famous BLTs." The sandwiches come in single, double and triple layers, and Meyer says they're best when fresh tomatoes are in season. I visit one afternoon about an hour and a half after the grill closed for the day, and the air is still heavy with the smell of bacon. "I don't know why they're so good," Meyer says. "They put a bunch of pepper on them." Bacon lovers eat the sandwiches in the parking lot next to their cars because Merritt's has no chairs or tables.

Meyer sees that cross-section of people at the playing fields and dog park at Hank Anderson Community Park (400 N.C. 54 West, Carrboro) on Sunday afternoons, the Carrboro Farmers' Market (301 W. Main St., Carrboro, 280-3326, www.carrborofarmersmarket.com) on Saturday mornings, and University Lake (130 University Lake Road, Chapel Hill, 942-8007) on the weekends, where you can rent boats and go fishing.

Late in the afternoon, Meyer and I venture out purely for the sake of enjoyment, forsaking cultural observation. At the Courtyard of Chapel Hill, a redeveloped commercial space tucked behind West Franklin Street (431 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill), we browse Locopops (286-3500), a gourmet popsicle store, 3 Cups (968-8993, www.3cups.net), a café that serves fresh coffee, wine and fine chocolate, and SandwHich (929-2114, sandwhich.biz), which offers eclectic sandwiches. "I never thought I would say a $10 sandwich was worth it, but they had a prosciutto and truffle butter sandwich that was delicious," Meyer says. The Courtyard is also where you can find the Triangle's latest French restaurant sensation, Bonne Soiree (928-8388).

When Meyer really wants to impress his guests, he takes them on what he calls a progressive dinner, a grand meal divided among four Chapel Hill restaurants that are in close proximity. He starts at the bar at Lantern (423 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 969-8846, lanternrestaurant.com), which is hidden in the back of the restaurant. The bar makes specialty cocktails like the Red Geisha: fresh organic strawberries with lime, ginger and vodka. "It's one of the best bars in Chapel Hill," Meyer says. Next he walks right across the street to Talullas (456 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 933-1177, www.talullas.com) for small Turkish dishes like yaprak dolmasi: hand-rolled grape leaves filled with rice, spices and currant stuffing. For dessert, he walks next door to Elaine's on Franklin (454 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 960-2770, www.elainesonfranklin.com), known near and far for its chocolate cake. And he finishes the evening with a glass of wine at West End Wine Bar (450 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 967-7599, www.westendwinebar.com).


Carrboro: The best of everything—without a car
By Elaine Laird Gaertner

Editor's note: We asked readers across the Triangle to tell us the best things about their hometowns, and this is the best of the best, from Elaine Laird Gaertner in Carrboro.

I live in downtown Carrboro and have been able to live carless for several years without missing out on any of the good things in life. The buses are free and my two children think a bus ride is an adventure, but it is absolutely possible to walk or ride a bicycle anywhere in downtown.

I can easily pack well over $100 in groceries in two brown paper bags in my rear bike baskets. I can even get most of my summer garden plants in those baskets in a couple of trips from Southern States without looking too eccentric.

My husband and I can walk, bike or bus to work. Everything we need is a few minutes away—restaurants galore, book stores, video stores, movie theaters, groceries, drug stores, playgrounds, even my kids' school is a two-minute walk away. My eye doctor and chiropractor are in walking distance, and my children's pediatrician is a short bus ride. We even have a hospital that we can get to in five minutes, if needed. When a car is needed for an excursion or heavyweight errands, it's inexpensive to rent one from local dealerships, and they do pick up and deliver.

Carrboro is a really special place that has, pretty much, the best of everything. I've lived in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Chapel Hill and other college towns, and I've found Carrboro the most accessible, pedestrian-friendly place. I lived in downtown Chapel Hill for eight years and didn't find it nearly as easy to have it all. There, it wasn't as safe, nor pleasant, to walk around town, and there was no grocery store, garden store, playground or park, no Elmo's Diner, no Fitch Lumber, no ArtsCenter, no Weaver Street Market, no Carrboro Day or Fourth of July celebration, no Farmers' Market.

I found myself going to Carrboro most days for these things, and so I moved here. It should be noted that there is a concentration of the Best of Everything in one little town in the Triangle.

  • My latest craving—gorditas de pollo

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