I really didn’t know what to expect on a recent epicurean media tour of North Carolina. For four days we ate and drank our way through Durham, Raleigh and Kinston. Though just about everything I ate was delicious, I’ve narrowed the trip down to my five must-eats.
1. The Skylight Inn, Ayden: With Pitmaster Sam Jones and his dad, Pete, at the helm, this iconic joint has been serving up Eastern-style BBQ for over 50 years. Simply put, they specialize in slow-smoking entire butterflied hogs for up to 15 hours over oakwood charcoal until they’re fall-off-the-bone tender. Shredded and chopped with some of the crisp skin, it’s served with a dash of peppery vinegar sauce, sweet coleslaw and fried cornbread. Each smoky, tangy, sweet mouthful is different from the next; quite a contrast to the sweet one-dimensional BBQ served north of the border.
2. 18 Seaboard, Raleigh: This fancy all-American grill, a stop in our Taste Carolina Walking Food Tour, greeted us with tasting plates of wood-fired Cheshire pork belly topped with charred corn and peach-pepper jelly. The juicy glazed bites were gone in seconds and had me wishing it was a whole side of belly! A refreshing peach sangria helped take the edge off.
3. The Boiler Room Oyster Bar, Kinston: Oyster pie, oh my. A star of PBS’s A Chef’s Life, Vivian Howard’s newest restaurant serves a leek-and-oyster-filled, cornflake-topped best-pie-ever — a taste memory that still lingers. To top it all off, a classic local Southern treat of Pepsi and peanuts in a glass (it’s good, I promise) is rehashed as a salty-sweet peanut butter ice cream float, and is just as unforgettable.
4. Bida Manda, Raleigh: As soon as we walked through the red doors of this unique N.C.-meets-Laos restaurant and bar, siblings Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha offered us a big bowl of their mother’s chicken curry. With both their parents still in Laos, the pair chose the restaurant’s moniker, Sanskrit for “father and mother,” to honour them from afar. I worked my way around the lemongrass-laced sauce, trying to capture the flavourful complexity, so I could recreate it at home.
5. Mateo Bar de Tapas, Durham: Chef Matthew Kelly’s take on Spanish tapas had me at calamares fritos (fried squid rings). Served with a piquillo tartar sauce, tender, crisp squid is a tough act to follow, yet other dishes, including migas y chicharonnes (chicken-skin, broccoli, cheese & mornay sauce), pan con tomate (Spanish toast with tomato) and warm churros took our collective breath away.