South Durham’s dining scene is nothing but restaurants in shopping centers and big-box chains.
Well, yeah, pretty much. You say that like it’s a bad thing.
“Chains essentially are successful businesses that started small,” says Becca Gomez Farrell, a Woodcroft resident and frequent contributor to the seminal food blog Carpe Durham. “At what point do we decide we hate them? And strip malls. That just means it’s hard to know ahead of time what’s there, so you have to, you know, read up before you go.”
She sees the bias all the time among the commentariat at Carpe Durham, Yelp and Chowhound. To get “real” Durham food, you have to go somewhere in the vicinity of downtown, according to the conventional wisdom among some foodies.
True, when most people think South Durham, they think Southpoint, which means lots of chains. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, which we’ll address in a bit. But did you know that within a few short miles of the mall are two authentic Korean joints, four sushi restaurants, the first LEED-certified restaurant in the state, an authentic carnicería, and Jamaican, Cajun, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Mexican and Indian food galore?
Downtown and thereabouts rightfully get attention for their groundbreaking contributions to our food scene. But, if you think about it, South Durham offers the best of both worlds: authentic locally owned restaurants and a variety of top-shelf brand-name restaurants. As Becca says, you just need to know where to look.
The revolution was not televised
Tony Sustaita saw the transformation first-hand.
“When we opened Bandido’s here, there weren’t even any chains except for fast food. You didn’t come to the Woodcroft area unless you lived here.”
What a difference a decade and a half makes. The success of Bandido’s led Tony and a partner to open five Chubby’s restaurants three years ago, including one in Woodcroft and another in RTP.
Tony says Southpoint helped the area go from a bedroom community to a destination. Though his restaurants are a mile down the road, he still draws plenty of folks stopping for a bite after a day of shopping or a trip to the movies. But before Southpoint opened in 2002, it was RTP workers that drove the culinary scene. There was a premium not only on speedy service, but on quality and variety. The array of world cuisines found within a few miles of the park reflect the diversity of the workforce there.
Sarah Quiroga has managed a robust business for 23 years in a shopping center off N.C. 55, despite only opening for weekday lunch. Sarah’s Empanadas, featuring multiple versions of the delicacy in the style of Sarah’s native Bolivia, is a hit with the RTP crowd, who jam the small restaurant every time it opens its doors. “I have customers that have been coming since I opened,” she says. “That’s the reason I’m still here.”
A slice of Brooklyn
Jill Sergison admits to anti-chain bias. She and her husband, Pete, lived for years in Brooklyn, where it was the norm to eat out at small, locally owned restaurants of all stripes.
The Audubon Park resident hasn’t been to the Southpoint area to eat – besides the occasional lunch break during a shopping trip – in three years. “We favor true ethnic food,” she says. “If you drive even a mile from that central shopping area, there are some of the best ethnic eateries in the Triangle.”
A short list of the Sergisons’ go-to spots: Akashi; Bombay Grille; Thai Lanna; Papa Mojo’s Roadhouse and Toledo Butcher Shop Mexican grocery/carnicería. The latter, she says, “is this little bodega. Half of it is a restaurant where you can order – for peanuts – this incredible Mexican food. The food is unreal and totally authentic. It’s a little gem.”
When the Sergisons are out with their kids, Andrew, 5, and Campbell, 2, they often head to Papa Mojo’s in Greenwood Commons. Before the zydeco cranks up at this award-winning Cajun restaurant owned by chef/musician Mel Melton, it’s one of the most family-friendly spots around, Jill says.
“I think it’s the best restaurant in the area to take children,” she says. “They’ve always been incredible to our kids.”
Thinking outside the box
“A lot of chains lose some of their quality as they expand, no question,” Becca concedes. “There are some definite exceptions here, and a huge exception is Rockfish Seafood Grill. Michael Hayek, the general manager, runs a group called ‘SnobFree Wine.’ He brings in local beers from Fullsteam, LoneRider, Triangle Brewing Co. and has local Thursday pint nights. They recently did a gluten-free wine dinner. You just don’t think wine dinner and chain restaurants.”
In a later interview, Hayek said, “There are multiple reasons why I like to work with the local breweries,” he says. “The most important reason is it’s just a good product. And there’s such a passionate craft beer audience in the area that it also makes good business sense.”
Becca says Southpoint doesn’t just offer run-of-the-mill chains.
“It’s hard to complain against Cheesecake Factory cheesecake if you need a calorie overload,” Becca says. “And the more ardent foodies would say that Ruth’s Chris probably has Angus Barn beat. There’s nothing wrong with convenience, especially convenience with character.” DM
For the rest of the article, and to get more restaurant recommendations from Becca and Durham Mag Editor Matt Dees, get your copy of the October 2011 issue by calling 919-933-1551.