Eating on the Fly: The Triangle Food Tour

Laurie heads to the Triangle region of North Carolina
Facebook/ Cafe 121

Fried green beans and hash brown bites are staples of Cafe 121's menu.

Many of my reviews have focused on the Triangle region of North Carolina; partially because some of the best food in the country comes from the Tar Heel State and partially because I live here, when I’m not flying around the rest of the country.  This past weekend I was fortunate enough to join Triangle Food Tour for the Downtown Cary tour. Triangle Food Tours started in 2008 and they are the original walking food tour in the Triangle. They started in Raleigh, expanded to Chapel Hill & Carrboro, Durham, and Cary.  Triangle Food Tours promote the locally owned restaurants to introduce these culinary gems to local residents and help people learn about the downtown areas- all designed to create a connection and hopefully return for a future visit. The owners of each restaurant are passionate about their food and it is very evident in the way their eyes light up when they speak about their cuisine and their menus. The emphasis of each tour is to try a small sample of each of the restaurant’s offerings. Our tour group was small: 11 of us, in addition to Sarah, our enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide. This was the perfect size; a small intimate group, which wasn’t overwhelming, and allowed for great conversation and an opportunity to have questions answered personally.There is a running joke that “CARY” is the acronym for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees”.   But there is more to Cary than just a place where folks from New York have come in search of warmer weather and inexpensive property.  Cary was founded in 1854 and named after Samuel Fenton Cary, a congressman and prohibitionist.  Recently, Cary has progressed to the third largest city in the Triangle area and has had an influx of great restaurants. Our tour met at Ashworth Drugs, which boasts an old fashioned soda fountain.  We were treated to a homemade cherry soda to refresh us as we walked, and we were well on our way!

Café 121 opened on Valentine’s Day this past year in Cary.  We were met by Chef Hamm, who is enthusiastic and passionate about his restaurants.  (There is another Café 121 located in Sanford, NC).  Chef Hamm informed us that inevitably, because it is the South, food is fried, but they make an effort to use healthier oils in their cuisine, and make every effort to create balance between flavor and health-conscious cuisine.  They make homemade items, like pimiento cheese, which is a North Carolina staple (and makes quite a delicious grilled cheese sandwich, if I do say so myself).  Today we sampled fried green beans and hash brown bites.  Both were scrumptious and satisfying.  We were off to a great start.   Next we progressed to Dorry’s Downtown, which is a deli meets pizzeria.  We tried the Stromboli, loaded with their flavorful homemade tomato sauce and Calzone, which contained some of the smoothest, richest, ricotta cheese I’ve ever tasted.  Ray, the owner, was generous with the samples and I could already tell I would leave this tour happy and full. 

After two savory items, it was time to try something sweet. The Blue Moon Bakery was our next stop.  We met with the head decorator, who informed us they make about 120 cakes per weekend on average, for weddings, graduations, birthdays, and every other celebration imaginable.  They also bake cookies, brownies and cupcakes.  We were fortunate enough to sample a chocolate cupcake, which was rich, but not overly sweet.  It was filled with a delicious cream and coated with a chocolate ganache.  Since we had started down the sweet path, it made sense to make our next stop at Chocolate Smiles, a specialty shop that sells handmade chocolates.  Melanie, the owner, generously offered us a few different chocolates, including each a truffle of our choice.  I tried the Grand Marnier Truffle, and it melted in my mouth.  Each truffle is handmade, with a “signature” on top.  For example, the Crème de Menthe truffle, has a drizzle of green on top to identify it.   I want to return to Chocolate Smiles and try a few other items.  One thing that made me smile in particular was the “Nut Case”, as Melanie affectionately introduced us to, which is her collection of products containing a variety of different nuts.   We all left with a chocolate covered strawberry and indeed, a chocolate covered smile on each of our faces.

After our sweet tooth had been satisfied, we made a stop at Havana Grill, which offers authentic Cuban cuisine.  This unique venue offers salsa dancing on the weekends outside on the patio, “Salsa Under the Stars”, even in the winter, because it is heated.  We sampled the refreshing homemade sangria, which was incredibly delightful to my palate.  Additionally a small plate was provided for each of us, which contained pulled pork, seafood paella, and a fried plantain, better known as a tostone.  After this delectable stop, I was edging towards full, but I knew better-  I was saving room for a couple more stops.

UnVine’d is Cary’s beautiful wine bar, which came under new ownership this past spring.  They serve a variety of wines from around the world and a tapas menu. We tried a Chiante, which had notes of black cherry and plum, as well as several different samples of Unvined’s bruschetta.  I tasted one known as “mushroom medly” and it was simply delicious.  The venue itself is gorgeous- dimly lit and ambient, tastefully decorated, with comfortable seating.  The walls are adorned with art from local artists.  The owner was a former employee of the Cary police department and some of the artwork is done by police officers.  I could see myself spending a long evening in my near future, to unwind at UnVine’d. 

The time had come for our last stop.  Three hours of cheerful conversation, laughter, and most of all- food- was winding down to an end.  We visited Academy Street Bistro, where we were greeted with a Sauvignon blanc from Chile and a warm and friendly introduction from Marylynn Fitzgerald the General manager and a 20 year Cary resident, as well as her brother-in-law, Brian Fitzgerald, the executive chef, who recently relocated to Cary from New York.  Here we tried some zucchini chips, served with homemade ranch.  The chips were light, yet loaded with flavor: a perfect ending to our perfect day.  Sometimes after days like this, it is hard to think about getting on another plane and going back to work.  Fortunately, I’ll always have my beloved North Carolina waiting for me upon my return.  I left Cary full, satisfied, and looking forward to my next Triangle Food Tour.  

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