Mexican everything <3

I’ve told you guys before that I must have been Mexican in my former life.  I don’t think I knew how much I appreciated their culture until I moved back to North Carolina from California in 2009.  While I am much further from Mexico now than I was when I lived in CA, I’m thankful to have discovered several places around Raleigh that have super authentic Mexican food–and I am not talking the standard Americanized Mexican where every dish is basically the same thing styled differently.  Pinche gringos…  You have to look for these super authentic spots.  That’s fine by me, and I know I have found authenticity when I am the only caucasian in the building.  That has been the case at Taqueria el Toro each time I have been, other than the times I have been accompanied by another caucasian. haha.

This little gem is tucked back off of Tryon Road when you are coming down South Saunders heading away from downtown Raleigh.  Coleen actually introduced me to this place years ago.  I’ve been before on a Sunday when the line to the counter ran all the way to the front door.  I’m still exploring their menu, but I haven’t had anything that wasn’t delicious.  Their fish taco is not exactly a Baja style taco, but it has the baseline of a Baja fish taco, and it is damn good.  They grill the fish (which I love), and serve it with a spicy mayo based sauce. Then they have a salsa bar with cilantro, onions, pico, grilled jalapeños, cabbage, and several different salsas.  So, you can finish it Baja style if you want.  They make all their tortillas in house so they melt in your mouth, naturally.  Their fish taco is an amuse-gueule as far as I am concerned, so it was a perfect, scrumptious bite before my bean burrito.  The burritos are a life changing experience.  I don’t know what it is that they do to it that makes it so good.  I think they make the flour tortilla in house.  Wet burritos are still #1 in my heart on the burrito scale, but el Toro’s burrito runs a close second when it comes to Raleigh. You can see how Christina and I doused ours in hot salsas, cilantro, etc., below.  So beautiful. Sigh. Also pictured from a previous visit is Soup of the Seven Seas, aka Caldo de Siete Mares.  I noticed so many people eating this every time I came, I decided I needed to try it because it was obviously super popular among the Mexican peeps.  It has shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels, crab legs, epazote, tomato, guajillo chiles, and a bunch of spices. I like to add fresh cilantro to mine, but I see people piling all kinds of yummy stuff on theirs.  I realize that when I go to a Mexican place I have serious FOMO.  It’s so hard to just order one or two things.  I had to overcome my FOMO and promise myself that the tacos would still be there next time if I ordered the soup.  I was not disappointed and the tacos were definitely there next time.  hahaha!!  OK, I will just admit it.  I am completely obsessed with Mexican food.  I could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  And I have.  The timing of our dinner last night was actually coincidental as it marked the last day of our Taco Tour of ’14.  That’s right.  We went on taco tour.  Kind of like people go on tour to see their favorite band.  We went on tour to eat our favorite tacos. ❤

The woman pictured below is my dear friend, Christina Cucurullo.  We have this history of epic adventure that sometimes doesn’t feel real-life.  We once filled a 26 ft U-Haul with all of my worldly possessions, my late pit bull, Luckydog, hitched my car to the back of it, and drove across the USA together.  The funny thing is that prior to this we really didn’t know each other that well.  Needless to say, 2800 miles in a U-Haul together and you will get to know someone very well.  For us, it was the start of an amazing lifelong friendship unlike any other I have ever known.  I still look back on that epic journey as one of the greatest adventures of my life.  I am giggling just thinking about it.  Anyway, I digress.  So, Christina has this love affair with Mexican food in the same way I do.  In 2014, we decided to make the journey back to Southern California together, this time by air, solely to eat the best Mexican food in the country (sorry Texas, I have to go with CA on this one).  We flew into LAX, rented a car, and then cruised the coastline to San Diego, hitting up local Mexican spots every time we got hungry.  OK, I do recall also eating Sushi Deli #1 during that trip, but when in Rome–you know.  If you find yourself in SD you have to go there…  We drove all up and down the coast, ferried to Catalina and back, and we unquestionably agree that the best Mexican is at La Revancha in Long Beach.  How lucky am I to have a friend in life like Christina?  I love you, boo.  I included some pics from Taco Tour for nostalgia’s sake, including a pic of the tacos at La Revancha that changed our lives, and our victory run along the cliffs of Malibu at the end of our tour.  I wince a little when I think about La Revancha tacos knowing how far they are away from me.  Absence really does make the heart grow fonder, doesn’t it?  Damn.  I am now going to have to start planning my next trip out west. Fun fact about Christina: she’s a musician better known by her stage name, Spookstina. She’s currently gearing up for fall tour with her noise act.  Check her out if you are so inclined!  Link below to her Soundcloud and an interview in which she tells about her style. Every once in awhile you can catch her live locally in Raleigh.

It was like she was reading my mind yesterday because I had been thinking about Mexican.  She texted me and told me that “the Mexicans are singing her nombre”.  haha Great minds, do indeed, think alike.  Cheers to you, my soul sister, and cheers to Taqueria el Toro.  They also have a grocery store connected where you can bring their homemade tortillas home and all kinds of other Mexican stuff that you cannot find in a regular grocery store.  Go check them out next time you are craving authentic Mexican.

Taco Tour ’14

The Fiction Kitchen

I am so glad to give Fiction Kitchen a place in Come-Eat-With-Me.  One of the hallmarks of a great city is its multitude of culinary diversity.  Downtown Raleigh is still working on this, and Fiction Kitchen certainly gave it a boost when it opened its doors in 2013 as Raleigh’s first 100% vegetarian restaurant.  It’s a funky little spot in the warehouse district with a lime green storefront.  It’s hard to miss and even if you’re not a vegetarian, you wouldn’t want to miss it.  Caroline Morrison and Siobhan Southern used Kickstarter to crowdfund their goal of $36,000 to buy restaurant equipment and bring their vision to life after doing local pop-ups and cooking for the famous late Cooke Street Carnival in years passed.

I fell in love with a drink on their menu very early on called Dirty Beetz.  It’s homemade beet infused vodka with citrus.  It is a strong competitor to J. Betski’s Beet Jammer.  It’s hard to say which one is better–they’re both so damn good.  I usually always begin a meal at FK with a Dirty Beetz and this one was no different. Their fabulous bartender, Sarah, even remembered that it’s my favorite drink as I used to be quite a regular.  While we waited for our table, she asked if I was ready for a Dirty Beetz.  Such great service.  I ❤ great service.  It’s what separates a meal from a dining experience.  Thanks, Sarah.  They have lots of creative craft cocktails that are seasonally inspired, so be sure to check those out.

Their name is clever as it describes many of the dishes.  They’re fictional meat.  FK does a really stellar job with this.  Their unbelievably flavorful chopped barbecue coats your mouth with what feels like fat just like real barbecue, their tinga tacos have a texture that makes it hard to differentiate from real shredded chicken, and probably the most convincing fictional dish on the menu is the fried chicken and waffles.  I remember bringing one of my girlfriends, Sheila, to FK years ago.  Sheila is definitely not a vegetarian, and she is delightfully Southern.  She ordered the chicken and waffles, and looked at me after taking a few bites and stated, “you’re trying to tell me that this isn’t chicken?”  So, bravo on the execution, FK.  They are focused on locally sourced ingredients, and while there are some things that stay on the menu year round, they switch it up to feature seasonal dishes.

On this particular night, I actually decided to pop in because I saw a photo of the “scallop” appetizer on Instagram and realized how long it had been since I had eaten at FK.  So, scallops are one of my all time favorite foods.  A perfectly seared scallop would be on the menu of my last meal if I had to choose.  I love scallops so much, I have to admit I was a little reluctant to try this appetizer knowing it wasn’t a real scallop, but I was so intrigued at how well they did making it look like an actual scallop I had to try it.  Just look at it!  If you didn’t know you would totally think it was a scallop. It was a trumpet mushroom served with seaweed and rutabaga puree, and it was absolutely delicious.  The rutabaga was creamy and really made this dish taste like comfort food.  We also had the kale cakes, which was served with a minty herb dressing, and pickled beets with what may have been labneh.  These were super yummy and also total comfort food.  Now that I think about it, this place is very different from many vegetarian restaurants because it has so many comfort food style dishes on the menu.  Considering how the owners are both Southern, I am sure that was the point.  One of my favorite dishes that I didn’t have on this visit is their curry bowl.  Their homemade yellow curry is so good I think I could eat it drizzled on ice cream.  🙂

I knew exactly what I wanted on this trip before I even got there.  The tinga tacos.  This dish has undergone some evolution over the years, and I am so glad they are back to using fresh cabbage on them rather than steamed.  You guys know from my taco rants how passionately I feel about taco ingredients.  Give me fresh shredded cabbage or give me death.  Doused in Cholula.

Fiction Kitchen always has a new special Farmers Plate and a locavore salad that changes nightly.  These locavore salads in the summer are the jam.  They also feature a cheesy grit bowl during Sunday Brunch that is pretty amazing.  You have to get the root vegetable hash on the side when you go for brunch.  This is a perfect place to bring a vegetarian or vegan, or anyone who loves fresh, local food.  Chef Caroline’s creativity constantly impresses me, and everything I have ever had here is absolutely delicious.  Thank you, Fiction Kitchen, for being a pioneer in our little city and thank you for bringing this beautiful restaurant to downtown Raleigh.

paying homage to a Raleigh favorite

It’s easy (and fun) to become enamored by new chefs, restaurants, and cocktail lounges that pop up, and our city is a better place because of them.  But today, I want to recognize an original in Raleigh–one that easily fits within the group of finest food and drink in the Triangle.  This is a neighborhood restaurant that has been consistently rated best Italian in Raleigh for over a decade.  The owners didn’t spent a dime on advertising or PR for this restaurant; this place has flourished throughout the years solely from word of mouth.  In fact, the restaurant doesn’t even have signage except for a humble mention of “pizza” on top of the building.  Its one of those delightfully unsuspecting gems found tucked inside a shopping center.  The nonstop bustle of the restaurant speaks for itself: it is simply the best Italian food around here. This restaurant is Bella Monica.

I love supporting, and writing about, places that have as much heart as Bella Monica.  This place is totally a labor of love that opened its doors in 2000.  The Monica family hails from New York and settled in Raleigh in 1999 to follow Chef Corbett Monica’s dream: to open his own restaurant that allows anyone to come and enjoy his beloved Nana’s recipes the way he and his family did growing up.  That’s really what this restaurant is about, IMO: family and the food that brings them together.  Bella Monica’s immense success is a story of dedication, hard work, and passion.  When you put those things together, there’s really nothing that can stop you, is there?  And let’s face it…  Italians rarely fall short when it comes to passion. 🙂

When Chef Corbett opened this little neighborhood trattoria 18 years ago, he spent tireless days and nights in the kitchen recreating his grandmother’s famous Italian marinara sauce, known as “Gravy”.  Most Northerners will recognize this term, while Southerners may confuse it for a roux-based sauce that goes on your mashed potatoes.  Don’t be confused.  This gravy is made from San Marzano tomatoes, and a load of fresh ingredients that are probably not revealed.  I have never asked Corbett to reveal the recipe because 1) I assume it is a family secret since it came from his Italian grandmother originating from the Old Country 2) I know how labor intensive it is to make and I probably wouldn’t stand in front of the stove for that long and 3) I can always get it at Bella Monica so I don’t need the recipe. Anyway, this stuff is liquid gold.  Do you remember the old cartoon with the St. Bernard depicted with a tiny barrel around her neck trekking the Great St. Bernard Pass (which is a real ridge high in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland) and encountering unconscious travelers who had succumbed to the elements while getting lost or injured? These rescue dogs would lean over the unconscious traveler and dispense brandy in their mouth to revive them long enough to get them to safety. The cartoon embellishes that rescue in a humorous way in which the traveler rises up from the snow in a slow state of euphoria.  I like to think that Nana’s Gravy in the little brandy barrel would revive the trekkers in the same way. Here’s a funny clip of a St. Bernard making himself a martini after rescuing Yosemite Sam from a self inflicted avalanche  OK, I digress but you guys get the point.  Nana’s Gravy saves lives.  Let’s get back to the early days of Bella Monica.  Corbett’s stunning wife, Julie, had completed an academic career in psychology prior to the launch of Bella Monica, and she was a social worker in the Raleigh area during Bella’s infancy.  As their business grew, she quit her job and focused full time on the front of the house at Bella Monica.  In fact, the restaurant is named after her.  Bella translates to beautiful in Italian.  I can just picture them now.  Corbett grinding out homemade pasta dishes and pizzas in the kitchen, and Julie charming the guests in the dining room.  This is how they got their start!  Lots of elbow grease and passion. When I stumbled on this place in 2010, I had recently moved back to NC to finish my undergrad and recreate my life after a wild stint in Southern California with my rock star (former) fiance. I was looking for a job that would work well with my full-time academic schedule, and Bella was a perfect fit.  I worked here for the next two years until I graduated.  During this time, I made some of the best friends who I hold so dearly to my heart, including Corbett and Julie Monica.  They have become family.  I also learned a ton about Italian wine.  Bella Monica boasts the largest curated Italian wine selection of any restaurant in the Triangle.  Italian food needs to be enjoyed with Italian wine, and they have been carefully curating a collection for years that the public can enjoy.  I am a serious wine snob, and love Old World wines. Especially Right Bank Bordeaux and La Rioja, but Italian wine is in a class of its own, in my opinion.  There are over 800 grape varietals used for wine making in Italy.  Sangiovese and Nebbiolo grapes make up my personal favorite Italian wines, from Brunello di Montalcino to my beloved favorites from the Piedmonte, which are made from Nebbiolo (Barolos, Barbarescos, etc).  They are elegant and seductive on the palate, red cherry being the distinct marker of Italian red wines, and most of them are graceful enough to drink by themselves, yet they also have the structure to stand up to just about any food.  If you want to tell me that you love me, you can do so without words.  Let a bottle of Brunello or Barolo do the talking.

OK, back to the gravy.  It’s the brightest and most flavorful tomato sauce I have ever tasted.  You really don’t even need to put it on anything.  Just sip it like soup!  I’ve done that many times, shamelessly. The effort that is consistently put forth to keep this huge pot of sauce flowing over the past 18 years ensures the integrity is never compromised.  It is really the foundation of all the traditional recipes on the menu and is the hallmark of Southern Italy’s cuisine.  My favorite dish that features this sauce is the eggplant rollatine.  There are some dishes you will hear me refer to as “life-changing experiences”.  The eggplant rollatine is one of them.  The dish is made of eggplant thinly sliced the long way, breaded, stuffed with Italian cheeses, with gravy and mozzarella baked on top, and finished with fresh basil.  I could eat this dish for breakfast, I could eat it for dinner, I could eat it every day and never get sick of it.  They only serve it on the weekends at Bella Monica, and it’s not on the menu so you have to ask for it.  Confession: when I dined there on Friday night, I forgot to take photos of most of the food so I had to pull some off of the internet that other guests had taken.  You can take this as an indicator that the food is just that yummy.  I forgot to take pics for my blog! haha.  Some of my other favorite dishes at Bella are the crab flatbread and the mushroom leek crema mussels. That lasagna, though… I don’t have any words for the lasagna.  You just will have to order it for yourself.  Do not expect to want to do anything afterwards but take a nap, though. 🙂 Sophia Loren once said, “I’d much rather eat pasta and drink wine than be a size 0,”  Girlfriend, I feel you.

The crab flatbread is something that is so unique, you just can’t find anything like it anywhere else.  If I recall correctly, the story goes that our dear late friend, Chris Connelly, and Corbett were making a crabcake recipe.  They thought it didn’t quite turn out as they expected, but rather than wasting it, they put it on one of their homemade flatbread crusts with pesto sauce as the base, added calamata olives, roasted red peppers, cheese, cooked it like a pizza, then sliced it into squares and and served it with a dijon aioli for dipping.  Absolutely BRILLIANT!!  A star was born in the crab flatbread and it has been an appetizer on the menu ever since.  I don’t make a trip to Bella without getting the crab flatbread.  This past time I had the calamari and shrimp pasta.  It is made with squid ink linguini, Calabrese sausage, and roasted red pepper crema.  I like this dish spicy so I added crushed red pepper to it.  Amazing.  I remember when Corbett created this dish as a special years ago, and I was happy to see it found a permanent place on the menu.  The great thing about Italian food is often its simplicity.  If you go to Italy, you quickly begin to notice that most dishes are incredibly simple, yet amazing.  The secret is the ingredients have to be fresh.  Corbett upholds that standard beautifully.

I was joined by a few of my cousins this past trip to Bella.  We all grew up along the coast in Carteret County, but many of us have ended up in Raleigh for education and careers. We try to get together every other month or so and we chose Bella Monica this time. Italian food is best enjoyed with people you love, at a leisurely pace, with Italian wine.  I will also note that you won’t get a cannoli this authentic anywhere in Raleigh. If you haven’t been to this place yet, make a reservation on OpenTable and go see why it has consistently been voted as Best Italian in the Indy year after year, as well as a host of other awards the Monica family has received throughout the years for their dedication to their craft, and the refusal to compromise the integrity of authentic Italian food.  Bella Monica also has a catering service.  This past year, the Monica family also opened their second restaurant which is located in Cary.  Stellino’s Italiano, named after their daughter, Stella, stays true to Nana’s recipes and also features a cocktail bar.  Go check it out and Vivi, Ama, Mangia!  Live, love, and eat!  Thank you, Corbett and Julie (pictured below), for sharing your family’s magic with the rest of us here in the Triangle!

Saint James

ahh, the old blank screen on a Saturday morning with my coffee.  This is my favorite time to start writing.  I’m going to share my experience from last Thursday night with you.  First, though, I want to take a moment to thank my friends who have given me such great feedback on this blog.  In addition to continuing getting to know the finest food and drink in the Triangle, you’ll also get to know a manifold group of my friends who will join me on these epicurean adventures, from the wild to the wise.  After all, this blog is aptly titled “Come-Eat-With-Me”.  You’re up next, Christina.  😉  Ok.  Let’s get down to brass tax.

Saint James Seafood Restaurant and Raw Bar is located in Brightleaf District, Durham.  This stunning restaurant was opened this winter by Chef Matt Kelly, who we also love for opening Mateo Bar de Tapas in Durham several years ago.  I can say with conviction that there is not another restaurant like Saint James in the Triangle.  Bravo, Chef.  You have outdone yourself again.  When you walk in and notice the big porthole windows, it kind of feels like you are inside a cruise ship.  It is over the top nautical, which I find super fun.  I realize the brightening of the photos didn’t transfer to this site, so you’ll just have to go check it out for yourself.

Mr. Bill Jackson joined me on this particular adventure.  Bill, a North Carolina native, is a commercial developer and serial entrepreneur, best known for developing strings of hotels from Virginia through the Carolinas, and with investor partners, he has owned a number of development sites including Kidd’s Hill and Kidd’s Hill Plaza next to Crabtree Valley Mall.  Bill is a sharp-witted, no nonsense tycoon who I am lucky to have as a mentor, but more so, a friend for the past six years.  Bill is as passionate of a foodie as I am, and our favorite thing to do together is visit new restaurants in the Triangle, and then carefully anatomize our experience.  We have shared indescribably wonderful meals together.  There was one in particular… I nearly cried on our way home from Durham it was so unforgettable.  I won’t name the restaurant at this time, because they never lived up to that night again.  I guess we were lucky to have that one experience, knowing now that it cannot be replicated.  Anyway, we take this very seriously, and I was so excited to bring Bill to Saint James.  We started out with the lobster roll– a New England delicacy and really a succulent little sandwich that beckons for summer.  This lobster roll is served on brioche with the traditional chilled lobster salad, with a bowl of “lobster dip”,  which is more of a broth which balanced the buttery brioche and lobster flawlessly.  Brilliant.  If you have never had a New England lobster roll, this is a fine start.  Just look at it below.  It’s nothing short of sexy.  Most lobster roll aficionados would recommend a summer wheat ale as a pairing, but since it is February, and we are wine snobs, we paired with wine.  Bill became the proud owner of Westgate Wine a few years ago, so he’s always got something interesting on hand.  He brought a 2016 Chenin Blanc of Rickety Bridge, a boutique South African wine, to begin our dinner.  We didn’t know it, but this wine would be made for this first course.  Delicate lemon peel, honey and peaches on the nose, and aromatic white flower bouquet.  The finish was long lasting, bright and creamy.  If I am being totally honest, this wine completely seduced the lobster roll and the Oysters Ashworth.  Go check out the wine store sometime if you are in the Westgate Rd neck of the woods near the Angus Barn.  The oysters were baked with bacon and spinach, and iced with hollandaise–also perfect with this wine.  Full disclosure: my stomach wasn’t feeling exactly right as we were driving to Durham, and I was treading lightly with eating anything too rich.  By the end of the first course, I was feeling pretty confident that I needed to be careful what I ate.  Turns out I wasn’t sick and was fine, but next time, I am getting the Key West smoked fish dip with fried saltine crackers, and the Lobster Newburg.  I also want to try one of Matt’s raw towers.  Le sigh… so many things to eat, so few days in the week…  There’s also an entire list of boat drinks that I haven’t ventured yet.  There are many trips to Saint James in my future.

So, the “unagi” style hamachi had been catching my eye on the menu.  Why would I order unagi hamachi while feeling nauseous?  Because life is more fun when you take risks.  This was a winning move that I didn’t regret.  This dish was, hands down, my favorite of the night.  I am fairly certain it was Bill’s, too. Unagi is freshwater eel, and when the quality is high, unagi is my favorite sushi hand roll. However, this dish had no eel.  Hamachi is Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, and this amberjack was prepared Kabayaki style.  This is how unagi is prepared.  It’s a cooking style in which a fish is filleted, deboned, butterflied, skewered, grilled, and then brushed with a special tare, a sweet soy sauce.  It was served with avocado cream, crispy rice, flash pickled cucumber, and mayo.  This dish is what I consider a life changing experience.  I probably dropped at least 4 or 5 f-bombs while eating it–i just couldn’t get over how perfect it was. When I took a bite of all these things together, it instantly carried me to Hatteras, where my family fishes in a blue marlin tournament every June.  We usually have a lot of grilled mahi left over from fish that we catch and grill, and my mom and my aunt will make fish salad with it.  It’s the perfect pool snack to go with your gin and tonic.  This was the second dish that we ate at Saint James that transported me to sweet, sweet summertime.  We both lost our minds over the hamachi.  It was beautifully balanced, cleverly deconstructed, and nothing short of genius.  We also had the BBQ shrimp with the second course.  They were deliciously spicy, laced with rosemary, hot sauce, and just enough shaved garlic and Worcestershire.  The shrimp were awesome, but they can’t help it that we ordered them with the hamachi.  Unagi style Hamachi stole the show.

At this point, we really struggled to figure out what we would eat next.  We ended up landing on a pan-roasted black bass with smoked mussels, butter beans, chorizo, stewed tomato, and citrus.  We had an Oregonian Pinot Noir with this course, which stood up to the smokiness well, and lent the right amount of structure.  This was our least favorite dish of the evening.  We both agreed the stewed tomato was a little overpowering, although it did work well with the smoked mussels and chorizo. Here’s my beef with this dish: they were not butterbeans.  They were baby lima beans–the green kind.  When I hear butterbean, I think of the large, slow cooked, white beans.  I actually think white butterbeans would be better in this dish.  The fish was cooked perfectly.

I haven’t pointed out the service at Saint James, but is it exactly what I would expect: excellent.  In my opinion, this is as important as the food.  We were about ready to call it a night, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what we saw when we first walked in.  The staff was carrying at least a dozen of these banana cream pie looking desserts out while we were waiting for our table.  Bill doesn’t really care for dessert, but after careful scrutiny between that and key lime, we went for it.  OK, this was the third time I had a flashback to a summer memory with this menu. So, most Southerners will tell you that banana pudding is made with meringue.  This one was made with whipped cream, but what really stood out was the homemade baba au rhum “donut” which served as the cake-y part that most people will use vanilla wafers for.  This was not a normal donut.  It was light, and it melted in your mouth.  The pudding was not overly sweet, and the bananas used in it were not overly ripe.  A slightly green banana tastes very different from a super ripe banana with black spots, the sugars are lower–and this dessert used bananas on the younger side of the ripeness spectrum.  We really ended on a high note with this.  It was light and airy, and there is something about a banana dessert that I am obsessed with.  I am not sure this meal could have ended any more perfectly.  This was my second visit to Saint James, and I feel like I am just starting to scratch its surface.  Next time, I am going to sit upstairs and order the tower, but not without a boat drink first.  Be sure to make a reservation when you go–this place is no secret.

Fish tacos. Do you know?

Warning: this is more of a plea than a post or review.  I realize that the majority of my audience is Raleigh, North Carolina, but have y’all ever had a Southern California fish taco?  Or maybe you had a fish taco on the East coast–whoever made it probably had their first one on the West coast. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it was delicious–and when you use fresh ingredients, and stick to simplicity, a fish taco isn’t all that difficult. I am a fish taco fiend.  I have planned entire vacations around tacos.  This is serious shit, people. Integrity is everything.

Most of you who know me or read my write up on J. Betski’s know that I am from coastal North Carolina.  Carteret County in tha house.  We have the best seafood there.  But what we didn’t have is the rich Mexican culture that I became immersed in while living in Long Beach, CA in late 2000s.  You probably know that Southern California boasts the best Mexican food that the U.S. has to offer, and edged up on the coast of that magical Mexican food landscape is the fish taco.  By the time I moved back to NC, I was completely addicted to California fish tacos.  I would order one just about anytime I saw one on a menu, in hopes it would be a fraction of perfection that the real thing, a true California fish taco, is.  I really learned quickly that it just isn’t worth ordering random fish tacos.  I have been on the receiving end of some really sad excuses for a fish taco.  One experience that stands out, in particular, occurred in a bar in downtown Raleigh that is no longer in business, called Busy Bee.  One night I ordered this fish taco on their menu.  You guys, this was 2009… Can you believe I still remember this?!  It stuck in my mind because they brought me a tuna wrap!!  Totally NOT a fish taco.  Heartless.  Bless their heart…  Anyway, I think that was what ultimately broke me.  Now, unless I make it myself, I stay true to California for my fish taco needs. I adventure around a little more with a shrimp taco, but not fish.  It has to be right, or it is simply sacrilege.

fish tacos

I am super passionate on this topic at the moment because I just got home from a visit back to Southern California a couple days ago.  I prioritize Mexican food, especially fish tacos, while I am there.  There is such an abundance of great fish tacos spots in Southern CA. I ordered the tacos pictured at a little place called Sancho’s Tacos in Belmont Shore, my old neighborhood. It’s themed around the band Sublime, which also made it feel cozy.  My favorite kind is so simple.  It starts with a fresh corn tortilla.  Fish tacos were invented in Baja, Mexico, and they are traditionally grilled or fried, but I really prefer a fresh grilled fish taco, with finely shredded cabbage, some spicy and acidic green tomatillo salsa, sour cream drizzle, cilantro, lime. Or you could add tomato to it, and some spicy citrus/mayo based sauce. Either is perfect and maintains the integrity of a true Baja fish taco, as long as the fish is fresh, the tortilla is fresh, and you have fresh lime, cilantro, and cabbage, maybe some pickled jalapeños.  No cheese. But why do we not have these readily available in the Triangle?  Am I missing something? We aren’t that far from the coast!  I am seriously thinking I need to start a fish taco popup business in DTR.  Is there anyone else who really needs more fish tacos?  Or am I totally a freak? While we are on the topic, do y’all know what a wet burrito is?  

Christmas at J. Betski’s

I know I promised you more on Hummingbird and Coleen in my last post, and I am going to bring it, but we need to talk about J.Betski’s tonight.  Any local friend of mine who has talked about food with me knows that J. Betski’s is my longtime favorite restaurant in the Triangle.  I recommend it to anyone and everyone who’s enthusiastic about food, or looking for somewhere incredible to eat.  There is no place like it anywhere around here, and there never will be another. J. Betski’s is described as an elegant restaurant that uses local ingredients to create German & Polish dishes served with wine and beer.  That’s an accurate description, but being the quintessential romantic and storyteller I am, I have to tell you how my love affair with J. Betski’s began.

Take it back to 2009.  Downtown Raleigh was nothing like it is today.  It was not bustling with art culture (which we still need to strongly cultivate), new restaurants and cocktail bars, tech startups, and the untiring construction and growth we see today.  I was a newcomer to the area, having just moved from Long Beach, California.  I was in culture shock, and a sense of belonging in Raleigh didn’t come natural at the time.  North Carolina has always been my home, but never this far from the ocean, and I was still settling in.  So, I remember my first visit to J. Betski’s very well.  My sister, Laura, brought me there for the first time, along with Josh, and their new baby, my nephew, Atticus.

It’s not just because I was still getting to know the area that J. Betski’s really stood out to me, but because this was the first time I had been to a restaurant that tasted this much like home.  Both of my parents are great cooks, but I also have a Polish grandmother to thank for what my idea of home tastes like.  We had a salty childhood on the Bogue Banks of Carteret County, eating raw scallops and shrimp fresh out of the water as kids, but my sister and I spent every summer with our Grandma Kordulewski in Kinston, NC.  She spoiled us silly, and cooked endless feasts that nearly always included fresh vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and peaches (sometimes as a late night treat), just for us girls. She grew up in rural Poland, survived the Holocaust, and lived in Munich just before moving to the U.S. in 1949.  It is very clear to me now that she always paid attention in the kitchen.  She also became a great Southern cook, and knew how to delicately roast a pork shoulder or fry a trout better than many Carolina natives. 🙂 But as a child, I knew that her style was unique because you couldn’t find food like that in Carteret County, where we lived.  In fact, after her death in 2000, it was at least 5 years before I ate real Polish food again, which was during a trip to Poland I took with my sister.  So, here we are, in Seaboard Station in downtown Raleigh at J. Betski’s.  I think I really had an awakening there. An ethereal connection to the food culture of my youth that I didn’t realize I was missing in my life.  And, since Chef John Korzekwinski incorporated local ingredients into his menu even before it was popular, that means he features fresh seafood from the places I grew up on.  It was like J.Betski’s captured all my favorite elements of food from my childhood, all wrapped into one magical little place tucked away in downtown Raleigh, staffed by the nicest people, with beautiful cocktails and a very finely curated wine list.  How could such a place exist and be so perfect?!!  Enter my obsession with J. Betski’s.

Every year, they have a special prix fixe Christmas dinner.  Somehow, this year was the first time I have been.  It was absolutely amazing, as expected.  I was joined by the most amazing woman, one of my dearest friends, my “work wife” as we affectionately refer to one another, Hayley.  This was our special “work wife Christmas dinner”.  There’s a photo of the menu below, but what we had was a slight deviation– we had scallops rather than veal after a change of menu followed by a special request (thanks, John! <3).  We started with the beets and the charcuterie.  These beets were soooo tender. The maple and rosemary, which was barely there, paired so elegantly with this goat cheese cream.  That goat cheese cream…  Holy shit.  I want that slathered on everything I eat. It was super light and fluffy, and balanced the beets so beautifully.  Bravo.  Came in hot with the beets. We were really hungry and ended up ravaging that platter of cured meats, pickled veggies, and sliced sausages.  Confession: I try to avoid meat most of the time for several reasons.  But, J. Betski’s is somewhere I’m always willing to splurge.  It is locally sourced, and I like to think that the animal I’m consuming was able to walk on grass and experience the earth as we do before they have that one really bad day.  John’s pastrami is the best thing to ever happen to a charcuterie plate.  You can go there for lunch and often find a Reuben burger on special–which features this pastrami.  The sausages are always perfect.  Can we just stop and talk about sausages for a minute?  Sausages are delicious.  I have jokingly said before that being Polish and German, I have sausages flowing through my veins.  Sausages. Are. The. Best.  And because I rarely eat them, they are really such a treat.  This is where you want to go to get your sausage fix.  J. Betski’s serves fresh kielbasa, also a spicy kielbasa (my personal fav) and fresh brats. My favorite appetizer there is the chicken liver mousse with fresh homemade pretzels.  You need to try that next time you go.  This meat and veggie platter had baby homemade pretzels, and a really unexpected, but much appreciated, little puff pastry with lightly spiced baked apple on top.  Like a little dessert bite to finish your charcuterie.  I dig it.

We were basically full after that.  But, then came the oysters.  His baked oysters are always superstars on the menu–this might be the first time I have had them with leek and fennel.  I’m not sure what type of cheese was on them, but we both decided the oysters were “panty-dropper” status.  Be sure not to overlook anything on a plate at J. Betski’s. The red pepper, carrot, and onion relish garnish was our perfect palate cleanser after those oysters to get us ready for the scallops.  We were having a 2016 Tavel Rose from the South Rhone, but I ordered a Bourgogne Chardonnay to go with the scallops.  Scallops are my favorite seafood of all time, and maybe just favorite food in general.  In fact, I have decided that if I had to choose my last meal, it would be perfectly seared scallops. It is actually really hard to find a restaurant that consistently serves perfectly seared scallops.  I have seen some sad iterations as of late, but J. Betski’s has never disappointed.  Our scallops tonight were accompanied with little Polish dumplings, called Uszka, this time stuffed with spinach, and they really just melted in your mouth. The scallops here are always perfection.  Henry, J. Betski’s bartender, and I even came to a recent agreement that he would send me a text to inform me when they feature scallops on the menu. 🙂  What an angel (pictured below).

One of the many talents Chef John Korzekwinski has is the ability to incorporate several ingredients into a dish and they layer gradually on your palate, and the dish really unfolds in your mouth.  Some chefs get overzealous and get too busy with a dish, and what sounded beautiful in theory or on paper falls flat into a mashed up flavor blob in your mouth in real life.  A lot of John’s dishes sound complex, but are always elegantly and masterfully executed, and they layer beautifully, as intended.  All around a truly world class dinner and only $48/person… We ate hours ago and I am still so full I cannot even talk about the dessert plate, but I will tell you that they have a special pastry chef who makes some really cool Eastern European desserts.  The gingerbread is definitely worth pulling out a stop for– it was different than any I think I’ve had.  It was so light and with the perfect amount of warming spices.  For me though, the best part of the dessert was the description sheet the pastry chef had made for Henry that morning. Highly recommend sitting at the bar with Henry, by the way, if you don’t have a large group.  He is a hoot. I noticed Henry reading from this piece of paper and caught a glimpse of the illustrations, and asked to see it.  I found it hilariously adorable that the pastry chef drew it for Henry.  We probably aren’t supposed to be seeing it, but I thought the descriptions were great, and since you’re reading my stuff, I think you’re special, so I don’t mind divulging Henry’s dessert tray description. 🙂

Thank you/ dziekuje bardzo/, J. Betski’s, for another perfect night with perfect food, and for always making my foodie dreams come true.  I hope I’m in town for the New Year’s Eve Prix Fixe Dinner at J. Betski’s! You can see that menu here and call for reservations–> Otherwise, you can visit OpenTable or their website for reservations, or just pop in and grab a seat at the bar.

dessert drawing

Na zdrowie and dobranoc! 

let’s talk about food.

coleenandsarah_oakwoodcandlelightStaring at this blank screen gave me flashbacks to college when I would procrastinate always with the hopes of creating something masterful under pressure.  haha. Such a bad habit. But today, those daunting blank screens are far in the rear view, it is a chilly December Saturday morning, I am in my pajamas drinking coffee, listening to Mariah Carey Christmas (am I sick or what?), glancing out the backdoor occasionally at my sweet Daisy as she basks in the backyard sun. There is no deadline.  I am enjoying a leisurely weekend morning–such a luxury isn’t it?  So, what am I doing here?

I want to write about my passion for masterfully prepared food and drink.  I have to disclose, this wasn’t my idea.  I was talking with a friend recently over dinner at Hummingbird, gushing over what we were eating and also talking about his aspiration of opening a restaurant someday when he suggested that I start a food blog.  Wait, let’s back up, it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a straight up command. And it came with a deadline.  haha!  And so I questioned, “why the hell would I do that?  What am I going to get out of it?”  His response was, “so you can write.”  Well, that’s reason enough for me. So, thanks for that, friend.

The great thing about writing about food is that I really don’t mind if nobody reads it or talks about it.  I just need to express it, being the expressive woman that I am. But, I am very confident in the comprehension of my palate, part genetically blessed and part trained, so maybe I will inspire someone to try something new, or to dig deeper into their own palette’s comprehension.  That would really make my day.  But this is a very humble beginning, and my expectations are low.  So, ahem, welcome to my food blog.  🙂

I have chosen to highlight a new restaurant in Raleigh called Hummingbird, to begin.  It just recently graced Raleigh’s food scene in November.  I have been proliferating anticipation leading up to the launch of this neighborhood gem owned by Chef Coleen Speaks.  There’s a lot of buoyant emotion wrapped up in this place for me.  You see, Coleen isn’t just a masterful (god I love that word) local chef, she is one of my closest friends, my neighbor, my sister, my confidant, fellow foodie and lover of fun.  I have had the distinct pleasure of enjoying countless meals created by her in her home, and my friends have been listening to me rave about her food and craft cocktails for years.  I remember the first time I met her and her husband, Nick.  I think it was 2009.  My sister invited me to the Speaks’ famous Halloween house party.  Coleen had a huge cauldron of her famous gumbo and a massive punch bowl of Dark n Stormy with lychees stuffed with brandied-cherries floating in it.  🙂  Genius.  They looked just like eyeballs floating around.  haha.  I am pretty sure I fell in love with her and Nick that night.  Fast forward years later, and I ended up buying a house two blocks away from them.  She has extended her table to me these past 4 1/2 years enough for me to say, with conviction, that this woman is one of the most skilled chefs in the area, and in my opinion, one of the most brilliantly creative chefs in the world.  Hummingbird is a long awaited wish of Coleen’s and I am thrilled to celebrate this labor of love.  Now, anyone can sit at her table.  You can even order that gumbo I had on that balmy and rainy Halloween night when I first met her.

Well, that’s it for this post.  I am so excited to tell you about my favorite details of this space, the food, and the cocktails.  FYI–their bartender, Tal, makes the most perfect Negroni I have ever had in my life, which is fitting as my first Negroni was made by Coleen in her kitchen. For those of you who don’t know Chef Coleen, aka Coco, she is pictured seated above, with myself standing. Cheers, and thanks for joining me!