Wednesday, February 29, 2012

North Carolina Culinary Tourism

I’ve become one of…those people. One of those people who looks for opportunities to foodgeek over every damn thing.  

Luckily, my recent trip back to North Carolina to see my folks provided just the opportunity to do some serious foodgeeking, vacation-style. Returning to one’s hometown for vacation is hardly the most exciting opportunity for culinary tourism, but I’ve been freezing my bits off up here in the frozen north for long enough that a few new things have popped up. 

Also, my mama baked muffins for me. 

Check after the jump for my recap of the week – no recipe today, but I can give you the lowdown on Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill, Town and Country Meat and Produce in Greensboro, and Saxapahaw General Store, Cup 22 and Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw. 

Stay tuned for that last one. No, really. If you’re from NC, you want to hear this. 

Anyway, that muffin up there was a sweet potato muffins, actually – and man, were they ever good. I had some last-minute work to do the morning after I arrived on my red-eye flight in the middle of the night, and so I sat there at the kitchen table, and my mama brought me coffee and warm muffins. 

Local! And I know you can’t see the whole ingredient mix, but it ends with ‘baking powder’ and ‘salt.’ That’s it. No weird preservatives, nothing artificial, nothing gross. 

Unless you think raisins are gross. In which case I say: one cannot look a gift muffin in the raisin.

I digress. 

This mix came from a place in Greensboro called Town and Country Meat and Produce, and it’s a really cool little general store. They stock fresh, local produce, local baking mixes, butcher-quality meats and, get this, Blenheim ginger ale.  

Mmmmm... Blenheim.
Not my photo! Used with permission. Source
I’m a lousy food blogger because I didn’t take any pictures of the two bottles of Blenheim I downed, but Blenheim ginger ale is a South Carolina institution, est. 1903. This ain’t your super market ginger ale, honey. It burns so good. 

The next stop on the culinary tour was 90 miles away in scenic Chapel Hill, a college town with well-known culinary pedigree. The purpose of the trip was to see my very best friend, who has recently relocated there, but I also got to experience Top of the Hill restaurant and brewery, which is apparently a Chapel Hill institution. I'm a really bad food blogger, because I was too busy scarfing Lizard Chips (fried dill pickles and jalapenos) and drinking house-brewed Ram's Head IPA to take any pictures...

Miss M's former best friend
...but this is what my (no doubt now former, since I'm posting this) very best friend looks like wearing 3D glasses for a late-night home screening of The Lion King 3D. To be fair, I looked exactly like that...but less of a rockstar. Love you, very best friend! 

And by the way, I thought remaking The Lion King into 3D was complete consumerist crap - sacrilege, even - but it kind of blew my mind. 


Anyway.  I saved the best for last. Saxapahaw. 

If you said, Um, where?, then you are not alone, because when I lived in NC I'd never heard of the place either - it's an old mill town where the mill has been defunct for a few years. But Saxapahaw has experienced something of a cultural revitalization, and if you don't believe me, just ask the New York Times.

This was the draw. This is why I drove to the middle of nowhere to meet a friend for lunch. It's a gas station. And food paradise

No plastic-cheese nachos, weiners and slurpees (not that there's anything wrong with slurpees) in this place - let's talk about local craft beer and wine, shelves and coolers full of products from seitan to apple butter to free-range eggs to organic lip balm. And then there's the store's restaurant.

The kitchen is barely a sliver of space, and the day's specials are written up on a chalk board. You can watch as the short-order cooks put together your meal from locally-sourced ingredients (listed on their website), or you can sit on the funky little bricked-in patio right off the parking lot and sip some brew. You know, no big deal.

Pork carnita and fresh guacamole. Sweet merciful yum. The line when we got there was 15 people long, and this was the moment when I understood why. 

The thing about this is that Sax General Store is one of those places I'm pretty sure I could close my eyes and point at the menu and be happy with the result. As I caught up with my friend, I was eavesdropping on the little tables around us - everyone was enjoying themselves and their food.

Hi friend! Cool architecture, huh?
After we ate, we wandered down to the Haw River Ballroom, which occupies the gutted-out space of part of the old cotton mill. There's no other way to say it. The space is fantastic.

Not my photo. Used with permission: Source

This really delicious latte came from a little coffee counter called Cup 22 which is housed inside the Haw River Ballroom on the second landing, and I drank it on the balcony, which you can see in the picture below. I might've eaten half a brownie afterwards...and it might've been awesome.

Not my photo. Used with permission: Source
Those windows. Swoon. If I hadn't been kidnapped by a lumberjack Canadian boy, I'd be planning a wedding in Saxapahaw.

It's a hard knock life for food bloggers, you know. Go places. See things. Eat things. Take pictures of them. I'm just lucky to have foodie friends to go adventuring with me.

Til next time, gang! Stay hungry.

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