Another year is winding down and that only means one thing at the end of the year: another “best of” list. Around town, the Triangle area restaurant scene seems to be keeping abreast of national food trends: an uptick in fast-casual and artisanal pizzerias, the continuing popularity of ramen shops, a wave of fast-casual restaurants focused on “healthier” offerings sourced from local ingredients, and the upswing in the number of diverse “ethnic” offerings.
Just a heads-up: my “best of” list skews heavily towards Raleigh where I spend the majority of my time. My outings this year have been limited by the delightful welcoming of my newborn baby, but it hasn’t hampered my enthusiasm for the ever-expanding array of options this dynamic and growing area has to offer. Without further ado, here’s my humble list of what I’ve found to be the absolute best in the area:
Best croissant: Hands down, Boulted Bread is the best bakery in the area. Besides a great selection of artisan bread, the ham and Gruyere cheese croissant is unparalleled in Raleigh. The pastry is flaky, buttery, light and delicate and is only bested by the savory warm layering ham and oozing, luxurious Gruyere cheese. My husband and I have both sampled the croissant offered at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco (the award-winning bakery touted as one of the best in the country) and we both agreed—Boulted Bread’s version is better.
Best bowl of noodle soup: I went to Tokyo earlier this year and got a chance to experience some of the best ramen and udon that I’ve ever had, and likely some that would rank amongst the best in the world. The choice of ramen and noodle soups in the Triangle, naturally, by comparison are quite anemic in quantity and quality. Noodle Blvd in Cary offers a fair bowl of ramen, and I’ve heard high praise heaped upon Durham’s Rose’s Meat Market and Sweets, especially after its Asian menu revamp that includes ramen and Taiwanese breakfast foods (cheers for youtiao!). Still, I’m privy to gravitate towards the bowl of jampong at Durham’s China Express. The spicy Korean seafood noodle soup made with hand-pulled noodles is a bowl of old-school comfort food and nostalgia for me and it’s been that way for the last ten years.
Best biscuit: Rise has been spreading its tentacles throughout the Triangle, and even elsewhere in the nation, for good reason. The biscuits are dang good. Fluffy, buttery and moist, the biscuit at Rise is hard to beat in the area. Best of all, the biscuits at Rise come canoodled with decadent, savory fillings like juicy, buttermilk-brined fried chicken and fried green tomatoes. If you’re willing designate a whole day’s worth of calories towards breakfast, Rise is a good bet for a satisfying first meal of the day.
Best donut: Winston-Salem founded company Krispy Kreme may be the gold standard of donuts in the state of North Carolina, but truthfully I’ve fostered a recent fondness for the cinnamon sugar donut at Duck Donuts. Since the donuts at Duck Donuts are made-to-order, the soft cake donut rolled in the cinnamon sugar amalgamation arrives to the mouth warm and sweet. Usually, I’m partial to yeast donuts that have a nice bounce with each bite, but the donuts at Duck Donuts are so fresh that my preference is rendered irrelevant by the donut shop that, luckily, has been imported from the coast of North Carolina.
Best coffee shop: For many, a great coffeehouse needs to feel like a second home. To that proviso, I think that Sola Coffee in North Raleigh is one of the best local coffee shops in the area. The live music and the Saturday morning local markets are an added bonus to the superb coffee drinks made with Counter Culture coffee beans inside the homespun ambiance. The food offerings are also pretty stellar, especially the mini-donuts. Raleigh’s Jubala and Durham’s Cocoa Cinnamon are also local heavyweights that also churn out a strong cup of local coffee.
Best cheap eat: Flanked by a smattering of car dealerships, the lemon-colored building off Raleigh’s Wake Forest Road houses one of the best cheap eats in town. Mami Nora’s has been pumping out its Peruvian rotisserie chicken for several years now with great success and so much so that it has resulted in several progeny Alpaca outposts around the Triangle. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the portion sizes may have shrunk ever-so-slightly, but at $6.99, the quarter-dark chicken combination of juicy, roasted chicken with rice and beans, slathered liberally with the bomb-tastic yellow and green sauce is still one of the best cheap and filling meals in town.
Best appetizer: When Fortune Palace in Raleigh closed several years ago I almost shed tears upon hearing the news. That restaurant held a beloved spot in my heart. The owners revived some of the main dishes later on when they opened Red Pepper Asian elsewhere in Raleigh and, luckily, the fried calamari (redundant?) appetizer lives on. Tender squid deep fried with a crisp, light coating and lightly salted, the calamari one of the best appetizers I’ve ever had despite its simplicity and made even better dunked in the sweet and vinegary dipping sauce.
Best place for a celebratory meal: By far, one of my most memorable meals in the area in the last few years was a kaiseki dinner at Durham’s Yamazushi. But, recently a meal at Scott Crawford’s Raleigh contemporary restaurant Crawford and Son also impressed. The seasonal menu is driven by the fresh ingredients, and from my experience, is well-executed. Plus, the malted yeast rolls are really a can’t miss if you like stuffing yourself deliriously with buttery carbs.
Best taco: Without doubt, Durham is the hub of some of the best traditional taquerias in the region with places like Taqueria La Vaquita and Guanajuato churning out tacos with handmade tortillas. The Bull City may have authentic tacos on lockdown, but Raleigh’s Taqueria El Toro does give them a good run for their money. And, for a more bourgeoise take on tacos, Nanataco, with its selection of “dirty meats” like smoked duck and hog jowls, in Durham is hard to beat.
Best burger: Everyone also has strong opinions on the best burger in town. For the money, longtime burger stalwart MoJoe’s Burger Joint is a good contender though nearby downtown neighbor Chuck’s may be the newer, fancier kid in town. For utter decadence, Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar is hard to top should you try to build-your-own burger with toppings like buttermilk fried bacon, especially with a side of their tater tots.
Best healthy eat: Diets like paleo and ketogenic are all the rage these days and with that comes a need for places that serve healthier eats. In downtown Raleigh, places like Happy + Hale, Fiction Kitchen and Living Kitchen are happy to accommodate those on food restrictions. At places like Chopt and b.good, salads and grain bowls are easily had. Still, for a healthy meal, I’m partial to the Tokyo Bay bowl at Grabbagreen and the kabob platter at Neomonde with the citric pomegranate beet salad and a side of creamy baba ganoush.
Best sandwich: Raleigh’s Nashers Sandwich House is now Pressed Sandwich House. Despite the name change and the location nestled squarely in the ‘burbs, Nashers/Pressed routinely delivers a really good, hearty sandwich. Like the name suggests, Pressed specializes in pressed, panino sandwiches, and veers away from the typical humdrum , cold-cut and deli sandwiches. Craft-made and stacked high with meats like country fried chicken and slow roasted pulled pork, the sandwiches are quite generous in portion. For $8.99, the half sandwich and half salad (especially the roasted pear salad) is a steal for the quality and amount of food you receive at Pressed.
Best sushi : Durham’s M Sushi’s clandestine downtown location portends that this is no ordinary sushi restaurant. In fact, M Sushi probably ranks as one of the top sushi restaurants in the Triangle. Top quality fish sets this sushiya apart from the rest. For the beaucoup bucks, this type of restaurant is probably not the type to blow on complicated rolls smothered by spicy mayo drizzle, but rather any sushi aficionado should spring for the omakase set or nigiri. For the sheer value though, Kai Sushi in Raleigh may be the best option, where you can get three rolls for $24 or five rolls for $37 any night of the week.
Best ice cream: Ice cream in the Triangle has gone far beyond 31 flavors in the last couple of years. Flavors aren’t just limited to vanilla and chocolate anymore, with places like Two Roosters and Treat in Raleigh making locally-sourced ice cream, scooping out creamy creations like black cherry amaretto and gingersnap. Lines continually spill onto the sidewalk outside The Parlour in Durham as well, and for good reason. I think that their flavors are some of the best in town, especially the Vietnamese iced coffee.
Best not-too-sweet pastry: I’ve long thought that Chanelle Cake Bakery inside Cary’s Grand Asia Market was underrated. For when I’m craving a treat that’s not-too-sweet, the butter cream coconut bun is a perfect pick-me-up. A lightly-whipped coconut butter cream is cocooned inside a lightly sweet, soft bun pastry is delightful any day of the week and better yet, is only $1.39 .
Best slice of cake: The most perplexing moment when you step inside Raleigh’s Hayes Barton Café is how to decide which slice of cake you want for dessert. The second that you belly up to the cake to-go counter might be akin to feeling like a punch-drunk kid at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, bewildered at the choices of so many sumptuous, towering cakes. The café in Five Points, hands down, offers the best cakes in down; the heft of the dense cakes will take your breath (and waistline) away.
Best food court: In Raleigh, food halls are right around the corner with the promise of Morgan Street Hall and Transfer Co. Olde East opening in the near future. There’s another pretty good food court already open—albeit in Cary—inside the H-mart Asian grocery store. The food court offers cuisine that spans the gamut from soondubu jjigae and Korean fried chicken to Japanese ramen.