Day Two of Great Southern Hospitality in The Bull City
This is the second part of my visit to Durham North Carolina. It was a busy day with a lot of stops. I was hindered all day by an off and on rain, but that didn’t stop me from exploring, and enjoying all that The Bull City has to offer. When we left off, I had just finished dinner at Rue Cler. After that I went back to my hotel for a much needed good night’s rest.
On Saturday I decided to take in Elmo’s Diner for lunch, and am I ever glad I did. It’s situated just outside the east campus of Duke University. This place is exactly what you would picture if you thought of a diner. Cozy booths and wood floors give it a home-town vibe. Located in an old brick building that once housed a taxi cab garage, this is everything you’d want in a diner.
I arrived right at lunch time, and the place was packed. There were scores of people waiting for a table, and I almost left. But, when I asked about the wait, I was told that if I would consider sitting at the counter, they could get me in quicker. That’s what I wanted to do anyway, so after about ten minutes, I was happily perched on a counter stool.
The staff, in their jeans and Elmo t-shirts, were running to and fro, and everybody was munching and conversing away. I ordered the corned beef hash from the brunch menu, and was offered a choice of breakfast bread. I love biscuits, so I went with that over toast. While I waited I checked out the clientele. It consisted of mostly of college students, with a wide ethnic variation.
Monster Corned Beef Hash
Then presto – my order arrived. To say the portions are large is an understatement. I eventually only ate about 2/3 of the hash, as I simply couldn’t eat any more. The biscuit was obviously scratch made, and the hash was piled high with potatoes, onions and tomatoes. All of this was topped with cheese, two scrambled eggs and garnished with chopped green onions.
During my meal the staff talked up, and joked with the customers all the while attending to everyone’s needs. My neighbor ordered an omelette that was gargantuan, and stuffed with all kinds of goodies. The corned beef hash was excellent, but a little light on the beef. The biscuit was amazing with a crunchy top, and tender middle.
This restaurant has a steady stream of repeat customers. And with good reason. They are very kid friendly, and even hold monthly PTA fundraisers. They have earned multiple local awards, and would be worthy of your consideration.
King’s Red and White in The Bull City
After lunch at Elmo’s I wanted to get more of a feel for the local grocery and food markets in Durham. My first stop was King’s Red and White Grocery
This is a small local supermarket that is family owned and operated. They have been in business since 1957, and offer some items probably not offered elsewhere.
The place definitely has a southern feel, with items like watermelon rind pickles and pigs feet. They offer fresh produce, and have an extensive wine selection. Mingled in among everything else you will find North Carolina products as well. The butcher shop will even bundle meat products for you.
It’s set up like any grocery store, only smaller and with just two cashier lanes. But their focus is friendly customer service which I witnessed first hand. They can offer personalized attention which is probably why they have been in business for over 62 years.
Bull City Olive Oil
The next point of interest on my market travels was Bull City Olive Oil. This shop is located in the north building of Brightleaf Square. It is housed in an old restored tobacco warehouse where there are a series of shops.
They have many different olive oils, some fused, and some infused. In addition, they carry some specialty oils as well as numerous balsamic vinegar selections. All of their oils and vinegar come in three different bottle sizes. One nice feature is their bottle service. If you bring back a clean bottle, they will give you 10% off of your next purchase. You don’t even have to get the same oil. This way, you can change it up, and try different flavorings.
The best part of the store is the owner. Julie moved to Durham from New York, and opened Bull City Olive Oil three years ago. She is very knowledgeable about Durham’s food scene. We chatted for almost 30 minutes, and I learned a lot about the restaurants in the area.
I didn’t want to leave empty handed. So I bought a small bottle of black truffle oil ($13.00), which I was allowed to sample beforehand. The oil is strong, and a small amount will go a long way. Look for me to feature this in an upcoming post on Southern Feast.
The shop was clean and well stocked. We even nibbled on some chocolate while talking about food and restaurants. Julie made me feel welcome, and while I’m sure she would with you as well, I’m not sure she liked my Red Sox hat. But I would expect nothing less from a good New Yorker who is probably a Yankees fan.
Mateo Bar De Tapas
For my final night in Durham I picked what ended up being one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in a long time. Mateo Bar De Tapas is well worth the visit, and shines as a leader in the Durham food scene. I chose this establishment because it combines Spanish tapas with southern influences.
This small plate restaurant is located in another old building which formerly served as a book exchange. My waiter told me that when the chef bought the building he had to move out a lot of books.
I was escorted to my table by a very charming lady who lead me up a very long flight of steps to the second floor. This as a single room which had a very ’70’s boutique vibe, with retro soft lighting, and soft ’70’s rock playing in the background. I was waiting for someone to break out a bong.
The menu is a little difficult to read as most of it is in Spanish, but my waiter took me through it with ease. I decided to begin with the Huevo Diablos, or deviled eggs. The restaurant was very crowded, but the noise level was minimal. Mostly conversation from a young professional looking crowd.
The food arrived in a timely succession without me feeling rushed. the Huevo Diablos were simply fantastic! A whipped egg mixture re-stuffed in the egg whites, which were wrapped in Chorizo sausage. This was a perfect way to start the meal.
My next dish was the Ensalada Rusa which combined smoked North Carolina trout with it’s caviar, saffron, Yukon gold and sweet potatoes. This was very light and fresh. The roe added the perfect saltiness to the dish. The combination of potatoes balanced the dish nicely, but I liked the sweet potatoes a little better.
Bull City Chicken Pate
The last savory course was almost beyond words. I had the Pate. This is a chicken liver pate, with a peach relish, pickled okra, radishes and a rustic toasted bread. All of this is chilled, and served on a wooden cutting board with the pate in a small jar. The combination of flavors were sweet, savory, and ever so slightly spicy. The item that tied it all together was the pickled okra. If you piled all of this on a piece of the bread it was a burst of uniqueness. My wine selection here was the Rias Baixas Do Ferreiro 2015 at $6.50 a glass. The wine was light and crisp, with citrus flavors.
I had to get desert here. It wasn’t an option. The Chocolate Mousse I had should be illegal. It featured a light, rich, airy mousse with a honey base. On top was a crunchy crumble consisting of finely chopped nuts, and crushed coffee.
The State Bird
After dinner I went back downstairs to the much larger room with a very long bar. I wanted to sample some of the locally distilled gin I had read about. This is when I met Allison, a very knowledgeable bar tender who doesn’t drink. We talked about Durham Distillery where they make Conniption Gin, among other things. I opted for the Navy Strength gin in a drink called The State Bird, which included a saffron infused tonic with some lemon and lime. Basically a kicked up gin and tonic. It was fruity and very strong.
The highlight of the evening though was the “Datil” which Allison gave me on the house. This is simply a date wrapped in country ham, and stuffed with goat cheese. It was the best thing I ate ALL weekend.
Bar de Mateo Tapas is probably the best thing going in Durham, and several locals expressed that sentiment. Chef Matthew Kelly, who is a multiple James Beard nominee, has built a flagship restaurant that has lead to other things. Mateo was Matt’s first solo enterprise after having spent time at Vin Rouge. He has gone on to open St. James Seafood and Oyster Restaurant, which had been a dream of his. Kelly is one of the forces driving Durham’s food experience.
I really liked the verse above the door at Mateo. It reads “Spanish heart, Southern Soul”. If you are in Durham you should go. You really should.
Bull City Conclusion
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Durham. The city has a lot to offer, but like every town it has it’s problems. The biggest one being parking. At each place I went, except King’s Red and White, I had parking issues. Let’s hope the city can remedy this, but it will be difficult. On a positive note, Durham has no meals tax. This according to my bartender friend. Where I live it is between four and six percent, depending on the locality I’m in.
Not only does Durham have a great food scene, it also has a lot of friendly people who are very dedicated to their craft. From the olive oil purveyor to the pit master, they love what they do. I saw it in their eyes, heard it in their voices and tasted it in the products they were selling.
If you find yourself in North Carolina you owe it to yourself to make a trip to The Bull City. Your taste buds will thank you.