Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why is North Carolina so Cheap?

Have you seen this map that came out a while back? It's the Business Insider graphic of the United States with the first word that comes up after typing "Why is [state] so" written in every state.  (It doesn't have DC, but the Google autocomplete for DC was, "Why is DC so expensive". Shocker.)  It's amusing and reveals some of the stereotypes (and truths behind them!) across the country.  And I must admit, I've been holding onto some assumptions myself about other parts of the country, especially the South. 

I grew up in Maryland, nicknamed "The Old Line State" for being on the Northern part of the dividing line during the Civil War ("War of Northern Aggression" for you Southerners).  And though we're really in the middle, I identified with Northeastern characteristics more than Southern ones.  (Temperamental and uninhibited according to the Huffington Post - while not flattering, they do probably describe me more than the other regional characteristics.)  I certainly never wanted to live in the south.  My requirements for where I'd move to up until now have been: 1) within an hour of a major airport 2) within 15 minutes of a Target, 3) within four hours of the coast, and 4) nothing farther south than Northern Virginia (Austin and anywhere in California excluded).

Limited experiences in Texas and North Carolina left me with the impression that the slower pace of life "down south" would be way too boring for me, and all there is down there is shopping and eating.  (Maybe some cow tipping?  Is that more Midwest?  Ok, maybe some rodeos?  Also, I am not sure why up until now, I felt like shopping and eating was something I didn't want since those are both pretty big "hobbies" of mine.)  So in that sense, I'd say our trip to Raleigh a few months ago was perfectly southern.  We took it easy, shopped and ate.  And it was awesome, and ok, yes, this city-girl did kind of assume it would be too "country hick" for me.  But there were all sorts of other fun things in Raleigh to do like local breweries, all sorts of green spaces for outdoorsy stuff, local theaters and music venues.  Getting around did require lots of driving, but it was so easy to navigate, find parking, and get most places within fifteen minutes.  I'm not saying I want to move there, but it did make me understand why people do.  As the title and Business Insider graphic implies, I was pleasantly surprised at how relatively cheap things were, making it an affordable yet interesting place to be.

All of that preamble (pre-ramble?) is to say, that we went to North Carolina and I want to talk about what we ate did!  Earlier this year, part of the out-of-town work Jason did was in North Carolina, which meant a good reason to spend a couple weekends in Raleigh. 

The drive wasn't bad and gave me a chance to catch up on phone calls, books on tape, and indulge in chick-fil-a.  I've gotta say, highway driving in southern Virginia and North Carolina is awesome.  Once 95 goes from four lanes to two, most people know to use the left lane as the passing lane and will move to let you pass.  People who hang in the left lane are a major pet peeve of mine, and I appreciate the good people of 95 letting me pass.  The only awful part of the drive was trying to use iphone maps anywhere that wasn't on the highway.  MULTIPLE times I was lead to the middle of a neighborhood instead of a fast-food joint.

We used Hyatt points transferred over from our Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card to stay at the Hyatt House in the North Hills area.  The hotel was brand new and in the middle of a huge new town center with all sorts of shopping, eating, even a bowling alley and movie theater.  The downtown hotels were at least 50% more expensive and charged for parking, so it didn't seem worth it to us to pay more when the Hyatt was only a fifteen minutes drive and downtown parking was plentiful and free on weekends (a true treasure to anyone from DC!)  With so many amenities in walking distance, and rooms equipped with standard kitchen equipment, we were a little bit sad to leave.

With so many good spots within walking distance, we ended up eating in the North Hills town center for a lot of meals.  Call me an "Open-table" addict, but I was astounded at how long waits were all over the place.  The few times we waited until 7pm to begin our dinner search, we were faced with multi-hour waits at all the recommended spots.  I know better than to try hot spots in DC without reservations, but just didn't expect what actually seemed like a worse wait-list situations there.  I think this is further proof of my theory that going out to eat is the only thing to do.  It also is evidence of the economic High Cost of Free Parking, despite how much I love it (you may not pay cash to park, but overcrowding when everyone can park free means you pay in wait-time).  But I digress.  
I've gotten behind on blogging about this, so the details of what we did are slightly fuzzy.  We did a lot of shopping, because there were a few things Jason actually needed, and there was nothing else to do.  Kidding - a friend of our really enjoyed a performance at the Performing Arts Center, and we saw play at the intimate, but hard to find, Theater in the Park.

It should be no surprised that the main thing we did was eat. I've got the full restaurant list at the bottom.  Other than that and the shopping, we walked around downtown a lot.  We went to a couple wineries about half hour outside the city: Gregory Vineyards and Adams Vineyard.  It was something fun to do, and Gregory Vineyards had a nice scenic porch to sit at, but the local grape, the muscadine, really isn't one I enjoyed drinking more than a few sips of - very very sweet and fruity, with a musky undertone (which is where the name "muscadine" comes from).  If we ever go back, there were a lot of breweries that would have been fun to check out and tour.  Plus, after spending a few days in Raleigh, I think spending more time down South sounds just dandy.

Now the list of where we ate along with my comments in no particular order:

Quality Grocery, Oakwood
Details: Deli
Best for: Easy outdoor meal with friends, especially with kids.

This place was quite charming.  Like stepping into some kind of portal to Mayberry, local goods lining the shelves and the white-board menu made promises of honest-to-goodness food as it was meant to be eaten - throwing the notion of calories and food trends to the wind.  Not everything on the menu was as stellar as I hoped (ie: the burger), but I think if you stick to the deli-type items, you're golden.

We were told someone would take your order if you got a seat, but after waiting a while outside, we found that ordering at the counter is much faster. They had a local hot dog that was a frightening shade of bright pink and tasted like red hots candy to me. Cheer wine, another local food, was available in glass bottles. It isn't actually a wine, but the glass bottles fit the Norman Rockwell feel, and I thought the cherry flavored soda went well with my chicken salad sandwich, which was definitely good enough to want to go back.

Bida Manda, Downtown
Details: Laotian
Best for: Special evening with a hot date, both of which I had!

Oh man, I loved the food here. I think you would too, even if Asian food isn't your cup of tea - or maybe cup of green tea (groan!). The flavors were so fresh and vibrantly mixed.  Be sure to make reservations and save room in the budget, as trendy places like this tend towards smaller serving sizes. Our waiter told us Billy Joel ate there and ordered the pork belly soup (he also made a joke about pork "Billy" soup - groan again!). We didn't try that, but we did try the green mango salad and it was amazing! The chicken wings were a little bit of a let down after Pok Pok, but the daily special that day was grilled shrimp, which more than made up for it! Southeast Asian foods tend to have a good bit of French influence, as evidenced by the macrons we had for dessert. 

The Pit, Downtown
Details: BBQ 
Best for: Huge servings, groups, families
For a place with a name like, "the pit" this restaurant was really nice. The portions were also huge for the price. I kind I'd wish we hadn't gotten the cornbread skillet, not because it wasn't good, but because it kept me from finishing everything else. As with all other places in this town, make reservations. We went for brunch and had fun touring the chocolate factory across the street after. 

Q Shack, North Hills
Details: fast casual BBQ 
Best for: Good food for this BBQ novice without any fuss; also iphone maps brought us into a neighborhood across the street from where this place really was.

This was more of a fast casual place, but I'm still thinking about how good the collard greens here were. The brisket was so tender you could break it up with a fork. The dryness was a good excuse to douse on BBQ sauce, though I haven't  quite acquired a taste for the vinegar-based Carolina style sauce. Jason's pulled pork was nice and flavorful and fresh hush puppies were served with everything. I think it was a local chain and wish it would make it's way up here.

Vivace, North Hills
Details: Italian
Best for: a group celebration with your family or friends who like good food, and are either willing to get there early or be loud enough to talk over the noise.

It's my fault - I can't remember how this place was because I didn't take good notes and this happened a few months ago by now.  This was close to where we stayed, but we still had a really hard time getting in, and it was dark, and somewhat cramped, so I think I have unfavorable memories even though the food was really good.  The fun thing here was that they had half portions of their pasta dishes, so we got the gnocchi, spaghetti and meatballs, and the pappardelle.  I'm pretty sure the pappardelle was our favorite, though my memory is failing me.  So I don't have anything helpful to say about it besides reserve early.
Croquette, North Hills
Details: French
Best for: great food, no wait, truffle fries, nice casual date night

Right across from our hotel, we ended up here because it was the only spot without an hour wait at 7pm Friday night. I'm really not sure why it didn't because I thought it was far more memorable than the Italian place nearby. Hungry impatience prompted an order of truffle frites as an appetizer - and wow. The perfect mix of crunchy, salty and savory, these shoestring fries haunt me like the ghost of Christmas past (cause clearly food-ghosts are the friendly ones). As boring as it sounds, I had a burger and it was also wonderfully salty and peppery, though now I'm starting to wonder if my extreme hunger that night is actually what made it so good.  The prices were average for DC, so expensive for Raleigh.

Beasley's Chicken and Honey, Downtown
Details: American/Southern contemporary
Best for: hipsters, hipsters with kids, people with low-risk tolerance who want safe and popular choices (ie: non-ethnic foods)

Call me a food snob/jaded/bored, but I was kind of let down by this place.  I don't know.  Half the things were really good and half were mediocre, making it just not that memorable.  Biscuits were good but didn't come with enough gravy; the chicken was nice and crispy but the poached egg yolks weren't runny.  Plus, it's the same as every other joint that's popping up with their hand-crafted cocktails, reclaimed wood décor, flannelled staff, and food that claims to be a "twist on traditional," but isn't all that unique.  The unique thing to me was that we each got an entrée with coffee and paid less than $25!  Don't get me wrong, it was fine, and the other restaurants by the same chef, a James Beard Award winner(!), seemed highly rated, though I'd bet the quality was higher the first few months of opening.  I'm still curious about how her other restaurants are.

CowFish, North Hills
Details: sushi burger bar
Best for: indecisive people, families like ours since I always want Asian and Jason always wants burgers, young people or those who appreciate a unique and somewhat funky atmosphere, to the point of being like a theme park restaurant

So if my complaint with the last place was that it was too boring, this place was quite on the opposite end of the spectrum! As the name somewhat implies, this place specialized in sushi and burgers.  There were even creations that combined the two foods so it took us a long time to figure out the menu  (burger ingredients in sushi form and vice versa - we weren't brave enough to try those ones).  This place was packed all weekend, and it definitely is fun.  Bright colors, fish tanks, and Asian cartoons made me feel like I would have liked this place a lot more if I was in college still and wanted to go somewhere fun with a group of friends.  However, my adult taste buds still loved all the food we had.  I am in the camp that believes the more foods a restaurant specializes in is inversely related to the quality of those foods (options increase = quality decrease), but this place really did have two very different foods that were still really delicious.  Man of the burgers or "in-between" foods had some kind of Asian flare, and the sushi was fresh and creative.  I'm not totally sure if I'd go back, but it was fun to do once and really did have some of the best food in the area we stayed.