Anyone who has driven down Highway 101 from the Bay Area toward the California coast has passed a sign proclaiming “It’s Happening in Soledad.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. My cousins have a ranch in Soledad. I assumed they used it to get away from all that is happening. Soledad is near the Pinnacles national park, a prison, and little else. My memory of the actual town (visited circa 1988; we ate honey-filled sopaipillas in a no-name diner) is sparse. I think of tumbleweeds rolling down the main drag, although the tumbleweeds probably only existed in my imagination.
Raleigh, though it doesn’t have a sign that says so, is truly happening. Before Mindy’s book launch and after the IACP conference in D.C., I put aside a few days to pay my friend Liz a visit. Liz and I met in grad school at Northwestern. She ended up covering banking for Bloomberg in New York City. My path–working for a trade magazine in which whiffle ball game participation was mandatory–was completely different. Maybe that’s why we got along so well: we respected that each of us would do our own thing.
Also, Liz is so fun to eat out with. One year, when we were both fairly broke and I was visiting Liz in New York, we managed to scrape together enough money for a meal at Per Se. Liz still goes there occasioanally when visiting just to have a drink at the bar and take in the view of Columbus Circle.
In Raleigh, Liz showed me a few of her new home town’s culinary highlights. There were not one but two artisan chocolate bar makers, a Laotian restaurant, an Indian street food kind of place, and a new-American place that found ways to pair bonito flakes with–was it burrata? While walking Liz’s puppy, we ran into friends of hers who happen to be in the coffee business. (One just happened to win an award for her cold-brewing technique.) There was also a bakery, an urban farm, and a few great local breweries and bars, all of which is easily reachable on bike.
A little bit Portland? Maybe — but Raleigh has a groove all its own.
Raleigh: Where to Go
Bida Manda, 222 S. Blount St.
Liz told me about this fun Laotian restaurant months ago. She said it was the first place we’d go when I came to visit. On the Monday night that I visited, it was packed. We met Vasana Nolintha, who owns the restaurant with his sister. This is an international family (Van is Laotian, though he studied at Trinity College, Dublin, before coming to Raleigh) and the menu is Southeast Asian by way of America (like green papaya salad with a crispy local trout draped on top).
Stanbury, 938 N. Blount St.
Move over roasted cauliflower — here we had roasted broccoli with a spicy chile sauce and a slow-cooked egg. The restaurant, which is sort of American, sort of everything else, has surprising ways of combining miso with European-style dishes in ways that work.
Escazu, 936 N. Blount St.
Next door to Stanbury is this impressive small-batch chocolate maker that makes flavors like goat’s milk chocolate and a chipotle chile and vanilla. The day after dinner at Stanbury, Liz and I walked over and they were grinding cacao beans. I am kicking myself for not buying more of the goat’s milk chocolate bars. While we didn’t have time to stop by it, Videri is another small-batch chocolate maker. Yep, this city has two of them.
Trophy Brewing & Pizza Co., 827 W. Morgan St.
Like many cities around the country, Raleigh has a growing craft brewing scene. But while cities like Chicago are reaching a saturation point (and will probably need to go through a painful weeding-out period) Raleigh’s small-batch brewers can’t keep up with supply. Or at least that’s the case at Trophy. Liz came to get her growler filled up, but some of the beers were in too short supply to sell in growler quantities.
Garland, 14 W. Martin St.
I didn’t order the right wine for the table on our visit to Garland (sparkling rose that grew a little weary over the course of the meal), but fortunately others at the table did a better job at ordering for the table at this somewhat Indian street food spot. Like the bhel puri, a tamarind-spiked mix of puffed rice, peanuts, chiles, tomatoes, and other bits.
Slingshot Cold Brew Coffee, sold at various locations
Cold-brew coffee takes on special significance during humid summers. We ran into Jenny Bonchak with her husband, Jonathan, and beagle on another dog walk. She makes a cold-brew coffee with beans from Counter Culture (where Jonathan works), and the cold brew has a strong following. Jenny’s coffee has won national brewing competitions. We bought a bottle at Yellow Dog Bread, a nearby bakery. Jonathan told us that Counter Culture is opening a new roasting facility in Emeryville, right in my neck of the woods, go figure.