Raleigh-Durham One Dish Wonders
I'm looking for places that call out to you with one signature dish they do absolutely great. This differs from all-around fine dining establishments where you can go and know that you generally won't be disappointed with anything on the menu (well... assuming it matches your food preferences). These places might be average or even disappointing on the whole, but you found that one thing that never fails you. I have run across several such restaurants in my experiences around the country. Any time I order something else, I'm taking a big chance, but when I come back to the old standby it is just as good as I remember.
I'll start out with two around here:
Cinelli's (multiple locations): Grandma Pizza. Go with the simple cheese and tomato basic. The flavors are fresh and natural. The tomato sauce is chunky and placed in uneven clumps around the square area (very nicely). The medium size is just right for a couple to devour. Far outpasses their other pizzas, which are rather pedestrian for my tastes.
El Cerro (Ten Ten Road and Kildaire Farm in Apex): The carnitas are perfect. Moist, tender, browned crisp on the outside. Ask for their hotter red salsa rather than the green tomatillo they bring you by default. I've been disappointed with the other dishes I've tried there, but I order the carnitas and all is forgiven.
+1 to the Grandma's, but I must lament the passing of the Brick Oven Pizza. For years it was my One Dish Wonder. It is (well, was anyway) the same as the Grandma's, but baked directly on the brick oven. Grandma's crust can get soggy in patches and it takes on a very slight greasiness where the oil and tomato sauce run off the pizza. The brick oven crust was dry and firm on the bottom, but absorbent enough on top to keep the juicy bits on the pizza where they belong. It was also cheaper than Grandma's and traveled home better.
Cinelli's overhauled their otherwise pedestrian menu and ditched the Brick Oven Pizza. I've also noticed a marked decline in consistency when ordering the Grandma's: too salty once, burned badly another, missing basil one time... I hear the owner made a menu change for all Cinelli's restaurants and that the Durham Cinelli's is not at liberty to make the Brick Oven, but I sure do miss it.