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Looking for a couple of upscale, a couple of downscale or off-the-wall options in the Triangle

My wife and I are planning to stay in the Triangle for a couple of days for our anniversary in a few weeks. I like barbecue, "ethnic" foods, generally places with a more hole in the wall/dive type atmosphere. My wife is more into steakhouses and Italian food(red sauce). We're both NC natives, so any Italian option would merely have to be serviceable by northeastern standards. The plan is to eat at a couple of places that strongly appeal to each person.

Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery seem to get good marks and have similar concepts. Any preference between those? Oakwood Grill also seems interesting. Do they ever do a parrilada mixta, or is it just steaks/pasta?

On the holes-in-walls...

I'm almost definitely going to try Super Wok. Other than that, I was thinking...

1. Allen and Son. Much ballyhooed, and I love barbecue, but is it up to the level of the Skylight Inn, Wilber's, and Blackbeard's? Also, do you have to order outside brown to get that mixed in? This whole OSB thing is foreign to me as an ENC native, and I wasn't aware of it when I did my Lexingon tour years ago.

2. La Vaquita. Authentic Mexican is another hobby horse of mine. Any standout items? How do the tacos compare to Los Comales or El Mexicanito in Wilson? I really only want to do this if it's amazing. El Mexicanito is my ne plus ultra for tacos, I'd rank Los Comales a notch below them. There doesn't seem to be much Triangle taco/authentic Mex talk on the board recently. I used to like Fonda y Birrieria Jalisco but have subsequently found much better in eastern NC. What about El ParaĆ­so in Durham? Is that still well thought of?

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  1. Magnolia Grill and Watts Grocery are variations on the same theme, but Magnolia Grill is a much more sophisticated rendition of that theme. Ken Barker uses more ingredients, incorporates more flavors, and is much more bold about attempting to get dozens of different flavors and textures to balance. At times, the result can be far above anything Watts Grocery could accomplish. Watts is excellent for your everyday meal using the freshest local ingredients possible. Magnolia Grill is what you'd expect to get on a special occasion. Desserts at Magnolia are unbeatable (perhaps best I've had in this country, including at the Michelin-starred places I've been). Can't go wrong with either - just a matter of what exactly you're looking for, and how much you're willing to spend.

    Allen & Son - this is my favorite BBQ in North Carolina. For what it's worth, I don't have as much experience with Eastern NC that you have, Naco, but I like it a lot more than Bum's in Ayden, Grady's in Dudley, The Pit in Raleigh, NC, and Tarheel Q in Tarheel, NC.

    La Vaquita - I could never get why people like this one more than Los Comales. I like Los Comales meat quality better (less fatty, more tender, better cut used for the carne asada and chorizo). It's also a lot more pleasant environment (clean indoors versus picnic tables under an outdoor awning in a parking lot).

    4 Replies
    1. re: mikeh

      Watts/Magnolia: I was thinking in the neighborhood of $25-30 entrees for our "nice" dinner. Does Magnolia fit that?

      A&S: Have you been to the Skylight Inn? I'd love to have a common point of reference with someone on A&S. Bum's bbq is unremarkable to me, and I haven't tried the others you mention. I need to get to Grady's, but the lure of La Cuata may prove irresistible if I'm in Dudley. Talk about your unlikely centers of gastronomy...

      1. re: Naco

        $25-30 entrees fits Magnolia Grill to the bill. I'm looking at a menu from last summer that I camera-phoned and entrees ranged from $23.95 to $28.95. Also note that apps. are around $10, and in a lot of people's opinion (including mine) the apps. often times outshine the entrees, so you might want to budget room for those too. Watts Grocery is more like $15-20 for dinner, and lunch is even cheaper (but a lot more sandwichy).

        It's too bad I was never able to make it over to Skylight Inn to offer a common point of reference for A&S. I usually found that A&S automatically came with a good mix of outside brown thrown in (much like Grady's automatically does), but if you want some extra, I'm sure they would oblige. One thing I've never noticed in A&S's 'que that Grady's offered was the crunchy/chewy pork rind browns, but that might be because of the entire shoulder v. whole hog distinction.

        1. re: mikeh

          There is no "outside brown" if you're cooking a whole hog, because the skin covers all of the meat. Hence my unfamiliarity with the whole concept. I'd never heard of it until I started reading about barbecue on the internet. There's no special/secret way to order eastern style barbecue. The whole OSB thing is completely alien to this part of the state.

          I was curious because I found Lexington style, ordered without caveats, to be a bit mild for my tastes, and given that A&S is kind of on the fault line, I wasn't sure how to order. I'll ask just to make sure, though.

          As far as skin goes, there is skin on a shoulder, but I think that adding the skin is one of those things that Lexington places look down on.

          1. re: mikeh

            Totally with mikeh on the appetizers at Magnolia. Was just there last month and made a meal of 3 of them, and was much happier than the times I've ordered an entree. DEF. get the grits souffle if you go.

      2. Can I add another idea for the hole-in-the-wall option? You might want to try The Federal, in downtown Durham. Surprisingly great food.

        17 Replies
        1. re: LulusMom

          I'll Second the Federal, and Vin Rouge, both in Durham.
          Also, in Raleigh...
          The Wild Turkey Lounge inside the Angus Barn
          Vinnie's Steak House (old school steak and Italian)
          Blinco's on Highway 70. Unique Western New York tavern food.

          1. re: Fu Dee

            Blinco's just hasn't been the same since they left Quail Corners. I feel that it's the same problem that hit Knightdale Seafood and Mama Dip's. Once these places move to "nicer" locations and no longer have that dive-y low-rent feel, the food is never quite as good. I always felt that Blinco's was more about the atmosphere than the food, however.

            Magnolia, Federal, Super Wok are all great calls. I prefer Skylight to A&S bu this is not an argument I want to start here.

            I agree with meatn3 below about Oakwood. It's fine if you're in the neighborhood and the atmosphere is nice but the Cuban food is so-so at best.

            You've gotten some great suggestions here and it would be hard to go wrong with any of them.

          2. re: LulusMom

            What kind of food does The Federal have?

            Also, for Fu Dee: what does western New York tavern food consist of?

            1. re: Naco

              The Federal: Bar food, but really really good, semi-upscale barfood. Tried to find a website for them, but no luck. They offer a risotto of the day, veggie sliders, stuff like that.

              1. re: Naco

                Beef on Weck, real Buffalo Wings, etc...The guys who own it are from Buffalo.
                It's a good "joint". Been in Raleigh for years.

                1. re: Naco

                  The braised pork sandwich at The Federal is great. Honestly I think I'd rather have that than NC BBQ. The fries there are great too.

                  1. re: LBD

                    The Federal is especially super awesome now that the smoking ban is in effect. Last night, I had one of the specials which was fried quail with blueberry balsamic reduction, brussel sprouts and grits. I love Federal.

                    1. re: ToothTooth

                      I can't wait to return now that the smoking ban is in-place. I go at least twice a month, but I expect the smoke. Looking forward to the non-smoking experience with Federal's upscale (yet affordable) bar food!

                      1. re: peetoteeto

                        Nice not to have to air out your outer layer of clothing after a trip there, huh?

                    2. re: LBD

                      Against my better judgement, but possibly because of the above comment about The Federal's braised pork sandwich subliminally bouncing around in my brain, I ordered that thing this past Sunday evening. Verdict: Cheese should never be put on top of shredded pork! EASTERN NC BBQ 4-EVER!!

                      1. re: ToothTooth

                        You can ask them to hold the cheese, they'll do it. The Federal's. pork sandwich is not BBQ, never said it was. I do wish I could find a BBQ joint that could make fries as good as The Federal (I wish Allen and Son could make edible fries) and maybe serve bread that wasn't Sunbeam, Bunny, etc.

                        1. re: ToothTooth

                          Maybe I'm missing something here. It says braised pork right? Not BBQ Pork. Still I can't think of a time I've ever had cheese on top of chopped pork unless it's a pork sandwich in Philadelphia (I think thats what it was).

                          1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                            You mean DiNic's roast pork, broccoli rabe, and aged provelone sandwiches? Absolutely sublime and can more than give Pat's and Geno's a run for their money.

                            1. re: rockycat

                              Yeah I think so. I had it in Reading Street Terminal Market and it was a yellow counterspace.. I think... I was there for a wedding. I walked around the place and was told to get the Amish pretzels but they were closed. While walking through the Philly Steak place was closed too, but man I walked by DiNics and saw them making the sandwiches and saw the rolls of meats and stuff. I had to get one to say I at least had something that seemed quintessential Philly. It was great and sloppy and I think it was a little spicy if I remember correctly. Some people splurge on clothes and jewelry.. I splurge on food

                               
                               
                              1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                                <I splurge on food>

                                As well you should.

                              2. re: rockycat

                                A bit off-topic but Anvil's Cheesesteaks in Cary serves up a roasted pork/provolone sandwich which I haven't tried yet. But I did see someone online raving about it and claiming it was as good as renditions in Philly, fwiw.

                                http://anvilscheesesteaks.com/menu.html

                                -----
                                Anvil's Cheesesteaks
                                2893 Jones Franklin Rd, Raleigh, NC 27606

                    3. For hole in the wall - what about Mecca in downtown Raleigh? It's a block or 2 from the courthouse. The food is above average for diner fare and the place has charm out the wazoo. It's been there over 80 years, so they must be doing something right.

                      http://foodstalkers.wordpress.com/200...

                      1. For one of the upscale meals I suggest J. Betski's. In Raleigh, close to downtown. They have eastern European food with amazing housemade sausages and peiorgies. I find their non-seafood items to be their strongest suit. They have a number of small plates too, so it is easy to try a number of items. Our most recent meal there was NYE and it was delectable.

                        http://www.jbetskis.com/index.htm

                        Casual Lebanese at Neomonde in Raleigh - has a small grocery too. Shawarma and Mjadarah are outstanding. You can also get goodies to bring home! I prefer the Raleigh location.

                        http://www.neomonde.com/home/index.aspx

                        Excellent Turkish food is at Bosphorus in Cary. On Sundays they make their own Doner - it goes fast! They serve it with a yohgurt sauce or sliced. We order both and share. It is casual too. Very good Turkish coffee and baklava.

                        http://www.bosphorus-nc.com/

                        I agree that the food at Federal is great, I think they have the best burger in the area. Service is often of a lesser caliber.

                        I find Watts to be a really solid nice meal. The menu doesn't seem to capture how delicious the dishes are. I have not been to Magnolia Grill...

                        I have not been impressed by Oakwood Grill. It has been alright if you are in the area, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. Neither the Cuban or the Argentinian dishes match the caliber that I have experienced in other areas. But I am of a minority opinion on this board! If you do go be aware that they have very limited parking, so you may need to circle around a bit.

                        http://oakwoodcaferaleigh.com/

                        If you (or your sweetie) like chocolates try Escazu in Raleigh on Glenwood. It is a small shop, just south of Peace Street. Fantastic goodies!

                        http://www.escazuchocolates.com/

                        Peace St. (within walking distance from the chocolate shop) has a new hole in the wall Afghan (IIRC) place which is getting great reviews:

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/578537

                        Have a great anniversary!

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: meatn3

                          if you are interested in j betskis for only sausages and piergoies, go there for lunch. it makes for a leisurely afternoon.

                          1. re: cervisiam

                            I'm usually interested in just about every dish on the menu - this is one place where it is hard to decide. I mentioned the sausage/pierogies specifically since they are hard to find in this area..

                            Their lunch is a great way to experience the place!

                        2. Another hold-in-the-wall kind of place is Abbey Road in Cary - definitely among the best burgers in the Triangle. And while you're in Cary, stop by La Farm Bakery for a baguette or a bite of something sweet, and also consider Henry's Gelato just up the road.

                          The Roast Grill in Raleigh is always a treat as well - nothing fancy, just straight-up good hot dogs.