Monday, October 8, 2012

Road Trip: 8 hours in Chapel Hill

There are only so many meals you can fit in a day. Luckily, a food editor doesn't mind doubling up. Headed to Chapel Hill and Durham for weekend book events for "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook," I had a longer list than I could possibly reach, especially since Saturday was taken up with book signings from 7:30 a.m. until after 2 p.m.

I had hopes of picking up a pound of the Best Pastrami In the Universe from Neal's Deli in Carrboro, and loading up a cooler with a couple of pounds of Allen & Sons barbecue. Alas, too many miles, not enough hours. For a longer look at the options, bloggers Eric and Sarah Mine did a nice job of rounding up all the Chapel Hill options on a recent post for

Yes, driving the interstates is faster, but my favorite route to either Chapel Hill or Raleigh is U.S. 49/U.S. 64 if I have the time. It takes you past farms and towns like Harrisburg and Denton, and it feels more like North Carolina than Generic Interstate World.

That brought me through Siler City on U.S. 64 in time for an early lunch at Johnson's (above). You have to aim early for Johnson's - the six booths and maybe a dozen seats at the counter fill up and a line forms along the wall well before 12. Claxton Johnson grinds his beef fresh daily and he closes down when he sells out, which is sometimes as early as 1 p.m.

You can get a hot dog but hardly anyone does. Cheeseburgers are the thing, served all the way in true N.C. style - chili, mustard, onions and slaw. They toast the bun, which is a nice touch, and the cheese is Velveeta cut in slabs for the best soft meltability. The sizzle from the griddle never stops and your burger lands in front of you on bakery paper hot and dripping juice.

My second lunch was sheer luck. I tried to find Merritt's Store & Grill on the outskirts of Chapel Hill on another trip but didn't have the address right (1009 S. Columbia St., if that helps you).  This time, I didn't need the address: Coming in from the south on 15/501, following the "downtown" signs on U.S. 86, I glanced over and . . . how can you not spot a chalkboard sign that says "We (Heart) Bacon"?

Merritt's sells all kinds of sandwiches for both breakfast and lunch. But the thing is the BLTs, that come in single, double and triple. I gather that refers to the amount of bacon. And I have to say, a single is so generously porked, a triple must take a whole pig's worth of output. The toughest choice isn't whether to get the BLT or even the size, it's the bread. You can get a BLT on anything from marble rye to potato bread. I went with sour dough, toasted, and I'd highly recommend it.

Is there room for dinner after that? Amazingly, yes. It's been years since I've had time for more than a drink and appetizers at Crook's Corner on West Franklin Street. What to choose? Well, I knew that chef Bill Smith Jr. had recently added a new West Indies Crab Salad, a nice dish of crab meat flecked with either pimento or diced red pepper and served with mustard-topped deviled eggs and plenty of crackers. And that left me with a problem: It was the end of softshell crab season, and I know that Smith really likes to cook soft-shell crabs. We've had some good conversations about it.

So I did what had to be done: A crab symphony. Cold crab salad, followed by hot soft shell crabs topped with a powerful dose of garlic butter and parsley beside soft grits and two flavors of coleslaw. Yes, I was a crabby girl. And a happy one.

So, how did I do for 8 hours? Where would you have eaten instead? With college-tour season coming up, consider it a community service.


Anonymous said...

Tyler's in Carrboro. Delicious Fried Pickles.

Anonymous said...

Being on a diet, this is the worst article I could have read today. Luckily these places aren't within short driving distance from me or else I'd already be there blowing my diet.

Anonymous said...

Breadmen's :)

Anonymous said...

Detour to Raleigh to Poole's Diner!

Anonymous said...

Timeout for a chicken biscuit.

Anonymous said...

So many wonderful choices in this area :) I'd definitely recommend The Pig on Weaver Dairy - it's BBQ with a fun, fresh, loving spin. Drinks at The Station are always nice for people watching (esp if the weather is good), and the coffee/beer/wine purveyor Straw Valley is definitely worth checking out for the repurposed houses and outside patio/garden. Glasshalfull is another personal favorite, a wine bar with a tip-top menu. And we haven't even made it to Durham yet... So many great things to recommend, but I'm a bit biased with my adopted home ;) Glad you enjoyed yourself!