Saturday was a lovely day for a gourmet food tour! I hopped aboard Taste Carolina’s downtown Durham tour, led on this day by local resident Dean Michaels. (Tours also are held in Raleigh and Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and starting in March, Hillsborough.) The three-year-old company is run by Durham business partners Lesley Stracks-Mullem and Joe Philipose.
Special guests were Lesley’s parents, Bob and Julie Stracks, in town from Chicago, who told me they had the pleasure of being tour guinea pigs on several occasions before Taste Carolina opened to the public. Two groups of friends made up the other nine tour-goers: a foursome of 20-somethings from Chapel Hill and a group of five women from all over NC, four of who went to college together at East Carolina University.
Before we even got going, we were treated to Scratch’s doughnut muffins, which fueled our three-block walk down to Piedmont, where chef Marco Shaw plied us with delish homemade sausages and slaw. As we walked, Dean filled us in on Durham’s golden-leaf history, pointing out historic buildings that once housed tobacco auctions and warehouses.
The next stop was Toast, which lived up to its “popular lunch spot” moniker by not even having enough indoor seating — at 2:30! Impressive. We happily sat outdoors, where we were served perfect crostinis (one avocado, one tomato/sausage). From there we hiked up to Parker and Otis, the deli gourmet shop run by Jennings Brody, who spent several minutes chatting us up while serving us divine pimento cheese on Rue Cler bread, toasted. So yummy! I felt compelled to share with the group my one-word theory of why Parker and Otis has succeeded in a space others before her have failed: Jennings. The business is a reflection of her principles — local sourcing, donating a part of the profits, and being a booster to all things Durham. Those factors elevate a place that also has fantastic food, an impressive assortment of beer and wine, and a totally cool candy collection.
On to another Durham favorite — LocoPops. Owner Summer Bicknell shared her gourmet popsicles and the story of how she came to make “paletas,” the Mexican-style popsicles. She’s another example of a business led by a vibrant woman who sources many ingredients locally and gives generously of her time and popsicles.
The news from our next stop, the French restaurant and bakery Rue Cler, was not good. Their section of downtown, only a few blocks from LocoPops, had just had a power outage. We were sad to miss out on the mushroom tarts on our menu, but much sadder for the owners who had to call and cancel the Saturday night reservations, which meant less income for the restaurant and staff, and a list of disappointed diners. I hope the power returned soon enough that they could salvage part of their weekend business. Clutching a handful of to-go muffins and scones from Ru Cler, the group headed to Tyler’s Taproom, but I needed to skedaddle. I’m sure they enjoyed the pub grub and microbrews.
I was happy to learn that Taste Carolina tours are looking to expand outside of the Triangle. Trust us, North Carolinians, you’ll want to sign up soon!