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Lunch in RTP (Research Triangle Park)


nibbs
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Nibb's Top Ten Lunches in RTP (without further preamble other than to say that they are not in any particular order (other than some loose grouping by location) and to also say that I've tried to stay geographically within or close to RTP (but hell, sure, I'll drive out to Cary for Thai if the mood strikes me (but just because it is so don't make it right)) and hence some favorites won't make this list even though I go there for lunch all the time).

Chosun OK (Korean BBQ): The single step as you enter Chosun OK takes you far from the strip mall in which it resides. It is the dining experience in the Triangle that feels the most authentically Asian to me, and I've been fortunate enough to travel to Japan and Hong Kong (ostensibly for work, but I was all about the food).

My favorite is the BBQ box lunch of...hmmm... I think there is beef, but then also listed is Korean BBQ or BBQ box or something. So there are 2 ways to get the beef. Don't try and go cheap and get the $1 cheaper one just to see if it is the same. I've done it, it isn't, spend the $1 and get the Korean BBQ box. So much food in the box lunch - Sides of rice and kim chee for the table, excellent tempura in the box, along with some California roll just in case you weren't full already. I've also read good things about the kim chee soup. Get some green tea to go along with it and your meal is complete.

Expect to spend about $10. Northwest corner of the intersection of 54 and 55, in the same plaza as the Pizza Hut and the Taco Bell.

9N9 (Vietnamese): Vietnamese sandwiches for $2 apiece. This is an absolute steal deal that fills me with guilt each time I go for it. 2 sandwiches for lunch are more than enough. They are on fresh tasting good French rolls, filled with bbq pork or ham or whatever else they feel like filling them with, along with marinated shredded carrots and plenty of cilantro. Go for the bbq pork or grilled pork, and order some spring rolls to go with it. The insiders tip is that the sandwiches are no longer on the menu, but they are usually on the dry erase board by the checkout. Hate to shoot the golden goose, but they could raise the price to $3 and I'd still order 2. Pho is also excellent here.

It's an all around gem that I hope stays around for a long time. Usually somewhere around $8. Northwest corner of the intersection of Alexander and Miami, next to Jersey Mikes.

Let's stay in this plaza for a while...

Pipers in the Park (Sandwiches): A very cute place with art on the walls and a chalkboard menu. Get in line (usually 3-4 people long) and decide what you want. I can't get away from the chicken reuben (I think maybe its called the 'Ryed Piper'), but the Pipers' Pile Up (hold the onions) is also good. Good choice for a somewhat healthy and more than somewhat tasty lunch, and the only one on this list that has really good cc cookies (should you find yourself craving something sweet). We're talking about $5 per sandwich plus drink. They have my vote for the best sweet tea in the area. My tip for you is to ask for a little side of the chipotle ranch dressing when you pick up your order - Great for dipping your potato chips into.

Danny's (BBQ): I need to start with a confession - The first real job that I ever had in the Triangle had a Friday tradition of going to a Danny's location that is now probably 8 years closed. When that location closed, we'd drive 1/2 hour to a location way down by Tryon Rd. Then when I got my new job, they put a sign up for a joint in RTP and I was so impatient for it to open that I called the main branch repeatedly for status updates. I've got some Danny's under my belt. Literally.

Now is when I'll start a fight with a bunch of Carolina bbq purists, raise their ire and have to deal with all their piss and vinegar (mostly vinegar). Danny's pork q is consistently the best in the immediate area. The chopped pork has a great smoky flavor and has a mixture of textures, but it isn't shredded the way Carolina usually is. The sauces here (both the hot and the sweet) belong in Kansas City more than Raleigh. I'm not saying it is Authur Bryants and I'm not saying it is any kind of Carolina style bbq. What I will say it is - is great. Someone tell be about better pork in a 15 mile radius and I'll try it.

Go with the chopped pork and 2 sides (and get the regular, unless your are super hungry for pork, in which case get the large with a side of Lipitor). I'd tell you what sides are good, but the only things I have ever had are the slaw, the beans, and the fries. And they are all good. I used to be beans and fries typa' guy, but Carolina turned me into a slaw man. The fries are usually the best in the area - The only competition in my mind are Hectors in CH and the James Joyce in Durham, and those all serve basically the same style of fry (something like 3/8" smooth cut well fried). They are almost always hot fresh and crispy. And with all that sauce, you sure don't need any ketchup. In addition to the 2 sides, you'll get a nice piece of Texas toast for sopping up pork and sauce bits.

The sauce here is the real draw. The sweet is sweet and smoky, and the hot is fiery, with a type of heat that really fills your mouth but doesn't get in the way of the pork. When I did go to Arthur Bryants in KC, they had just released a 'Sweet Heat' sauce that reminds me of Danny's hot. I love the stuff and highly recommend a mix of the hot and sweet on your pork. There is a vinegar sauce for those that think they are in Rome and must do as if. And a mustard sauce if you can find it (usually there is only 1 bottle).

If you're hungry (and I am now), they also have corn nuggets, which I have of late acquired a taste for. Creamed corn in a nugget form - Very dippable. The hushpuppies are only OK, and the beef never holds my attention for very long. They also have good sweet tea, although I'd rank it 1 point lower than Pipers. We're talking a 5 minute line and around $8 total most lunch times. If you go whole hog and get the corn nuggets, you might be closer to $10.06, give or take. At least that's what it was this afternoon.

So if you are working in RTP and need some lunch, there are 3 great spots in that one plaza - Danny's, 9N9, and Pipers. That seems to be the strip mall lunch culinary limit, because as far as I'm concerned, the Jersey Mikes, Cheers Deli, Milano Pizza, PriddyBoys, Con-Fusion Japanese and 2 or 3 other places in there are worth neither the time nor the dime. In their defense, I've never actually eaten Milano's pizza. But I have walked in, looked at the pizza, and walked out twice, if that tells you anything.

Randy's (NY Style Pizza): We'll jump to another strip mall on the other side of 40 - This time on Miami near the intersection of 54 (same side of the street as the Bojangles and Micky D's, opposite side from Wendy's). We're talking pizza, so we're talking Randy's. And since we're talking the only decent NY-style pizza by the slice available in RTP, we're talking a line that usually gets to the door. A great option is the 2 slices with 1 topping + drink for $4.95 or something like that. The slices are usually about as big as your head. OK, not that big, but 2 slices is enough to satisfy a lunch need. The atmosphere at lunch is pretty crazy, and the wait for a sandwich is usually about double what a wait for a pizza or calzone is. Plus there is limited seating and even more limited parking. The slices, tho, are consistently good - Not the best ever, but they beat the hell out of the 2 or 3 pizza buffets in RTP.

(As an aside, the cooks/ovens there turn out consistently better pizza than at the Randy's on Broad Street. The Randy's in Hope Valley by Woodcroft is usually better than the Broad St. branch as well. I guess Duke students don't know or demand good pizza. I take this thing personally because I used to live 2 blocks from the one on Broad St, but it was always a lottery - We'd either get an imitation of a Papa Johns (relatively thickly crusted and maybe too much cheese) or a great pie. Subject for another rant, I suppose.)

Serena (Sandwiches): Lets' say you try to go to Randy's and you can't find anyplace to park (because if you do, you won't). And by the time you ditch your car on the side road near the credit union and hoof it up to the plaza, you don't feel like waiting in a noisy line for pizza and a 1 in 3 chance at a seat. You want to wait in line for a sandwich instead. Well, Serena (in the same plaza) is a great bet. First off, they are one of the reasons that the parking in that plaza has gone from improbable to impossible in the last 3 months. Plus they have plenty of seating.

Their menu says 'American menu featuring stuff from Spain' on it. Or something like that. I must admit that on our first visit, my buddy and I took to calling it 'that $10 sandwich place'. And that is marginally unfair, seeing as how you can get out of there with sandwich, drink and side for just under $10. So what's good? They had a stuffed peppers special (goat cheese stuffed, served on a grit cake over steamed spinach) that was the most complex culinary effort I've had for under $10 in quite some time. It was fantastic. There was some syrup around the outside that really set the dish off. The grit cake was crisped on the outside and gave some hunger defying substance to what seemed like a light lunch.

The sandwiches (I've had the avacado BLT and the grilled portabello) are stellar as well. Really great ingredients in correct proportion. As a side, you can get fries, cheese grits, or asparagus for a buck. I'm a big fry snob and theirs don't cut it - but that hardly matters because the asparagus and cheese grits make it easy to pass on the fries. Get whichever you prefer, but don't plan on finishing the cheese grits. My only complaint is that the bread has taken a turn for the worse (used to be crusty, now it's just kinda soft). With the intense flavors inside the sandwich, they overcome this shortcoming easily. The advantage I guess is that the roof of your mouth isn't raw for a day after eating there. I'm starting to enjoy their sandwiches better than most that I get at the Guglhpf (you're on notice, Guglhpf reuben - More kraut or else), where the bread is vastly superior. Serana has been open less than a year and they are still getting the kinks out, but I think they're definitely on the right track.

What are we up to here - 6? Four more to make 10? I'm running out of steam... But I still have plenty of smoke.*

*(see segue styles: lame, forced, poorly executed)

Rub's Smokehouse (BBQ): Let's go down the road to Rub's Smokehouse on 54 (between where 54 and Miami merge and the Airport Rd. intersection). Rub's is another relative newcomer - I believe they opened some time late last summer in the old Deli Box location. They are a BBQ joint that serves up some good 'q. I'm partial to the beef over the pork here, and they often run out of the beef at lunch (at least they did last time I was there), so that tells you what the popular vote is. The pork isn't really NC style here either, although the sauce has more vinegar than the sauce at Danny's and they will put slaw on your sandwich. All sides have been OK (not my style of fries - They somewhat recently changed them and they don't seem to have any crispness to them - but others I've eaten with really liked them. Maybe if they start par-frying the fresh cut fries they'll kick the pants off of anything in sight). Onion rings have been good and the slaw of cole is solid as well.

One of the worst things about Rubs (and Danny's, and Randy's, and probably 10 other places in RTP) is trying to find a seat at 12:05 on a weekday. On the other hand, one of the best things about Rubs is that you can eat outside on a picnic table in the grass behind the restaurant and there are almost always some tables available. Rub's also has more of a BBQ joint feel than some of the other places in the area. I think they are still experimenting and improving and are well worth a visit - Especially if you're in the mood for a mid-day picnic during a North Carolina spring.

Thai Lanna (Thai): The Thai situation in Durham has been dire for quite some time. I was introduced to Thai food in Detroit, where you can't take a left through a blinking red into a strip mall without running into a Thai place. That may be an exaggeration, but I can't say I've seen a better US city to pick to 'Thai one on' in (although Vegas makes a case for itself based on Lotus of Siam alone). So most of the local Triangle offerings have left me hungry.

When I've got a craving for pad thai, and I don't feel like whipping out the ol' Cooks Illustrated and making it myself, Thai Lanna in Durham is the place I head to. They serve the best pad thai in the area. It isn't the best I've ever had, and I wish there was some more of it (I am such a hog for pasta…), but it is well executed and satisfying. The coconut soup is spicy and satisfying and the ginger dressing is what you should go for on your salad.

Thai Lanna is in the Greenwood Commons shopping center - West side of 55, about 1 or 2 miles south of I-40, past the Golden Coral. Other things in the same plaza include an Indian buffet place (which is also quite good) and some trophy selling joint.

Mr. Wok (Chinese Buffet): I must admit that I used to love a Chinese buffet, but in the last few years or so, they have become tiresome. Most of the examples in RTP are either boring or out of buiness. Mr. Wok, however, is an exception. So when I have that craving for all-you-can-eat Crab Rangoon and steamed rice, Mr. Wok is the antidote.

What's different about Mr Wok? Number one is that it is almost always busy and crowded. While this can be a pain, in the buffet world it is just what is needed. There should be lots and lots of food turnover so fresh items are always on the buffet. The lunchtime clientele is usually a mix of RTP keyboard jockeys and lunch break construction workers, all jamming down 2 day's worth of calories in one sitting.

The other thing that sets Mr Wok apart is the selection. They have most of the standards (chicken stir fried, fried or steamed about 3 different ways each, steamed rice, soup, rangoons, egg rolls, etc), but they also have things you usually wouldn't find on a buffet. There are usually sesame balls, which make a nice snack. There are dumplings that are good with a small bowl of the adjacent dumpling sauce. Thai curries are usually available. There are also delicious fried pork cutlets that are the closest thing to tankatsu that I have had in the US. My favorite item is a dessert offering – Banana hunks rolled in coconut and fried, served with a syrup that you can spoon over them. Between these and the little sugar donuts, I usually save at least one of the 3 plates I'll fill for sweets.

That said, it is a buffet and you should be in the mood for a buffet if you go. This is not a Bellagio style gourmet buffet, but it is a cut above the rest in RTP. It is in the same plaza as the Big Lots, at the southeast corner of the intersection of 54 and 55. There is a McDonalds and a Bojangles in this plaza as well.

Well, I only got to 9, but here's where I'll put in the honorable mentions. Someone can respond with their favorites and maybe I'll have somewhere new to try.

I like an Indian buffet as much as the next guy, and Spice and Curry (in the same plaza as Chosun OK) is as good as any and a favorite of many. I prefer the Tandoor Indian Grill (in the same plaza as Thai Lanna). Also good is the Bombay Grille (on 55, just east of Chosun OK). I guess the ubiquity of the Indian buffet is wearing on me a little, but I must say that all these places please more than disappoint. Their only flaw in my book is that no one distinguishes itself from the others in my mind. But a 3-way tie for the 10th spot is not my style.

I like El Dorado because every once in a while I like a chips and salsa Mexican lunch. My co-workers can order for me because my order never changes (lunch chimi – beef, rice instead of beans; and a sweet tea). It is in the plaza with the Food Lion, southwest of the 54/55 intersection. And Kemps, on 70, is about the only place to get some Carolina calabash style seafood, but I have to be in the mood for that - It can be a mite heavy...

I guess that is it – I've been working in RTP for 6 years, and I've seen a fair number of places come and go. I must say that Danny's is probably the one I'd have to have 10 years from now if for some reason I moved away. But this list should get you through that 2 week project that strands you in the area.

So wheredo folks think I missed? Because I'll try it if I haven't already - And if you are fairly enthused, I may even give a place I didn't like another chance.

~Nibbs

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That's quite the post. I must say that Randy's tends to overwork their dough. They build up too much gluten and make the dough much too chewy.

Chosun Ok isn't bad, but I haven't been for lunch. I'm skeptical of the California roll, however.

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Great post, Ed. I need to come join you in the Park for lunch more often, as it's an area I generally avoid for lunch. However, there are a ton more options than what we have in West Raleigh, so consider yourself lucky.

As far as barbecue is concerned, I understand and even accept your position, particularly when you limit yourself to a 15 mile radius. If you want to truly learn about NC barbecue, you must take off from work for a barbecue trek. When you have done two of those (sampling the best of both Eastern and Western styles), your opinion might change, but you will recognize the distinctiveness of our native dish and appreciate it for what it is.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Bryan - I think you are right about Randy's dough. I had the fabulous fortune to eat at Pepe's Pizza in New Haven, CT on Saturday (I was in CT for my grandfathers 90th). I grew up about 20 minutes from Pepe's, but we never went as kids. After we ate, I realized why - My hometown is thick with pizza that is damn good - 8 out of 10. So why would my folks wait in line for something that was a 10? But now that I lived in NC for 9 years, even a joint that serves only OK pizza on a New England scale is worth the extra effort.

That said, the Randy's on Broad is far and away the underachiever of the 4 branches. And I am still regretting not bringing the cold leftover Pepe's slices home with me. Because I'd be eating one right now.

Varmint - I came off as a little hostile toward NC q', which was not what I intended. I do like NC style, but so many places seem to just roast some pork until they can shred it and add some cider vinegar and pepper flakes. Granted, that can be pretty good on a sandwich - But I don't get any kind of smoke or texture from that. I'll go to Bullocks for the experience more than the q (they are a landmark, and the puppies are perfect). I've been to Allen & Son once - I don't remember being impressed, but I was pleased and they deserve another chance while I'm paying better attention. And NC has defintely made me a sandwich and slaw man.

In KC they do pickles... gross...

So what's your recommendation for a place within 40 minutes of Durham that serves good NC q'?

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The Broad St. location of Randy's is under new ownership. In fact, I should say it has been for the past couple months, I believe. I can't say I've noticed a change in the style of their dough.

And don't even get me started about pizza and such back up north. It blows my mind that I can't get a decent bagel or slice down here.

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So what's your recommendation for a place within 40 minutes of Durham that serves good NC q'?

Therein lies the problem, as you need to drive a bit farther to find top-notch barbecue. Allen and Son can be quite good -- actually, extremely good -- but it's also inconsistent. There are several other decent places in the Triangle, but nothing that makes me want to go out of my way to try.

If you want good barbecue, you're going to have to make a longer drive. Pick a date, and I'm there. Hell, we can do a mega-tour of NC barbecue institutions!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Being from the North, I will give my 2 cents worth on Pizza in the Triangle. My personal favorite is NY Pizza right off the Harrison exit on 40 across from SAS. I go to Randy's the most because I live near the Broad St. location. I used to like Pizanos (sp?) pizza in the Walmart plaza on Wake Forest Rd, but it has been a year or so since I have been there. Durham is no doubt pizza challenged.........

Great post on RTP, but you left out Sara's Empanadas and Park Diner. Both of them are in the same plaza not far from 54/55. I have not worked in the park in years, but I am pretty sure they are both still there.

Is Brier Creek considered RTP for lunch? Has anyone been to Elod yet? I heard they have eastern europe fare, which is rare in this area.

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I joined Nibbs at Serena for lunch today and had their fried egg sandwich, which I've now put on my list of all-time favorite egg sandwiches. Granted, that's a short list because I don't eat lots of egg sandwiches, but this one was great. It's two fried eggs, slow roasted tomatoes, melted fontina, and sobrasada on a ciabatta roll. It comes with a side for $5 even, so it's a nice bargain, too. I'm anxious to try some of the other items on the menu.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Being from the North, I will give my 2 cents worth on Pizza in the Triangle.  My personal favorite is NY Pizza right off the Harrison exit on 40 across from SAS.  I go to Randy's the most because I live near the Broad St. location.  I used to like Pizanos (sp?) pizza in the Walmart plaza on Wake Forest Rd, but it has been a year or so since I have been there.  Durham is no doubt pizza challenged.........

Another decent N. Raleigh place for pizza is a new place called Dominic's. Both my husband and our neighbor (former NJers) say it's the closest thing they've found here for NY pizza. Dominic's is located in Poyner Place, behind Triangle Town Center.

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Another decent N. Raleigh place for pizza is a new place called Dominic's. Both my husband and our neighbor (former NJers) say it's the closest thing they've found here for NY pizza. Dominic's is located in Poyner Place, behind Triangle Town Center.

Edited by ditsydine (log)

-----------------

AMUSE ME

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Great post on RTP, but you left out Sara's Empanadas and Park Diner.  Both of them are in the same plaza not far from 54/55.  I have not worked in the park in years, but I am pretty sure they are both still there. 

Hell yes Sara's is still there. I went there last Friday and walked away staggering in delight.

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Does anyone know the name of the chinese restaurant in the same shopping center as Big Lots & Eckerd's on the corner of 55 &54. They have a regular menu and an authentic menu. I've had good roast duck there for lunch.

I hardly venture out to Cary, but if you find out please post it. I'm really dissapointed by the chinese in this area.

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Thanks for the post Nibbs, i think you are spot on and am glad you are making penence for your initial BBQ comments.

RTP is really the Triangle's dining version of Epcot Center (and I think with the tech businesses there we could really stretch this analogy out even more). I noticed that you didn't mention any Japanese places. Is this what Greater 54/55 is missing?

Additionally, I think the Chatham/Harrison intersection in Cary is quickly developing a South Asian cooking niche. King Kabob, Suchi, and the Veg. Indian place have all maintained a decent level of cookery (though Suchi lost their best cooks to Spice and Curry from what I understand). King Kabob is also supposed to be starting up a buffet soon which is good news since their menu offers some good Pakistani style sausages.

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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Thanks for the post Nibbs, i think you are spot on and am glad you are making penence for your initial BBQ comments. 

RTP is really the Triangle's dining version of Epcot Center (and I think with the tech businesses there we could really stretch this analogy out even more).  I noticed that you didn't mention any Japanese places.  Is this what Greater 54/55 is missing?

Additionally, I think the Chatham/Harrison intersection in Cary is quickly developing a South Asian cooking niche.  King Kabob, Suchi, and the Veg. Indian place have all maintained a decent level of cookery (though Suchi lost their best cooks to Spice and Curry from what I understand).  King Kabob is also supposed to be starting up a buffet soon which is good news since their menu offers some good Pakistani style sausages.

I believe that would be Chatham and Maynard, Will.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Does anyone know the name of the chinese restaurant in the same shopping center as Big Lots & Eckerd's on the corner of 55 &54. They have a regular menu and an authentic menu. I've had good roast duck there for lunch.

I hardly venture out to Cary, but if you find out please post it. I'm really dissapointed by the chinese in this area.

That's not Cary. It's in SW Durham sort of near Southpoint.

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Thanks for the post Nibbs, i think you are spot on and am glad you are making penence for your initial BBQ comments. 

RTP is really the Triangle's dining version of Epcot Center (and I think with the tech businesses there we could really stretch this analogy out even more).  I noticed that you didn't mention any Japanese places.  Is this what Greater 54/55 is missing?

Additionally, I think the Chatham/Harrison intersection in Cary is quickly developing a South Asian cooking niche.  King Kabob, Suchi, and the Veg. Indian place have all maintained a decent level of cookery (though Suchi lost their best cooks to Spice and Curry from what I understand).  King Kabob is also supposed to be starting up a buffet soon which is good news since their menu offers some good Pakistani style sausages.

That corner (or actually the one that Varmint mentioned) is about as close to a true ethnic enclave as we have in the triangle. The only other I can think of is a 5-6 block stretch of Roxboro in Durham with possibly 3 of the top 5 mexican places in the triangle. Udipi is stellar as are the Indian markets in Chatham Square. Honestly, parts of town like this with a concentration of a particular ethnic cuisine is what the area is most bereft of. Frankly, given the sprawling nature of the area, my guess is that we wont see many more sprout up.

Others may argue, but I think our fine dining is about as good as you'll find in any market of this size (or even somewhat larger). I've been to few cities not named SF, NY, etc. that outmatch it at least in terms of percentage of good to bad. For that matter, I've been burned far more times on very high end food in the big cities then I have here. It's the Chinatowns, little Saigons, etc. that this place lacks. The irony is that Greensboro has a pretty good Vietnamese scene going on but we don't.

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