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Wednesday December 7th

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Taste Carolina offers local culture through food

Chocolate pecan chewies, hickory smoked baby back ribs, pastrami and buttermilk biscuits: these are the succulent and unforgettable flavors of Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The locally sourced and critically acclaimed restaurants of the area can “woo” even the least enthusiastic eater, but they are easily passed by tourists and the uninitiated members of the community alike.

Luckily, Taste Carolina is here to enlighten hungry and adventurous souls about the local food scene. Tours, which are held every Saturday, lead participants to some of the best food venues of the area, where chefs will present a sampling of their signature creations for tasting as they discuss their methods and cooking secrets.

Tour guides will also offer up tidbits of town history and tips about other great hidden-gem restaurants in between stops. My tour guide, Taste Carolina co-founder Lesley Stracks-Mullem, was sure to point out the hidden cocktail bar, Peccadillo, on Brewer Lane. And by hidden, I mean that the entrance is only a metal door marked by the spray-painted characters “100A” on what looks like the back of a building.

This Saturday’s tour began at Neal’s Deli, which boasts a signature homemade pastrami that has been praised by Food and Wine and The New York Times. Tour-goers were served bites of rich pastrami and egg with white cheddar cheese on flaky buttermilk biscuits while Sheila Neal described their brining process for the pastrami and their method to get a perfectly round disk of egg for their egg biscuits. Apparently muffin-top tins are multi-purpose.

Next we strolled over to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, where the atmosphere was sunny and healthy despite the cloudy skies. We stopped at Chapel Hill Creamery’s booth, where we were given samples of their creamy Smoked Farmers’ Cheese and their Calvander, which is a sharp, Asiago-like raw milk cheese.

Then we popped over to The Pig’s cart, where the ex-vegetarian owner, Sam Suchoff, serves thick hot dogs with homemade toppings such as carrot coleslaw and beet mustard. We got to try the famous chocolate pecan chewy at the Sweetwater Pecan Orchard’s booth, which, no joke, tastes like cookie dough. Alfred de la Houssaye, the owner, was also very lively in describing his life’s story, which actually did not include running an orchard for most of it.

Acme on East Main Street was the next stop, where we were served hickory smoked barbeque baby back ribs and sweet, moist cornbread topped with dollops of melting butter. Then Stracks-Mullem brought us over to Chapel Hill, where we ate vegetable and goat curry from Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, which carries the motto “everyone eats.” Stracks-Mullem explained to us that Vimala’s started out as a small community dinner and became so popular that it eventually expanded to be a full café with a policy that no person is turned away, no matter if they can pay or not.

The tour was finished off with a visit to Open Eye Café for coffee tastings and a small brewing crash course and then Carrboro Beverage Company where we tried an exotic cherry-based beer with some chocolate bourbon pecan pie that de la Houssaye made sure to send along with us.

By the end, we were all pleasantly rubbing our bellies filled with good food and smiling good-naturedly at each other. After a day learning about and eating well-loved food, we were reluctant to shake hands and part ways.

Tourist Shelley Johnson, who lives in Chapel Hill, said she has been on multiple tours around the country and thinks they’re a great way to get to know the area. She decided to go
on a food tour in Chapel Hill to learn a little bit more about her local scene.

“I’ve certainly tried a bunch of the restaurants in the area, but (I came on the tour) just to kind of get a different perspective and take on the restaurants, and see them at off hours, and be able to hear from their chefs, and be able to pick the brain of a knowledgeable foodie like Lesley,” Johnson said. “Having been here a dozen years, it’s an opportunity to see it in a new light.”

Stracks-Mullem said that food tours have become increasingly popular over the years as the economy has rebounded. She said that people have realized the value of food tours when searching for new things to do.

“I think stemming from the recession, they allowed people to think of new ways to be tourists. So maybe they didn’t have to go far, they could be tourists in their hometown,” Stracks-Mullem said. “They could go sign up for wine dinners and beer dinners and food tours and farm tours and really get to know their area without spending a lot on gas and airplane tickets.”

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