First it was the tofu. And up to that moment, every bite of tofu I’d ever had was the same. The same miserable, melted tire texture, the same lifeless flavor, the same disappointment. I hate to call what I tasted in Durham “tofu,” because this slice—so delicate in flavor and texture, joined with perfectly ripe slices of avocado, a sprinkle of fresh scallions and a squirt of XO sauce—was dreamy. A mere pillow of delicateness that draped over my chopstick and gently yielded to gravity’s tug before evaporating on my tongue. In that moment I understood the attraction to real Japanese tofu, and it was here, just a few hours away in North Carolina.
Then it was the noodles. Shan-Xi strands as broad as a yardstick, wrinkled at their edges, served in a veal broth rich in turmeric and tomato, studded with chilies, roasted local plum tomatoes, Swiss chard, and unctuous pork belly. Every bite was redolent of fresh harvest, spice, fat, and the labor of handmade noodles. As we slurped through our Sunday brunch, my bride noted this was the best gas station food we’d ever had.
Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings, and Sweets isn’t an actual gas station, but the building’s classic 1950s’ Gulf architecture is unmistakable. And that creativity with old bricks is a keynote of Durham, North Carolina’s personality. So much of the city’s attractive Southern charm simmers down to clever architectural adaptations.
Repurposed. That’s today’s buzzword for anything recycled or vintage, and in Durham, or Bull City, it’s as if the entire downtown has been repurposed to a celebrated effect. Spend a weekend here, and you’ll find tobacco warehouses chock-full of music venues, cafés, and craft shops, former cigarette factories now spilling with craft breweries, micro restaurants, and artisan bakeries, a 1960s-era motor hotel singing as a modern metropolitan hotel, and these glorious Japanese noodle dishes residing in a former Gulf station.
Durham is comfortable in its own skin, and many resident developers view its bumps and architectural bruises as opportunities rather than eyesores.
It’s a sign of the city’s maturity. Durham is comfortable in its own skin, and many resident developers view its bumps and architectural bruises as opportunities rather than eyesores. Once home to cigarette companies, Durham has repurposed much of that history to better use. The metropolis is the third leg of North Carolina’s research triangle, completed by Raleigh and Chapel Hill, which when viewed on a map form more of a crouching octopus than a triangle, but no matter. If you’re the type to seek out the best a city has to offer, allow me to give you a hand.
Our base for a weekend of North Carolina culinary research was the Unscripted Hotel, a one-time motor hotel. With a bubbly staff, a crisp attitude of congeniality, great coffee options, and comfortable mattresses, Unscripted is a fine place to experience downtown Durham. It is also home to one of Durham’s best weekend pool parties (which does end promptly at 11 p.m.), so keep that in mind if you’re looking for a quiet respite.
Downtown buzzes with energy and history, so even if a night with the class AAA Bulls isn’t on the agenda, there’s much more to do. Handmade burgers, hotdogs, and beer courtesy of Bull City Burgers make a great start. With their overachieving kitchen producing pickles, buns, sauerkraut, mustard, and more, this is burger bliss. Paired with one of their own beers, well, what more could a guy like me ask for?
Ice cream. I could ask for real churned ice cream made with local milk and authentic ingredients, which we found at the Parlour. This place is so good that the lactose-tolerant line up until—well, we’re not sure how late they line up, but we left an hour’s worth of customers there at 10 p.m. Vietnamese coffee, salted butter caramel, blackberry peach, and blueberry lavender flavors mark their creativity, churned on the premises from local ingredients and served with Southern hospitality.
Our Saturday dawned later than usual, and we found sustenance in a handful of nearby bakeries. Our favorite by a long shot was Loaf, where we sported for the calories-be-damned hazelnut chocolate croissant. Butter and flour, in the hands of the willing, can achieve greatness, and if you’re a fan of the pastry arts, a rendezvous with this croissant should be in your future.
A short walk later we were knee-deep in an arresting array of fruit, lobster rolls, hedgehogs, and vegetables at Durham’s open-air farmer’s market. The Liberty Arts Foundry resides in a repurposed warehouse at the market’s home. Central to Durham’s arts scene, Liberty Arts created the iconic downtown bronze bull sculpture, Major.
Sideways. That’s how we scuttled through the small maze of chairs to get to our table. What else would you expect from a restaurant named Littler? The economics of the restaurant business demand you get as many seats under your roof as comfortably possible, and Littler flirts with that edge. However, if you know this going in, and set your expectations on the experience, you won’t notice its size. Their big flavors and extra-large servings of hospitality belie the littleness. There’s classic vinyl spinning, clever cocktails, an esoteric wine list, and lovely culinary interpretations featuring a gregarious amount of local fruits, vegetables, and technique. Our personal favorite? Perhaps the N.C. poulet rouge with local mushrooms and English peas, or the oysters with hot sauce Jello, the Parker House rolls with cultured butter and caraway, or maybe the plum tart with buttermilk ice cream.
Our tasty Littler meal summed up our impression of the city. Plenty of time-honored techniques and a large serving of hospitality in a repurposed space, that’s today’s Durham.
Pasture-raised beef accompanied by excellent craft beer. 107 E Parrish St, Durham, NC. (919) 680-2333
Cozy dinner spot open five nights a week, closed Tuesday & Wednesday. 3110 E Parrish St, Durham, NC. (919) 374-1118
Local cream, milk, and fruit become memorable here, and plenty of vegan choices, too. 117 Market St, Durham, NC. (919) 564-7999
A collective community artspace at Durham Central Park. 918 Pearl St, Durham, NC. (919) 294-8006
Eclectic hotel in the center of downtown. 202 Corcoran St, Durham, NC. (984) 329-9500