Some of Our Favorite Chefs Tell Us Where They Detour for Good Eats in Rural NC
If life is about the journey, then road trips are about the delicious pit stops. And for a state that stretches from the mountains to the coast, North Carolina has plenty of snacks and big meals to break up long drives. We asked a few of North Carolina’s favorite chefs where they stop for lunch on a big road trip, starting with Vivian.
The address you’ll find online will say that Meadow Village Restaurant is in Benson, but it’s actually in Meadow, an unincorporated town in Johnston County. And Vivian offers a rave review: “It's the country buffet to end all country buffets...and I don't usually like buffets. When I was in college I met my parents here on Sundays for lunch. It's right off Interstate 40 so it's super convenient and unlike most restaurants in the category, they have a huge homemade dessert table, plus the best stewed rutabagas I've had the pleasure of trying.”
For New Bern native and former head chef of the legendary Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, Bill Smith, there’s certainly one place he can’t miss on the way to the coast.
“We almost always stop at El's Drive-In on the western edge of Morehead City when we go to the beach,” he says.
The popular lunch spot for drive-by visitors has been a local community staple since 1959, proudly boasting “third-generation regulars” among their customer base. Despite the extensive menu, Bill and his family order the usual: “Everybody gets shrimp burgers.”
“The best bite of banh mi in North Carolina is five minutes off of I-40 in Greensboro!” says Vansana Nolintha, one of the owners of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana in Raleigh.
He describes Banh Mi Saigon Sandwiches & Bakery as “a sweet dream realized in a strip mall” and his favorite rest stop on the way to the mountains. The family-owned Vietnamese spot offers baguettes baked fresh every morning.
If you have time, Van suggests ordering a banh mi to go (“I usually buy a lot of those banh mis to enjoy later with my whole staff.”) and then driving across the street for a big bowl of pho at Van Loi II, another family-owned restaurant.
Cheetie usually makes a beeline for the food truck cooking up Oaxacan specials. “My favorite is always outside and features incredible tlayudas, which are like giant tostadas with a shatteringly crispy, thin crust and topped with a variety of goodies [beans, meat, cheese, etc.]. Other vendors have big bowls of menudo and posole, and of course, tacos. There's also a little produce market and various vendors selling random stuff. But the tlayudas are the draw for me.”
Chef Michael Lee, who owns M Sushi and M Kokko in Durham, doesn’t stray too far off the beaten path. His go-to stop on the coast is Beaufort Grocery Co. “It’s run by Charles and Wendy Park, who are amazing chefs and restaurateurs,” he says.
He loves the entire menu, but recommends a few standout items. “The Carolina crab dip is probably the best I’ve ever tried. Their saganaki, which is Greek kasseri cheese flame-seared in brandy served with bread, is awesome, too. The Bloody Mary is killer.”
When we asked pitmaster Sam Jones where his favorite road trip meal is, he naturally stepped into storytelling mode.
“I have a theory in regards to your favorite anything, in that it’s tied to your experience. During duck season if we hunt on a Saturday, we’re done by about 8 a.m. and we head to Rose’s. I never go to that place unless it’s duck season.”
The no-frills diner is on Highway 903 between Ayden and Maury. Sam says he and his friends push a couple tables together for breakfast and coffee. Sam’s order? “Bacon, egg and cheese with mayonnaise. The real cheese, that sharp cheddar hoop cheese.”
Owner of two Saltbox Seafood Joint locations in Durham, chef Ricky Moore is a coastal native. For someone who knows the ins and outs of mom-and-pop stops in eastern North Carolina, choosing just one proved difficult. So Ricky picked two of his favorites off Highway 70 on the way to New Bern.
Lenny & VC’s Grill in Dover serves country cooking, but Ricky says their claim to fame is turkey barbecue. He and his family fill up on plates of that turkey with cabbage, collards and stewed rutabaga.
Another one of Ricky’s pit stops is Friday’s 1890 in New Bern, where he cut his teeth as a cook in high school. Though it’s a seafood restaurant, Ricky orders a bag of fried chicken.
“Freshly cooked fried chicken cooked to order,” he says. “They bring it to you in a bag and it’s hot and steamy and nice. It comes with hushpuppies. I take it on the road, makes a nice picnic lunch. And frankly, by the time you get to Morehead City it’s still damn hot.”
In the southwestern part of the state, just past Statesville, Keaton’s BBQ serves a legendary hot-dipped fried chicken that Ricky considers to be one of the best plates in the country. The chicken is dipped in a secret-recipe barbecue sauce oozing with flavor. “I believe it should be recognized as a James Beard American Classic,” Ricky suggests.