Oyster ice cream: A surprising scoop of American food history

“People actually ate this...It was once a big deal in Read more

Chocolate, ice cream and N.C. root beer!

In my favorite round, Battle Uncle Scott's Root Beer, Merrell, who runs the tapas restaurant and "cocktaileria" Circa 81 restaurant in Morehead City, prepared one heck of a riff on a Black Cow, that famous chocolate, ice cream and Read more

Cooking lessons learned at 2014 Fire on the Dock

As the contest moves into its final battle tonight, I'm thinking back to the ideas I got during the 2014 tournament, part of the statewide Competition Dining Series that ultimately crowns an overall North Carolina winner from four regional Read more

Southern Collards should be the new kale

Will collards be the new kale, darling of diners seeking farm-to-table fare? If the 2014 Fire on the Dock chef competition is any indication, maybe. Read more

Food touring in Carrboro with Taste Carolina

As I often say, "I'm eat up with it," and Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours fed my obsession quite well this past weekend. Read more

Fresh Wilmington menus for the Fourth of July

Wilmington restaurants don’t stand still. Menus change seasonally as well as with chefs’ creative impulses.

Downtown, find fresh lists at various locations.

This week, Aubriana’s, 115 S. Front St., debuted its summer menu. The restaurant’s mainstay baby lamb chops and fine crab/lobster cakes remain, although both been tweaked with the arrival earlier this year of chef Tyson Amick. Appetizer “Lamb lollipops” come with a grilled orange/jalapeno gastrique instead of mint/jalapeno gastrique. Warm capresee salad featuring roasted tomatoes is served alongside the crab and lobster cakes.

Menu newbies include:

* Crispy, fried Springer Mountain organic chicken with creamed corn waffle, asparagus,  whipped butter and spicy local honey.

* Seared Hudson Valley foie gras “PB&J” with roasted Georgia peanut mousse, housemade berry preserves, aerated peanut bread and pomegranate molasses.

* Grilled Berkshire pork tenderloin from Eden Farms with sweet corn spoonbread, housemade peach jam, baby bok choy and cider-molasses vinaigrette.

Mixto's rum punch.

Mixto’s rum punch.

Area diners have often voted Dixie Grill Wilmington’s best breakfast in local polls, but the daytime spot recently added dinner hours.

Some of those breakfast dishes along with lunch choices are served 8 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, but from 4 to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dixie also serves its “If You Missed Us This Morning” list of traditional eggs and bacon or sausage combo, andouille sausage hash and buttermilk pancakes ($6-$9).

New evening sandwiches ($8.75-$9.50) include housemade falafel in pita bread with shredded cabbage, tzatziki, tomato and Bermuda onions.

Dinner brings $6-$8.50 appetizers (fried calamari, macaroni and cheese, char-grilled wings with smoky barbecue sauce); $6 or $10 salads (Greek, Cobb) and $11-$18 entrees (roasted vegetable noodle bowl, fried chicken, chipotle-rubbed pork tenderloin with sweet potato puree and stewed collards). Vegetarian options are in the mix, too.

Homemade pecan pie and a parfait of fresh berries, housemade buttermilk biscuits and whipped cream are among dessert choices.

Meantime, Mixto, 5 S. Water St., has been debuting new menu selections, too, including chorizo meatball tapas. Hearty country-style paella and more housemade sauces and moles are on the agenda, Nelson said. Lately, Nelson’s been serving lomos saltados, a Peruvian dish of stir-fried beef and vegetables. Check new drinks at the bar, too. Rum punch features pineapple juice, grapefruit juice, tequila and both dark and light rums in colorful layered cocktail served on the rocks.

Bento box at Phun Seafood Bar.

Bento box at Phun Seafood Bar.

Off the beaten path at 215 Princess Street, between North 2nd and 3rd streets, Phun Seafood Bar has a spring/summer menu plan listing seven different bento boxes inspired by various countries and served on a rotating basis, Phun owner chef Keith Rhodes said.

Compartmentalized bento boxes are most common in Japanese cuisine, but Phun’s boxes might contain Indian, Chinese and other offerings, Rhodes said. Also new on Phun’s menu are curry chicken spring rolls and a Peking duck wrap with chipotle honey slaw and hoisin-braised leeks, Rhodes said. Asian-spiced fruit drinks such as ginger limeade are on tap, as well.

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Local food, Restaurants, Uncategorized Leave a comment

Popping the cork on cocktails

Manna hosts a lucky few cocktail connoisseurs tonight! The restaurant’s bar taps one of its three barrel-aged cocktails.

Barrel-aging cocktails is a recent trend. Drinks sit in barrels for several weeks for the same reasons wine and distilled spirits are aged in barrels: The process mellows harsh edges and deepens flavors. Some charred oak barrels at Manna were supplied by Troy and Sons.

The cork comes out of Manna’s two-liter barrel of Topo Boulevardier, a blend of Carolina Whiskey, Campari, Vya Sweet Vermouth, Manna owner Billy Mellon reported in the restaurant’s newsletter.

Aug. 2 brings the Maple Manna-hattan from another two-liter barrel containing a mix of Carolina Whiskey, Luxardo Maraschino, blood orange & Italian cherry puree, maple syrup and Cinzano Rosso.

On Sept. 6, the cork pops on a five-liter barrel of Troy & Sons Vieux Carre, a cocktail made with Troy & Sons Oak Reserve whiskey, Cinzano Rosso, cognac, B&B and Peychauds and Angostura bitters.

Keep a lookout too for Manna’s summer cocktail list, which is due soon.

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Delish garden party for a good cause

Chefs from Catch restaurant, La Gemma bakery and The Seasoned Gourmet unite this eveningt, June 27, for a wine-and-dine fundraiser to benefit a garden serving people with special needs.

The five-course event named Grapes & Grub features casual fare prepared by Catch chef/owner Keith Rhodes aboard the restaurant’s food truck.

Pastry chef Roberta Campani will supply desserts from her La Gemma bakery in Wilmington.

A different “affordable” wine enhances each course, according to information from The Seasoned Gourmet, a Lumina Commons specialty foods market organizing Grapes & Grub to aid The Ability Garden at New Hanover County Arboretum.

Here’s the menu:

First Course: Compressed watermelon with basil paired with Sequin Sparkling Pinot Grigio 2011, California

Second Course: Shrimp gazpacho paired with Sean Minor Sauvignon Blanc 2011, California

Third Course: Spicy pork salad paired with Laurent Miquel Pere et Fils Rosè 2012, Languedoc, France

Fourth Course: Smoked beef tenderloin with blue cheese vinaigrette paired with Shooting Star Pinot Noir 2010, Lake County, California

Fifth Course: Chocolate mimosa cakes with raspberries paired with Shooting Star ‘Black Bubbles’ Syrah N/V, Lake County, CA

The $50-per-person dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. and ends around sunset at New Hanover County Arboretum, 6206 Oleander Drive. Guests should bring lawn chairs.

B & B, a duet offspring of the local band ‘shine, performs at the event.

Purchase tickets online, at the arboretum or at The Seasoned Gourmet, 1930 Eastwood Road.

Founded in 1999 by Friends of the Arboretum, the nonprofit Ability Garden provides professionally directed, nature-based activities to individuals of all ages facing various challenges and diagnoses. Organizers say that participants experience increased self-confidence and self-esteem, learn horticultural skills and take pride in volunteering in a community garden.

Posted on by lizbiro in dinner specials, Food festivals, Food trucks, Local food, Restaurants, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Pork tacos on wheels! Mex food trucks you may not know

The best thing on Mexican restaurant menus? Tacos carnitas.

What’s better? Tacos carnitas on the fly.

Carnitas is pork ham or butt that is first fried and then braised or slow-roasted, making the meat fall-apart tender but with caramelized edges, a fiesta of flavor and texture. Tucked inside a homemade tortilla and garnished with cilantro, onion and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, carnitas make pork lovers moan.

My favorite place for tacos carnitas is Las Fincas in Swansboro, N.C. The tacos there are obese with pork. Recently, I found two taco trucks in Wilmington that satisfy my carnitas cravings when I’m on the go.

Carnitas under cheese on a sope from La Bella Airosa food truck. The taco contains carne asada.

Carnitas under cheese on a sope from La Bella Airosa food truck. The taco contains carne asada.

I learned about these trucks from Wilmington chefs, my most trusted sources for great places to eat.

Catch chef/owner Keith Rhodes is a fan of Tacos El Nene. The truck offers beef, chicken and roasted pork fillings in its flavorful tacos. Look for the truck at Dollar General, 6789 Market St. The carnitas I sampled were rich and sported plenty of crisp, brown edges.

The Patty Wagon burger food truck owner James Smith and Manna line cook Paula Pacini told me about Taqueria La Bella Airosa. The truck specializes in tacos, tortas, sopes and quesadillas. The carnitas are moist and tender, hardly salted, allowing the pork flavor to shine and counter the fiery salsa verde served alongside La Bella Airosa items. I had my carnitas on a sope, a thick but soft, light cornmeal cake.

Find Taqueria La Bella Airosa for lunch and dinner in a parking lot on north Market Street, between Lullwater Drive and New Bern Street. The truck stays there late into the night on weekends.

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Real Mexican on Gordon Road

Chili rellenos are filled with either chicken or cheese at La Guera. Watch out! The peppers may be hotter than you expect.

Chili rellenos are filled with either chicken or cheese at La Guera. Watch out! The peppers may be hotter than you expect.

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for seven distinctive mole sauces. New La Guera Mexican restaurant on Gordon Road may become famous for just one of them.

Mole Oaxaqueño is the famous Black Mole of Oaxaca, a deep, dark, rich, slow-cooked blend of mulatto chili peppers, nuts and chocolate.

At La Guera, the sauce comes on chicken or pork ribs. Don’t arrive here expecting perfect, skinless chicken breasts. The fare is homey and real. Chicken drumsticks and thighs one day were small and oh-so-tender and smothered in the mole, which was equally satisfying on La Guera’s thin, housemade tortillas.

La Guera has been open just a few weeks on Gordon Road, near the Market Street intersection, but buzz about the “authentic Mexican” fare its menu promises is spreading.

What caught my ear was a stylish American couple’s conversation last weekend about La Guera’s chapulines.

The pair sipped wine at a downtown Wilmington’s waterfront café as they talked about the garlic-spiced and toasted grasshoppers that are another Oaxacan specialty.

The husband was served chapulines at La Guera, which told me this place was the real deal. Consumption of insects in Mexico dates back before Spanish conquistadors invaded the area, bringing hogs and cattle with them. Native populations ate insects as protein sources and as a means to control insect damage to crops, according to food historians. Oaxacan legend claims that visitors who eat chapulines in Oaxaca will return to the Mexican state some day. Oaxaca is where I sampled grasshoppers in tacos and saw them sold in different sizes in tall, pyramid-shaped piles at open markets. I can’t wait to go back.

At La Guera, cahpulines are served only to customers in-the-know. More familiar Oaxacan mole is on the public specials board daily.

Tongue-stinging chili rellenos coated in delicate egg batter make the regular specials board, too. The rest of the list changes more frequently. Grilled steak in salsa verde, seafood soup and tortitas de pollo en jitomate (chicken patties in tomato sauce) were recent offerings.

Whatever owner Delfina Urena serves comes with those housemade tortillas. The  Mexico native said she hails from Guerro. She has  fond memories of her uncle’s restaurant in Mexico.

Guera is a word used in Mexico to denote a woman with a fair complexion and light hair, both traits of Urena. At La Guera, she said, she cooks with a Oaxacan native, hence the mole and chapulines.

Specials enhance a full, printed menu of tacos, quesadillas, sopes, tostadas, soups, sandwiches and house specialities, including posole, menudo and chicken enchiladas in red, green or mole sauces. Meat fillings range from steak, chicken and pork to beef neck, tongue or tripe.

Dine-in or take-out is available at the 6620-F Gordon Road restaurant in Gordon Road Station. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Some menu items, such as menudo, are available only on weekends. Call 910-392-6682.

Posted on by lizbiro in New restaurants, Restaurants, ribs, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington Leave a comment

Pizza, Italian favorites in Carolina Beach

Casa Matta is new at Carolina Beach.

Casa Matta is new at Carolina Beach.

Buon appetito! Casa Matta, serving pizza, pasta and southern Italian-style entrees in the former Madfish Grill, 1140 N. Lake Park Blvd., is open.

Owner Salvatore Doria first landed on the Cape Fear dining scene in July 2012, when he launched Brooklyn Sal’s pizzeria in the former Gumby’s Pizza, 1414-E S. College Road, between Wrightsville Avenue and Oleander Drive.

But Doria preferred Carolina Beach, where his brother, Vinny Doria, runs Uncle Vinny’s Pizzeria and Ristorante. When a place at the beach become available, Salvatore Doria grabbed it.

The 215-seat restaurant has a new patio furnished with a freshly painted concrete floor and umbrellas over tables. Lasagna, chicken piccata, Philly cheesesteaks, “real veal,” from-scratch meatballs and housemade, thick-crust Sicilian-style pizza are on the menu, Doria said. Traditional breakfast and brunch “with an Italian flair” are coming, general manager Celeste Bondy said.

Expect live music at Casa Matta, too.

Neapolitan Doria came to America as a child. At age 12, he began spinning pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y., he said. Doria also owns Fratello’s, an upscale Italian restaurant he has operated for three years in Pinehurst. That 100-seat spot is undergoing a 1,500-square-foot expansion, bringing a pizzeria to the business.

Posted on by lizbiro in Carolina Beach, New restaurants, Restaurants Leave a comment

‘Look to the cookie, Elaine’

The black and white cookie is so iconic in New York City that it even got a two-minute segment in an episode of “Seinfeld,” but finding it freshly baked from scratch outside New England is challenging. New Yorkers and others from “up north” who live in and around Wilmington and miss the black and white cookie got a gift recently with the opening of Big Apple Bakery in Carolina Beach.

There, head baker Kim Schumann and bakery manager Aris Axelgard regularly bake black and white cookies.

Aris Axelgard  frosting black and white cookies at Big Apple Bakery in Carolina Beach.

Aris Axelgard frosting black and white cookies at Big Apple Bakery in Carolina Beach.

If you’ve never tried one, get ready. The big, soft, sponge-cake-like cookie has a subtle vanilla flavor. The “black” side is iced with chocolate fondant; the “white” side gets vanilla fondant. Sometimes, the cookies are mistakenly referred to as half-moon cookies, which get the same frosting treatment but the cookie is chocolate rather than vanilla.

Often, vanilla black and white cookies are found in Italian neighborhoods, but Food  & Wine magazine reports that the cookie’s origins are  linked to glazed Amerikaner cookies in Germany. Half moons were created at Hemstrought’s Bakery in Utica, N.Y.

In the “Seinfeld” episode “The Dinner Party,” Jerry Seinfeld uses the cookie as a metaphor for racial harmony. He suggests the best way to eat the cookie is by trying to get a bite of the black and white together.

“If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved,” Jerry tells Elaine.


True, but it’s also fun to eat one side first and then the other, or to peel off and eat the frosting and then the cookie.

My suggestion is to buy a bunch and eat each one differently. They’re great with afternoon tea or coffee. Black and whites are also perfect car food, as they don’t drop any crumbs.

Big Apple Bakery‘s black and white cookies cost $2.50 each. Smaller cookies cost $1.75 each. The bakery is open 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Call 910-458-8200.

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Homemade ice cream at Velvet Freeze

Velvet Freeze ice creams are made from scratch in classic and creative flavors such as these: sweet potato, salted caramel, and buttermilk poached pear (photo by Velvet Freeze).

Midtown Wilmington’s Velvet Freeze ice cream shop has reopened for the warm-weather season and, again this year, is satisfying consumer cravings for wacky flavors.

Sweet pea pineapple is the latest creation from Velvet Freeze owner Karel Blaas, a chef who introduced Velvet Freeze in spring 2011. The barely green vegetable fruit combination blends a delicate pea flavor with a slight pineapple tang.

The flavor joins other 2013 newbies such as clove- and star anise-spiced orange sorbet and lavender strawberry, a new take on last season’s popular lavender ice cream. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Ice cream, Local food, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Bakeries set up at farmers markets

La Gemma is at Poplar Grove’s farmers market each Wednesday and downtown on Saturday.

Two Wilmington bakeries have dropped their retail sides but continue sales at area farmers markets, via special orders and to wholesale customers.

After four years in business, La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries ceased retail sales March 31 at its 2323 S. 17th St. store near New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Meantime, Sugar on Front closed its spot inside Old Books on Front Street, 249 N. Front St.

Find La Gemma today at the Poplar Grove Plantation farmers market, staged each Wednesday from April to December. La Gemma aso sells at downtown Wilmington’s Saturday Riverfront Farmers Market, open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the Saturday Carolina Beach farmers market, which starts May 11.

“Our family circumstances have changed requiring us to spend more time with our young children,” said Roberta Campani, who owns La Gemma with her husband, Jim Gannon.

La Gemma is for sale, but Campani continues to bake there, and customers may still call the shop at 910-338-1885 to place orders and register for upcoming cooking classes, Campani said.

Sugar Island’s strawberry cheesecake.

A burgeoning wholesale business convinced Sugar on Front owner Samantha Smith to move her 3-year-old operation to the former A Sweet Life bakery, 206 N. Topsail Drive, Surf City. As a result, Smith renamed the bakery to Sugar Island. For wholesale and custom orders, call 910-254-1110. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Bakery, Farmers markets, Local food Leave a comment

Fried chicken just like Mama’s

Sugah Mamaz is becoming a Wilmington go-to spot for soul food, especially fried chicken, owner Monisha Robinson said.

Since the restaurant at 604 Red Cross St. between North 6th and 7th streets opened April 12, it has experienced a steady rise in traffic, she said.

“I can’t believe how many have come. It’s like they were waiting for me to open,” Robinson said. “They come in, and then the next time they come back, they have someone with them.”

Robinson prepares what she calls “just regular recipes” according to cooking instructions handed down by her late mother. Selections include yams, collard greens, cornbread and homemade macaroni and cheese. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, lunch specials, New restaurants, Restaurants Leave a comment