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


Food truck news: rally, new wheels and a restaurant!

TruckARooEventLogoAnother food truck rally is rolling into downtown Wilmington. Meantime, chef Keith Rhodes of well-known Catch restaurant is working on another food truck, and yummy Mex food truck La Bella Airosa is so successful it’s adding a restaurant to its food truck business!

Five food trucks are scheduled to compete in the third Truck-A-Roo, an event that lets diners vote for their favorite food truck.

Truck-A-Roo organizer Pipeline Event Management of Wilmington announced the latest date, scheduled 4 to 8 p.m. Nov. 2, 2013, at 101 N. Front St. in downtown Wilmington.

As with the previous two Truck-A-Roo rallies, the first in November 2012 and the second in June 2013, diners purchase a “sample ticket,” which costs $12 in advance or $15 at the gate. Ticket holders may try fare at each truck and then vote for their favorite taste.

The public needn’t purchase a ticket to attend Truck-A-Roo. Admission to the event, which includes beer sales and live bands, is free. Attendees who do not have tickets may purchase food from each truck.

Flaming Amy's Sacred Burrito Bus owner Jay Muxworthy taking first prize at the first Truck-a-Roo.

Flaming Amy’s Sacred Burrito Bus owner Jay Muxworthy taking first prize at the first Truck-a-Roo.

Participating trucks are Catch The Food Truck, The Patty Wagon burgers, Truck-a-Roo champ Flaming Amy’s Sacred Burrito Bus, Tacos El Nene and multi-award-winning Poor Piggy’s BBQ.

Look for a new food truck on the horizon!

Catch owner/chef Keith Rhodes is promising “hot chicken” and “sexy wings” on his approaching Wing Star food truck. The bright orange truck’s slogan is “Party Like a Wing Star!” Rhodes reported that he is still upfitting the truck, which he said is “coming together.” He has not announced a debut date.

Some restaurants have jumped on the food truck trend for catering. P.T.’s Olde Fashioned Grille is among them. The local burger chain’s truck is “used exclusively for parties, corporate events, private events, and lunch at the office. This food trailer is fully functional to cook our famous burgers, chicken sandwiches and fries on site!” according to the P.T.’s website.

Other trucks have inspired new restaurants. Recently, the owners of two trucks named La Bella Airosa purchased the 3500 N. Kerr Ave. building that once housed Pearl’s Seafood and Catering.

With around 7,000 square feet, the brick-and-mortar restaurant is large enough for 150 people, said Erik Romero, who operates the La Bella Airosa trucks with his parents and two brothers.The restaurant, of the same name as the trucks, will allow the family to expand the menu and offer more of La Bella Airosa’s current menu favorites such as tamales, which are served on Friday. Get there early, as service starts at 11 a.m. and the tamales are usually gone by 2 p.m., Romero said.

Chef Keith Rhodes is getting his Wing Star wheels rolling (Photo by Wing Star).

Chef Keith Rhodes is getting his Wing Star wheels rolling (Photo by Wing Star).

“Our speciaty is making everything from scratch: handmade tortillas, sauces homemade, everything pretty much fresh,” Romero said.

The mobile units will continue to operate when La Bella Airosa the restaurant opens in a few months, perhaps before the year’s end, Romero said.

One La Bella Airosa truck serves 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.

The other truck parks near Wilco Hess and Intrepid Hardward on U.S. 117, near the N.C. 210 intersection at Rocky Point., Romero said.

The Romeros hail from the town of Pachuca, in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo. The windy town’s nickname is La Bella Airosa, or The Windy Beauty, Romero said.

Posted on by lizbiro in barbecue, Chefs, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Food trucks, Midtown Wilmington, Uptown Wilmington Leave a comment

Cooking Classes: Vegetarian chili, holiday treats & more

I’ve got 2 hot cooking classes among a great fall lineup of classes at The Seasoned Gourmet.

I’m giving up my vegetarian chili recipe Sept. 26, and on Oct. 2 I share my recipe and ideas for my cranberry chutney, which was the most-requested recipe from the years that I operated the full-service Liz Biro Catering company.

Forget those vegetarian chili recipes that call for eggplant, mushrooms and all manner of vegetables to produce stews that are nowhere near chili. This version is one that has received many thumbs-ups from meat eaters. Rich and dark, full of texture, it’s great on its own or combined with other ingredients to create different meals. During the class, I’ll show you how to make  Chili Nachos with Salted Margarita Crema and Smoked Chili Mac & Cheese. For dessert, we’ll sample dark Chocolate Chip Dulce de Leche Corn Cake with Habanero-Sugar-Glazed Pineapple. No chili in that last one, of course, but leave the chocolate chips out of the cornbread and it pairs well with the chili.

Cranberry chutney is such a simple holiday favorite, but doll it up with special ingredients and incorporate it into yummy dishes and the chutney becomes extra special. The surprising twists on this cranberry chutney recipe put seasonal cooking on the creative fast track. I’ll demonstrate three recipes:  Cranberry Nut & Cinnamon Honey Cream Cheese Torta; Cocoa-rubbed Pork Tenderloin w/Cranberry Zin Sauce; and Spiced Cranberry Orange Bar Cookies.

I’m not the only instructor on the fall schedule.

Also check out 1900 Restaurant chef Kirsten Mitchell’s homage to her French cooking roots, Catch Restaurant chef Keith Rhodes’ seafood class and GRUB‘s Ryanna Battiste for a grass-fed beef session including gluten-free French onion soup and a gluten-free Thanksgiving class. Most classes happen weekdays and run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. but some morning and afternoon weekend classes are offered, too. Register for the classes at The Seasoned Gourmet at Lumina Commons/Lumina Station, 1930 Eastwood Road, near Harris Teeter.

Posted on by lizbiro in Cooking classes, Uncategorized Leave a comment

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

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.

Posted on by lizbiro in Food trucks, Uncategorized Leave a comment

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

Wilmington chefs on the move

The Pub at Sweet and Savory chef Josh Petty was the last Wilmington chef standing in the second round of the Fire on the Dock portion of the Competition Dining Series, a statewide, bracket-style cooking tournament. He was defeated by 2012 runner-up Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.

Tonight, Fong faces Clarke Merrell of Morehead City’s Circa 81 in the championship Fire on the Dock battle at Bluewater Grill. The winner goes on to the final five, including chefs who have won in other North Carolina regions, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro among them.

Petty lost Fire on the Dock, but he hasn’t stuck a fork in his own efforts. The surprising twists he showed off at Fire on the Dock continue on The Pub at Sweet and Savory’s new Latin-themed menu.

The list includes chipotle-seasoned short ribs rolled in a burrito, pork belly carnitas, and sticky rum ribs served with cheddar/bacon/fried onion macaroni and cheese.

Appetizers include Caribbean Fried Shrimp tossed in housemade carrot and mango hot sauce, all topped with queso fresco and cilantro. A salsa sampler allows diners to pick three of the following: black bean and corn salsa, salsa fresco, salsa verde, peach habanero salsa and orange-coriander, roasted tomato and poblano pepper salsa.

Chef shuffle

Toque Shane Tyner, who represented Wrightsville Beach’s King Neptune at Fire on the Dock and was previously at Phun Seafood Bar, has joined the Towne Tap & Grill kitchen.

Check Mixto soon for a revamped menu from chef Fenix Nelson, formerly of Manna and Catch. He also owns the late-night burrito delivery service, Incognito Bar-Rito, which I recently wrote about in a Greater Wilmington Business Journal story about chefs who moonlight. Nelson favors from-scratch moles and sauces and is talking about making his own cheese.

Chris’ Cosmic Kitchen (now closed) chef/owner Chris Lubben preceded Nelson at Mixto. Lubben has taken over as executive chef of the Shoals Club on Bald Head Island.

Former Crow Hill owner Derrick Cook, who did a brief stint at Cameron Art Museum’s Café Johnnie after Crow Hill closed, has been shaking pans at The Kitchen, where I recently had a nice carpaccio with hearts of palm, avocado and frisee. Cook works with his New York City pal Andrew Karasz, who recently switched over to The Kitchen from Circa 1922. The pair met in New York and ran into each other unexpectedly when Karasz arrived as Circa executive chef in February 2012.

Wilmington chefs and diners have not forgotten former Circa 1922 executive chef and Manna executive sous chef Kyle Lee McKnight. Many are reporting plans to attend April 8-11 opening nights at his latest stop: farm-to-table, contemporary American Highland Avenue in Hickory.

Speaking of Manna, Paula Pacini, most previously in The Fortunate Glass wine bar kitchen, has moved to Manna, joining executive chef Jameson Chavez and noted pastry chef Rebecca Alvarado Parades. The team’s spring menu is out, and this month they honor local farmers and produce at Manna’s popular 7-9 p.m. Thursday tapas at the bar.

Posted on by lizbiro in Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Fire on the Dock, Local food, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Islands Fresh Mex Grill grows

The tough economy has battered many restaurants’ bottom lines, but Wilmington’s Islands Fresh Mex Grill is experiencing growth, which come as a bonus to football fans this NFL season.

Islands owner Lucas Jones has added the space next door to Islands Fresh Mex Grill, 260 Racine Drive,  as another dining room for daily customers and private parties. The restaurant’s bar serves both rooms simultaneously.

Especially popular is Islands daily 5-10 p.m. $1 taco special, Jones said. On Sunday, $1 draft beers sweeten the taco deal. Plus, Jones noted, Islands just added Direct TV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, allowing the restaurant to broadcast every Sunday NFL football game.

Read more about Islands success in my report for the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.

Posted on by lizbiro in dinner specials, lunch specials, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Promising authentic Mex…

Los Primos, 3530 Carolina Beach Road, between Independence and Parkway boulevards in what was El Vaquero Mexican Restaurante, will feature the cooking of central Mexico’s Puebla area. Read more…

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

Hampstead gets a Mexican restaurant

Restaurateur Jesus Rodriguez has opened the Mexican place Camino Real at the late Sully’s Grill, 16408 U.S. Highway 17 in Hampstead.

Expect typical Mexican fare like tacos and burritos but also specialties such as red-chili-sauced lamb shanks. Prices range from $5 to $12. Call (910) 270-1367.

Camino Real's lamb shanks.

Rodriguez said he owns five other Camino Real restaurants in North Carolina, including the one at Murrayville Post Shopping Center, 2307 N. College Road, Wilmington.

At the Murrayville Post spot, the kitchen sends out huge portions of tender, red chili sauce-coated lamb shanks, rich and mildly spicy.

Shrimp cocktail served in a margarita glass is akin to a chilled soup full of sweet shrimp and diced avocado and tomatoes and lime-spiked tomato juice.

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