[Raleigh/Durham] The Pit BBQ

Earlier this year, S and I returned to our alma mater for our 5th year college reunion. Even though we love California, we’ve also really missed Duke, Durham, and the South in general. Needless to say, we planned a bunch of good ol’ Southern meals, including barbecue. 

If you’ve ever talked to S or me in person, one of us has probably given you a long spiel on all the different styles and varieties of barbecue across the country. (Sorry, if you’ve heard this speech several times; we get really excited about it.) I’ll spare you the long version and simply say that North Carolinian barbecue is quite different from Texas or Kansas City or Memphis – in NC, it’s all about the hog. There are even two distinct styles within North Carolina – Eastern and Western. Eastern style is chopped smoked whole hog, served with a vinegar and pepper barbecue sauce. Western, or Lexington style, is smoked pork shoulder, either sliced or chopped, and served with a tomato and vinegar-based BBQ sauce.

The Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) area where we used to live was a crossroad of sorts, and plenty of restaurants served both styles of NC barbecue. On our trip, we visited one of the area’s most famous barbecue joints, The Pit BBQ. There are locations in both Raleigh and Durham (recently opened), and we actually hit up both of them because it was so good!

The Pit Raleigh 

The Pit features both Eastern chopped barbecue and Lexington pulled pork. On our first visit, we decided to go with their signature, the Eastern chopped barbecue.

The Pit Raleigh 

The pork was SO GOOD. It’s not as smoky as, say, Texas barbecue – but the meat is tender, with just enough smokiness, mixed with vinegar and pepper flakes to provide a mildly spicy and tangy flavor. You really can’t find that vinegar-pepper barbecue sauce anywhere else. 


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Waraji Japanese Restaurant

Birthday celebration time! It was also the last day of classes (the LAST last day of classes for undergraduate – time flies!), so some friends and I went out to Waraji in Raleigh to celebrate. I’ve been there a couple of times, but I never really knew what to order. This time, however, we had some experience Waraji-diners among our group.

We started off with a couple of appetizers:

Sunomono tako (octopus salad), which featured six slices of octopus on top of vinegar-seasoned cucumber slices:

Sunomono tako

Sunomono tako (octopus salad)

Hiya-yakko (cold tofu) – ginger paste, chopped green onions, seaweed served on top of chilled tofu, eaten with soy sauce:


Hiya-yakko (chilled tofu)

I really enjoyed the sunomono – the octopus had just enough ‘crisp’ and the salad was well-seasoned. The hiya-yakko fell a little short in that the tofu was just a little too firm for my liking. If they had silken tofu instead, it would have been perfect, especially since the ginger ties together all the ‘toppings’ so well.

As for our main course, I shared a ‘sukiyaki for two’ with three other people and also shared sushi rolls with S. (Hey, I wanted to try everything!)



Sushi rolls

Sushi rolls

The sukiyaki was really good (and the portion size was huge! Definitely more than enough for two, haha.) I’d posted previously about my sukiyaki experience in Orlando, and I must say that this isn’t quite at the same level, but it was still really good. The beef was quite tender, and the sukiyaki pot also featured tofu (which, surprisingly, was the more silken kind that would’ve been perfect for hiya-yakko), vegetables (that turned out to be super yummy when they soaked up some of the sukiyaki sauce), udon noodles, and bamboo shoots (yum!). Overall, it was simply delicious.

As for our sushi, we decided against the Americanized rolls and went for maki – the simpler Japanese rolls. We tried the eel & cucumber (of course), spicy tuna, yellowtail & scallion, and seasoned kelp. The yellowtail & scallion and eel & cucumber were my favorites, I think – but all of them were very fresh, and you probably won’t go wrong with most sushi or sashimi because of that.

Overall, I had a really pleasant experience at Waraji this time. Of course it did come with a cost (the sukiyaki was quite pricey – $41.75), each roll is between $5-$7, as were the appetizers. The other entrees are quite expensive as well, and you do want to be selective because they’re not all on the same caliber. For the example, some of my friends ordered their noodle and rice entrees and gave them ‘okay’ ratings. So I’d say go with sushi and sashimi – and if you have enough people, definitely try the sukiyaki. It’ll be worth it.

518 West Italian Cafe

It’s been slow for the past week or so – I’ve been busy with school, a bit of traveling, and the like. Anyhow, last weekend S and I went to downtown Raleigh to see James Cameron’s Avatar in IMAX 3-D, and before the movie, we decided to have dinner at 518 West. Now, some of you guys are going to have to help me out here, but is 518 West related to 411 West on Franklin St at all? Just curious..

We shared a pizzette (9″), the beef tenderloin with mushrooms, romas, scallions, mozzarella, romano, and oregano, and drizzled with horseradish sauce. To be honest, there was so much stuff going on that all the flavors were a little lost on me.. especially the horseradish sauce. In fact, we thought it was mayonnaise for most of the evening, and it made the taste so heavy that I scraped it off after the first slice.

Beef tenderloin pizzette at 518 West

Beef tenderloin pizzette at 518 West

I also ordered …

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Sawasdee Thai Restaurant

**Wrote this review a while ago, but S hadn’t given me photos from the evening until now… I really enjoyed this place, it’s been voted the best Thai place in Indy’s Best of the Triangle, and it has awesome reviews on Yelp, so if you’re nearby, give it a try!

Also, sorry for the blurry images. 1- They’re taken with a phone camera because I forgot my camera, and 2- It was really dark inside…

A while ago, S and I went to Crabtree Valley Mall, and on the way back, we decided to go to Sawasdee for dinner. I have heard about this place for a while now and have wanted to try it, so we went to their new location on Glenwood. It’s a pretty well-hidden, dimly-lit place, but don’t be deceived by appearances…

We didn’t know what to order, so we asked our waitress for suggestions. Upon hearing that we liked spicy food, she immediately pointed out two items: Pad Prik Kra Paw, which is a stir fry with bell peppers, basil, chili, garlic, and onions, served with rice, and Drunken Noodles Chicken (Pad Kee Maw), which is spicy rice noodles, stir-fried in chili sauce with egg and basil leaves. We ordered one of each, as well as a calamari appetizer (too hungry…)

The calamari appetizer was decent (although small), reminded us of Twisted Noodle’s fried tofu actually – I think it was the batter.

Calamari with sweet-sour sauce

The Pad Prik Kra Paw (with pork) was super spicy! We ordered both of our dishes to be two stars (out of three) on the spicyness scale, and I consider myself to be quite spicy tolerant, but wow, that was some dish. Other than that, the pork was cooked pretty well, and there was a lot of other flavors.

Pad Prik Kra Paw with pork

The drunken noodles were really, really good. It was also a very spicy dish, and you could tell that the spicyness was blended in beautifully with all the other flavors to create a really nice aroma. Unfortunately, towards the end it got a little too oily for me, but I still finished everything (yes, the entire entire plate!) because it tasted so good. Yup, that’s how great it was.

Drunken Noodles Chicken (Pad Kee Maw)

Aaaaand because we loved everything so much, we decided to order dessert! (Funny how when you’ve eaten a lot of good food, you want to eat more…) We were instantly attracted to one thing on the menu: kanom tuay (sweet coconut pudding). It was served warm in four small cups on a long tray – an elegant presentation. The pudding’s consistency was not as soft as custard or jelly, but not as sticky as sticky rice. The coconut flavor was strong but not overwhelming. Overall, it was a great combination of texture and taste. Both of us enjoyed it very much, and we left the restaurant very satisfied.

Sweet coconut pudding (Kanom tuay)

If you can’t tell already, I absolutely adored this place. No wonder it’s voted one of the best Thai restaurants around here and has such good restaurant reviews. I really want to go to the Capital Blvd location now and see if the food is consistent… or you can try it and let me know how was your visit. I hope it was as enjoyable as mine!

Restaurant: Sawasdee
Price Range: (dinner): $15-25

Korean Grill Buffet

So it was my birthday a couple of weekends ago, and my friends and I went to a Korean barbecue in Raleigh, Korean Grill Buffet, to celebrate! My roomie has heard some pretty good things about this place. It’s an all-you-can-eat grill, which of course gets all the guys really excited. The pricing is decent, so I was looking forward to it.

If you don’t know how Korean bbq works, basically you have a grill at your table and cook the meat at your own table. Some of the meat has been marinated already, and there is sauce available for the others. I usually make a lettuce wrap with a couple of pieces of grilled beef or pork, a small amount of rice, and tiny bit of Korean chili paste, and I eat the entire wrap in one bite.

The restaurant is medium-sized with a buffet in the middle and grill tables on the sides. We had a rather large party so we took up an entire 8-person table with two grills, but if your group is smaller you’ll be pretty close to your neighboring party. The interior was overall a little too dimly lit for my liking, but the individual tables had more lighting from the overhead exhaust fan set-up.

The buffet had the meat assortment at the start: chicken thighs (both marinated and unmarinated), marinated pork belly, marinated pork/ bulgolgi, and unmarinated beef. Moving on there was lettuce, different sauces and kimchi dishes, cold noodles, seaweed salad, etc. Finally, at the end of the buffet were some soups and typical Asian-style dishes like kung pao chicken and mapo tofu.

None of us really went for any other of the side dishes and of course all stacked up on the meat (9 Asians, 6 of them guys.. what did you expect?), and began grilling. Our server was helpful and attentive – changed the grilling surface regularly, replaced the shears when we accidentally took them apart, gave us another set of tongs…overall, pretty good service.

As for the grill itself? It was not bad. The marinated meats had way too much flavor, which was expected – the meats were basically sitting in sauce, so they are soaking up the flavor the entire time. The bulgogi is particularly salty – the thin slices are very easily overseasoned. The unseasoned beef slices were much better, and we enjoyed those a lot. The flavoring of the pork belly was good, although it did not hold up well to the grilling because the texture became rubbery very quickly. Finally, the chicken thighs were very tender, especially the unmarinated ones, but they do take a while to cook completely on the grill, so you should be advised to cut them into small pieces for faster cooking time.

Table-center grill, filled with assorted meat, mushrooms, etc. I am attempting to cut the meat pieces smaller & easier to handle.

After I was satiated with meat, I decided to try some of their other offerings. Nothing in particular impressed me, although I was really horrified by their red bean soup, which was salty… I’m beginning to think that this restaurant really has a salt problem. Actually, most of my fellow diners and I believe that they’ve made a mistake and used salt instead of sugar in the soup. Whatever the case, it was quite bad.

Overall, it was a decent experience. Lunch price is pretty reasonable at just $12.95 per person on weekends. (You can check out their full menu pricing on their website.) I’m not sure I’ll be coming back anytime soon, though, partly because of the drive, and partly because I just don’t want to smell like grill for the rest of my day.

Restaurant: Korean Grill Buffet
Pricing: (for lunch) $12-15; (for dinner) $17-20

Neo-Asia’s weekend dim sum

We had heard good things about Neo-Asia‘s dim sum – at least that it was better than Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant’s (see previous post) – so we absolutely had to drive out to Cary and give it a try.

**Note: Neo-Asia/ Neo-China has a few different locations in the RTP, and only the Cary location serves dim sum on weekends!

We ordered the typical yum cha stuff, a few of which are pictured below (sorry, I didn’t quite get a chance to take a photo of the food before my hungry meal companions poked their chopsticks into the food): siu mai, spare ribs, shrimp dumplings, shrimp with fried tofu, shrimp cheong fun, and the like. All of them were pretty decent, but not that much better than HK’s except for the siu mai. However, I did enjoy in particular the chives dumpling, which is not available at HK.

Select steamed dishes

What we thought was really special about the dim sum at Neo-Asia were the cold meat platters: sliced chicken with garlic sauce, sliced pork with garlic sauce, sliced spicy pork (some of which are also pictured). Those were really delicious – especially the spicy pork. The spicy sauce that was used really had a special taste that wasn’t too strong, and the meat in all the cold platters was very tender and fresh.

Select cold meat platters; potstickers; green beans

We also ordered some potstickers, the obligatory veggies, and a sticky rice chicken. I didn’t try all of the dishes since I’m not particularly fond of sticky rice stuff, but I was told that the sticky rice was pretty good, since it had lots of fillings (chicken and Chinese sausage and ground pork and whatnot).

Finally, for dessert, we tried the tofu pudding and sesame ball. The sesame ball was freshly fried and very yummy. The tofu pudding was both a surprise and a disappointment: the soup that accompanied it was ginger soup, which was perfect for the cold day, but the tofu itself wasn’t soft enough to achieve the pudding-like texture. I definitely enjoyed the ginger soup more than the tofu part…

Overall, my favorite part of the meal was definitely the cold meat platters, but they obviously made the meal very expensive. You also do not know how much each item costs, since your card is stamped with a server’s number instead of in price categories. My buddies and I enjoyed the meal, but we decided that we’ll probably still stay in Durham and go to HK when we crave dim sum…

Restaurant: Neo-Asia (Cary location)
Price Range: $20-$25

35 Chinese, Part II

Went back to 35 Chinese with a different group – this time, with people who were more tolerant of spicy foods (yippee!). We still ordered the same appetizers: 夫妻肺片/ sliced roast beef and tendon (fuqi feipian) and 蒜泥白肉 / sliced pork belly in garlic sauce (suan’ni bairou). Otherwise, I think most of the dishes were different, so here we go…

五更腸旺 / chitterlings with tofu hot pot (wugeng changwang)
– The photo really doesn’t do this dish justice, because it was one of my favorites of the evening. It had a lot of flavor besides just straight-up spicy, which is always nice. The dish does contain pork intestines and pork blood, which might turn some of you away… although I do have a friend who doesn’t eat intestines but makes an exception for this particular dish here – so really, it’s worth it.
The only downer to this is that the pork blood is kind of dry, so I wouldn’t expect too much from that. Otherwise, thumbs up.

蔥爆牛肉 / beef with scallions (congbao niurou)
– Although this isn’t a traditional Szechuan dish, we still ordered it. It was pretty good – the beef was tender, and plenty of flavor.

麻婆豆腐 / Mapo tofu

– This is my favorite dish EVER at this restaurant. Ever. Probably because I haven’t had the authentic version of mapo tofu for a long, long time. It was served in a 砂锅 (clay pot) instead of plate – the way that it’s supposed to be, and it has plenty of the 麻 (“numbing”) element, which means you should probably save room for this dish last. Overall, I was impressed and happy with the authenticity of this mapo tofu.

清炒丝瓜 / cooked loofah
– Yep, loofah. I was really excited about this dish because I love loofah vegetable, but we were appalled to discover that it tasted bitter (might have spoiled). We sent the dish back in exchange for 乾扁四季豆 / string beans Western style (ganbian sijidou), which was pretty much the same as the last time.

Overall, with the exception of the disappointment of the loofah, it was an enjoyable meal. Their service does slow down as the evening goes on (they seem to be short on staff), so you should arrive early and order quickly. Between six of us, we ordered six dishes and it ended up being $15 each. Not particularly more expensive than any of the other Chinese restaurants that I’ve reviewed so far, I think.

Restaurant: 35 Chinese Restaurant
Price Range: Around $15
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Fortune Palace Chinese Restaurant

I’d heard that Fortune Palace in Raleigh has a pretty authentic Chinese food, so we went out for lunch over the weekend.

We skipped to the last few pages of the menu – the Chinese menu (rather than the Americanized Chinese food) – and ordered 1 appetizer and 6 entrees to share among seven people.


海蜇皮 (haizhe pi; Salted Jellyfish)

– It was all right; the key to this dish is that it should be served cold, and unfortunately ours came out at room temp. It had plenty of flavor, though.


梅菜扣肉 (meicai kourou; Pork Belly Slices with Preserved Vegetables)

– Although the color of the meat looks lighter than typical 梅菜扣肉, I assure you that the taste is wonderfully authentic. (As I’ve said before, though, pork belly itself is just a miracle.) The sad part is that although it looks like a large heap in the photo, the meat is only the outermost layer – inside is all preserved vegetables. This place is quite stingy with their pork belly…

豆酥豆腐 (dousu doufu; Tofu with Soy Crisps)

– Another memorable dish. The crispiness of the soy crisps complemented the soft tofu very well, and the flavoring was done just right. Also, the whole concept of using 豆酥 just seems extremely creative to me.

港式燒鴨 (gangshi kaoya; Cantonese-style Roast Duck)

– My favorite dish of the entire meal. I love roast duck, and I am picky about it because I’ve tried it at so many places. The skin was thin and slightly crispy, and the meat was tender and juicy. Just perfect. My recommendation: eat it without the sauce.

鐵板牛柳 (tieban niuliu; Sizzling Beef)

– This dish came with the steam and sizzles, like any typical sizzling platter – but that was about it. It actually had somewhat of a Thai taste. The beef was pretty tender, but overall it wasn’t that memorable.

蝦醬四季豆 (xiajiang sijidou; Green Beans with Shrimp Paste)

– This was pretty interesting. I couldn’t figure out how they got their green beans to become all wrinkled – whether they fried it for a long time or boiled it first. But either way, I think the green beans lost some of their chewiness. The shrimp taste is definitely there – tastes almost like it was made with dried shrimp.

空心菜 (kongxincai; Water Spinach)

– A typical vegetable dish, stir-fried with garlic – good, light complement to the entire meal.

Overall, our group enjoyed the meal very much, although their portions were quite small – especially compared to 35 Chinese Restaurant’s portions. Seven people were not full, even after ordering so many dishes. Compare the photo of their string beans with the string beans from 35. Two pictures say two thousand words. However, they do have an advantage over 35 in that they are not as oily in their dishes.

I did like their food, though, and I do hope to go back and try some more dishes, if not only to have the roast duck again. Worth a go.

Restaurant: Fortune Palace Chinese Restaurant (天福樓)
Price Range: Around $15

35 Chinese Restaurant

After yum cha at HK Chinese Restaurant, we still weren’t quite satisfied with our fill of Chinese food, so we decided to make a trip to Cary for 35 Chinese Restaurant’s Szechuan cuisine.
(Note: there are two 35 Chinese Restaurants in the area, one in Cary and one in Chapel Hill. What I’ve heard is that the Cary location is by far the better one, although I haven’t been to the one in Chapel Hill.)
There were four of us, so we ordered two dishes from the “Appetizer” (冷盤, or cold dish) menu and three from the “Entrée” menu. (I don’t remember the exact English translation of these dishes, but they should be something similar to what I have…)
Cold Dishes:
蒜泥白肉 (Suan’ni Bairou; Sliced Belly Pork in Garlic Sauce)
Top: Fuqi Feipian; Bottom: Suan’ni Bairou
香菇豆腐煲 (Xiang’gu Doufu Bao; Mushroom and Tofu Pot)
乾扁四季豆 (Ganbian Sijidou; String Beans Western Style)

Top: Huiguo Rou; Middle: Xiang’gu Doufu Bao; Bottom: Ganbian Sijidou
We asked for everything to be less spicy (少辣), although I, being a genuine Hunanese (湖南人; a province in China well-known for their hot cuisine), can tolerate pretty spicy stuff. The good thing about asking for less spicy is that less chili sauce is used, meaning everything is less oily.
The Fuqi Feipian’s taste is very authentic, but it’s also the most oily and spicy dish out of the five (which is probably why it’s authentic). If you like Fuqi Feipian though, you’d probably enjoy it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about the oil…
The Suan’ni Bairou was definitely my favorite dish of the meal. The texture was just right (well, pork belly is almost always great), and the sauce was done really well. It was a great mixture of sweet & salty, as well as garlic taste.
The Huiguo Rou’s meat pieces were cut into very thin slices – the thinner the better for pork belly – and flavored with black beans and leeks (大蒜苗), making it a dish with what my friend called “many layers of flavor.” Another great dish!
The Xiang’gu Doufu Bao wasn’t too impressive. The kind of tofu they used was not the regular bean curd, but tofu puffs (油豆腐).
Finally, the Ganbian Sijidou was pretty decent. It was made with pickled mustard and seasoned with salt, instead of with the usual ground pork and rice wine, but the taste was still pretty good. However, in my experience, to get the freshest vegetables, it’s still probably wiser to ask your waiter or waitress which vegetables are available and ask the kitchen to prepare it a certain style for you.
Overall, 35 Chinese is probably one of the most authentic Chinese restaurants I’ve had around here, and splitting 5 dishes between 4 people resulted in $14 per person, which wasn’t too bad at all.
Restaurant: 35 Chinese Restaurant
Price Range: $12-20 per person
– Worth the trip, especially when you’re craving real Szechuan food.