As summer fast approaches, more people have time to unwind with friends and family. North Carolina is known for its wonderful universities, beautiful parks, and unique culture. However, the food scene is also evolving and many locally owned restaurants are putting the state on the map. From the mountains to the beaches, you are sure to find delicious food in all corners of the state.
This list is a compilation of a few of my favorites from my travels over the state. I have been vegetarian for the past three years, so many of these establishments have vegan/vegetarian-friendly options, but can fit anybody's tastes! Also, they're budget-friendly with most entrees at $20 or less. I tried to limit this list to locally owned restaurants only, even though there are some fabulous chains around here that I really enjoy!
1. Namu Restaurant & Coffee Bar - Durham
Namu is a Korean-fusion restaurant between Durham and Chapel Hill. Owned and operated by two food truck owners, it is a little piece of paradise in the middle of civilization. There is indoor seating, shaded outdoor seating, as well as an open seating area with a bamboo garden and koi pond. The menu marries foods like bulgogi with tacos and quesadillas. They also have a cafe with delicious matcha lattes! I highly recommend this hidden gem. Favorite menu item: Bo's Special - spring mix, dumplings, choice of Korean bbq, and rice.
2. Tonbo Ramen - Raleigh
In the heart of downtown Raleigh, Tonbo Ramen is a new restaurant offering delicious noodle bowls and appetizers. While the ramen is a must-have, the small plates like karaage, salads, and bao buns almost steal the show. All of the cocktails are hand-crafted and even the sour mix is made in-house. Favorite menu item: Mazeman bowl - ramen noodles, chili oil, scallion, fried garlic, fried onion, meatballs, asparagus, broccoli rabe, and egg (I get mine without meatballs).
3. Bida Manda & Brewery Bhavana - Raleigh
Lately, the Laotian restaurant and its brewery have been topping lists of the top restaurants in the nation. The food is amazing and the atmosphere is really inviting. Located right next door to Bida Manda, Brewery Bhavana features dim sum and beer. But there is also a library to browse and flowers for sale in a truly unique concept. Even if you're not from Laos, it feels like home. Bida Manda favorite menu item: pumpkin curry - yellow curry, coconut broth, root vegetables, jasmine rice. Brewery Bhavana favorite menu item: edamame and ginger dumpling.
4. Parts & Labor - Durham
Snuggled next to the Motorco Music Hall, Parts & Labor in downtown Durham is everything you never knew you needed in late-night food. Featuring a wide array of appetizer-sized dishes inspired by an even wider array of cultures, this is a great place to hang out with your friends. Their global street foodinspired options fit a wide variety of tastes and dietary needs and the sales tax is included in the price. Favorite menu item: scallion pancake.
5. Raleigh Raw - Raleigh
Raleigh Raw has made its place in the community as a hip place to go for healthy foods. Featuring smoothies and coffee drinks, Raleigh Raw also has fantastic poke bowls that are made with incredibly fresh ingredients. The interior is also periodically redecorated by local artists. Favorite menu item: Rosarito bowl - grapefruit, orange, cilantro, cucumber, roasted corn, heirloom tomato, jackfruit, sorrel, rice, avocado, choice of protein, cashew togarashi sauce.
6. Kimbap - Raleigh
Also in downtown Raleigh, Kimbap is a Korean-inspired restaurant. Kimbap is constantly switching up their menu with new, locally sourced ingredients. Since their menu constantly changes, it is almost a new experience every time! Favorite menu item: dukbokki crispy rice cakes.
7. Melanie's Food Fantasy - Boone
Hands down, one of the best breakfasts I have ever had was at Melanie's. The menu is eclectic with fresh, local ingredients and there is beautiful outdoor seating. It's definitely the kind of food one would fantasize about and it is set in the beautiful mountains of NC. Favorite menu item: homemade toast with apple butter.
8. SUNday's Cafe - Wrightsville Beach
One of my favorite places in the world is Wrightsville Beach, and SUNday's Cafe has the perfect vibe for it. While the menu is small, I love visiting this place for a snack as the sun goes down on the beach. There's always surfing competitions playing on the TV, and you can sip your drink while looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. Favorite menu item: Açaí bowls.
9. Blue Dream Curry House - Asheville
Blue Dream is a great spot for lunch or dinner in downtown Asheville. Plus, they pay their employees an actual wage (instead of the typical server's wage). They're known for their variety of internationally-inspired curries and draft beer selection. Favorite menu item: naan and cilantro chutney.
10. East Village Grill - Asheville
East Village is a small, unassuming bar located just outside of downtown Asheville. However, the food is absolutely delicious. It may not look like much from the outside but I definitely want to go back. It's the perfect place to kick back with some friends over beer & food after a day of hiking. Favorite menu item: OMG Burger - a handmade veggie burger made of spinach, mushrooms, feta, red onions, carrots, and Italian breadcrumbs.
11. Zenfish Poké Bar - Durham, Morrisville
Zenfish is a poke bar with ingredients sourced, from - you guessed it! - local farms. A bowl makes for a filling, nutritious meal and the restaurant follows sustainable practices such as composting and recycling. Favorite menu item: veggie bowl - sweet potato, tofu, green onions, edamame, microgreens, avocado, turmeric, chili flakes, miso-ginger sauce, sriracha aioli.
12. Sonora Cocina Mexicana - Asheville
Another great place in downtown Asheville. The mountains are beautiful, the downtown area has a cool vibe, and the food is delicious. While Sonora's food definitely has a unique spin, it's also much more based on authentic foods than your typical "Mexican" joint. The alcoholic beverages here are also very creative, such as their margarita with a rose-infused tequila. Favorite menu item: Avocado tacos - fried avocado, lime aioli, roasted corn, cilantro lime slaw, queso cotija.
13. Tower 7 Baja Mexican Grill
Tower 7 is another fun place to visit in Wrightsville Beach. Located right off the main beach access, this place can get insanely busy. However, if you are lucky enough to stop in during a quieter moment, this is a really nice place to eat. The menu is like California Mexican food meets North Carolina, their main feature being burritos. I always order the cheese dip and I love the beachy, surfer theme to the restaurant. Favorite menu item: So-Cal Carne soft tacos - corn tortilla, carne asada, cilantro, queso cotija with a side of tobacco onions.
There are a lot of amazing places to wine and dine in North Carolina and many restaurants are using local ingredients! This is just a small sampling of what North Carolina has to offer. Whether you're visiting or a local, go out and enjoy what the NC food culture!