Pupuseria y Taqueria Orellana

Fred pretends to be adventurous. After all, he’s the artist–the one who moved to New Mexico on a lark to make his life as a painter; the one who likes to horrify me by wearing white athletic socks to social events; the one for whom “CD investments” means spending too much money on jazz recordings in the late 1990s.

But the truth came out on a recent Sunday venture after church, when we decided to eat out before running some errands. Driving away from the service, I said, “Why don’t we stop at one of those little Mexican restaurants on Roxboro?”

Fred squirmed–actually squirmed–moving back and forth in his seat. “Which one?” he said, fear coming in to his eyes.

“I was thinking about that little place right after the church on the left.”

Silence.

“You don’t want to go,” I said. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just outside my comfort zone.”

“What do you mean? Are you afraid you’ll order something that tastes bad?”

He thought for a minute. “I’m afraid there won’t be anything I recognize on the menu.”

“They’ll have carnitas,” I scoffed. “All Mexican restaurants have carnitas, and you always like that.”

Poor Fred was trapped, and he knew it. If he refused, he’d lose his cachet as the zany artist, the free spirit eager to seek out new experiences. I had him.

Thus we found ourselves pulling in to the parking lot of Pupuseria y Taqueria Orellana (5300 N. Roxboro Rd; 919-471-3299).

To be fair to Fred, it’s a stretch to describe this place as a restaurant. The dining area is in the back of a convenience store featuring Mexican and Latin American products. It consists of an order window, several colorful plastic booths, a large-screen TV, and a fascinating stone fountain with potted plants set up along the back wall in an empty refrigerated case, shelves and doors having been removed. With the exception of the fountain, it’s a lot like the fast food places you’ll find attached to a gas station at an Interstate exit.

Unlike a fast food joint at a gas station, though, the food here was fresh, clearly prepared to order. Much to Fred’s horror, there were no carnitas on the very short menu, which kindly offered some English translations. But he found comfort in a miraculous sandwich, a torta de carne asada. This featured thin slices of spiced meat on an enormous bread roll good enough to be homemade: white on the inside, dark brown and crusty-soft on the outside. It also included generous amounts of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, and “a special cheese”–a soft, mild white cheese I’m afraid I can’t identify.

The sandwich calmed Fred. Here were recognizable items–meat, bread, jalapenos, cheese–and he wasn’t being forced to speak Spanish. With his anxieties under control, I was able to turn my attention to my own order–tacos with tongue (lengua), cabeza (pig’s head), and al pastor (spiced beef).

These were wondrous creations. Each was covered in neatly diced onion, cilantro, a slice of avocado, and fresh limes. The salsa–a sauce in the traditional Mexican sense, not our American tomato-based tortilla dip–was thin, sharp and vinegary. The meat was tender and nicely seasoned. (There were, by the way, plenty of offerings for the less adventurous: chicken, carne asada, chorizo).

We also enjoyed a tamale, which resembled a giant hush puppy with a moist, cake-like interior, and a pupusa de queso. There’s a nice description of the pupusa here: it’s a Salvadoran dish consisting of a corn tortilla stuffed with a variety fillings, such as meat or cheese. The pupusa de queso here included Salvadoran and mozzarella cheeses. I’m sure mozzarella is not native to El Salvador, but it worked nicely in combination with the slightly sour Salvadoran cheese.

Fred was happy when we left. His response the next Sunday was predictable. “Can we stop at that place again?”

Federal Bunny

I know: you’re tired of hearing about Federal and what a great restaurant it is. (Another review is here.) The problem is that it’s just about the only restaurant we visit these days. It’s our reward for slogging through our Monday Weight Watchers meeting and surviving the first day back at work. And the vision of the pork sandwich and a beer certainly sustains Fred through a week of trying to eat more vegetables and limiting his intake of animal flesh.

But on Monday, Federal served up what may well be the best special they’ve ever had–rabbit with bacon, served over mashed potatoes and roasted parsnips and carrots in a cream sauce. (They were nearly out of it then, so you probably won’t be able to get any now unless they’ve gotten in a new order for the week.)

This entree single-handedly destroyed the noble efforts I’d made the week before at watching what I ate. It tempted me as I stared at the menu, but I lied convincingly to myself, saying that I wasn’t that hungry.

I went for the salad with figs and goat cheese and the soup with carrots, parsnips, and lavender. Our friend Paul ordered the rabbit. That’s good enough, I thought. I’ll get to try it.

When the rabbit arrived, wafting scents of thyme (I think) and bacon across the table, I was grateful for Paul’s lack of willpower and willingness to share. I reached across the table and took a forkful of rabbit and mashed potato, making sure to get a bit of the cream sauce.

That was it. I dutifully ate my delicious salad and soup. I kept staring at the rabbit. By the time I’d wolfed down my dinner Paul was only about half-way through his entree. I knew I wouldn’t make it.

I called our waitress over. “I’ll have the rabbit too,” I said.

Pork Belly at (the) Federal

Our gluttonous streak continued last week, as the fried chicken extravaganza was followed by a pork belly blowout at the Federal.*

Federal remains our favorite Durham restaurant, and has become the site of a weekly post-Weight Watchers pilgrimage, where Fred can order his beloved pork sandwich with cheese and jalapeno peppers and I can sample the Federal’s many fascinating specials.

One special that’s eluded me since I arrived in Durham has been the pork belly (a cut of meat from the pig taken from the underside–essentially uncured bacon). It was on the menu on our very first visit, during a heady six-month period last winter when every foodie in America (including me) could seem to think of nothing else besides little piggy undersides. That night, so many of us had descended on the Federal that there was none left for me, and I had to content myself with the carnitas.

Those carnitas began our love affair with the Federal, but in our weekly visits over the past year pork belly did not make another appearance until last Monday.

I was thrilled and worried. The reasons for the thrill should be obvious. The worry, though, grew out of my struggles through what is coyly known as “maintenance” in Weight Watchers–the tortuous battle to keep off those pounds your body so desperately wants back, the battle you will wage for the rest of your life if your idea of a good time is to eat pork belly while reading a book, preferably with a cat on your lap.

That day, the Weight Watchers scale had revealed a 1.2 pound gain. So I made a compromise: I would order the pork belly, but I would eat only half of it and save the rest for lunch.

You know what happened. I was utterly unprepared for how greasily good that pork belly would be. It had been roasted with a slightly sweet, jerk-style rub and was served with chopped sweet potatoes roasted with onions. The meat itself was achingly tender, each of the four slices containing a quarter-inch layer of creamy fat. I don’t know if the sweet potatoes and onions had been cooked alongside the pork, but it tasted that way.

After eating two slices and half the potatoes, I should have stopped. I should have asked for a box right there. But, I rationalized, how well would this dish heat up? The meat would overcook. The potatoes would lose their succulence. The glorious perfection of the moment would be lost. Carpe diem, I said to myself, and dug right back in.

*It’s probably a good time to note the longstanding cultural debate over how to refer to this article-defying restaurant. A few months ago, a friend told me that since it’s called “Federal,” I should say “Federal” and not “the Federal.” I thought this was nuts–surely a bizarre whim concocted in the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major.

So I asked Laura, our favorite server, to give me some guidance.* She prefered “the Federal.” Brimming with triumph, I conveyed the news to my friend, who calmly responded that Durham residents who were around when (the) Federal first opened, and was known as Federal, find it hard to change. Naturally, the very next day, a friend at church said, “We should go to Federal sometime!” I wish just once I could be right about something.

*Of course, only the picky brain of an overly scrupulous English major would even think to formulate these questions. Or write about them.

Love at First Sight

The Federal may now have a rival for first place in our culinary hearts. We met our new love at the end of a couple of hours spent looking at houses yesterday. (We continue to labor under the delusion that we can afford to keep our still-unsold house in Atlanta and buy one here too.) Too tired to cook, we stumbled into Rockwood Filling Station (2512 University Drive), Durham’s new “Neapolitan Pizzeria.”
We were seated outside in the warm night under the full moon. I was happy despite being a sartorial wreck, clad in not terribly clean flip flops, jeans, and a tank top, with my wispy, flyaway hair pulled back in a ponytail. The only consolation was that the jeans were my skinny ones, which are comfortable now for the first time in 8 months.
The menu was promising–an array of pizzas much like those you see in Italy, which you would certainly hope for and expect in a place that bills itself as authentically Italian. And then our waiter came to tell us about the specials.
“First off, we have arancini, which are fried risotto balls . . . .”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “Arancini?” I said. “That’s kind of unusual. Isn’t that a Sicilian dish?”
My waiter seemed pleased and no doubt surprised at this remark from the poorly dressed woman with the bad hair. He smiled. “You win the prize! You’re the first person tonight who knew that.”
I went on, ever the good student eager to show the teacher that I knew the answer but pretending I was talking to Fred. “Yes, ‘arancini’ is Italian for ‘oranges.’ They’re called that because the fried risotto gives them a dimpled appearance like the outside of an orange.”
“That’s right,” the waiter said.
I waited expectantly for the “prize.” A free martini would be ideal, but a gold star would do. None being offered, I made do with the arancini themselves.
They were prize enough. I’ve been eager to sample this dish since my friend Rocco, my expert on all things Italian, told me about them on a trip to Rome a few years back. But I never saw them on the menu then or in a subsequent trip back to Italy, and never in the U.S.
This being my first time with arancini, I can’t say how they would compare to what you’d get in Palermo. But these were wonderful–crispy and tender all at once, like a perfect hush puppy, if hush puppies were lumpy and made with cheese. These had mozzarella and a few other things that neither Fred nor I can remember; we ate them too fast. They were served with a spicy marinara sauce, which nicely offset their creaminess.
My entree was the pizza special–arugula, truffle oil and Parmesan, done perfectly. There was so much arugula it kept falling off and just enough truffle oil to offer its indescribably rich and heady undertone without overwhelming everything else. We also threw caution and weight watching to the winds and ordered fried calamari, which included some whole ones with their tender little tentacles as well as the typical rings. The breading was delicate and crisp, flavorful without being spicy. Poor Fred, who ordered it despite my harrumphing about how fattening it would be, ended up getting very little.
We were also pleased by the mid-range prices. Our meal, including one glass of wine and one beer, was $44 with tip. Of course, if we do end up buying one of these houses, we’ll never be able to eat out again.
P.S. I’m a bit late on the Rockwood review bandwagon. Carpe Durham and Delicious Durham have already posted entries that have generated a lot of comments. But whatever kinks were there in the first few weeks, I think they’ve started to work themselves out.

The Great Barbecue Taste Off, Part I

Since no one cares about our intense work load, our cat’s toes, or our 1,000 mile sojourn last weekend, I will now deliver the initial results of our Great Barbecue Taste-Off. It’s good to know that at least a few people are interested.

We focused on barbecue in and around Durham, most of which is the traditional eastern North Carolina variety: slow-cooked pork with a lightly spiced vinegar sauce. Debate rages over exactly how to prepare it, and especially over the question of whether the pig must be cooked over wood. Our friend Paul, who gamely joined our efforts, is so insistent on this point that he spurns barbecue joints that don’t feature smoke pouring from somewhere on the roof.

But this is the kind of dilettantish fervor that we wanted to put to the test. (Sorry, Paul.) We didn’t want to be fooled by the charm of a run-down shack on the side of the road that no one had discovered, or swayed by Gourmet’s rave reviews of the painstaking efforts of an elderly country man who raised the pigs on turnips from his garden and chopped the wood for the fire himself. We wanted to base our opinion solely on a double-blind experiment that compared each barbecue side by side and where the only deciding factor would be the taste of the meat.

Considering that all three of us are humanities majors, we were quite proud of the experiment we devised. Even Paul, who confidently proclaimed that he would easily recognize every contestant, was unable to tell which was which. (The exception was the Q Shack’s pork, which we probably should not have included since it’s too heavily sauced and uses too much tomato to be classified as eastern North Carolina barbecue.)

Below are the results.

#1: Bullock’s (3330 Quebec Dr., Durham; 919-383-3211). With an interior that resembles HoJo’s circa 1985, big crowds of diners who probably wish HoJo’s would make a comeback, a gas pit, and rave reviews from people of clearly questionable taste, I didn’t expect much from this contestant. And there was also our own visit in May, which resulted in my firm declaration on this blog that “Bullock’s is just not my favorite North Carolina barbecue joint.” But Fred and I put this entry at the top of our list because of the moist flesh and the vinegary sauce with just the slightest overtone of sweetness. (Reviewers on Citysearch complain about the amount of vinegar Bullock’s uses, but it was a plus for us.) Not surprisingly, Paul wanted more smokiness, but this entry still came in a close second for him. And all of us loved the bits of fat in the meat. Some NC barbecue afficionados sniff at pit masters who don’t pick out the fat when the meat is chopped or pulled. But I cannot understand why a people raised largely on pork fat tossed into every vegetable dish would ever complain about such a thing.

# 2: Backyard Barbecue Pit (5122 NC Highway 55, Durham; 919-544-9911). The Backyard Barbecue Pit has everything you want in a real barbecue joint: smoke, wood, pigs roasting outdoors on a site that indeed resembles your country neighbor’s backyard, and a great review by H. Kent Craig, a true barbecue fanatic. (Craig’s review also offers a wonderful descripion of the restaurant and the cook’s process.) Had I been asked to predict a winner, this would have been it. But philistine that I am, I put this at #4. Paul and Fred catapulted the BBP into #2 by placing it at #1 and #2 respectively. All of us agreed that the meat was moist with hints of sweet, and Fred was particularly impressed by the fine chop. But I missed the fat that the pit master so carefully pulls out (see Craig’s review).

And here is where the experiment began to show just how ridiculous our whole enterprise is to begin with. I found the meat “not smoky.” Paul liked the “smoky” taste, while Fred called it “spicy” and “exciting.” Though I’d placed the BBP at #4, I had to confess that on another day the entries I’d ranked #2 – #4 might have been in a different order. The good news is that there really was no bad barbecue among our contestants. The bad news is that we are not as clever as we think we are.

#3: The Original Q Shack (2510 University Dr., Durham; 919-402-4227): Only a very petty person would criticize the decision of a friend who drove all day picking up barbecue for her taste test, which she would not even let him write about on his own blog. The Q Shack serves Texas-style barbecue, smoked over mesquite and hickory with a tomato-based sauce. As noted above, it was easy to spot in the lineup, but we tried to maintain our objectivity.

Still, ranking The Q Shack was another exercise in quibbling futility. I put it at #2, Paul at #3, and Fred at dead last. We all agreed that the meat was tender. Paul described it as the most “unusual” of our entries, while Fred felt its tomato-y sweetness should have disqualified it altogether. My own hillbilly prejudices came out in my evaluation, which noted that it came in second because there was “not as much fat as A [Bullock’s].”

(Our confusion in ranking this place is matched by my confusion over which Q Shack is which, and I will eagerly accept comments explaining its history.)

#4 (tie) Dillard’s (3921 Fayetteville St., Durham; 919-544-1587). The “Official Bar-B-Que of the Durham Bulls,” as their web site proclaims, this restaurant actually serves a South Carolina mustard-based vinegar sauce. I’ve never been there and have never sampled their fare at the Bulls ballpark, so I had no opinion going in. Including this place was undoubtedly a questionable choice given the different style of preparation, but again, since Paul was kind enough to spend an entire Saturday driving all over Durham buying barbecue, it would be petty of me to complain.

I put this entry at #3, while Paul and Fred ranked it #5 and #4 respectively. I suspected it was South Carolina cue because of its yellowish tinge and found it “smoky, spicy, moist” and less vinegary than I like. Paul described it as “mild,” but Fred’s assessment best summed up our reaction: “somewhat spicy” but “dull.” It was decent barbecue, but set against other entries it didn’t stand out.

#4 (tie) Hog Heaven (2419 Guess Rd., Durham; 919-286-7447). Paul, Fred, and I visited this restaurant over a summer workday lunch and were pleasantly surprised. Like Bullock’s, Hog Heaven doesn’t use smoke. The interior, resembling an underdecorated Chick-fil-A, invites you to sit down, eat your meal, and get out ASAP, although the service was friendly, fast, and helpul. I wasn’t sure how they’d fare in the contest, but I would have given them at least 50-50 odds on winning.

In our test, though, Hog Heaven came in at #3 (Fred), #4 (Paul), and #5 (me). Its biggest flaw was dryness, and like Dillard’s, its flavor didn’t stand out. Paul’s only description was “slightly better than B [Dillard’s],” while Fred and I agreed it was not as spicy or flavorful as some of the others. Inexplicably, Fred felt it had a vinegary aftertaste, while I complained about its lack of vinegar. By now, though, you should have expected that.

Notably absent in this lineup are J.C.’s Kitchen, which I declared was my favorite Durham barbecue last year, and the legendary Allen and Sons in Chapel Hill. We do plan to expand our efforts in a future post, but we’ve learned our lesson and won’t deceive our readers with false promises again.

Coming Soon: The Great Barbecue Taste-Off

Yesterday we joined our friend Paul for the beginning of a project we’ve been talking about for months–an authoritative, double-blind taste test to determine the best barbecue in Durham.

This stage of the project involved five restaurants (listed here in alphabetical order): the Backyard Barbecue Pit, Bullock’s, Dillard’s, Hog Heaven and the Q Shack.

Who won? Tune in later this week to find out, when I get time to write up the results. We’ll also feature cooking results from last week’s vegetable haul.

In the meantime, I turn to that last resort of writer-blocked, time-crunched bloggers everywhere: the cat photo. Today: a very rare shot of the adorable multi-colored toes of Catalina, our shy tortie. Don’t try doing this at home.

Weight Watching at The Federal

As God is my witness, Weight Watchers will not keep us from The Federal. True, we ate at near-starvation levels all day, and forced ourselves to exercise, but not even the prospect of eating nothing but carrots tomorrow could keep us from our favorite place in Durham tonight.

It still amazes me that a bar with the ambience of The Federal could produce food of such superior quality. The interior reminds me of many burger and beer joints I’ve loved over the years for their friendly staff, cheap drinks, and the standard list of entrees (quesadillas, burgers, and nachos). But The Federal offers so much more.

I went there the first time because I’d heard they were serving pork bellies, which I’d never tried but was eager to eat. Knowing that pork bellies were quite the culinary rage, I expected to find a place with white tablecloths, waitstaff certain of their superiority over me, and a wine list that would require me to use my three years of high school French to pretend I knew what I was ordering just because I could pronounce random names without too much of an East Tennessee accent.

The food at the Federal would certainly not be out of place in that kind of restaurant. Instead, though, you get to sit outside on wooden benches, or inside the bar where people are still allowed to smoke (and how wrong it would be if you could not, across the street from the former Liggett Meyers warehouse), and where the main decorations are ancient Miller clocks (“The Champagne of Beers”) and similar paraphernalia, and where Ben, our favorite bartender, looks like he could take out a whole biker bar but still smiles and asks us how we’ve been when we walk in.

The Federal is certainly not perfect–the pasta with goat cheese and tomatoes has been a bit hit or miss in my experience, and I’ve run across one or two specials that aren’t quite as good as I expected. But I’m still stunned at what that kitchen churns out for the price. (For yesteday’s two entrees, plus two beers, a glass of wine, and tip, the total was $42.)

I think the greatest surprise–this was a few months back–was one special with scallops, ginger, lime, bok choy and hot pepper. The scallops were cooked perfectly, not overdone, and the sauce was complex and rich without overpowering the seafood. Fred’s beloved pork sandwich is spectacular–pulled pork in light smoky sauce with jalapenos and cheese on a thick, crusty baguette. The special I had tonight–mussels steamed in a chipotle chili sauce with lime, onion, and garlic–was even better. And I also love the carnitas, although I don’t order them as often as I should.

If only more places were like The Federal–unpretentious in their service and focused on producing great food–life would be darn near close to perfect.