Reflections on Taste Carolina’s 5 Year Anniversary

It’s been five years since Joe and I launched our food tour business. I just looked through my 2009 Facebook posts, and I saw my status from March 17th of that year: “Lesley is launching a business…. NOW…” A group of five people signed up for our Durham tour that same weekend, and we were in business. A few weeks later I reported on Facebook that there were six tours booked in one week, and a few weeks after that I mentioned a record 49 people in a week. As reported that summer in a News & Observer article, I lost ten pounds from walking so much. Sure, I was eating a lot, but in small portions throughout the day. Yes, I gained it back when I started hiring tour guides!

We continually adapt to the changing landscape of dining out and the increasing popularity of foodie experiences. Running this business has gone from somewhat simple to really quite complicated, but that’s one reason why I love it. I’m proud to have brought over 15,000 people downtown, to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at downtown restaurants, and to have employed a dozen people.

What is my favorite part of owning this business? It’s the process of facilitating an experience during which couples, families, companies, and groups of friends can have fun together, enjoy lots of yummy food, and explore our historic downtowns with a friendly guide. I get to do this for a living, and I am indeed very lucky. I love showing off my favorite restaurants and their talented chefs over and over again. And I dig the fact that some of the coolest people around – restaurants folks – are really nice to me and my customers.

Thank you for being part of our five years. Thank you tour guides, past and present, for being gracious hosts and good friends. Thank you restaurant partners for treating our customers like VIPs… every week for five years. And thank you, Joe, for being a supportive business partner and friend.

My husband and my parents believed in this business from the start, and for that I am most grateful.



Joe and I during a Chapel Hill Magazine photoshoot. We’re at LocoPops with my dog, Marley, who is enjoying a pupsicle.

My Own Personal Food Tour of Raleigh, Minus My Awesome Pictures

I bought a new iPhone this week. With its upgraded camera and increased space, I vowed to start taking lots of food and restaurant photos and uploading them to Twitter, Facebook, and to this blog. So I bought the phone on Wednesday and immediately drove to Raleigh to try four new places in one night. One of the Taste Carolina tour guides, Adrienne, joined me in this adventure. We had so much fun! And I took wonderful pictures, particularly at Garland, which is beautiful.

When I got home, I immediately went to delete the photos from my Pictures folder. Photos were always saved into two folders on my old phone, and that’s what took up so much memory. But that’s not how it works on the iPhone 5. I lost all of them. Except one – the one I texted to my husband to brag about what I was eating. Here’s a picture of two different kinds of meatball sliders, mac & cheese, and collards at the brand new Oak City Meatball.


So that’s all I have for now, but I promise to recreate my magical night and get all great new photos up here. In the meantime, here is what we ate and drank:

1) The Green Light Bar, Raleigh – I had never been to a bar called The Architect before, but I had heard of it and I knew where it was. A few months ago I noticed a Twitter spat between a blog called New Raleigh and a local restaurant owner. New Raleigh tweeted something like, ‘Green Light Bar. Discuss.’ The restaurant owner tweeted back something like, ‘Why so smug?’ New Raleigh: ‘What? I’m just letting out a little secret.” Restaurant owner: ‘Letting out a little secret would be to say something like, Hey! Has anyone been to The Green Light Bar inside The Architect behind the secret bookcase?’

And I’m like, WHAT? I LOVE secret bars! Especially behind secret bookcases. I immediately texted tour guide, Jeanie, who lives downtown, and she texted back that she would head right over. It took her a bit to find it, even though she’s been to The Architect many times. But when she did get there she texted back that it was perfect, that her drink was the best ever, and that we know the owner and he’s happy to host our tours. Best night, and I wasn’t even there.

Fast forward to this week. I finally got there to check in out, and it’s awesome. My drink, made from fresh juices and homemade syrups, was delicious, and the bartender was very friendly. There’s a neat view of Hargett Street, too. I can’t wait to go back and to bring lots of people by.

Oh, and here’s something cool. There’s a light out front of the bar. When it shows green, there are seats available. When it’s red, no seats available – and no entry.

Here’s a picture of fresh juices and homemade syrups from a completely different restaurant:Image

2) Bida Manda, Raleigh – We have been working with Bida Manda for about a year, but they took a break from our Saturday tours (but not weekday tours) in December due to high volume and a trend toward 5:00 and 5:30 reservations filling the restaurant. Bida Manda is ranked number one on Trip Advisor, currently, and it’s well deserved. The owners, brother and sister Van and Vanvisa, are delightful. They hire nice people and they’re perfectionists: they make sure each customer who comes in has an experience that exceeds expectations. The food is unique and delicious and shows off their Laotian heritage. Bida Manda is only the second full-on Laotian restaurant in the country.

In the past I’ve had pumpkin curry, summer rolls, spring rolls (my fave), a shrimp and bacon crepe, and a green papaya salad with beef. This time, Adrienne and I split a roasted pepper stuffed with herb sausage, and crab cakes. Van sent us over a couple of hot toddies with homemade maple syrup, Evan Williams bourbon, and orange peel. Yummy and comforting on a very cold night.

Fortunately for Bida Manda, but sad for Taste Carolina, reservations continue to pour in, and there’s just no room for our Saturday groups. But Van was sweet to suggest a Friday evening tour, and I can’t wait to get that going! And we’ll continue to bring in weekday and weeknight corporate groups.

3) Oak City Meatball, Raleigh – OCM opened just this week. It’s the same owner as one of our favorite places, Calavera, and both are super fun. The night we were there, it was hopping with young, happy people. The service was terrific, the food prompt and yummy, and we had a great time.

We tried three different meatballs. Our favorite was the meatball of the day, which was a spicy chicken one. We also enjoyed the traditional beef meatball and the spinach and lentil ball. And that mac & cheese and collards were decadent and terrific. Oh, and because we were so hungry (not), we also ordered cake balls, which are made in-house. We loved the cookies and cream one and were happy to share our leftovers with a couple of random guys sitting next to us. After all, we still had one more place to hit.

Oak City Meatball’s menu shows a number of different types of meatballs, and you can eat them on a sub roll, a brioche bun, a slider bun or have them over spaghetti, gemelli, polenta, or risotto – or plain. You also pick a sauce, like marinara (perfect), pesto, cream, mushroom, etc., and a cheese. We ordered three sliders and let the kitchen choose the sauce and cheese.

The drinks were all superb. Great beer list, too. I can’t WAIT to go back.

Here’s a picture of Adrienne in a completely different context:Image

4) Garland, Raleigh – While the Garland crew was building their restaurant last year, owner Cheetie took advantage of the completed kitchen and opened a walk-up window featuring her Southeast Asian fusion/ street food dishes. It was very popular and a fantastic way to preview the restaurant. Cheetie also cooked for our tours and served the food paired with a craft cocktail at her downstairs bar, Neptunes Parlour. It’s been a couple of months since the restaurant opened, but Wednesday was my first time in. It’s beautiful beautiful beautiful. And looked so pretty at 10pm on a cold winter night. Hence all the awesome but deleted photos.

But the food and drink were great, too. We had Bhel Puri, an Indian street food dish with crunchy puffed rice, crunchy chick pea noodles, cucumbers, and greens mixed with an herb vinaigrette. The flavors were different for me, and I loved them. I had a similar dish recently at Vimala’s, Aloo Chat, and loved that one, too. We also got corn cakes with local greens and a drink made from toasted coconut, cinnamon, and orange. I told them they should bottle it and sell it immediately. (It tasted a lot like a delicious bourbon liqueur that’s currently being bottled and sold in North Carolina only called Mystic.)

Will upload my phantom pictures as soon as I take them again!

Here’s to good eating. And thanks for reading.


Taste Carolina’s Parties Revisited

Last night, Taste Carolina celebrated the holidays with a dinner party. I try to give two parties each year where all the tour guides get together, one in January for the holidays and another one in the spring to celebrate Taste Carolina’s March anniversary. Over the years we’ve celebrated at Toast, Acme and Carrboro Beverage Company, Panciuto and The Wooden Nickel, Bull City Burger and Brewery, Centro and Foundation (with Crumb), Vimala’s and TOPO, and, last night, Jose & Sons and Crank ArmImage

After beer hour at Crank Arm, where we enjoyed really delicious beers, we arrived at Jose & Sons, where yuca fries with chimichurri, beef flautas, and, my favorite bite of the night, tostones (fried plantains) topped with pimiento cheese and bacon, were out on the table. We all ordered margaritas and other drinks. I really loved my cucumber margarita.

I’m fortunate to have fantastic tour guides. I make it a point to hire people who are way more bubbly than I am, who are wonderful hosts, resourceful, and who love the concept of Taste Carolina and the cities they show off each week. I think Dean has been with Taste Carolina the longest, and Neesey is the newest. I’ve never had to let anyone go, but I have had turnover: guides who want their weekends back, whose day jobs have become too demanding to have a second job, or who have moved. It’s hard to lose talented employees because they are very hard to replace – and because I like everyone a lot and miss them when they leave the company.

I can’t wait for the next party, and I’m thinking that it won’t be a sit-down dinner. Perhaps some kind of stand-up, cocktail-like party. Something high energy for this high energy group! And with an awesome cake.



PS: If you are interested in working for Taste Carolina or who know anyone who would make a great guide, please contact me.

Carrboro Farmers’ Market Potluck Dinner

I am still full. My friend, Colleen, who has masterfully organized TerraVITA, a foodie festival three years running, took on a fundraiser for the Carrboro Farmers’ Market the Thursday before the main TerraVITA event. Twenty of the best chefs around brought dishes to share in a potluck style. The picnic was outside at the market at night, and, though it was cold, we had a wonderful time. But I am still full.

Aaron Vandemark, from Panciuto in Hillsborough, brought parfaits of crisped beef, white sweet potatoes, and cole slaw. It was meaty, fresh, and delicious. Kevin Callaghan, from Acme, brought deviled eggs, squash pickles* [see recipe below], and some of the best macaroni & cheese ever. And speaking of mac & cheese, Jimmy Reale, from the Chapel Hill Country Club, made pimiento mac & cheese… amazing. Vimala Rajendran, from her Curryblossom Café, brought lovely spiced rice and braised butternut squash. Andrea Reusing, from Lantern, brought pork that had been steamed in banana leaf… ridiculously good. There were fantastic meatball sliders contributed by Adam Rose from Il Palio. And on and on and on. For dessert, I enjoyed Bill Smith, from Crook’s Corner’s, banana pudding, and a sweet and fresh muscadine cobbler from Saxapahaw General Store’s Jeff Barney.

Taste Carolina’s Chapel Hill/ Carrboro food tours have been visiting the Carrboro Farmers’ Market just about every Saturday for the last four years, where we arrange for substantial tastings with farmers and vendors. We see all these chefs roaming about, picking up boxes of goods, and chatting with each other, the farmers, and the market-goers. Many times a year the chefs offer cooking demonstrations or tastings at the Market. The Carrboro Farmers’ Market is over 30 years old and often mentioned as one of the best in the country. People love it, and it showed at this dinner.

I rolled home and was asleep a few minutes later. A few hours after that, I woke up and thought that I had never been so full in my life. Later on still, I woke up and couldn’t feel my feet. The food had turned my circulation to sludge, I guess. It was a little scary, but nothing a few glasses of water didn’t cure.

My post-picnic diet lasted a couple of days, but I was fully back by Saturday – at TerraVITA, where I did it all again, just with different dishes. There was less mac & cheese but more pate and chocolate – and plenty of wine.

Acme’s Summer Squash Pickles
1 gallon summer squash, sliced in half moons (not too thin)
6 cups finely sliced sweet onion
1 gallon apple cider vinegar
1 quart water
1 gallon sugar
2 cups pickling spice (recipe follows)
1/3 cup salt

Mix sliced onions and squash in a large bowl. Sprinkle with Kosher salt and toss. Place onions and squash in a large colander and cover in ice (this helps keep the pickles crisp). Place where it can drain.DSC_0380

After icing the squash, put remaining ingredients into a large non-reactive pot and bring to a simmer. Let aromatics simmer for 30 minutes or so to flavor the vinegar. Strain vinegar mixture and clean pot of any of the pickling spice that may be stuck to the sides. Discard used spices.

Put squash mixture into the non-reactive pot. Add vinegar. There may be more squash than vinegar, but don’t worry. The squash will release water as it cooks. Stirring occasionally, bring back to a simmer and cook briefly. Squash must not be raw but also should not be stewed. Tasting is the only way to know. Adjust salt if necessary.

For us, these are refrigerator pickles. But they can be put up like traditional pickles to enjoy year round.

Pickling Spice
(Store bought is fine and probably cheaper for the home cook. But you will need to add turmeric to intensify the color of the pickles and possibly red pepper flake to give intensity.)
3 T allspice berries
3 T black peppercorns
3 T coriander seeds
2 T hot red pepper flakes
3 T mustard seeds
1 T ground nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks, broken
2 T whole cloves
½ cup bay leaves, crumbled
¼ cup fresh ginger, minced
2 T turmeric


My Foodie Vacation to Kennebunkport and Portland, Maine

I recently returned from a six day vacation to Maine. It was very special to have this luxurious amount of time with my husband and son while enjoying 70 to 80 degree summer temperatures and low humidity. We stayed near Kennebunkport for three nights and in Portland for three nights.

Our son is one and a half years old. When we travel lately, it’s to see family and friends, and those trips feel very scheduled. This time, we had few commitments. There was a lot of eating, of course, and there was a lot of sleeping. There were nice walks and drives each day. We took a boat ride and went to a farmers’ market and to the beach several times.

During our vacation, I didn’t really have any, ‘If I were starting a food tour here in Maine, this is what I would do’ moments. OK, so maybe I had a few. But what really struck me was how often I found myself wondering whether our tours are true, or true enough, to what I envisioned and whether they are accomplishing what they are supposed to. Because I really, really love good restaurants, and I love to share my favorite finds.

As the owner of a food tour company, I want people to discover places and to discover cities. I want them to feel welcome when they walk into a restaurant or food shop or bar, and I want the food to be delicious. I want them to learn something cool and to meet awesome people. And I want them to be so excited about the restaurants that they visit on our tours, they feel giddy all over and can’t wait to go back. We had many fantastic foodie moments like that in Maine. Here is where and what we ate:

Over the first three days, we ate clam chowder, fried haddock, and lobster rolls at three different places: The Cape Pier Chowder House and The Ramp in Cape Porpoise, and The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport. We loved all of them. The Chowder House served the best fried fish ever, and the lobster roll in butter hit the spot. Our son loved the clam chowder so much, he was talking about it later on in his sleep. We sat at the edge of a dock overlooking some small islands and peninsulas and felt the stress of our day of delayed flights melt away. The employees were friendly and many of the patrons had their gorgeous dogs lounging below the picnic tables. My mouth is seriously watering right now thinking about the fried local haddock.

The Ramp was an obsession of mine. It is located next door to the Cape Pier Chowder House and has seven tables and a small bar. It fills up for dinner promptly at 5pm, and twice we got there too late to get in. On our last day in Kennebunkport we arrived for lunch at 11:15 so that we would be first in line when it opened at 11:30 (there wasn’t really a line, but we were first anyway). Here, our lobster salad roll was amazing and huge, the clam chowder had a more complex flavor than the one we had the previous night, and the traditionally British fried fish – again haddock – was very satisfying. THIS was the best fried fish I’ve ever had. We were officially addicted to this cuisine.

It was no different at The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport. We sat outside along the busy tourist path and people-watched. The fried fish was delicious. The lobster roll, a simple sandwich on a round bun, not a long one, included giant pieces of lobster dressed lightly in mayonnaise and butter.

We had one of the most memorable breakfasts we’ve ever had at the 1927 dining car restaurant, Palace Diner, in Biddeford. This is where we celebrated my husband’s birthday with corned beef hash and eggs and blueberry pancakes. Everything there is made from scratch, and the family that runs it is very sweet. We looooved this place.

We also were able to stay out unusually late one night, and so we had drinks and dessert at The Tides Beach Club in Goose Rocks Beach. Blueberry pie, of course, was what was recommended – we didn’t tire of blueberries on this trip and neither did our son, who calls them ‘baby apples’. We sat on the porch across the street from the ocean and let our son run around in his overtired state on a lovely green lawn. I would like go back to stay and eat here, especially for a special occasion.

In Portland, we all enjoyed Standard Baking Company’s croissants and ricotta pound cake. Later, as part of a yummy and filling dinner, we had an amazing appetizer at The Front Room: pastrami-cured salmon over homemade brown bread with mustard, crème fresh and pickled onions.

But it was on our last night in Maine, my birthday, when we hit our foodie jackpot. I was in search of a quintessential, seafood-oriented, Maine birthday dinner and discovered a restaurant that had only been open a couple of weeks, Eventide Oyster Co. We walked in and fell in love immediately. There was a large bar with a chalkboard menu, counter window seating, and two indoor picnic tables. The walls were white and aqua and the menu was perfect. We ordered a lobster roll in brown butter, oysters, fried fish, charcuterie, croquettes of some kind, local carrots, and, later, another lobster roll, this one with mayo. If we had discovered this gem on the first day we were in town, we would have gone back again. I was giddy all over. Still am.

Impromptu Drinks and Dinner Tour of Durham

My husband and I enjoyed a rare night out last Wednesday. Since our son is an early-to-bed kind of a guy, and we’re usually too lazy to get a babysitter, this was pretty special. It had been four months since our last night out, and we wanted to do the exact same thing that we did that last time: Fullsteam Brewery and food trucks followed by a movie at the Carolina Theatre. The $100 we spent months ago on two Will & Pops grilled cheese sandwiches, four beers (two at Fullsteam and two at the theater), movie tickets (The Artist), and a babysitter was so worth it, that it apparently sustained us for four months. We talk about how awesome that night was all the time.

Because I’m a Twitter fanatic, I knew that Fullsteam was debuting this season’s cherry beer on Wednesday, and, for the second year in a row, owner Sean was giving away homemade cherry hand pies to the first fifty people to ask for one. They were delicious last year, so we timed our arrival accordingly. I’m not sure how many people know this, but when Sean was planning his business, he wanted to serve his hand pies, or pasties, as he called them, at the brewery. But I think he probably got really, really busy taking over the beer world, plus, the food truck movement took off. So we only get to enjoy his killer pies once a year. They didn’t disappoint.

At Fullsteam, which is probably our favorite place to be in Durham, we ran into people we knew. Since we don’t get out much, this was phenomenal. Before we knew it, we hadn’t eaten any food truck food, and the movie time (Moonrise Kingdom) was approaching fast. Most importantly, we hadn’t gotten a chance to talk with each other at all, and, seeing as how this was supposed to be a date, this made me sad. We scrapped the movie plan and drove off in search of a foodie adventure.

I suggested a favorite, Panciuto, but Jeremy didn’t want to drive that far. Vin Rouge has served several anniversaries and birthdays wonderfully well, but I wasn’t feeling French food. Then I remembered that I had been wanting to try a fine-dining Japanese restaurant two minutes from our house forever. Yamazushi is the number one rated restaurant in Durham on Yelp! I know that because I’m a Yelp! addict. I need help (with Yelp!) actually, as it’s definitely a love-hate relationship. Anyway, I called, and they said to come by in an hour.

We swung into Six Plates, another one of our favorite places in Durham. Six Plates was part of the inspiration behind Taste Carolina. Our original food tour was an appetizer and wine tour of Durham. Jeremy, our brother-in-law, and I went to Toast, Magnolia Grill, and Six Plates in one night in October of 2008. [The next day we went to seven barbecue restaurants in six hours, and Taste Carolina was born.] Six Plates was also where we were three hours before I went into labor. We were sitting at home and I received a text from a tour guide about a tour mishap. First course portions were smaller than expected and the guide was ordering plates and plates of sliders at Glasshalfull in Carrboro. I told my husband this, and he said, ‘sliders? I like sliders’ and soon we were enjoying some of our own at Six Plates. Thirty-six hours later, Zeke was born.

Last Wednesday, we enjoyed a couple of tasty glasses of wine on the comfortable couches at the very hip Six Plates and said hi to owner, Mattie. We would have been very happy ordering food and more wine there, but we didn’t want to stand up Yamazushi. So we hopped in the car again.

Yamazushi was quite luxurious. It was very quiet and the service was terrific. We passed on the $50 tasting menu and ordered toro sashimi, sushi, shrimp dumplings, miso-roasted eggplant, a fish head (details: a sea bream collar in broth), and a bottle of sake. Jeremy was in fish head heaven – it was very fresh, and he grew up on the coast. Everything tasted amazing, and we had a wonderful time.

I think we’ve purposely not added up our bill from last Wednesday. The total for two beers (but a free cherry hand pie), two glasses of wine, a bottle of sake, several small plates, two desserts – green tea ice cream and agave-roasted sea beans, by the way – and a babysitter was much more than the $100 we spent four months ago. Once again… totally worth it.