Durham’s food scene is vibrant, but it is more than the (admittedly excellent) restaurants in downtown’s Five Points area. Here are some overlooked spots around town that are worth checking out:
Nestled on a side street across from City Hall, Spanglish Durham is the second brick-and-mortar spot for the popular Puerto Rican food truck. The restaurant serves affordable empanadas, rice bowls and mofongo for lunch and dinner, and an array of mostly egg-based dishes for breakfast. The “RDU to San Juan” and “Buenos Aires” bowls are highlights — sans the guava maple sauce on the RDU bowl. Ignore the menu and order the MK sauce with whichever bowl you get. It’s functionally spicy mayo, but it somehow fits the flavor profile of most of their bowls. Next time you are in the mood for a Latin American rice bowl, skip out on another Sazón order and head downtown for Spanglish.
Easily the best restaurant open late in Durham — it closes at midnight Monday through Thursday and at 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday — Dashi serves up ramen and Japanese small plates in a two-floor, stained-wood and exposed-brick space a block away from the Durham Hotel downtown. Only the top floor is open late-night, with a menu that combines the bottom’s ramen and top’s izakaya-style offerings.
The Japanese cucumber, whose freshness is nicely balanced with a creamy sesame dressing and crunchy fried garlic, is the only consistently excellent dish I’ve had at Dashi. At times, their black sesame nori popcorn and ramen can rival any upper echelon Japanese restaurant, but on other visits, the popcorn has been dry and the ramen over-salted. The spicy miso chicken wings and old school miso soup are mediocre and forgettable. Still, while not a perfect option, Dashi beats a trip to Cosmic or Pitchforks.
Now that the Washington Duke Inn has stopped taking food points at its restaurant, Nasher Café’s Thursday night dinners are your best bet for a nice sit-down meal on food points. Open late on Thursdays due to the Nasher Museum’s extended Thursday hours, this opportunity for dinner at the campus’s best dining option is underappreciated by the student body. Speaking to some of the servers and through my own observations, Nasher Café gets far more Durham locals than Duke students coming in for dinner. The surf-and-turf, roasted beet salad and trout entrée would be worth coming back for even if they didn’t take food points. A constantly changing menu means there will be something new every visit. Check it out with your extra food points as the semester winds out.
Located on the first floor of an office building across the street from the Southpoint shopping mall, KoKyu is a stellar, fast-casual Korean spot for rice bowls, ssam and Korean tacos and quesadillas. I had the ssam and duck fat tots, and the ssam was an excellent blend of lettuce wraps, pork belly, kimchi, sticky rice and a spicy red sauce. The tots were a bit of a disappointment, billed as a specialty of the establishment. They tasted like any other tater tots, with little of the duck fat flavor coming through. KoKyu also has a wide variety of craft beer and cider on tap. For another option, sister restaurant KoKyu Na’Mean serves Korean sandwiches about a half-mile away.
A joint venture located side by side in a small strip mall off I-40 in south Durham, People’s Coffee and Town Hall Burger, with the support of KoKyu and others, have helped revitalize the food scene around The Streets at Southpoint. People’s Coffee serves coffee, tea, fresh juices, smoothies and some small food options, all in a stylish setting with ample bar and table space to sit down and get some work done. Next door, Town Hall Burger and Beer features a large bar and sit-down area with TVs and a shuffleboard table as well as a side for counter service. The aesthetic is a lot like popular downtown spot Bull City Burger and Brewery, but comparing the two, Town Hall’s burgers and fries are better. It may not be worth the trek out to south Durham, but if you are in the area, I’d definitely recommend stopping by.
This small Italian restaurant in north Durham is a bit of a trek. As a reward for your effort, the food is relatively affordable. The pastas range from $9 to $14, and the steak, while relatively small, is also $14. However, other entrees and the wine list may put this out of range for many Duke students. Still, it’s worth making a date spot or go-to place for a special occasion. For me, the burrata special, fried eggplant appetizer and steak were all worth coming back for. I would also order the pasta carbonara and meatball appetizer again. While you can’t go wrong with more centrally located Mothers and Sons Trattoria and Cucciolo Osteria, Gocciolina nicely fills out the top three of Durham Italian restaurants.
A fast-casual sandwich shop in a largely residential neighborhood 10 minutes south of campus, Eastcut serves up a stellar burger and pork belly BLT, as well as crispy Brussels sprouts and sweet potato tots as sides. The restaurant has a nice patio out back, which they use for trivia and bingo nights and for NFL Sunday watch parties. See the review from our food columnist Alex Leo-Guerra for more.
While Namu’s neighbor Sister Liu’s has been getting a lot of buzz for its spot on Bon Appetit’s list of 50 nominees for best restaurant of 2019, Namu itself has a lot to brag about. The part-beer hall, part-coffee shop, part-Korean fast-casual restaurant, part-garden certainly packs a lot into its gorgeous teahouse-esque space off of Highway 15-501 — about equidistant from Duke’s campus and Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street. For food, stick with the mouthwatering galbi (Korean short ribs) and a solid bibimbap bowl. My favorite spot to study in Durham and an incredible multi-faceted space, Namu is one of the best kept secrets in the area.
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