Best Bites of the Bull City: Volume 4
This month’s “Best Bites” column features picks from the executive chef at Bull McCabes Irish Pub, RJ St. John, and the co-owner/founder of Pie Pushers, Becky Cascio. Both spend their days and nights working, walking, and dining in downtown Durham and both have experience running local food trucks along with working in a busy downtown restaurant setting.
After moving to Durham from New Orleans a few year back, Chef RJ St. John worked with James Joyce and founded the Mama’s Hot Chicken food truck. He is now the executive chef at Bull McCabes, focusing on a seasonal menu with Irish inspiration. Able to tackle a number of different cuisines, his creativity in the kitchen knows no bounds. He will be a featured stop on Bites of Bull City’s upcoming Five Points Food Tour (June 17)!
Becky Cascio and her husband, Mike Hacker, are locals who launched the popular Pie Pushers food trailer turned brick and mortar restaurant located above the Pinhook in downtown Durham. Their hand-tossed thin crust pizza is perfect whether you’re getting a big slice of plain cheese or trying one of their super creative specials, topped with seasonal local toppings.
So, where do these foodies focus when they get a break from their own kitchens? Read on to find out…
RJ St. John: I really like the steak frites and sweet breads at Vin Rouge and it’s a great place to bring a date for brunch. Sometimes it’s nice to have a white tablecloth brunch. Pro-tip: Order the charcuterie board (but don’t finish it, you’ll want room for your eggs) and use the leftovers to make the world’s most decadent grilled cheese as a midnight snack.
Becky Cascio: For brunch, I enjoy Old Havana’s El Obrero plate with a Cordadito – the perfect amount of food and a shot of espresso to wake me up on a Sunday morning. The pork is just so delicious, and the plantains, rice, beans, and egg on top…so yummy!
For breakfast, I like to sit at the bar at Monuts and get “The Usual” with avocado toast, over-easy eggs, bacon and a side of curly fries with a cup of coffee. It’s a solid choice, and why not enjoy fries and ketchup for breakfast?
RJ St. John: Chef Brian Whetsel at The Federal always has inventive and delicious specials that keep things interesting, as well as the famous “Fed Fries.” If you can, catch him in the spring when he makes his deviled eggs with Stone Brother’s mustard–it’s a can’t-miss!
Becky Cascio: Whether we walk down and take a seat, pick it up to eat in the office, or arrange for a trade with their staff, Toast is one of my all-time favorites! Chicken salad or the Calabrian onion soup and special sandwich of the day (the special is always the way to go!). There’s also the crostini: I like the beet, mushroom, goat cheese and honey best!
RJ St. John: M Sushi is a favorite in my rotation; everything there is great, along with Mateo. I love the idea of small bites and sharing plates and both restaurants have a great interpretation of one of my favorites: octopus!
Becky Cascio: My husband and I have learned to enjoy quick dinners together (typically later than I would like to admit) once the pizza restaurant begins to slow down. Luna is one of our current favorite spots. We both get the grain bowl (I get it with chicken and douse it with their homemade hot sauce). It’s so good and such a good portion that I have a snack for lunch the next day! I enjoy it with a Pineapple Pisco, a perfect light and summery drink.
RJ St. John: Ninth Street Bakery has the best coconut cake, hands down, and it completely satisfies a sweets craving.
Becky Cascio: A new downtown guilty pleasure for me is Loaf’s super crunchy, buttery and delicious pecan chocolate chip cookies! I sometimes buy 2-3 bags at a time and share them with staff to sugar up before our Friday and Saturday night rush begins!
RJ St. John: Monuts is a great place to grab breakfast and have a cup of coffee. In the spring, I’ll sometimes get it to go and enjoy it in the park.
Becky Cascio: We brew Counter Culture’s Big Trouble for our Saturday brunch, so I often just make myself a pot in the morning and drink it slowly all day. It’s so good when its hot and fresh and it makes my office smell so dreamy.
RJ St. John: I know I’m partial, but here at Bull McCabes! Where else can you meet 30 of your best friends for drinks on a beautiful day in Durham? The lawn is kid- and dog-friendly and the beer selection is one of the best in town. We recently added “proper temperature” Guinness served at the proper 44 degrees as well.
Becky Cascio: An obvious choice (since it’s located just below us here at Pie Pushers) is the Pinhook! I have loved going to and supporting this place for almost a decade now! Now, just down a flight of stairs, I can enjoy a quick and easy cocktail. My drink of choice right now is whiskey and ginger ale.
I also enjoy The Accordion Club, which recently opened on Geer St. Not only is it literally on my way home, but with the super convenient to-go options, like a quick hot dog or frito pie, a pool table, video games, and a great selection of beer, wine, or a cocktail… it’s a great new addition to Durham!
RJ St. John: My outdoor go-to is Toast. Aside from being one of my favorite sandwich shops in town, their outside dining is a great place to people watch at Five Points or do a crossword puzzle.
Becky Cascio: Geer St. Garden, enjoying a perfect juicy burger with cheddar and bacon; or a Sunday Guiness at Bull McCabes (a favorite go-to), or nachos and a beer at The Federal in the spring.
RJ St. John: Gocciolina for their handmade pastas. It can sometimes be a little frenetic because it’s so popular but their waiting lobby has a bar so you can get a jump start on your wine while you wait for your table. I’m also a sucker for those little breadsticks they make in house.
Becky Cascio: I like to indulge a little bit more than normal at Gocciolina with the A’Matriciana; or upstairs at Dashi’s izakaya for wings, octopus hushpuppies and a slushy cocktail; or at M Sushi for those magical little baby crabs, sushi and sake.
Bang for Your Buck
RJ St. John: Randy’s Pizza is inexpensive and huge (after all, it’s home to the largest slice in the Triangle) for those nights when you just can’t bring yourself to cook.
Becky Cascio: Hands down, Alpaca Chicken (which recently opened a new location on 9th St.) as well as Guanajuato. You can’t go wrong with the Peruvian chicken and sides at Aplaca. We also get the tostones and extra yellow sauce.
The pupusas at Guanajuato in Durham are so yummy! Mike prefers the pastor burrito and the spicy carrots at the salsa bar. They’re so spicy and I can’t help going back for more!
Durham Restaurants to Try in 2017
RJ St. John: Mother & Sons because of their handmade pastas and fresh ingredients. The new “Fishmongers” (which will be called Saint James) because everything that Matt Kelly touches turns to gold, but also because I really enjoy well-prepared seafood and my wife loves oysters. I also want to try all the curries and pies at Viceroy — I love spicy food and hear they don’t mess around with the spice levels.
Becky Cascio: I can’t wait to see what Phoebe and her team have in store at newly opened The Lakewood. I also still need to get to Dames Chicken and Waffles. I know; how haven’t I been here yet? It’s always hopping there and I never plan ahead.