YES! Weekly intern stuffs his face at TK Tripp’s

by Dave Roberts

I’m stuffed.

Let me back up: Four hours ago my editor calls me into his office and asks me if I want to do the Chow piece this week. Wanting to be a reliable intern, I assent, though I know little about food criticism. After waddling back into the office and plopping my now-fat ass behind my desk, two thoughts keep floating through my head: One, food critics have the sweetest deal on the planet; and two, how does Brian do this every week?

I chose TK Tripp’s on Wendover Avenue since I’d heard good things and I could justify the expense as an educational one. I should disclose now what I did not know until walking in: The manager and our publisher are good friends. That said, the food was well above par for a chain restaurant – another fact I probably should have looked up, but we go to press today and I can only eat so much.

While it is a chain, it’s a small one (14 locations total, 10 of which are in North Carolina). As Jim Wilson, the managing partner, was only too happy to tell me, they operate on a much classier model than most chain restaurants. They advertise solely through word of mouth, eschewing TV and radio spots. Jim makes a point of mentioning the local flavor in the menu: Biltmore wines from Asheville, Red Oak on tap. It’s a scratch kitchen, meaning the ingredients are made entirely on site rather than shipped from a central commissary.

It shows in the food. The complimentary bread is fresh-baked, warm and light, with a hint of garlic, and it comes with a dipping plate of olive oil mixed with fresh basil and grated Romano cheese. It’s all I can do not to fill up on it.

My meal proper starts with a house salad that, in addition to the standard greens, onions and tomatoes, includes almonds and, sorry vegetarians, bacon pieces (soft, unlike store-bought bacon bits) that balance each other out in terms of texture, and is topped with a tangy tomato-basil vinaigrette which is fat free – and good thing too because there’s nothing even remotely diet-friendly about the rest of the menu, no matter how good it tastes.

Jim was pimping the steaks pretty heavily, but I’m a shrimp addict and after hearing about the stuffed shrimp special for $11.99 I decided to go pescetarian. Hunched under each butterfly-cut shrimp is a gumball-sized lump of the same stuffing that makes up their crab cakes. The flavor is strong, with a mild kick of Tabasco and other spices I can’t get them to divulge. Picking them apart reveals a few tiny chunks of red bell pepper mixed in with the breading and crabmeat. The shrimp themselves are high-quality, flavorful enough on their own that I almost wish I could buy a pound or two to take home. The whole deal is drizzled in a creamy lobster sauce.

On a friend’s recommendation I made a substitution from the usual side, something Tripp’s is quite gracious about, to red-skin mashed potatoes and a small bowl of cinnamon apples. The former are quite possibly the tastiest examples of their kind I’ve ever eaten: garlicky, with maybe a tad too much butter that gives them a somewhat oily feel, but still amazing. The latter are tart and flavorful, akin to the best part of an apple pie, with a garnish of chopped walnuts.

My pants are close to bursting by this point, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least sample the dessert menu (journalism is a harsh mistress). They bring me a slice of cheesecake the size of a small guinea pig for $5.99, not too rich and smothered with a handful of strawberry slices in a light syrup. I get about a quarter of it down before I cry mercy and ask for a to-go box.

So as I sit here, thoroughly satisfied but struggling to breathe, I’m thinking how glad I am that the UNCG climbing wall opens today. It’s going to take at least two ascents to work all this off.

Then I’m going home to finish the cheesecake.

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