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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.

To comment on this story, e-mail Dave Roberts at thundercles1@hotmail.com.

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