“Over the last six years, Greensboro’s food scene has blossomed into wonderful,” said Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours guide Jessica Harris as she led us down Elm Street. Between restaurant stops, she spoke informatively and entertainingly of landmarks ranging from the Jefferson Standard building to the site of a 1920s brothel.
The Greensboro Afternoon Downtown Tasting Tour is conducted by Harris on Saturdays at 2 p.m. Taste Carolina offers a Winston-Salem Downtown Evening Tour for $65, as well as other tours in seven other North Carolina cities. It’s come a long way since the recession of 2008 when founder Lesley Stracks-Mullem graduated from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with no job prospects.
Stracks-Mullem conceived Taste when her brother-in-law, whom she called an “adventurous foodie,” visited from San Francisco. “I wanted him to eat as much as possible in a short period of time,” she wrote in an email. “I started Taste Carolina as something to do while I looked for a job, but I’ve been doing it fulltime ever since; we’re on track to host 8,000 guests this year!”
She and Harris said they choose their restaurants very carefully, selecting ones who source ingredients locally and cook seasonally. “They’re so excited about their food, and the cities they work in that they are super friendly and talkative,” Stracks-Mullem wrote. “And our guides love showing them off!”
Harris certainly did, and her enthusiasm was delightful. But what about the food?
Our first stop was La Rue Elm, where Chef Trey Bell served fillets of duck magret (which is French for breast).
“We dry brine the fat side with a salt and sugar cure and let it sit overnight to draw out the moisture,” he explained.
The result was succulent but not greasy, and accompanied by maitake mushrooms and black beans sautéed with duck bacon and a puree of pickled cabbage. Even those of our party who claimed not to like duck said it was tasty and I thought it delicious.
Next was Scuppernong, which Time Magazine called one of the best independent bookstores in the nation. However, I’d never paid much attention to their food. So I was surprised when co-owner Steve Mitchell presented us with the best pimento cheese I’ve ever had.
“It’s smoked Gouda with adobo sauce, chipotle peppers,” he said, adding that the bread was a multi-grain from Camino Bakery in Winston-Salem. A raw butternut squash accompanied it with a fusion of Asian citrus and black bean mango salad with cumin and coriander. Even I, who doesn’t understand the current craze for pasta-cut squash, thought this dish was tasty. Harris gave us time to sip our wine and browse the excellent book selection before leading the short way to Jerusalem Market.
“The beauty of Middle Eastern Food is its simplicity,” said co-owner Easa Hanhan while serving fresh falafel lightly fried with fava beans, chickpeas and feta. Full disclosure: the Hanhans are longtime friends whom I’ve never dared tell I’m not a fan of falafel, but theirs is excellent. So was the hummus, baba ganoush and pita chips with za’atar sauce and particularly, the spinach pie. Several in our party were unfamiliar with Middle Eastern food, but all called this a highlight of the tour and said they’d be back.
A few blocks south took us to our final restaurant (but not stop), Table 16, where Chef Erin Hollins served fresh bluefin tuna accompanied by sautéed grit cake and bacon hollandaise. Despite all we’d previously eaten, this quickly vanished from everyone’s plates. Then we doubled back to Beer Co. on W. McGee, where the 13 percent Stone Farking Wheaton W00t Stout proved the clear favorite. Then we all somehow made room for a selection of Cheesecakes by Alex (ah, the blueberry!) before ending our tour at Rue-Bar across the street. I’ve had a low liquor tolerance ever since recovering from chemotherapy and can’t recall exactly what was in my potent and tasty draft cocktail.
Before walking sated to my fortunately nearby apartment, I asked the charming Harris if she ever had a tour guest who hated everything.
She admitted as any honest guide will, to have had a few challenging ones, saying it was usually someone coerced into coming by a super-excited friend. Then there was the guy who confided that he hated it when his food touched. “The first dish was cassoulet, his worst nightmare since it was lots of different foods touching each other,” she said with a laugh, “but he was a great sport and tried it.”
To book your spot on this delicious tour, visit Taste Carolina’s website at www.tastecarolina.net for $55.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of