Tuesday, March 2, 2010

No Whine With This Cheese


The South proudly claims itself as home to many hearty and soulful dishes commonly referred to as comfort food. Often fried and almost always high in calories (and pleasure!), any list of southern delights should include pimento cheese—a creamy spread or dip that gives a kick to any snack or sandwich. When we heard that several Durham restaurants serve up their own take on this traditional treat, we had to investigate.

We started our journey at Watts Grocery located in the Ninth Street District (near Duke’s East Campus). The restaurant’s colorful and comfortable setting creates an ideal location for a business lunch or meeting with friends, and a menu that is equally pleasing. Watts offers a variety of NC inspired dishes using locally grown ingredients—but we were there for one reason: “Lilybet’s Toasted Pimento Cheese Sandwich.”

We both ordered the sandwich, one with bacon and one without, and then traded halves to experience it both ways. The bread was browned with butter giving it a slight crunch to complement the rich, creamy mixture inside. Heat from the toast found its way to the center creating a melted, cheesy goodness with the taste of pimento peaking through each bite. The bacon added a salty, crispy meat flavor to the sandwich, although we both agreed the flavor of the pimento cheese stands alone.

Served on the side were fresh fruit or fresh fries—we went with fries (why go healthy at a time like this?) which came house-cut and nicely salted. Alternating between the fries and sandwich made for a pleasing and filling lunch.

Our next stop took us to Parker and Otis, a unique cafĂ©-gift shop combination in the Brightleaf District of downtown. Serving breakfast and lunch daily, this playful foodie haven offers up a new selection of gourmet sandwiches each week as well as classics like their “Grilled Pimento Cheese Sandwich on Sourdough.” We kept our methodology consistent and ordered up two—one plain and one with bacon.

The Parker and Otis edition comes on seared sourdough, a nice dry toast that pairs well with the creamy center, allowing the cheese to become the showcase. The cheesy mixture was filled with pimentos and served generously, allowing it to stay slightly chilled on the warm bread. Again, the bacon added a nice flavor but is definitely not required to make this sandwich work.

Here the included side is homemade slaw, but several salad and pasta selections are available with an upgrade. The slaw is tangy and full of flavor and offers a nice, light contrast to the rich sandwich.

Most basic pimento cheese recipes include a combination of fresh grated cheeses (typically cheddar), pimentos, mayonnaise, and a few seasonings. Both of these restaurants serve up a homemade version made from a similar recipe—nothing scooped out of a tub.

After cleaning our plates at both Watts & Parker and Otis, we found that each place adds its own tasty touch to this classic sandwich while staying true to its southern tradition—a testament to the fact that Durham knows how to serve up a taste of the South!

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