Featured Food The Eater

Adventures in Lunch

by Kirk Ross

There is something special about strolling through campus and along the historic 100-block to some of the traditional Franklin Street lunch spots.

Having worked on the street for nearly 20 years, but not recently, a mid-August temp job on campus allowed for some downtown lunch research. The conclusion: You can still get a decent sit-down lunch in downtown Chapel Hill at a reasonable price, but you’ve got to work at it.

For the record, the recent favorites proved to be old favorites, including Linda’s, which serves a sandwich-and-side combo, including some nice fried okra, for less than $10; and Pepper’s Pizza, where a good-sized house salad and a slice with one ingredient runs $7.19.

There’s a myriad of good places to grab a meal, but for the campus worker, the question of eating lunch in town is not one of where to eat but how to go about it. Now, with downtown even more crowded, lunch logistics are critical.

While a lot of eateries are within walking distance of north campus, those farther west on Franklin Street and on into Carrboro are not, if you’ve got to be fed and back at work within an hour.

The key to making full use of those options farther from the 100-block is either to have a bike or quickly master the bus system.

If you know how to check Chapel Hill Transit’s NextBus system on your smart phone, you can be pretty nimble at lunchtime. NextBus, which is a highly accurate real-time bus tracker, helps you time your food run down to the minute. It is especially handy if you’re grabbing something to go. The Eater was able to make a falafel run to Mediterranean Deli without feeling the slightest pressure, hitting a westbound bus just after placing an order, arriving at a nearby bus stop about the time it was ready and grabbing an eastbound bus for the trip back once lunch was in hand.

The whole operation took about 14 minutes, including the walk from the bus stop back to Polk Place, a perfect spot for a quiet, intersession meal in the shade of majestic oaks.

Some of this year’s bumper crop of mushrooms at Eco Farm. Photo by Kirk Ross

Shiitake season
You can get dried and somewhat-fresh imported shiitake mushrooms just about any time of year, but you can only get the hyper-fresh local version during certain times. This is one of those moments. It’s been wet and warm and the local farmers who have waited all winter, spring and summer for their inoculated logs to bear fungi are reaping the rewards of a favorable season.
Eco Farm and PlowGirl Farm are specialists in shiitake growing. The mushrooms run about $12 a pound – $1 less than the usual price at a grocer – and pack a lot more flavor. They’re best stored in paper bags in the refrigerator.

Top tomato
In addition to her shiitake prowess, our friend Sally Jo at the aforementioned PlowGirl Farm also has been responsible for the best-tasting tomato run across this season. Black Krim is a Ukrainian variety, said to hail from the Black Sea island of Krim off the Crimea Peninsula. It traveled into Western Europe via returning soldiers shortly after the Charge of the Light Brigade or something like that.

They have a big flavor, somewhat like a Cherokee Purple, and although they tend to have green shoulders, they’re strikingly dark on the inside. They stand up to bacon – yes, bacon – in a BLT, and if you want some big flavor in a salsa or red sauce you couldn’t ask for a better ingredient.