Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Man vs. Hot Weiners and Pig Racing: A Trip Through the Halls of Raleigh
Those of you who remember your geography will know that Raleigh is the capital of our North Carolinian neighbor. Having been educated in South Carolina myself, I just learned that titillating factoid last week. But there is much more to the town than just a silly little golden dome and a herd of hyenas calling themselves state legislators. Part of the collegian triangle composed of North Carolina State, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina, Raleigh is home to some of the most cutting-edge science-related research in our great nation. Rumor has it that Doctors Doom and Frankenstein share laboratory facilities located in the nearby suburb of Cary.
The aforementioned schools also play a mean brand of basketball. Well, except for North Carolina State, which is better known for its excellent meteorology department. Duke is coached by the famed Mike Krzyzewski, which in Polish means Ratlike son of Lucifer and if correctly spelled in Scrabble will net you 3,724 points. UNC is the current national champ in the sport, and so much better than all those other loser schools that they can only hope to be allowed to sniff alumnus Michael Jordan's jock strap one day.
So now you know a little bit about the town of Raleigh, but surely not enough to want to visit, unless you like watching college basketball or nerds fiddling with chemistry sets.
The average traveler needs a place to eat and drink and otherwise be entertained. My own ignorance was equivalent to the empty expanses of the Russian steppes, so I contacted a couple friends of mine who just happened to be current residents in the hopes that they would fill the vast open spaces of my mind dedicated to such things with a cornucopia of Raleigh-related tidbits.
First we hooked up with Paul Absalom Hoover IV, a lifetime resident who is nowhere near as dignified as his name makes him sound. He promised to take us to some places that are quintessentially Raleigh. Since my man Paul is a famous chili-dogger in his own right, our first destination was the Roast Grill, and I confess to being hooked as soon as I saw the Hot Weiners sign outside the restaurant. To say the place is a dive would be to greatly overstate its size. You couldn't fall down inside the joint without smashing your noggin on a wall first, much less attempt to dive.
The Roast Grill was opened in 1940 by Mrs. Mary Charles and is still run by her daughter and grandson. The restaurant is known for their hot dogs and you better be a fan yourself or don't bother stepping inside the door. The menu involves a bevy of choices, including hot dogs, hot dogs, and also hot dogs for those who happen to like hot dogs.
Your condiment choice is also a bit limited. Customers are deterred from using ketchup by the $15 price tag on the RG's only bottle and the likelihood that the owner will bite off your head at the neck if you are foolish enough to ask for some, then laugh while your blood spurts like a crimson geyser. Loaded dogs come with chili, onion, and mustard. Cole slaw is also available if you want to be different, you know, like all the other different people.
The Travel Channel's Adam Richman, host of Man vs. Food, visited the restaurant recently for the show and managed to set a record by obliterating 17 of the tasty dogs without having a reversal (this is a polite term used in eating contest circles that means exactly what you think it does). Always without fear except when I am scared, I thought about challenging his feat, but chose against spending the rest of the day in the fetal position. Adam washed down his meal with a bottled beer, which along with Coke, makes up the vast amount of drinks available at the Roast Grill. I went the Miller High Life route myself.
After demolishing our hot dogs, Paul took us to the Player's Retreat, located just outside of the gates of the North Carolina State campus. The pub had an immense selection of beers on tap, but I was most impressed by the tremendously large beer collection that lined the top of their walls, seemingly stretching out into an eternity of hoppy goodness. Every brand in the world seemed to be represented, including many that are no longer produced. I could have spent the whole day drinking their draft beer and staring in jealous admiration at their bottle stockpile, but I had more exploring to do: the North Carolina State Fairgrounds awaited.
Having lived my entire life in the South there is an inner redneck always percolating inside me, fixin' to burst out at any moment. I reckon that redneck was one happy sumbitch on this day, as we walked through rows of ancient tractors, past the pig-racing area, the impressive tractor-pull arena, and the only known shotgun-firing booth in America towards the free food samples. Various purveyors were hawking their wares and we took the opportunity to try BBQ sauces, liver mush, fried pork, and generic cereals that are in no way cheaper rip offs of real brands (I recommend the Cocoa Poofs and Loopy Fruits). Despite all the tasty flavor sensations turning our mouths into Mr. Happy, we had come to the fair for a reason and at five o'clock the time had come - the pig races were ready to commence.
The fans gathered on bleachers in tense anticipation as the emcee, dressed in the required overalls and cowboy hat, announced the racers. Bets were made on the sly and the starting gun fired, the pigs shooting out of their gates like a house afire. I hadn't heard squealing like that since the time I rafted down a river with Burt Reynolds. Ducks, goats, and pot-bellied pigs were also brought out to entertain us with their dazzling speed. I would like to use this space to personally thank Dale Porkhardt, Jr. for winning me a wager in the pot-belly race.
Tired and beaten down by the sun, not to mention the otherworldly excitement of the pig races, we headed to meet another Raleigh friend, Robert Mera, a PHD candidate at NC State, soccer expert, and banana hider extraordinaire (that is not a sex joke believe it or not). His mother, the divine Patricia Velasquez de Mera, had promised to cook us dinner. Having enjoyed her victuals before, I was not about to turn down her hospitality.
The Mera family hails from Ecuador, which borders the Pacific Ocean, and we were treated to some fine Latin American seafood, including a tilapia dish with rice and green olives as well as a corn cake that melted in my mouth so fast I thought for a second it must be made of M&Ms. The piece de resistance however, was the shrimp ceviche (also spelled as cebiche or seviche) . Ceviche is a method of cooking that involves soaking the meat in lemon juice, whose acids actually cook the flesh while also making it tender and juicy at the same time.
Velasquez's version was tossed with tomato, onion, and garlic and was so delicious that everyone I tried to converse with during the meal told me to shut the hell up. Well that didn't actually happen, but it sure would have if anyone had bothered to remove their face from their bowls.
After departing the hacienda we finished our tour of Raleigh off by heading downtown for a free concert. Candlebox, performers of such classics as "Maybe" and "Far Behind" was rocking Moore park led by their singer in his bad-ass neon blue glasses. Although I don't profess to being a big fan of their work I couldn't argue with the price. Apparently a lot of people agreed with me, since there were more people there than the day back in 1997 when Candlebox were accidentally mistaken for a group of serious musicians.
Sipping on my blueberry beer that I had inadvertently purchased from a untrustworthy shyster manning the so-called beer booth, I sat back and enjoyed the show from an excellent vantage point as far away from the stage as possible. Raleigh had provided enough quality pork and alcohol to give even the great Anthony Bourdain a culinary boner. I wasn't too terribly displeased myself.
I want to use this spot to once again thank Paul and Sally Hoover, Robert and Sara Mera, and Senora Velazquez de Mera for their hospitality. I had a great weekend and hope to see you all again soon.