Crook’s Atrium Cafe
Whimsy would be my middle name, had I an English middle name. Perhaps I’ll name my daughter that… In any case, I recently got a huge bug in my butt to leave town for a few days. I’ve not been on any trips in about a year, and I’m the type who likes to travel a few times a year – locally (road trips) and farther (cross country and beyond), so I packed up my stuff, threw Keywee in the car, and headed off into the sunrise.
Of course, how do you pick a destination when you’re rather poor, you are traveling with pet (a small dog), and… well, you’re just trying to leave life behind you and need a place that you’ve never visited in the past. Here’s how: you have an awesome friend who offers to let you stay, with pet, and lives in a location previously unvisited by you.
That’s how I found myself in North Carolina, a mere 9 hour drive from NYC. (I tease: 9 hours is no small amount of time, and with recent weight loss, my god my butt is bony and sitting in the car is super uncomfortable for that long. I don’t know how I drove 6+ straight hours without stopping each way.)
Long ago, I’d asked Beer Boor for recommendations for the area, intending one day to visit. He’d suggested Crook’s Corner, but alas, they are only open for dinner, so on my first day in NC while I visited Chapel Hill, I headed to their more casual cafe outpost, Crook’s Atrium Cafe, which is located inside a rather fancy-looking office building. I nervously tugged at my clothes – simple jeans and a Mets t-shirt (because the weather was so nice!!!), and worried that I was under dressed. Then I walked inside and realized that at 11am, no one was eating lunch just yet nor did anyone care what I was wearing. I placed my order and took a seat, and loved this little mirror next to my table so much that I had to take a photo. Once I realized I was actually IN the photo, I framed it better and I think this might be my new avatar… (Doesn’t my camera look small in my ginormous hands?)
I loved the cozy feel to the place. Very casual and people wandered in and out – more as it approached noon – ordering, chatting with the servers, and just clearly a very ‘everyone knows your name’ kind of place. Love.
My first order of business was getting a drink. Since I’ve started drinking caloried beverages again, this opens a whole new world for me. I glanced at the soda fountain and noticed “Cheerwine” – which I recall being mentioned to me more than a handful of times – but couldn’t remember what I thought of it, if I’d tried it, or what. So I asked the guy behind the counter (you order at the counter), “What does Cheerwine taste like?” He responded by grabbing a cup, dispensing a large gulp into it, and handing it to me. Awesome. I took a sip, decided it was just like Dr. Pepper and ordered it. Hey – I haven’t had Dr. Pepper in ages, but I used to LOVE that stuff. Yum! (I can’t say I love it still now, but it suited what I felt like drinking at that moment.)
I’d browsed the menu earlier and knew I wanted fried pickles – my first fried pickles in the actual South!!! – but knew that I couldn’t order everything I wanted without packing up 90% of everything, or worse, getting sick immediately afterwards. So I ordered the fried pickles – fried fresh, piping hot, with a light batter that was only a little greasy, but no, not the fried pickles of my dreams. The batter suffered from sort of self-steaming after a bit, and just became soft as time went on, falling off in places. The ranch on the side was nice – a slight tang – but the pickles themselves just didn’t do it for me.
But… this entire order was $2.95. That’s like a whole jar of pickles on that plate. In New York – I had to really bite my tongue to stop saying that – an order of fried pickles is like 8 slices and about $8. Yeah.
Since I really wanted fried green tomatoes but couldn’t justify ordering both the fried pickles AND fried green tomatoes as appetizers, I went with the next best thing: the FGTBLT, or fried green tomatoes bacon lettuce tomato ($5.25). It came with choice of fries, chips, potato salad… and I chose potato salad because that seemed the most interesting. It was very mustardy, had capers in it and even some bacon that gave it a smokey taste. And this might sound odd, but – given the small price – I loved that the plate didn’t come to the table heaped with a ton of food. I loved that the plate didn’t seem so huge that I would just not be able to eat much of it. It was perfectly sized with a great price.
And the sandwich itself was well-sized. The bread was clearly homemade, and the ingredients weren’t piled so high that I’d wonder how to fit my mouth around it. Nope. It was the perfect thickness.
And the flavor was phenomenal. I didn’t ask for mayo, I didn’t need anything but to open my mouth, put the sandwich inside and just enjoy. The fried tomatoes weren’t quite what I was expecting, but the flavor… just juicy, that slight tang of green tomato and perfection, absolute perfection. Thick slices of bacon completed the meatiness, while the bread held up and nothing slid out. I am in love with how well-executed this sandwich was. Just amazing.
I certainly could have gotten away with just eating what I did (which was 1/3 of the pickles and half the sandwich, all of the pickle and potato salad; I packed the rest), but when I saw banana pudding on the menu, I just had to. It was $3.95, putting it at more than the fried pickles, but whatever. Look at that. Topped with a piece of meringue and just… love. Oh, I actually also asked the guy working the counter if the banana pudding was any good, and he said “Hmmm, it’s good when it’s fresh, let me check for you,” and he disappeared into the back to test if it was fresh. Funny because I always hear that banana pudding is better the longer it sits (for the Nilla wafers to soften, and the banana flavor to permeate what is usually vanilla pudding)… He came back to tell me that it was fresh, do I want it? Uh, YEAH!!!
And oh my word, I didn’t eat more than three bites of this (I took the rest to go), but damn that was good. Even bites without a banana slice in it tasted like banana, and it was airy, light, fluffy, and just wonderful. The meringue was interesting, but I didn’t think it was necessary… just a bit gilding the lily at that point, but it wasn’t unappreciated!
Then I rolled myself up the stairs into the bright sunlight, and set about exploring Chapel Hill for the day…
Yvo says: The above meal cost me $13 and change, and that’s because I’m a pig and way over-ordered. You could easily get just that sandwich and be totally satisfied and happy, or any of their amazing-sounding specials (chopped pork salad for $6.95)… They even have a dish that uses pulled pork from Bullock’s over in Durham. I love this place – not just for its awesome prices, but for the great food (even though I didn’t like the fried pickles that much), the friendly service, and laidback atmosphere. If I worked in that building, I would get so, so overweight…