Hidden Gems Worth Finding

The signature Bottledog is crowned with hot chicken, Montreal smoked meat, fried jalapenos and yellow mustard.

What qualifies as a hidden gem? Answer: A place where GPS doesn’t correctly direct you.

We ventured out to two particular restaurants in Cary, both situated in somewhat obscure locales, and found them equally challenging to find. The next spot we visited was considerably easier to pinpoint, but chances are good that you have driven by dozens of times and never noticed it.

Here’s the lowdown on three distinctive, locally owned eateries that are worth the effort to seek and find.

BottleDog Bites & Brews

If you’re looking for a casual place to relax and enjoy unconventional food and craft beer, check out this tucked-away hangout. If you see Woody’s Sports Tavern and Maximillians Grill, you’re in the right neighborhood.

Flatbread pizzas come in 16 varieties, including the Edgy Veggie.

Billing itself as a hybrid bottle-shop-and-bar concept, BottleDog offers a dozen rotating taps and more than 60 thoughtfully curated beers to purchase for takeaway. The bottle shop offers an impressive selection of stouts, porters, Pilsners, lagers and German-style Kolsch.

“We specialize in rare and hard-to-find beers in bottles and on draft,” said bar manager Justin “Oz” Dee, a former craft beer brewer, originally from Rhode Island. “We are one of the few bottle shops in the area that carries Dssolvr beer from a brewery out of Asheville. We also get a lot of limited-edition items from purveyors like Jester King, Clown Shoes and Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project.”

BottleDog has about a dozen beers on tap and carries hard-to-find brews in bottles or cans.

When it comes to edibles, you’ll find out-of-the-box offerings like Canadian poutine, bacon-wrapped hot dogs and Nepalese dumplings, a nod to proprietor Ram Thapa’s birthplace.

BottleDog does the Great White North proud with its rendition of poutine — crispy french fries, brown gravy and cheese curds. You can’t go wrong with any of the five specialty poutines, but we recommend the Quebecois with dill pickles and Montreal meat, a salt-braised crossbreed of corned beef and pastrami.

The hot chicken sandwich is so good you’ll think you’re eating in Nashville. It consists of a tender, fried chicken breast with creamy coleslaw and dill pickles nestled in a Neomonde-baked bun. Your lips may tingle a bit during consumption, but the spice level is just right.

In the poutine Quebecois, crispy french fries are topped with brown gravy, cheese curds, dill pickles and Montreal meat.

Sixteen varieties of flatbread pizzas are accessible, including Hawaiian Redneck, featuring pineapple, barbecue sauce and cured ham; Tuscany, with pesto sauce and grilled chicken; and the Edgy Veggie, laden with mushrooms and green peppers.

While you’re there, play some darts, billiards or even a board game.

Open six days a week, BottleDog is closed on Mondays. Call or visit the website for current hours. Dogs – and people – are welcome on the outdoor patio.

8306 Chapel Hill Road, Cary
(919) 390-1617

A Taste of Jamaica

Whenever you meet Faith Stewart, owner of this humble cafe near Chatham Square, you can’t help but be taken by her vibrant smile and infectious laugh.

Stewart emigrated from Jamaica to the United States more than 25 years ago, taking a job with a major airline. Ultimately, she decided to open a Jamaican food outpost in 2012.

Today, from a kitchen with timeworn pots and pans, Stewart devotedly churns out heaping plates of jerk chicken, curried shrimp, oxtail and other specialties from her Caribbean island homeland.

“I have a passion for cooking and want to share it with others,” she said. “People come to this restaurant from all over, places like Sanford and Fayetteville, which makes me very happy.”

One loyal customer is John Peaks from Durham, who on the day we arrived for a photo shoot was waiting outside with anticipation after placing his takeout order.

“This is the best Jamaican food anywhere around here,” Peaks said with a broad grin. “The jerk chicken is my favorite, and the sauce that comes with it is sweet but has a nice kick to it.”

In the kitchen of A Taste of Jamaica, Faith Stewart cooks up traditional island specialties like jerk chicken, plantains, and rice and peas.

Feeling adventurous? Try the escovitch whole snapper (fried and topped with a spicy sauce and pickled vegetable medley), brown stew fish or Callaloo saltfish. Order some fried plantains to accompany your entree.

A sparkling clean yet no-frills dining room contains seating for 43 guests.

Food is made to order, so when you go, don’t be in a hurry. It’s definitely worth the wait.

Be sure to grab a refreshing sorrel drink, a raspberry-like beverage made from hibiscus flowers.

“We add ginger and sweeten it with cane sugar,” Stewart said.

A Taste of Jamaica is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner with continual service each day.

600 East Chatham St., Suite B, Cary
(919) 461-0045

Mamma Mia Italian Bistro

Regulars who have discovered Mamma Mia may consider it the best kept secret in Apex.

There’s a lot to love about this underrated bistro, but it all starts with textbook hospitality.

The chopped salad comes with roasted red peppers, cucumber, red onion, tomatoes and Gorgonzola cheese tossed in a creamy Italian dressing.

Hailing from Naples, Italy, chef/co-owner Ciro Formisano and his daughter Lea call guests by name as they enter the restaurant. On the day we visited, the owners introduced us to Robert Assante, an Apex resident who was enjoying an early lunch.

“This is a family-owned restaurant with great food and excellent service,” Assante said, adding that he’s been coming to Mamma Mia since it opened some 16 years ago.

Daily chef’s specials include dishes like braised pork shank, served with spinach.

The warmth experienced in the front of the house is matched by inspired dishes coming from the kitchen. Not only will you find a menu teeming with classic Italian dishes like chicken cacciatore, veal saltimbocca or eggplant Parmigiana, but also specialties such as braised pork shank and braciole flank steak stuffed with roast peppers, ham and fresh basil.

“We source local ingredients whenever possible,” said Lea Formisano, a co-proprietor, as Italian music played softly overhead. “We also offer daily food specials.”

One popular promotion is the family dinner, which includes protein-laden pasta, bread and salad for four people. A daily lunch special offers two giant slices of pizza and a drink for under $7.

Ciro Formisano and his daughter Lea welcome diners to Mamma Mia with warm hospitality.

If you’re in the mood for pizza, choose from among more than 20 toppings or select any of six tantalizing specialty pies. To feed a crowd, consider the “Big Mamma,” which comes with 32 slices cut into squares.

The open dining room features muted yellow walls with requisite Italian artwork and a mixture of banquettes and tables.

“We will be opening a second location in Holly Springs this fall,” Ciro Formisano said, adding that the pandemic may alter plans somewhat.

Don’t leave without trying the house-made ricotta cheesecake or a filled-on-order cannoli.

Classic Italian dishes include meatballs and tomato sauce.

Closed Sundays, Mamma Mia is open six days a week for lunch and dinner. Curbside pickup and delivery are available. The restaurant also accepts reservations.

708 Laura Duncan Road, Apex
(919) 363-2228

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