Restaurant Profile: Café 121

Gregg Hamm, chef-owner of downtown Cary’s Café 121, thrives on creating opportunities to benefit others.

Consider the path he’s taken since growing up in Alleghany County in the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounded by family members who loved to cook. Hamm attended the well-regarded Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C.

Following graduation, he taught hospitality and culinary arts at Lee County High School for more than 12 years.

In 2008, he opened the original Café 121 in downtown Sanford. The award-winning eatery has become a favorite with locals.

Café 121 is among downtown Cary’s newest quality dining destinations, offering wine by the glass or bottle

“I was motivated to open the first restaurant because my students had such a passion for cooking and serving quality cuisine,” the Sanford resident explained. “The café gave them a place to use their talents, and many of my former students still work there today.”

Hamm also mentors apprentices by serving as chair of the Hospitality and Culinary Arts program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro.

The Cary location of Café 121, which opened in February, is the latest venture for the busy chef.

“Opening the Cary restaurant is similar to what happened in Sanford, because it also came about during a time of downtown renovation,” the 20-year veteran chef said. “Customers there had to walk across boards to get to the café. That’s comparable to what’s going on here on Chatham Street with the theater restoration project next door.”

So far, Cary patrons have found much to like about Café 121, a destination that churns out traditional American fare with some Asian influences. Lunch is served each weekday, with brunch on the weekends. Dinner service is available Thursday through Saturday.

An inviting, casual décor features fresh flowers on each table and local artwork exhibited on vibrant-hued walls.

“We are not a fine dining establishment, but we do give our customers a nice ambiance to enjoy a good meal,” Hamm said.

Cafe 121 has American classics with an Asian flair, like crab rangoons, and local artwork on display.

In the evening, tempting tapas like the crab rangoons (lightly fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese and crabmeat) and frazolis (cheese-filled ravioli with homemade alfredo sauce) help get things off to a good start. 

Among the impressive signature dinner entrées include the must-order Jala-ribeye, a 16-ounce steak heaped with scratch-made jalapeño-infused pimento cheese.

“I use a lot of pan-searing cooking methods,” said Hamm. “The ribeye is cooked Pittsburgh-style, which gives it a crisp exterior and a nice, red interior.”

Other winning options are Asian pan-seared tuna prepared medium rare and drizzled with a sweet glaze, and grilled chicken Florentine, which encompasses two free-range chicken breasts crowned with sautéed spinach, crumbled bacon, mozzarella cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

Dinner entrées are served with two sides (don’t miss the fried green beans or the cranberry salad). Prices range from $16.21 to $21.21.

At lunchtime, you’ll find a widespread offering of gourmet sandwiches, burgers, wraps, soups and fresh salads. What’s more, the average outlay for the midday meal is an attractive $7.21 to 8.21.

Chef Gregg Hamm hoists several tempting culinary creations, including his signature Jala-ribeye steak.

“Our salads are what we are known for at lunch,” said Hamm. “We source our vegetables locally, and all our dressings are homemade.”

Nearly 20 made-to-order salad selections give you plenty to contemplate. Standouts include a sautéed shrimp salad with spinach, feta cheese, roasted red peppers, crispy noodles and a light Asian dressing; Vineyard with cucumbers, green apples, walnuts, grilled chicken and honey mustard dressing; and Strawberry Fields with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, carrots, sliced strawberries, pecans and a honey balsamic dressing.

If you prefer a sandwich instead, the can’t-go-wrong choice is the cranberry turkey. It features sliced meat with delectable cranberry cream cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions on wheatberry bread. Even better, go with the pimento cheese.

“We grate the cheese ourselves and make it with Duke’s mayonnaise,” Hamm revealed.

Seeking to satisfy your sweet tooth? Choose from in-house crafted desserts like chocolate chip pecan pie, mango cheesecake and cold-oven pound cake. Dessert options change regularly.

Weekend brunch provides the opportunity to enjoy everything from eggs Benedict and jumbo pancakes to omelet creations and a farmer’s platter.

“We also offer some of most popular salads and sandwiches at brunch,” Hamm said. The meal will only set you back between $8.21 and $9.81.

Future plans call for adding outdoor seating once the sidewalks are completed. Café 121 is available for private parties, corporate luncheons and other special occasions.

“We also offer catering services and meals on the run, which are dinners to go,” Hamm said.

Café 121
140 E. Chatham St., Cary
(919) 468-9884

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