The word “curated” gets thrown around a lot these days: Everyone’s curating their Facebook posts, their tweeted links, their images on Instagram.
But the word really implies both expertise and discretion (it comes from the Latin curare, to “take care of”): a guiding, knowledgeable hand, selecting, organizing and presenting.
Owners Bonnie Warford and Tricia Maddrey pull that off with Earl’s Grocery: It’s a multifaceted food experience that’s personal, highly (but not exclusively) local and – hardest of all – fun. Among the facets, each with a twist:
▪ An order-at-the-counter eatery – but with a creative, if tightly bounded, menu from chef Marc Jacksina (Nathan’s beef dog with green tomato chowchow, or pineapple salsa! Korean barbecue pork belly tacos! Spicy watermelon gazpacho!), and cashiers who know all about its components.
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▪ A coffee/bakery/juice bar – but with 99-cent chocolate stout minicakes and $3.49 cardamom-scented-cream puffs in the cases among the cheesecakes and the cookies. (And some seriously crazed doughnuts: Pop Rock-topped, anyone? Expect a dedicated doughnut fryer in the near future.) All but the raw/vegan tarts are made in-house.
▪ Serve-yourself areas – but offering up stuff like balsamic vinegars in vats, seasonings in tins, imported pastas in lidded pots, and pickled things (housemade bread-and-butter ones and “angry cukes” and preserved lemons). Visit that pickle bar quickly; it’s on the way out, says Warford, to make room for a bulked-up list of hard-to-get international items, from Tunisia and Greece and Raleigh’s Kitchens of Africa. (Side note: Of NYC blog The Gothamist’s list this week of 10 under-the-radar specialty foods, Warford says Earl’s has ... all 10.)
▪ A wonderfully peculiar array of foods to take out, both prepared and/or ready-to-eat (duck confit; Springer Mountain chicken, Peruvian-rotisserie style; all sorts of side dishes; cheeses, including Miyoko’s vegan ones, and high-end charcuterie; non-dairy ice creams) and ready to cook (pasta sauces, meatballs, Bunapi mushrooms, heat-and-serve mac and cheese with Anaheim chiles, Kräuterspätzle and condiments of all sorts).
▪ A little lineup of local produce tucked into a cooler – but broken down by item and farmer in a list on the window, with snap beans from Bell’s Best and Cherokee Purples from Kevin Helms.
▪ Periodic tastings – but of little local artisanal coffee roasters and chocolates and ginger beers.
Just listing the cheeses (current fave: Jasper Hill Moses Sleeper) and kombuchas and gluten-free items would be an exercise in idiosyncrasy (and name hilarity). You’ll have to trust that it’s worth a long browse.
But as to the order-and-sit-down-to-eat food:
Jacksina, a bit of a disrupter himself, followed through on a food-truck mentality for the menu, in entertaining fashion.
A burger proves beefily juicy, topped with caramelized onions and Swiss on good rye, and a daily grit bowl is similarly lusty, this day with crumbled chorizo, mouth-puckering chowchow and an egg. The hot dog’s a consistent winner, and salads run a short but vibrant gamut.
Supplement what you order with sides from the takeaway cases: kimchi collards, Moroccan cauliflower and carrot salad and goat pimento cheese are particular winners, but you must try the variations on deviled eggs, particularly a oolong-tea version whose smoothness will upend your expectation.
The place is just down the street from Warford and Maddrey’s longtime sit-down stalwart Carpe Diem. They’ve seized this opportunity to create something completely different, and it continues to evolve, under watchful eyes.
A multiplex of good things to eat, each aspect performing well.
1609 Elizabeth Ave.; 704-333-2757; www.earlsgrocery.com.
HITS: A daily grit bowl is irresistible; the “Burger Queen” drips with beefiness; servers have been unfailingly of good cheer and helpful.
MISSES: Flavors in the smoked farro salad are terrific but with kale leaf pieces so big, it’s a mess to eat; food service can slow to less than a crawl when it’s busy.
PRICES: Breakfast about $4-$7.50; lunch and dinner about $7-$9.
HOURS: Breakfast 8:30-11 a.m., lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-8 p.m. weekdays; brunch Saturday 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
INSPECTION SCORE: 95 Aug. 10.
☆☆☆☆= excellent; ☆☆☆= good;☆☆= fair;☆= poor