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Durham, NC: Quick-fire reviews of five Bull City restaurants

The Turkey, Pear and Gorgonzola panino at Guglhupf Artisan Bakery in Durham, NC.
annie chen

Though I reside in Raleigh and primarily dine around here, I have been spending a good amount of time in Durham recently. And that means eating in Durham. I’ve had the opportunity to hit up some Durham-area restaurants--some spectacular, some okay and some bad. Check the reviews out.

1. Guglhupf Artisan Bakery

Every time I struggle to articulate the name of the Durham German-inspired café, I sound like I’ve been inflicted with a case of verbal diarrhea. But despite its abstruse moniker, Guglhupf is a must-try, an absolute gem of a restaurant in the Bull City. The café is a bakery meets restaurant meets treehouse. An assortment of sandwiches come flanked in between house-baked breads and the charchuterie plate is served with house-made artisanal meats. When you place your order at the counter, you might want to avert your gaze from the dessert selection or you might be tempted by the scrumptious gallery of coconut macaroons, chocolate chip cookies and crème brulee tarts.

I order the Turkey, Pear and Gorgonzola panino sandwich and a side of the cucumber salad and ascend the spiral staircase to the second floor seating (Guglhupf also boasts plentry of al fresco seating as well). The panino arrives and every bite is rewarding—the tartness of the pear and the creamy, saltiness of the gorgonzola intertwines to create a robust flavor with the heaping portion of house-roasted turkey. And the bread—nicely toasted and delicate, and yet still offers a bit of heft—is the perfect cap to the sandwich. The sidecar of the tangy cucumber salad, made with a slightly creamy dill yogurt dressing further escalates the experience. My only qualm leaving Guglhupf is that there’s not a location in Raleigh.

Guglhupf Artisan Bakery | 2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, Suite 1 |Durham, NC 27707 | 919.401.2600 | menu

2. Shanghai

Decent Chinese food is hard to find in the Triangle. When you find a place that serves good Chinese food (and by good, I do mean authentic or traditional), visit it as much as possible because the chef will likely flee from that restaurant’s kitchen in about six months any way. When I enter Shanghai with my family, I am hopeful, but wary. I have been burned many times.

Shanghai seems to want to please everyone—those that want the Americanized-Chinese standards like Kung Pao chicken and beef lo mein, and those that want something a bit more different. We don’t rock the boat too much and order the sautéed gai lan (Chinese broccoli), pork spare ribs, Home-style tofu, shrimp with scrambled eggs, and an order of Mongolian beef for safe measure. When the dishes arrive to the round table, anticipation meets disappointment. The portion-sizes err on the small size, especially for family-style dining and the dishes lack any vibrancy.

Everything rides the line of being just “okay” and never veers into the terrible territory. The gai lan? Decent. The home-style tofu? Nicely sauced and tastes decent. The pork ribs? Fried nicely and not too sinewy.

But the service? Pretty bad. After the dishes are ushered onto the table, the server practically vanishes despite the desolate dining room on a Saturday night and only returns when we arduously flag him down.

For my experience, Shanghai barely rises above mediocre. It’ll do in a pinch, but if you have more than a pinch, I’d go elsewhere for the money.

Shanghai | 3433 Hillsborough Road Durham, NC 27705 | 919.383.7581

3. Koumi

Koumi is that kind of restaurant that is great for what is—Japanese fast food. Thai and Vietnamese offerings were recently added to the menu, but my brief visit to Koumi consisted only of trying its Hibachi Chicken. Its version practically whisked me back to my college days where I practically survived on Styrofoam trays toppled with marinated meats, sweet carrots and fried rice. Koumi’s version of the Hibachi classic doesn’t disappoint. The heaping portion of each entrée, served with fried rice, sautéed zucchini, onion, mushrooms and broccoli will do its best to challenge your waistline. You would be wise to dunk each sweet carrot coin in the shrimp sauce too—the sweet and savory combination was practically made for each other. At $6.39 before tax, the Hibachi Chicken is a steal. Plus, Koumi has a drive-thru and at the same price as a McDonald’s combo meal, it’s a no-brainer.

The word has obviously snaked its way through Durham too. On a Saturday afternoon at 2 o’clock, the dining room was jam-packed with diners. We sit waiting a while for our food to arrive, so long that an employee came over to preemptively apologize, citing that “they were slammed”.

The quality of the food later squanders any ill-will. Koumi not only serves Japanese fast-food style entrees, but sushi as well. Some may scoff at the quality of the sushi at caliber of restaurant of Koumi, but supposedly it’s actually quite good. I’ll be back to try the Thai and Vietnamese fare later on when I’m in the area, but for Japanese fast-food, Koumi is the bee’s knees.

Koumi | 3550 North Roxboro Street Durham 27704 | 919.381.5753 | menu

4. Smashburger

The burger at Smashburger, unfortunately, does not live up to its braggadocious name (though I know the “smash” refers to the method of prepping the burger). Smashburger claims that they emanate burger soul, but that soul remains elusive to me. The menu is appealingly simple—burgers, salads, fries and milkshakes. The prices are quite reasonable too. The problem is that the burgers lack any discerning qualities that escalate the fare from beyond being “just okay”.

I tried the Avocado Club chicken sandwich and it was good—moist chicken, nice breading, with several slices of avocado. The bacon took the saltiness over the top.

Fries at Smashburger come in several varieties—Smashfries, French fries, and sweet potato fries. The Smashfries are tossed with rosemary, garlic and olive oil and make for a great companion to the burger.

Smashburger is one of those places that won’t disappoint, but also won’t supersede any expectations as well. As long as you expect a little sizzle with the “smash”, you’ll be fine dining at Smashburger in Durham.

Smashburger | 2608 Erwin Road Durham 27705 | 919.237.1070 | menu

5. Cosmic Cantina

Full disclosure: I used to eat the Franklin Street/Chapel-Hill location of Cosmic Cantina when I was in college probably close to once a week. Oddly enough, I never made it the location off Ninth Street in Durham. I rectified this misdeed just recently. The Durham location of Cosmic Cantina takes diners upstairs to the second level in a no-frills, but cozy space.

The food remains at the same college-friendly prices. Upgrading burritos to “Giant” or “Deluxe” (guacamole and sour cream) will set you back a little more. My chicken burrito had one noticeable difference though from prior experiences. The saltiness was overpowering. I checked with my dining companions to see if my taste buds were deceiving me and sure enough, they each said the same thing. Someone in the kitchen may have been a little too heavy-handed with the salt that night.
Still, the burrito was good. The ample amount of chicken, beans and rice were cocooned tightly in the soft tortilla. Chips and salsa were serviceable, though the salsa lacked any robustness.

If burritos don’t tickle your fancy, Cosmic Cantina offers a variety of tacos, chimichangas, salads and quesadillas as well. Though, if you take a quick look around, you’ll immediately recognize that the burritos are the star attractions.

One other thing—Cosmic Cantina is open until 4 a.m. Perfect for those late night burrito hunger pangs.

Cosmic Cantina | 1920 Perry Street Durham 27705 | 919.286.1875 | menu

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