Bus Boys and Girls
Triad Touring Tasters, a mobile dining club, unites food lovers across the region
Photograph by Sam Froelich
It’s 5 o’clock and Serial Eater is out the door like a shot. We’ve got a bus to catch and don’t want to miss it. You see, this isn’t just any old run-of-the-mill bus but a special express — the Triple T Express.
Now, if you’re scratching your noggin, let us explain: Triple T stands for Triad Touring Tasters, a brand-new, mobile dining concept hatched by those brilliant gals of Triad Local First, Mary Lacklen and Luck Davidson.
You know Mary, of Bert’s Seafood and Libby Hill fame? These days, she’s running the beer garden out at Red Oak Brewery and still finds the time to pour her heart — and a whole lotta wine — at Triad Local First’s fundraiser and eat-fest, Community Table. And Luck? Well, Luck be a lady, no ifs about it. She’s the organization’s former executive director and current board member. Its mission, by the way, is to champion independent businesses and encourage folks to buy and eat local. But we digress. Back to the bus . . .
So, one day, Mary signed up for a dinner in downtown Winston-Salem arranged by food blogger Kristi Maier. “And I had just seen Matt Logan,” she says. (You know Matt, artist Connie Logan’s boy?) “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Matt gave us one of his buses for something similar?’”
Matt, who’s a financial consultant, says sometimes he and his wife (who used to work for Mary at Bert’s, by the way) come up with “weird” ideas. “We decided to buy a bus and donate it to nonprofits and their fundraisers,” he continues. Since then, he’s ferried folks to Corks for Kids Path, the ’do for Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro, and Community Tables (yep, that’s plural this time), the really big ’do that feeds Thanksgiving meals to the Gate City’s needy, courtesy of who else? Mary herself.
Well, once Mary thought of Matt’s bus as a way of transporting gourmands to and from various culinary spots in the Triad (a light bulb moment if ever there was one), she floated the idea by Luck, who was immediately taken with it. “We’ve got to foster these kinds of collaborations,” she enthused. And before you could say, “Please pass the biscuits,” here’s S.E., pulling into the parking lot of Zeto wine shop in downtown Greensboro for Triad Touring Tasters’ maiden voyage. Because if there’s one thing that rivals our love of food, it’s the company of other serial eaters — or in this case, “Tasters.” And everyone here is plenty excited about our destination: Willow’s Bistro just off the highway in the Brookstown area of Winston-Salem.
But first, a how d’ye do and a tipple. Mary and Luck and their sidekick Dunia Fleihan (you know, of the Ghassan’s family?) hand us those nifty little Vino Matic debit cards that you insert into this machine that’s a cross between a Keurig and a vending machine — only for wine. You just pick the bottle that appeals (for S.E., an Italian rosé and an Albariño); then you select the amount of each pour among three options, “Some. Some more. A lot,” jokes that stitch Paul Gibson, former Guilford County commissioner and booster of Triad Local First who’s with his sweet wife, Jane, a public support coordinator for hospice. She’s all smiles, as usual, and after telling S.E. about her latest projects, she extends a warm greeting to Bob Tapp, looking very sporty in a windowpane jacket and a chartreuse shirt.
And who’s this? Chip Callaway?! In a sling?
“How’d you hurt yourself?” asks Luck.
“Oh. Dancing with the Stars,” quips the garden guru. Beware the cha-cha, Chip!
He and his pal Fred fill some go-cups, because as Fred says, “If I have a designated driver, I’m going to enjoy this ride!” (Our hostesses with the mostesses thoughtfully buy a couple of bottles from Penny, the co-owner of Zeto.) Now, it’s time to board the Triple T Express.
And, oh! We’ve never seen a bus like this: Tricked out with comfy seats configured around the perimeter and lighting that’s neither too dark, nor too light, but just right, this is a living room on wheels!
“How cool would it be to have a succession of garden parties with this?” Chip muses.
Mary’s beau, Allen Odom, extols the virtues of a cast-iron skillet he bought at the Mast store in Winston-Salem’s Art District. S.E. couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to making cornbread.
“Anybody been to Willow’s?” asks Randy Barnes (he does website and photography for Triad Local First). “I’ve been there probably 25 times!” he laughs.
“Who wants wine?” Mary asks.
“Who needs another?” echoes Paul, when the bus lurches to a sudden stop.
Go-cups filled (and refilled), Mary thanks us and leads a round of applause and “woo-hoos” for Matt and the driver.
And hardly any time passes when we arrive at Willow’s. It’s in that long brick building just south of Biz 40 near Kaleidium Downtown (formerly the Children’s Museum) just before you get to Old Salem. The space inside is intimate, warm and inviting, with hardwood floors and a funky selection of art hanging on its exposed brick walls. Equally warm and inviting is our reception: Chef Travis Myers has dedicated a table, a congenial server named Michael and four-course menu just for the Tasters. Quite a feat when you consider this place is packed!
But Chef Travis is unfazed; crowds are the norm for Willow’s, as any Sunday brunch regular can tell you. His commitment to using the freshest of fresh ingredients from local farms has ’em beating down the doors. He’s wearing the jacket awarded him for preparing a nine-course feast for last year’s Community Table (you know, the eat-fest we mentioned earlier), and cordially greets us, explaining each course after Michael serves up beverages. First up: a salad of turnips, radish, beet greens and raw roots, courtesy of Harmony Ridge Farms, with a little Granny Smith and pancetta thrown in. Keeping with his mission of keeping it all fresh and local, Chef Travis has lightly swished it all in a deconstructed Dijon-and-Goat-Lady-Dairy vinaigrette.
Next comes smoked risotto in a pistou with a base of Fair Share Farm’s pea shoots and a sun-dried-tomato aioli on the side. Such an eye-catching presentation that everyone reaches for their smartphones and starts clicking.
All the while we’re chattering about the food, and just about anything else you can think of under the sun. Luck migrates to one the end of the table, Matt migrates to the other. And — hullo! — who should walk in but Carroll Leggett, Twin City food blogger and general man about town, who stops for a brief chat. That’s the beauty of this setup: Not only do you get to know your fellow traveling diners, you might also become acquainted with Triad residents who aren’t officially on the Tour. The more the merrier, we say.
Chef Travis returns to introduce the entrée and tour-de-force of the evening, light and flaky N.C. wreckfish (so called, Mary explains, because it’s found swimming among wrecks), in “chowder” with chunks of Smith Farm rutabaga, Fair Share Farm broccolini, and — who’d have thunk it? — hard salami. We all agree, it’s the best fish we’ve ever eaten.
But wait! There’s always room for dessert! Tonight, it’s Chef T.’s interpretation of banana cream pie. And no, not that gooey confection many of us Tar Heels call ’nanna puddin’ but an oh-so-light, elegant mélange of tiny banana cheesecake slices, vanilla wafer bits, toasted meringue and banana cream. Slurrrp! Well, didn’t Mama always tell us to clean our plates?
We applaud Chef Travis before taking our leave. And on the short ride back, savoring truffles from Greensboro’s Loco for Coco that Mary and Luck have thoughtfully provided, we deconstruct the evening and look to the next Tour: Libations at Greensboro’s Four Flocks and Larder followed by brunch at Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston. But, says Mary, “Not every Tour will start in Greensboro or end in Winston-Salem” The journey could just as easily flip these starting and finishing points.
“We’ve also got our eye on High Point, Kernersville, Asheboro,” Luck says. “Places that are easy to get to but it only takes one visit for people to realize it.” Nor will they all include fine dining spots. The Dynamic Duo of Triad Local First dreams about the possibilities: burger crawls, pizza joints, beer tastings, picnics. Maybe entertainment on the bus rides: how-to videos by the chefs, live tunes by a local musician, or a reading from someone like that Dodson fella, for example.
“I’d love for young people on budgets to participate,” says Mary.
“The sky’s the limit!” says Luck.
“Oh, this sling,” says an aggravated Chip. “Maybe I should switch to crepe de chine.”
We tumble out of the Triple T, exchange hugs and good-nights, and vow to reconvene for the next Tour. After all, this an idea with legs . . . or rather, wheels.
To learn more about Triad Touring Tasters, visit triadlocalfirst.org. For tickets: eventbrite.com.