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Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. Look at a map of

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Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series. Look at a map of

Murphy to Manteo: Finding new adventures, historic detours, and the soul of North Carolina on the state’s longest highway: U.S. Route 64. Read the series.

Look at a map of our state and you’ll see: U.S. Highway 64 is North Carolina’s lifeline, winding and wandering through communities that its mighty interstate cousins simply zip right past. Our longest highway, 64 cuts a path clear across the state, carrying travelers from the Tennessee state line 604 miles east to the Outer Banks. But this is no boring stretch of blacktop. It doesn’t just ferry you from place to place, fading into the background of a road trip. It shows you the very heart of North Carolina — the way you imagine it’s always been, the way travelers might have seen it decades, even centuries, ago. As it winds past breathtaking mountain overlooks and rushing waterfalls; over the rise and fall of the foothills and past peaceful Piedmont pastures; through tiny towns and our buzzing state capital; and across Croatan Sound to the wild wonder of the Outer Banks, 64 practically begs you to pull over. To explore. Right here — wherever “here” is at any given moment.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of that as I drove along Highway 64 near my home in Cary. Several days a week, I travel 64 — for about five minutes, to get to my workout class in a shopping center. One day last year, having arrived early, I popped into Asali Desserts & Cafe a few doors down. Inside, a glass case beckoned with delicate phyllo desserts: flaky, golden baklava and kullaj glazed with sweet homemade syrup and sprinkled with crushed pistachios; lady bracelets and lady fingers. There were tarts topped with toasted almonds, with crushed dates on chocolate ganache, or with creamy dark chocolate-and-tahini ganache. Baklava cheesecake and kenafa creams, pastries made with crispy, shredded, sugar-soaked … wait, what workout?

People buy treats at Asali in Cary, North Carolina.

When they started Asali in 2001, the husband-and-wife owners combined their last names, Asad and Ali, to name their bakery. As it happens, asali roughly translates to “sweets” and “honey” in both Arabic and Persian. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

The rows of elegant Middle Eastern sweets gave me a feeling that was hard to articulate, and it wasn’t just my stomach growling — although, yes, I was pregnant for the first time and pretty much always craving a treat. But it was more than that.

On the most mundane of days, I’d discovered a little moment of wonder along my own tiny slice of Highway 64, which I’d been driving for months without even a thought beyond my own bubble. It was the same feeling that I got when I traveled internationally: a somewhat surprising realization that there’s so much more out there, outside of my own routine, my own habits. There are places I’ve never seen, new experiences to have, new flavors to taste.

Lately, I’d been keenly aware that I was soon going to be tethered. In a way, I already was, spending weekends that my husband, Alex, and I once used for spontaneous day trips and weekends away to paint our nursery and organize drawers. Even as I felt the need to nest, I also had an urge to explore, to cast off. I found myself daydreaming about all the trips I’d taken to far-off places over the years: Kenya, Iceland, Chile, and Switzerland. Italy, Costa Rica, Spain, and Canada. How long might it be until I’d take another?

Asali was proof that even without a plane ticket, I could find adventure any day. That I could satisfy a bit of wanderlust in my own backyard. I decided that the café would be stop No. 1 on an international food tour of my own city. Lucky for me, my city happens to be the perfect place for such a quest.

• • •

Cary has long been jokingly nicknamed the “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees,” but it’s also home to an ever-growing international population thanks to the city’s proximity to Research Triangle Park, a booming tech industry, and prominent universities. In 2022, 24.9 percent of Cary residents were born outside of the U.S. — a number 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

A drive around the city readily reveals these worldly influences on the local food scene. Asian, African, Indian, Mexican, and Mediterranean grocery stores and markets seem to outnumber Food Lions and Harris Teeters. Dozens upon dozens of no-frills international restaurants peek out from unassuming strip malls and shopping centers, their signs easy to miss but their parking lots and waiting lists always full.

As I began my journey, I challenged myself to try new dishes and to venture into the places I’d passed a hundred times and always promised to visit. At Bosphorus, a Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant, I dipped cigar bourek — feta cheese and parsley wrapped in phyllo and then fried — into marinara sauce and tore off pieces of lamb pide, a Turkish pizza made on an oval-shaped, wood-fired flatbread. I could have eaten the simple, sesame seed-topped pide that arrived at the beginning of the meal all by myself — if Alex hadn’t insisted that I share.

At Kababish Cafe, which serves Indian and Pakistani food, I fell in love with papadam — impossibly light, crispy, flavorful wafers that taste amazing dipped into anything saucy — like chicken makhani, a creamy, spiced tomato gravy served over basmati rice.

At Himalayan Nepali Cuisine, where meals start with a cup of ginger tea, I tucked into chicken momo, steamed dumplings that serve as a popular comfort food in Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of India.

And at Annelore’s German Bakery, where pastries are made using ancestral recipes handed down for several generations, I savored the Bee Sting cake — triple Bavarian cream sandwiched between two layers of yeast cake and topped with honey-caramelized almonds.

At each stop along the way, I was surprised — by the fact that all of this had been hiding in plain sight, by the incredible flavors, by the friendly people who’ve made their home right here in North Carolina, where they share a taste of the world.

I didn’t want the discoveries to end. I pulled up a map on my phone and marked the spot where my quest had begun: that little café on Highway 64 in Cary. Then I zoomed out, tracing the road’s undulating path west to the Smokies, east to the Outer Banks. As it turns out, in North Carolina, a passionate traveler can find new adventures right outside her door — right here. All it takes is a little drive.

Click here for our full guide to 13 international eateries in Cary that let you eat your way around the world.

Asali Desserts & Cafe
107 Edinburgh South Drive, Suite 106-A
(919) 362-7882

329 North Harrison Avenue, Suite A
(919) 460-1300

Kababish Cafe
201 West Chatham Street, No. 103
(919) 377-8794

Himalayan Nepali Cuisine
746 East Chatham Street
(919) 466-0550

Annelore’s German Bakery
308 West Chatham Street
(919) 267-6846

Find our guide to U.S. Highway 64 at ourstate.com/murphytomanteo.

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This story was published on Dec 19, 2023

Katie Schanze

Katie Schanze is an associate editor and digital content editor at Our State.