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DISH ON DINING: 'Meat and 2,' as only chef Jesse can spin it

Diner Jan Darnell shows off a plate of jerk chicken, smoked cheddar mac’n’cheese and black-eyed pea frijoles charros. Diner Jan Darnell shows off a plate of jerk chicken, smoked cheddar mac’n’cheese and black-eyed pea frijoles charros.

Known for her creative and bold renderings of appetizers, tapas and entrees, Jesse Roque at first surprises with the newest chapter in her varied cooking portfolio.


Walk into Madame Roque’s Meat Emporium and Pickled Curiosités and you see a standard meat-and-three setup — except the meat is roasted on site and the vegetables don't come from a No. 10 can.
One day last week the meat choices were mojo braised pork butt, house-jerked chicken and grilled chicken thighs, slow-cooked pork ribs and chopped beef brisket. Turning to the veggies made it clear this is not your mother’s sideboard: smoked cheddar mac’n’cheese, black-eyed pea frijoles charros, garlic-tamari glazed Brussels sprouts, cowboy barbecue pasta salad, sweet and smoky Vidalia onion salad and apple fennel slaw.
Diners order meat and sides, cafeteria style, and carry it to a table. Roque says the basic approach should not surprise anyone.
“People that know me know how simple I am,” she says. “I’ve been cultivating this idea for 15 years.”
As one would expect from an award-winning cook — she was the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Chef of the Year in 2016 — the roasted meats are delicious and the sides savory. And it’s affordable, given the going price set on Main Street during our recent foodie surge. A meat and two is $10.50-11.50; four sides costs $9. The adventurous can spice up their tacos with seven salsa flavors, mild to hot, fruity or not. Beverages include $6 Margaritas, house wine ($3.50), draft beer ($4) and soft drinks ($1-2.50).

No longer ‘boxed in’

When the former Jongo Java space opened up, Roque jumped at the chance to expand her culinary boundaries and market her meat-roasting talent. After a total makeover of the interior, Madame Roque’s opened in late September.
DSC 0009A mural of chef Jesse Roque greets diners at her new Meat Emporium on South Main Street.“It’s a changing menu because I feel like I got boxed in at Never Blue,” she says. People loved her menu so much that they freaked out when she took something away. Her keep-it-simple approach at the Meat Emporium has a corollary in the the workplace culture she’s striving for. It’s open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, so the cooks, dishwashers and servers can have a life outside the dining room.
“I want happy people in here that want to come to work for me,” she says.
The vibe in the Meat Emporium sustains Roque’s signature sense of fun that pervades Never Blue next door. Local artists did the paintings. Roque’s friend Beverly Russell Baldwin painted a wall portrait of the chef, her wild blonde tresses piled high against a backdrop of hibiscus blossoms, tarot symbols and a dragonfly. The cafeteria style service cuts down on labor and also makes for an affordable plate.
“I did it because I believe it is the wave of the future,” she says, “and I think we’re coming to the point where dining out is a novelty and not a necessity. I think people are looking for inexpensive high quality foods that have broad flavors.”
The broad flavors include Roque’s assortment of pickle "curiosités," from garlic dill to Dragon’s Tongue beans and Thai lemon-grass pickled lotus root.

Tarot and tattoos

The two companion sidelines in the new venture sound as unconventional as the award-winning “adventure tacos” she made for a state competition, filled with chapulines, or crickets. If tarot reading and a tattoo studio look like a playful addition to the dining room, know that Roque is serious about both.
“I love the art form of tattoos. I love that people can tell a story with the art they have on their body,” she says.
If you ask Roque what story her tattoos tell be prepared for an unexpected and poignant answer.
“My brother was killed in an accident by a hemlock tree in Mount Rainier National Park,” she says. Jason, a younger brother and her only sibling, was vacationing with his wife on their first wedding anniversary in 2001 when the freak accident happened. He was 24. The tattoo on her forearm, she says, ensures that Jason is always with her.
Starting Nov. 21, Danielle Trieger, “a pretty famous artist from California,” becomes the in-house tattooist. The tattoo rooms in the rear of the narrow and deep space are bright and airy.
“What we’re trying to do is to dispel that reputation” of a grimy backroom, she says. “My dad is a microbiologist. We have been working very closely with the health department. We will run a pristine immaculate tattoo operation out of here.”
Patrons can also make an appointment for a tarot reading, another of Roque’s passions.
It’s hard to believe but Never Blue has been around for 11 years, its popularity drawing foot traffic south of the Historic Courthouse. It can be hard to get in the place. Madame Roque’s second act on South Main offers diners a different taste of the chef’s creative gifts and, for a little while at least, a shorter wait.

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Madame Roque’s Meat Emporium and Pickled Curiosités, at 117 S. Main St., is open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. A daily menu is posted on the Emporium’s Facebook page.