Skip to main content

Triangle Downtowner Magazine

Pharaoh's American Grill

Jul 01, 2015 03:30PM ● By Parker Martin

Pharaoh's Ramses Dog

I suspect that George McNeill added the words “An American Grill” to the door of Pharaoh’s at the NC Museum of History so as not to confuse people who would otherwise expect steaming bowls of tangine or shawarma-filled pitas. No, the name (and the pharaoh busts at each booth) is the closest you’ll get to anything from Egypt. Pharaoh’s is southern comfort food, sourcing almost all of its ingredients several thousand miles west of the Nile, from the good people of Wake County and surrounding areas.

As a child, George started making homemade orangeade at the soda fountain in McNeill’s Pharmacy of Whiteville, NC before he could even see over the counter. George beams, “We’ve been making orangeade since before Custer’s Last Stand!” And it’s a true statement. The pharmacy is the oldest in the state, founded in 1875, and his dad, John McNeill, still runs the fountain in Whiteville, NC at age 97. Hard work runs deep in the McNeill blood. What I’m getting at is…you should really go try the Orangeade ($2.69/16 oz.). They’ve had a few years to perfect it, and perfection is what it is. I’m told that the Valencias haven’t made their way up north yet and they make an even better orangeade than regular oranges, but I don’t believe it. The fresh-squeezed Navels have already made the best-ever fountain drink I’ve had the opportunity to try, and if it gets even better, I may keel over and die from excitement. And ice-fiends, I have your fix: Pharaoh’s uses nugget ice, the kind that is soft and easy to chew, a.k.a. THE BEST ICE EVER. The tagline on the Pharaoh’s t-shirt actually reads, “It’s all about the ice” and they mean it!

So, the million-dollar question…why Pharaoh’s? “Pharaoh is one of the most recognizable names in the entire world. Plus it’s a lot more memorable than George’s,” says McNeill with a laugh.

George McNeill is a man of many talents. Antique dealer, interior decorator, world-traveler, philanthropist, and restaurateur…seriously, those are just a few of the things this man has on his resumé. (I would need another article to go into this jack-of-all-trades.) He opened up the original Pharaoh’s in North Hills in 2001, and was so successful that Pharaoh’s at the Museum came to be in 2011. You’ll find it located on the bottom floor of the North Carolina Museum of History, across from the Legislative Building. For a place that’s rather hidden, it’s not a well-kept secret; the line is long, yet constantly moving. People can take their food outside to the tables when the weather is nice, or they can enjoy George’s fun sense of style and dine inside in the retro red, glittery pleather booths complete with replicas of King Tut’s golden mask. It’s a fact: Milkshakes ($3.99) taste better when you’re under a tin ceiling. Try the chocolate—it’s the tastiest way to make sure you’re hitting the dairy part of the food pyramid.

We started with The Mummy ($5.29), a bacon cheeseburger served with your choice of condiments. The third-pound beef burgers are freshly ground in-house and grilled to order. (I love biting into a hamburger and having juices drip down my chin; that’s the hallmark of a good burger in my book) George is extremely proud of his bacon, as he should be. It has just the right amount of thickness, not too thin to get lost in a sandwich, not too thick to overtake it. It’s cooked just right, and that is a feat in and of itself. There’s no wimpy, limp bacon here, nor is there bitter bacon-brittle. If you have good bacon and mayonnaise, you can take over the world.

Speaking of good bacon, try it in the Guacamole Melt ($9.99, comes with a side and drink). Currently a special, it’s about to move up into a permanent spot on the menu due to its over-whelming popularity. This is not the grilled cheese your mama made you—imagine two slices of hearty 12-grain bread cradling cheddar, bacon, guacamole, and tomatoes before hitting the grill. You have that in your head? Now be jealous that I got to have that in my mouth in real life. You can be the envy of your friends by ordering one, too. Vegetarians, go ahead and order this without the bacon. You can be the envy of your friends, too!

What side to order? GET THE FRIES! ($2.59 for a side order). You’re not going to believe me when I say these French fries are some of the best I’ve ever eaten, especially when I tell you they’re crinkle-cut. I know…blasphemy, you say! You can’t tell by looking at them just how crisp and delicious they really are. This is unheard of with a crinkle-cut. These are not the sad, soggy, frozen school cafeteria fries of yore. Please, please, please, if you do nothing else this year, go to Pharaoh’s and order the fries. This fry snob takes back everything she’s ever said about crinkle-cut fries. In the right hands with the right oil, they can be magical. George tells us they’re the most expensive fries he can order and are made specifically to not soak up much oil. I’m a believer!

Okay, do you love onion rings? Of course you do! This is America! Pharaoh’s Onion Rings ($3.99) are like no other: super crispy and not greasy. I have no idea how they do it, but it gets done. It’s amazing; they don’t sag when you pick them up. I feel the proper preparation of an onion ring should be one of the first criteria for earning a Michelin Star. Lots of restaurants put crazy things on their menus (many of these I love!), but you have to be able to do simple, unpretentious things right. This is what Pharaoh’s excels at. If you didn’t know that crinkle-cut fries or onion rings could be more, you are missing out. I once was lost, but now am found. By an onion ring.

Pharaoh’s Famous Philly Cheesesteak ($7.99) is definitely deserving of the name. Look, I don’t want to say that someone in Raleigh is pumping out better cheesesteaks than the town that invented cheesesteaks, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t pro-claimed via emphatic moans that this was the best cheesesteak I’ve ever eaten. You know how the bread gets all soft once the beef gets its beefiness all over it? And then you get those soft, grilled peppers, onions, and mushrooms on top? Before adding some white American? AND MAYO? Dear Lord, if I die of a heart attack while eating one of these every day for the rest of my life, I hope I come back as a food writer in Raleigh so I can do it all over again.

So yeah, back to mayo. I-heart-mayonnaise-based-salads. I love bragging that I had salad for lunch, even if it consists of meat bound together by mayo. Makes me sound like I am making good life choices every day around noon. Treat yourself to George’s mom’s recipe, known today as Pharaoh’s Famous Chicken Salad ($6.99). They have sold over three million pounds of this stuff since they opened. That’s how many pounds I want to eat of it. Try it on wheat bread with lettuce and tomato, or if you are going grain-free, atop a bed of lettuce. It’s the kind of chicken salad that will remind you of your grandma. Who doesn’t love grandma food-associations? Unless your grandma was one of those sprout-sandwich type of women. Then you should go to Pharaoh’s and taste what my grandma would have fixed for lunch. It will be better.

“But, I don’t have an undying love for mayonnaise like you, Christy!” you cry. Boo on you! That’s un-American! But I understand different strokes for different folks, so maybe you want to try the Cuban Sandwich ($7.99). It comes filled with seasoned pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and lots of yellow mustard. You could probably ask for mayonnaise, but it’s crazy good on its own. You know I mean it when there’s no mayo or bacon involved.

One of the most filling things you’re going to eat for your buck is the Ramses Dog ($3.59). You won’t even be able to find the all-beef hot dog at f rst glance; it’s completely covered by fresh grilled mushrooms and onions. All of this sits on top of a couple of slices of Swiss and…wait for it…mayonnaise! The bun gets extra-soft and delightfully greasy from all those toppings. It’s fantastic. It’s beautiful. It’s the reason we have terms like “food porn.”

Don’t leave without dessert! You can add a Funnel Cake to any combo for $2.79 ($4.79 a la carte). You don’t need to wait for the State Fair to roll around again to get your fix. George is big on crispiness (see: fries, onion rings) and a Pharaoh’s funnel cake will stand up to whatever toppings you put on it. “If we have it behind the counter, we’ll put it on!” George professes. Ours was massive, covered in powdered sugar, chocolate syrup, and chunky homemade strawberry compote. It’s too big for one person, so grab a friend (or three) and dig in. Unless the funnel cake is your meal. I don’t judge. I eat too much mayonnaise to judge anyone.

You’ll find it obvious upon meeting him that George McNeill is truly a very personable and generous man. While we were there licking chocolate syrup off our fingers, a longtime customer came over to brag on him about the time he fed a group of school children who had traveled a great distance to visit Raleigh and were outside in the cold. After listening to her recount the tale, he shakes his head modestly. “I just can’t stand to see a child go hungry. I’m very passionate about that,” he says. “That’s something I got from my mom…and my legs.”