Critics' Picks: Food and Drink

Best of Charlotte 2017

Get your arguing pants on, foodies. Here's the topic we always take the most heat for, so just cool your jets already and hopefully you'll learn about some spots you haven't checked out yet. Here's our favorites in Charlotte's culinary world...

Gabija Janceviciute in the kitchen at La Piccola Gabbia. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Gabija Janceviciute in the kitchen at La Piccola Gabbia. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Best Pastry Shop - La Piccola Gabbia

Tucked away back behind the new Common Market on Monroe Road, you'll find Gabija Janceviciute working away at her wonderful works of pastry in a kitchen she rents from fellow pastry chef and mentor Josie Perlmutter. The space is no "little cage" — which is what her company name translates to in English — but has allowed her to grow from showing up at stores with samples when she launched in September 2016 to delivering directly to 14 locations around Charlotte and ready for more growth. Find her delicious morsels at locations like Reid's Fine Foods, Pasta & Provisions and Coco and the Director.

Best Breakfast - LittleSpoon

At littleSpoon, the juice is fresh-squeezed, the coffee is served by the bowlful, the menu is ever-changing and the '90s hip-hop is blasting. Do you want to start your day eating house-cured pork belly and cinnamon toast brûlée while watching a business-suited Myers Park man try to nod his head to Ice Cube? Hell yes, you do.

Best Brunch - Workman's Friend

Eggs, bangers (sausage, to you), black pudding (again, sausage, but made from meat, blood, fat, oatmeal, bread, potatos, etc.), white pudding (black pudding without the blood), Irish bacon (ham, to you), grilled tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms, sourdough — what's not to love about an Irish breakfast? Unless, that is, the sight of the word "blood" makes you queasy. There's all kinds of stuff to love about the brunch at Workman's, though, not the least of which is the Guiness you'll sip while enjoying it.

Best Juice - Juice Box

We wondered if this tiny juice joint on North Davidson Street across from the Johnston YMCA would last when we included it in our juice bar roundup earlier this year, but it's not only lasted, it's gotten better. The juices and smoothies are made fresh with all-natural ingredients and nothing is knock-you-out sweet. This locally owned juicery is the real deal, and the perfect stop after a workout at the Y.

Best Cure for the Late-Night Munchies - Midnight Diner

Late at night, after last call and before the banks open for business, Charlotte is quiet under a kaleidoscope of constellations. At the Midnight Diner, it doesn't matter where you're going or why you're awake. The diner's doors are always open, whether you're in the mood for breakfast or dinner, a coffee or a milkshake. You can wait for daybreak in the old-fashioned booths, but better yet, you can forget time altogether, for just a little while.

Best Place to Get a Brain Freeze - Golden Cow Creamery

Let's be honest, if you tried Dunkaroo ice cream for the first time and didn't take a picture of that perfect scoop #nofilterneeded, did it really happen? Didn't think so. Well, good luck resisting the urge to post your fave scoop of ice cream on social media when you go to Golden Cow Creamery. Stop wasting your brain freeze on commercial scoops. Opt instead for a locally owned ice cream shop that handcrafts small batches of uniquely flavored ice cream made from all natural ingredients. Now that's a brain freeze worth screaming for.

Best Lunch Deal - Sub One

Not only are you contributing to the local economy when you choose the black-owned Sub One Hoagies and Salads over, say, a random Subway shop, but you're eating some of the finest sandwiches in Charlotte. Richard Jones has been making subs and hoagies for a quarter-century in this small shop in a strip mall on Graham Street, most recently with his son Derek and nephew Aaron manning the grills. And their subs are the juiciest, tastiest in town. But the best part? You can get out full, satisfied and ready to continue your workday for under 6 bucks.

Best Place To Sweat It Out - Zen Fusion

Zen Fusion in Dilworth has won the Diner's Choice award for four years running, and the atmosphere in this perfect happy hour spot remains as unshakeable as a smooth lake reflecting the clear sky, but the food itself can be a little less stable — and we mean that in a good way. With a menu that deftly blends the best Spanish tapas with Asian mainstays, it's the perfect hybrid of spicy, so bring a fire extinguisher. For relief, sangria and sake flow every night with live music on Wednesday nights, and their camarones al mojo de ajo is as good as their Cantonese shrimp and scallops.

Mongolia Crispy Fried Noodle at Zen Fusion.
  • Mongolia Crispy Fried Noodle at Zen Fusion.

Best First Date Spot - JP Charlotte

JP is an impressive bistro tucked away inside the Westin Uptown. Forward-thinking dishes with fancy local ingredients are sure to impress your date. The wine list is approachable and affordable. Best of all, since most of its traffic comes from out-of-town hotel guests, it's unlikely you'll run into your ex or gossipy co-workers while you're dining with your potential new sweetheart. Baller pro-tip: Go on a Thursday night and start out in the adjoining SoCo bar for live music, tapas and cocktails made tableside.

Best Place to Share Edibles - Woodlands

Forget that this wondrous Indian restaurant way out Albemarle Road also could easily win a "Best Vegan" or "Best Vegetarian" category. One of our favorite things to do when dining at Woodlands Pure Vegetarian Indian Cuisine is get big plates of several of the mouthwatering items — maybe some steamed idly (rice and lentil patties) and spring dosai (stuffed with potatoes, veggies and chutney), along with a couple orders of chana masala and aloo gobi, and some garlic naan — and then share the hell out of it. But do not — we repeat, do not — share the sweet, velvety beverage mango lassi. That shit's too good to share. Get a glass of your own. Otherwise, you'll be fighting over it.

Best Culinary Event - order/fire Episode Premieres

Order/fire is a web series hosted by Chef Marc Jacksina that tells the personal stories of regional industry superstars. Each time an episode is released, it's accompanied by a screening party at Free Range Brewing where you can eat, drink and be merry with all the movers and shakers of the Charlotte culinary world. Each event raises money for local causes, and donations last season totaled $15,000.

Best Culinary Celebrity - Jamie Lynch

Jamie Lynch. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)
  • Jamie Lynch. (Photo by Justin Driscoll)

In case you missed it, Jamie Lynch, executive chef of 5Church, appeared on the last season of Top Chef. He was arguably favored to win until he made series history by becoming the only contestant to ever give up immunity from elimination. It was the classy, selfless move of a genuinely good dude. He was subsequently sent home to a million hugs, high-fives and fans offering to buy him a drink. If you see him, be the next one to do so.

Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Eatery (North) - Flatiron

It's dinner time, around 6 p.m., and northbound traffic is stopped dead. It's hard to think of a good reason why you put yourself in that situation. But then you realize that you have a reservation at one of the finest crafted restaurants, culinarily speaking, in the area. Flatiron offers a locally sourced, delectable menu with unique meats like Wagyu beef, perfectly paired wines and local and imported beers. Once you take your first bite, you'll forget all about the traffic you just sat in.

Best Off-the-Beaten-Path Eatery (South) - Stone Table

We took lots of shit back in May when we wrote about former Charlotte chef Donnie Simmons' wish to build a culinary scene "from scratch" in Monroe. Foodies from the Union County seat objected, and the one we heard about most was Stone Table, so we went to check it out. Housed in the old Secrest Drug Store, built in the late 1920s, the Stone Table retains its vintage feel but with a totally modern take on food. Witness the trendy avocado toast, joined by kale toast, mushroom toast — all the toast, basically. And there's more: grilled pimento cheese sandwiches, pulled house-roasted pork with eastern Sauce and fried jalapeños. It's basic food — spruced up and smartly presented.

Best Chain - Famous Toastery

The best breakfast to be found close by no matter where you are in the Charlotte area isn't at your local IHOP or Waffle House. Though they may be cheap and don't mind you coming in smelling stale beer, they simply don't offer the quantity and selection of savory meals that Famous Toastery does. CNBC named it one of the nation's best up-and-coming chains last year and we agree. It's up and coming damn fast, too. Famous Toastery debuted 12 years ago as the Toast Cafe in Huntersville, and now boasts 28 locations in seven states — three in Charlotte with more locations in Huntersville, Concord and Davidson. Expect fresh, forward-thinking, health-conscious items on the menu at each one.

Best Seafood Take Out - Catch On Seafood Market

You may have noticed Catch On Seafood's sandwich board, usually featuring a fishy pun, out in front of its little storefront or at the intersection of Hawthorne and Central avenues. The store is full of fresh fish, brought in from the coast regularly, which is essential not only for freshness but also considering how quickly it sells out. The shop also features take-and-bake meals, a small selection of beverages, and accompaniments like pesto, but it's the fish that really shine – no joke about it.

Catch On Seafood Market
  • Catch On Seafood Market

Best Coffee - Trade & Lore

After Lindsey Pitman closed The Daily Press (at the Evening Muse) last year, and moved on to Asheville to open Trade and Lore with business partner Sarah Winkler, the two always planned to reopen here in Charlotte. In May, they opened a local Trade and Lore right across from the Muse in Salud Cerveceria, and it's our favorite new coffee spot. Yeah, we still love you, Smelly Cat, but you don't have beer. Or shuffleboard.

Best Taco - Three Amigos Mexican Grill & Cantina

Tacos at Three Amigos]
  • Tacos at Three Amigos]

Tucked into a strip mall down Central Avenue, Three Amigos often has customers lined up out the door. It's worth the wait for Charlotte's best tacos, plus sweet, strong margaritas and a mole to die for. With nine taco options, including veggie, you can mix and match without breaking the bank — tacos a la carte are only $2.95.

Best Central American - Morazon

It still amazes us how many folks still think all Latin American food is like Mexican food: hot and spicy. Don't get us wrong: there's plenty of great spices in the cuisine of El Salvador, but spicy is not what will lure you to Morazan. It's the mouthwatering pupusas — those delicious, thick corn or rice tortillas stuffed with anything from beans and cheese to chicken, shrimp or pork. Equally as delicious are meaty dishes like the Salvadoran carne asada. And don't even think of leaving without having the arroz con leche — that's rice pudding, icydk.

Best Dim Sum - Dim Sum

Dim Sum on 2909 Central Avenue has been a go-to for Midwood-ians and surrounding neighborhoods for 25 years. Under new management as of July 2017, the restaurant has retained 98 percent of it's original kitchen staff, and the food and service quality has remained top notch. The loyalty it commands from the Asian community as well as Plaza denizens in the know is legendary, but it's the food that keeps everyone coming back. The Sesame Balls alone, which are like biting into a slightly sweetened rain cloud, are well worth the trip. Dim Sum needs to become your new first date spot or Christmas Day tradition.

Best Vegetarian Transition - Ma Ma Wok

This goes out to all you veg-haters out there: Ha-ha-ha, another culinary hot spot dropped the meat from its menu! Seriously, most folks didn't bat an eye when Ma Ma Wok decided to go all-vegetarian. In fact, most folks were pretty darn happy that the Charlotte area got another all-veggie option. For you angry meat eaters: You remind us of white folks who say "All Lives Matter" — or the Chili Cook-Off guy who complained about Black Restaurant Week — because, you know, white folks just don't get enough attention.

Orange Peel "Chicken" at Ma Ma Wok. (Photo by Catherine Brown)
  • Orange Peel "Chicken" at Ma Ma Wok. (Photo by Catherine Brown)

Best Latin American Dessert - Las Delicias Bakery

Chosen to provide pastries for the offices of the Guatemalan consulate in Charlotte in December 2014, this little bakery has slowly earned a customer base since co-owners Zhenia Martinez and Manuel Betancur took it over from Martinez's parents, and that base has continued to grow every year as the Queen City's Latin population continues to boom. With donuts and sweet breads baked fresh everyday, Las Delicias still serves a free cup of coffee with any purchase, making this the first stop every morning for an army of sleep-deprived east Charlotte commuters. Las Delicias has brought the sweet to countless local weddings, quinceañeras and Dias De Los Muertos, ever so surely establishing itself as the best place in Charlotte to sample some of Latin America's most delicious cultural imports.

Best Addition to SouthPark - YaFo

  • Yafo.

Ethnic food in SouthPark. Woo-hoo! Everybody knows SouthPark has never been a bastion of adventurous eating — at least when it comes to vegetarian or ethnic — but times are changing and so are our neighbors down yonder. They have your standard black bean burgers at their gourmet burger joints these days, and even a Living Kitchen has opened up there. And now they have a Yafo. It's ethnic (Middle Eastern), it has lots of veggie options and it's very good. One more reason not to have to drive over to Park Road or Central Avenue just to get a meatless or ethnic dinner.

Best Place To Bring a Vegan Friend - Pinky's

Since opening in 2010, Pinky's Westside Grill has been upping the bar on bar food. The restaurant is known for fried favorites, like corn dogs, fried pickles and corn dog shrimp, but owner and chef Greg Auten's innovations include plenty of healthier and vegetarian options — even the classic veggie corn dog. And carnivores: As a reward for being so thoughtful on your next date with a vegetarian, there's tons of meat on the menu for you, too.

best Place To Eat With Your Hands - Abugida

Some folks get bent out of shape about having to eat Ethiopian food with their hands. Why do they think we have hands in the first place? And if you wash them — like you presumbably do forks — what's the big deal? Do those folks eat fried chicken legs with a fork? OK, now that we have that little rant out of the way: Go to Abugida. Not only is Charlotte's newest Ethiopian restaurant excellent, but its coffee ritual is something to experience. What puts this Ethiopian joint above the rest is the addition of an Ethiopian grocery store that will stock all those delicious ingredients the city's been missing.

Best Smoothies - Carolina Smoothie

Creative Loafing did a special issue on juice bars earlier this year, and we totally spazzed on mentioning Carolina Smoothie, one of Charlotte's earliest and best joints for healthy fresh fruit and veggie beverages. We got shit for that omission from Carolina Smoothie diehards. To be fair (to us), that story was mainly on juice bars, and what Carolina Smoothie does best is mix up unbelievably tasty smoothies. 'Twas a time when the editor of this paper stopped by every morning before lap-swimming at the Y. There's a reason CS is a repeat winner in this category. They set the bar.

Best Beer - Legion Brewing, Juicy Jay

Sometimes you just want to scream at the beer snobs, "Enough with the IPAs already!" Then a beer comes along that makes you think, OK fine, maybe all those hops aren't so bad. Juicy Jay is the rare IPA that you can drink on a cold winter night or outside on a patio in the summer and feel content with the flavors either way. The perfect mixture of Mosaic, El Dorado and Cascade hops come together to create a taste that's tropical without moving too far in that shandy direction. Also, it shares a name with 36 Mafia member and Memphis legend Juicy J, which doesn't hurt its cause.

Best Non-Beer Alcoholic Beverage - Good Road Ciderworks

Good Road Ciderworks. (Lunah Zon Photography)
  • Good Road Ciderworks. (Lunah Zon Photography)

Good Road Ciderworks founder Brian Beauchemin figured there were so many breweries popping up around town that it was time to do something different. Well Good Road is certainly off the beaten path. Using predominantly local apples, they offer four single-varietal dry ciders, with an emphasis on dry. But there are plenty more ciders to choose from. Flavors at Good Road include hops, ginger, blueberry, peach and a general-blend cider. For those with a taste for even more unusual libations, Good Road also makes mead, the honey wine that most people picture sloshing around in Thor's flagon at Asgard. So, for a break from plain old craft beer, Good Road may be the new path for you.

Best Non-Alcoholic Beverage - Lenny Boy Brewery Kombucha

Not all of us partake in alcohol, and that's why the hipster gods created kombucha, and it was local hipster gods that created Lenny Boy. Yeah, Lenny Boy makes beer, too, but what the company is best known for are those delicious bottles of certified organic Southern booch, with flavors like lavender, rose, mint, ginger, strawberry and sweet potatoe pie. Best of all: Drunks who always want everybody to be drinking with them will leave you alone, because when you're sitting around a table with your friends, sucking on a bottle of Lenny Boy, it looks just like you're having a homebrew. And they're drunk anyway — they won't know the difference.

Lenny Boy Brewery kombucha. (Photo by Liz Spangler)
  • Lenny Boy Brewery kombucha. (Photo by Liz Spangler)

Best New Brewery - Resident Culture

Plaza-Midwood residents are strolling farther down Central these days to get to Resident Culture, the neighborhood's newest brewery. The airy and inviting taproom spills out onto an expansive patio and lawn area, so there's plenty of room for your four-legged friend to play while you sip an IPA al fresco.

Best New Bar - Pop the Top Craft Beer Shop

Ketan Patel's corporate job in Uptown Charlotte was driving him to drink, which is usually a bad thing. Patel, however, didn't let that send him down a dark path of ruining relationships and landing in jail, he approached it as research, and in June he opened Pop the Top with his wife, Kathy, as a way to showcase Carolina beers that often get placed on the back burner due to the popularity and availability of Charlotte-based brews. And South End has thanked him greatly for it, as he's seen his sale projections go through the roof in his first few months of business. We only hope the trend continues.

Ketan Patel at Pop the Top Craft Beer Shop. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Ketan Patel at Pop the Top Craft Beer Shop. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Best Soul Food - Nana's Soul Food kitchen

Step aside, Mert's, you have a real contender in Nana's. The BBQ ribs are to die for, the collard greens are exquisite, and the fried chicken — oh goodness. And then there's the yams and the fried catfish and the smothered pork chops and the mac 'n' cheese. And the green beans and cabbage and black eyed peas. And don't forget the banana pudding, just like grandma makes. Sliding your tray down Nana's buffet line can sometimes make for the hardest decision of your day.

Best Food Truck - Dumpling Lady

The Dumpling Lady, aka Qian Zhang, brought the taste of home with her when she moved to Charlotte from Neijiang, China, a couple years ago. The menu of Szechuan dumplings and noodles doesn't change much and neither does the quality. Zhang's truck is a welcome sight as she totes her delicacies around town; you can find her at Free Range Brewery on Wednesday nights and Noda Company Store on Saturday nights. Check her site for other locations.

Best Street Vendor - Vic the Chili man

If you think JJ's Red Hots is the baddest hot dog in the Q.C. and you haven't visited Vic the Chili Man at his spot on 4th and Tryon streets, think again! Vic, who most will recognize as the man with "buns of steel" donning an apron featuring a six-pack and undies, is what most would call a hot dog chef. The quality of his hot dogs blow anything you'll find in his Uptown vicinity, and all of his signature sauces/creations are made from scratch. I mean, seriously, where will you ever find a hot dog spin on pho and Carolina barbecue called the "Pho-Q dog" in the Q.C.? Get outta here! (Yes, that featured dog is pronounced just like you think it is.)