For the last 15 years, I have been eating and writing my way through Charlotte. To most, it sounds like an enviable gig, and without hesitation — but marred by a case of food poisoning years ago (and yes, that place closed) — I enthusiastically agree. My singular regret, however, is I often do not have the time to revisit places or indulge in an admired chef's creations on a regular basis.
What is my favorite dish? I am frequently asked this question, yet coming up with an answer is akin to choosing a favorite among my children. I can understand why people want to bottom-line it. From my perspective, though, when I classify picks, I also conjure culinary spirits — the places and faces now missing from Charlotte: the sushi bar Tokyo Restaurant or Addie's excellent curries, among other spots.
We all know, however, that relationships are mutable. Sometimes the attraction fades and becomes no more than a passing fancy.
But I do have favorite dishes, both creative and humble. Glitz and glamour make places fun to eat; don't get me wrong — I appreciate artistic and creative interior design. But I am a food writer ... and ultimately it comes down to food. So I decided to write this — a guide to my favorite dishes at 54 local spots.
As I put this year's Food Issue together, I discovered a natural tendency to balance the fiscally prudent with the extravagantly sensational, Southern dishes with those from our immigrant population. I also found that certain local chefs can change menus, or venues, but I'll still take up residence on a bar stool in their restaurants whenever I can.
1 Fried is Southern cooking and there is no getting away from it. Local fish camps were created to celebrate fried foods and trendy gastro pubs allot a portion of their menus to fried items. Fried is part of our culinary landscape in Charlotte. Not surprisingly, then, Price's Chicken (1614 Camden Road, 704-333-9866, www.priceschickencoop.com) is located on the top of my list. If fried defines us, then Price's fried chicken is the defining dish. This eatery's chicken is exceptional; it reminds me of family dinners of fried chicken when I was a child. If I had grown up here, my family would have taken me to Price's.
2 Simple Southern fare is really just farm food, and necessity was more important than innovation. One last vestige of country cooking is fried green tomatoes. To be right, the tomatoes must be tart and the cornmeal casing crispy. Fried green tomatoes are easy to ruin if they are overcooked. I go to Jake's Good Eats (12721 Albemarle Road, 704-545-4741, www.jakesgoodeats.com) for my fix. Located on an isolated stretch of Albemarle Road beyond I-485, this eatery is contained in an old-styled gas station with a small number of seats and no alcohol.
3 The modern replacement for fried green tomatoes is fried pickles. Unless you just moved here, you know fried pickles are found on menus around town, but perhaps it wasn't until Snooki pondered fried pickles that the dish gained national attention. These days, local competition is cutthroat. Like all good Southern fried foods, the item must first be soaked; at the Penguin (1921 Commonwealth Ave., 704-375-6959), pickle chips bathe in buttermilk before being coated. The guys who revived The Penguin in 2001 will move around the corner by the end of October (taking over the Diamond) and the landlord of The Penguin has expansion plans. I doubt, however, that Charlotte's access to fried pickles is in any danger.
4 Any place that's courageous enough to have a collard dip on the menu is worthy of a go. Dish (1220 Thomas Ave., 704-344-0343, www.eatatdish.com) also features grilled chicken livers as an entrée. But I go for the beckoning sweetness and warm memories of the chicken and dumplings entrée.
5 Dropping by for a meal at Savor Café (1404 W. Morehead St. 704-334-0098, savoronmorehead.com) is kind of like showing up to someone else's Sunday family dinner — and these are the kind of people who will engulf you with hospitality and good food all at once. The dish to have is the exceptional coastal shrimp on velvety grits served at both lunch and dinner.
6 If you wanted to create a dinner to please your Southern grandparents, copy the menu at Simmons Soul Food Restaurant (516 N. Graham St., 704-334-6640, www.simmonssouldfoodrestaurant.com). I go for the hot cornbread, collard greens and baked chicken with cornbread stuffing.
7 At home, a quick sandwich of grilled Augusta's Original Pimento Cheese, a locally made product available at many area grocers, is perfect for a winter lunch.
From the Oven
8 If you have noticed a surge in the establishment of bakeries around town, you can thank Charlotte's Latino community. The concept of buying bread on a daily basis may not be convenient for our rushed lifestyles, but this is the tradition for many of our immigrant residents. Whenever I travel internationally, I frequent bakeries to get the bass note of the local foods. I hope that if visitors do the same here, they will stop in at Amélie's French Bakery and Café (2424 N. Davidson St. and 330 S. Tryon St., 704-376-1781, www.ameliesfrenchbakery.com). Amélie's is a growing phenomenon and is open 24/7. Recently they opened a store on South Tryon (ironically Amélie's started life downtown). Try the decadent and sinfully rich twice-baked almond croissants.