A Guide to Charlotte's World Cuisine
Food is the ultimate expression of a culture and Charlotte can show you whole swaths of the world you may have been missing. Conveniently, you don’t even need to leave the city, let alone get a passport, to experience it. Crown Town also has an array of almost every world cuisine tucked away in its city limits -- most of which is located off the beaten path in strip malls or in areas unjustly deemed unsafe or uncouth. So take a little “world tour” of the city’s unexpected global dining experiences. You might not earn any airline miles but the food will sure be better than flying economy.
Schnitzel isn’t exactly sexy; red cabbage might not get many Facebook likes; and Kartoffelpuffer doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. But when summer nights get short and there’s a chill in the air here in Charlotte, a nice German meal is the perfect cure for any hungry stomach. So head on over to the Waldhorn, settle into a booth with a liter boot beer, and let the old-world charm wash over you… and maybe some Jägerschnitzel vom Schwein (sauteed pork cutlets with Hunter sauce).
The humble taco is quickly becoming one of the most interesting foods in America. You take that corn tortilla and do pretty much anything to it and it'd still be delicious. Korean BBQ, corn and mango salsa, pulled pork, fried oysters -- the possibilities are endless. The menu at Bakersfield keeps things refreshingly simple, with tortas, tostadas, and tacos offered. The mole taco -- made with Oaxacan-style braised chicken, pickled red onion, queso fresco, and cilantro -- is a local favorite. It's fairly easy to eat a dozen tacos, so please remember to eat responsibly.
If you've never experienced the simple and spicy goodness that is Korean cuisine, this is the best place to do so in Charlotte. Ordering the hot pot (a giant tabletop wok that brings all your ingredients together) is the way to get all those signature flavors in one dish. The steamed buns -- plump little dough balls stuffed with kimchee and pork -- are also a tasty addition to any meal.
Charlotte has recently fallen in love with Peruvian rotisserie chicken because of a popular local chain, Viva Chicken. While it's definitely introduced the city to new and fresh ingredients, the more down-to-earth authentic spot in town is Pio Pio. The sauces are creamier and more flavor-forward, and the Chaufa Beef Rice dish should absolutely be your first choice on their menu. Order a guanabana drink, a sweet fruit juice that is likely to become your new favorite non-alcoholic beverage of choice.
At first glance, you might think Euro Cafe is a Russian deli, but the delicious Bosnian coffee (strong enough to make you run a marathon) and Turkish delight will set you straight. Be sure to order a cevapi sandwich, a sort of sausage pita wrap. The grocery store attached is also well worth a visit for hard-to-find Eastern European food products.
Like sushi, the growing boom of Indian dining in Charlotte makes it hard to know if you’re getting the real deal. For flavor, price, and service, Cholas stands at the front of the line. The owners are from southern India, but the dishes that most stood out were of the Indo/Chinese variety: Gobi Manchurian (cauliflower pan-fried in brown Manchurian sauce, then topped with cabbage and carrots) and garlic shrimp, both of which have a lovely spicy flavor profile and a nice crispy crunch. This place is tucked away under the glooming hulk that is the Great Wolf Lodge, but don’t let its vicinity to this louche commercial behemoth scare you away. Fight the traffic of Concord Mills and your efforts will be justly rewarded.
The Southeast-Asian community is now a cornerstone of the Queen City. One of the longest-standing Vietnamese restaurants is Lang Van, the place to find the best vermicelli noodle bowl in the city (this bold statement is the result of years of conscientious research). Bun Tom Thit Nuong Cha Gio is the bowl for you: grilled shrimp, crispy pork, and imperial spring rolls nestled in rice noodles, bean sprouts, mint, and basil.
In Charlotte, sushi is as ubiquitous as new apartment buildings -- there’s a new place on every street. This can make it difficult to navigate through an overwhelming sea of options, but for truly memorable sushi, the bizarrely named New Zealand Cafe is the one place you must visit. Order enough different rolls and your sushi dinner will come sailing to your table on a massive wooden replica ship. The Spicy Dragon Roll (spicy eel, cucumber with spicy salmon, crabmeat, jalapeño, smelt roe, and scallions) and the Bamboo Roll (red snapper, tuna, salmon, flying fish roe, and scallion wrapped with thin-sliced cucumber) are standouts.
Mexican ice cream
Mexican ice cream is like gelato, but with a higher fat content and more unique flavors. Order the mamey on a waffle cone -- this fruit from an evergreen tree that grows in southern Mexico tastes like a cross between a mango and a sweet potato. Get a liter to go and keep your freezer stocked for those late-night cravings you will most surely be having.
When you open the doors at La Shish Kabob, you are greeted with warm welcomes and the smell of well-spiced lamb and chicken rotating on a spit, beaded with globules of succulent fat. If that doesn’t make you swoon, wait 'til you take your first bite of the shawarma. Be sure to order the tabouli and hummus as the essential accoutrements for this sublime Lebanese staple.
Italian food has become such an integral part of American cuisine, it’s easy to forget that Italian is one of the most misunderstood culinary traditions in the world. There’s more to it than just giant bowls of spaghetti and meatballs. Fiamma is an elegant dining experience that will let you explore the best of Northern Italian cookery. Luxuriate over the Scottadito, a roasted lamb chop served with soft polenta and Barolo wine demi-glaze. And don’t forget to order a Piedmontese wine, the perfect pairing for red meats and hearty vegetables.
A small takeout place in the West End, Mama Gee’s owners hail from Ghana and offers up that country’s unique array of food staples. If you’re new to the cuisine, try the staff’s recommendation of Jollof Rice Plate, a large spread consisting of chicken drumsticks, tomato stew, and plantains. If you’ve never had fried plantains this is the place to start eating them. The Omutuo (sticky rice balls) are also delicious.
Frankly, Thai food in Charlotte is overplayed, with a lot of places churning out pad Thai and mee krob that’s just so-so. Thai Orchid does it right with the freshest ingredients and has withstood the test of time. The prices are great and it also happens to be perfect for a first date or family meal. Order calamari and red curry, but caveat emptor: if you order it Thai hot, you might be reliving your great meal over and over for the rest of the night.
You don’t need to visit a nondescript dim sum hall in NY’s Chinatown for a delicious and slightly overwhelming meal. Charlotte’s Dim Sum isn’t Chinatown, but you’d be surprised at the quality choices if you know what to order. First off, stick to dim sum (appetizers). Second, go for the dumplings in all their glorious forms. The buns are also a foolproof option. And there's a secret menu in Chinese if you’re looking for the really authentic stuff.
This grocery store -- with a small restaurant tucked away on the other side of a wall -- was once the only Middle Eastern market in town. Things have changed for the better since then, but Cedar Land has maintained its high-quality offerings and service. Order a kafta kabob, and the Cedar fish in the dining area. When you’re done scarfing it down, peruse the grocery store for teas, Turkish delight, and a vast selection of hookah shisha and accessories.
Americans have long stereotyped French food as stuffy, over-hyped, and froufrou. This is a serious misunderstanding of what can rightly be called the greatest food culture in the world. Try to forget that this place is in South Park and order up the escargot and bison bourguignon. What’s that, you think snails are gross? Get over yourself and dive into that garlicky-buttery goodness.
The fact that this place is in Ballantyne may very well turn some people off. That’s understandable. Your wade through half-crazed bankers and trophy wives will soon be forgotten as a pile of delicious plates are delivered to your table. Blue Taj is the most upscale Indian restaurant in Charlotte and there’s a lot of effort put into the dishes and their presentation. Two tips: get a gin cocktail, and ask for the dessert sampling platter.
Owners Agata and Michal Przyk were both born and raised in Poland, fell in love in the States, and are now doing everything they can to make Charlotteans fall in love with the food of their native land. Any menu item is sure to satisfy (especially the grilled Polish sausage and pork stew). But above all, if you want to get the whole range of flavors and dishes, ask for the Polski Talerz, the beloved sampler platter.
"Pulgarcito" translates to "Tom Thumb" in English. We’re not sure what that’s all about, but it doesn't really matter -- this place is so good that it doesn't need a name that makes sense. If you're looking to satisfy that craving for pupusas until you bust your gut, this Salvadoran/Honduran spot is where you'll need to go. Enjoy the Salvadoran treat by ordering one of each type (maybe the pork & cheese, beans & cheese, and plain old cheese). At $1.50 apiece, they won't blow up your bank account.
Sign up here for our daily Charlotte email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in the Queen City.