Charlotte is a foodie’s gastronomical heaven.
Several years ago, my niece got married in Charlotte. Of course, I attended the ceremony and that occasion marked the first of what would become many visits to Charlotte. During the wedding, we all stayed at the Westin located in the uptown neighborhood. During pockets of time that I had to myself I explored what the area had to offer. Within walking distance were scores of shops and museums, including the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the very eclectic Mint Museum Uptown. There was also a multitude of restaurants. Checking out as many as I could on that first visit, I realized that Charlotte was a foodie’s gastronomical heaven. On a recent visit I came to a new conclusion regarding dining in this beautiful city: there is an incredible diversity of ethnic cuisines. Within a close radius I can dine all over the world. Who knew? I’ve chosen six of y favorite dining venues to share with you.
For fine dining I’ve chosen Gallery, located within the elegant Ballantyne Hotel, The Luxury Collection. It’s named Gallery because throughout the dining space are stunning works of art supplied by Awaken Gallery. The pieces, which help to create a warmth and uniqueness to the space, are available for purchase and the art rotates on a regular basis.
Chef Charles Gardner is the executive chef at Gallery where he offers a farm-to-table menu with a progressively Southern approach to New American cuisine. I had the opportunity to ask him where he worked prior to Gallery. “I have been a sous chef at the Inn on Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the executive sous chef at Chevy Chase Club, a top 10 club in the DC area, and the executive chef at the Club at Longview here in Charlotte prior to working at the Ballantyne.”
A favorite amongst the appetizers are the Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with sweet potato hash and Creole remoulade. A meal unto itself, the cake is chock-full of crab. Often the ratio is heavy on breading, but not here. It’s hearty and amazingly fresh, like a sweet breeze from the ocean. When I asked Chef Gardner about the dish he was eager to share its history and more. “We use a 100- year-old recipe that I brought from some of my time in the Chesapeake area. And we also have a cult following for our Truffle Omelet and the Pearl Sugar Waffles we have at brunch. And by far the most popular dessert is the Baked Ballantyne, our take on a baked Alaska that uses a sticky toffee pudding as part of the base.”
Chef Gardiner took over as executive chef at Gallery mid-pandemic and I wondered what the experience has been like for him. “I am born and raised in the Carolinas so having an opportunity at one of the best hotels in the south to run an incredible culinary team is an exciting challenge that I am grateful for.” 10000 Ballantyne Commons Pkwy. Tel: 704-248-4100. theballantynehotel.com
CALLE SOL LATIN CAFÉ & CEVICHERIA
Calle Sol is a combination of Cuban and Peruvian cuisine with a dash of Miami and Tampa flavors. They are best known for their delicious and fresh ceviches as well as their Cubano sandwiches. Chef Paul Cruz of Calle Sol draws upon El Salvadorian recipes he learned from his grandmother. Although the flavors are common throughout South America, which include oregano, culantro, yerba Buena, and a countless assortment of peppers, it’s Chef Cruz’s technique more than anything else that makes the dishes sing. For example, his grandmother’s tamales are steamed in banana leaves and stuffed with chick peas, chicken and green beans.
Meanwhile, Sous Chef Galarza makes all the ceviches from scratch in the traditional flavors of the Peruvian coast where he is from. The cerviches are made with shrimp, delicate white fish, or a combination of the two. If you like heat, definitely try their Rocoto Cerviche, made with spicy rocoto chili peppers, freshly squeezed lime juice, sliced onions, and cilantro. It’s served with sweet potato, corn and crispy Peruvian canchas (toasted corn nuts). Another standout is their Shrimp Mojo. Argentinian red shrimp are sautéed with dry white wine, diced tomatoes, cilantro, mojo and butter and served over white rice. The shrimp is sweet, buttery and cooked to perfection. And for a classic Cubano, order the Tampa Cubano which includes ham, lechon (roast pork), genoa salami and Swiss cheese on toasted Cuban bread with mustard, mayo, and pickles. 1205 Thomas Ave. Tel: 704-565-8291. callesolcafe.com
Little Mama’s take me home to those old school American/Italian restaurants especially found in Boston’s North End. Talk about comforting. Beating all odds, owner Frank Scibelli opened Little Mama’s mid-pandemic to rave reviews. He brought his classic recipes from his first restaurant, Mama Riccotta’s, and put them on the menu with house made pastas and a one of-its-kind mozzarella bar. With rotating specialties offering cheeses from all over the world, you have your choice of Fior di Latte mozzarella made with cow’s milk or stracciatella, shreds of fior di latte, with added cream and it’s served with lemon zest, pistachio and extra virgin olive oil. It’s surprisingly rich and light, at the same time. Each cheese comes with several accompaniments to choose from. Two examples are white bean and salami salad, and ripe tomatoes and fresh basil.
Although the homemade pastas and the mozzarella bar are regular’s favorites, don’t forget the magnificent and perfectly prepared (for me, medium rare) Little Mama’s USDA Prime Rib with broiled marrow bones and roasted garlic. I was instantly transported back to Florence! 4521 Sharon Road. Tel:980-209-0323. littlemamasitalian.com
PACO’S TACOS & TEQUILA
For authentic Tex-Mex dining, look no farther than Paco’s Tacos. Located in a bright and colorful space, the extensive menu is complemented by a bar of 100 different varieties of tequila. (The largest tequila list in the state of North Carolina.) They are also known for their daily homemade flour tortillas. When developing Paco’s Tacos and curating the menu, Patricia Quintana (the Julia Child of Mexican Cooking) was consulted. From the dinner menu, the woodfired grilled Outlaw Steak Fajita with zucchini, yellow squash and mushrooms is fantastic. It’s cooked to your preference with a sublime char. Or try the Ambushed Shrimp which is stuffed with Monterey jack cheese and flash fried then drizzled with roasted jalapeño crema. It’s served with red rice and citrus chipotle slaw. Warning: Ambushed Shrimp are addictive! Diner’s favorite is the Paco’s Taco which is a 10-hour slow roasted chili rubbed beef brisket with caramelized onions, queso fresco and chipotle barbecue sauce. It’s available with or without cabbage. And the most popular drink on the menu is by far the Cadillac Margarita made with “Top Shelf” Hornitos Black Barrel Añejo, Agavero organic orange liqueur, house sour, lime and orange juice. 6401 Morrison Boulevard. Tel: 704-716-8226. pacostacosandtequila.com
Why Not Enjoy All Of These Recipes At Home? Click here!
I couldn’t cover any North Carolinian dining scene without offering a BBQ option. Enter Mathew Barry, the executive pit master at Midwood Smokehouse. I learned very quickly that he prefers to be called pit master as opposed to chef. Chatting with Remy Thurston, director of marketing for the FS Food Group which Midwood Smokehouse is a part of, I asked him if I was correct in referencing the Smokehouse as Texas style BBQ. “Midwood Smokehouse is a celebration of every major barbecue capital. We primarily specialize in Texas and Carolina styles, with some other offerings from Kansas City and the like. Texas Barbecue is primarily beef based, whereas Carolina is primarily pork. The pits are built differently too.”
With so much to offer, I had to ask what are diners favorites? “Our most popular item is by far the Carolina chopped pork and the Texas brisket. Both take hours in our all-hickory hardwood smoker so when they run out, they are out for the day until we can get the next round out of the smoker. Brisket can take up to 16 hours and pork can be anywhere from 6 to 12 depending on the cut and size.”
The beef ribs are stupendous. The bark is so darn flavorful and the meat just falls off the bone. With an assortment of sauces to choose from, South Carolina Mustard, Eastern NC Vinegar, Midwood Original & Spicy Habanero. And with 12 different sides to order from – hush puppies to collard greens to mac and cheese – I promise, you’ll be a happy camper.
As Remy reminded me, “We’re your neighborhood smokehouse using nothing but NC hickory hard wood to make the best barbecue around.” Plaza Midwood 1401 Central Ave. 704-295-4227. midwoodsmokehouse.com
YAFO offers fast, friendly, and very flavorful Middle Eastern/Mediterranean Street food that’s been elevated and now offered in a restaurant environment. Israeli born Chef Shai Fargian runs the show, actually he oversees all three locations in town. He had this to say about working here in Charlotte. “The access to ingredients that we get at YAFO is unbelievable. The fact that we have the purchasing power and the relationship with the vendors, we get the spices directly from the markets in Tel Aviv, where I used to go and buy spices when I lived there. It allows me to give an experience to our guests that I don’t think they can get in most places outside of Israel.”
One option diners love is that you can build your own bowl starting with a grain and/or hummus, then choose your favorite protein such as Shawarma chicken or maybe the harissa salmon. One can then add an endless amount of ingredients like peppers, olives, tomatoes, feta and more. Their Greek yogurt Mac and cheese is a huge hit as well as their hummus and crispy eggplant. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine is by nature vegetable forward so vegetarians and even vegan diners can find exactly what they are craving. However, YAFO’s most popular item is their take on a spicy chicken sando (sandwich), called the Israeli Hot Chicken.
Interestingly, I recently visited Los Angeles and I stopped by Top Chef winner Mei Lin’s Daybird shop and tried their Hot Chicken Sichuan Sandwich, the one item on the menu, which in fact, is very similar to Chef Fargian’s. Both are served on a soft bun with purple slaw. Outside, there’s great crunch but then inside is this amazingly soft and moist chicken. The difference is in the array of sauces you can choose from and the spices used in preparation. Chef Lin obviously leans towards Sichuan, and Chef Fargian towards Mediterranean herbs and spices. It’s a tie, I love them both! Chef Fargian, bring YAFO to New York City, we will devour you…in all the best possible ways. Plaza Midwood 1331 Central Ave. Tel: 980-224-8007; Southpark 720 Gov. Morrison St. Tel: 704-365-7130; and Dilworth 1231A East Blvd. Tel: 980-224-