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A taste of the city

Photos by GARY O'BRIEN/gobrien@charlotteobserver.com

What is the taste of this part of the world?

It isn't just food, it's the things that add to the food experience. Sure, I love the fried pickles at The Penguin - but it's the jukebox I would miss if the place disappeared. I set out to discover 25 essential ingredients that give our home its flavor.

22. A cheeseburger at Brooks, 2710 Brevard St., off North Davidson. There are fancier burger places, but Brooks griddles up the classic, gooshy Carolinas version, with mustard, chili and onions, of course. Go on a nice day – you have to sit outside.

704-375-7808

2. A hot dog from “Chili Man” Vic Werany. What is it we love about Werany's hot dog cart, found three days a week at South Tryon and East Fourth streets? Is it the griddled dogs? Is it the toppings? (Werany makes his own chili and spicy condiments.) Is it the Hawaiian shirts or Werany's big-mouthed personality? Nah – it's the tattoos.

8. Brawley's Beverages. Mike Brawley's dog is usually sleeping on the uneven concrete floor, and his mom is often behind the counter. It's all charming, but the real draw is one of the best selections of beers – and a good amount of cult wine – anywhere.

4620 Park Road, 704-521-1301

5. The chef: Tim Groody. At Sonoma Modern American, Groody has been putting his money where his customers' mouths are for years. To jumpstart a wider selection of vegetables a decade ago, he even bought seeds for farmers. When you pick from a wider selection of locally grown produce, thank Tim.

3. The jukebox at the Penguin. It (almost) takes the pain out of jostling for a table. There are 50 CDs listed in the box and at least 50 more titles in the notebook on the wall. Hear Elvis (Presley and Costello), Howlin' Wolf and the Clash in the same evening, or chase Dwight Yoakam with Depeche Mode.

1921 Commonwealth Ave., 704-375-6959

4. Friday mornings at Counter Culture's regional sales center. Want to feel hip and smart? Every Friday at 10 a.m., all employees of Durham-based Counter Culture stop what they're doing and taste coffees. And any coffee fan is welcome to join them. Lessons are free; discussion is free-wheeling. Stop by some Friday and try it.

1435 W. Morehead St. (Grinnell Water Works building), 704-299-2574

7. The red wagon in front of Berrybrook Natural Farms. So much has changed at the intersection of Kenilworth and East Boulevard. But health food store Berrybrook never changes, from the log cabin to the porch swing.

1257 East Blvd., 704-334-6528

1. The window table at Ratcliffe on the Green. Chef-owner Mark Hibbs deserves the praise he gets for his support of local farms. But Ratcliffe's beautiful space in the old flower shop also wins our hearts. Want to feel like a big shot? Book a reservation at the table in the bay window and watch people watch you.

425 S. Tryon St., 704-358-9898

9. The gizzards at Price's Chicken Coop. Yes, everybody goes for the fried chicken. And it's mighty fine. But for our money, the best reason to pick up lunch for your office crew is the chance to get an order of gizzards to munch on the drive back.

1614 Camden Road, 704-333-9866

13. Bucky Frick, head meat cutter at Reid's Fine Foods. Frick looks too young to be a slice of old Charlotte, but he started at the now-departed Giant Genie on Park Road when he was in high school. If you need a special order or something you can't find anywhere else, Frick is the guy to call.

225 E. Seventh St., 704-377-1312

10. Tom Hanchett and Carol Sawyer. He's curator of the Levine Museum of the New South, but he and his wife, Carol, are a fearless eating team. Between them, they know every Ecuadorean lunch counter, Vietnamese takeout and Russian bakery. When Tom calls and says “You've got to try this,” we drop everything and go.

23. Julia's Coffee at Habitat Re-Store. “Found art” coffee chandeliers, Saturday afternoon music, used books. It's both comfortable and cool, and you'd never expect to find it in an old shopping center on Wendover Road.

1133 N. Wendover Road, 704-295-4585

6. Beverly's Gourmet Foods. Beverly McLaughlin has lineage at the tiny Mecklenburg County Market – her grandmother Beck McLaughlin was one of the founders, in 1938, and her dad, Dale McLaughlin, is a regular vendor. Look in the refrigerator case across from Dale's stand and you'll find Beverly's creations, from edamame salad to squash casserole. Extra points: It's all vegan or vegetarian.

Mecklenburg County Market, 1515 Harding Place, Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

20. The windows of the baking labs at Johnson & Wales University's Charlotte campus. Putting the baking kitchens on the first floor, where anyone driving or walking by can peer in, was deliberate. When you pass the corner early in the morning, you can see why.

Trade and Cedar streets

12. Cinnamon chip bread at Great Harvest, the whole-grains bakery on South Kings Drive. Try it in bread pudding or French toast.

901 S. Kings Drive, 704-333-0431

18. Lupie Duran. Duran spent her teen years at Thompson Orphanage, and she's been taking care of people ever since. At Lupie's on Monroe Road, she treats employees like family and regulars like friends. The exit sign says it: “Keep on coming back and we'll call you a local.”

2718 Monroe Road, 704-374-1232

16. “Charlotte Talks” monthly food show on WFAE. Chef/author Peter Reinhart (left) hosts it and Mike Collins keeps the questions rolling. It's usually held on a Wednesday. Schedule: wfae.org.

19. Frazer Dobson at Park Road Books. Book fans of all genres love PRB. But cookbook fans should know: Dobson is a closet foodie who has lured authors from Anthony Bourdain to Matt and Ted Lee.

4139 Park Road, Charlotte, 704-525-9239

17. Karen Cooley at Cooking Uptown. Kitchen work is a labor of love at Cooley's cooking tools shop on Seventh Street in Elizabeth. She picks every item herself. And where else can you take a cooking class at a table shaped like a giant martini olive?

1707 E. Seventh St., 704-333-7300

21. The teachers: Joe Bonaparte of Art Institute of Charlotte, Peter Lehmuller of Johnson & Wales University, and Jim Bowen of Central Piedmont Community College. Bowen has mentored young chefs since his days at Myers Park Country Club and The Fishmarket. Bonaparte and Lehmuller came in more recently as culinary deans. But all three are steering Charlotte's new generation of kitchen talent.

14. The Common Market on Commonwealth Avenue. Just walking in the door increases your hipness factor. The funky beer and wine selection, the cool candies and the sandwiches seal the deal.

15. Mr. K's coffee milk shake. Not as sweet as chocolate, not as bitter as coffee. Just right for an afternoon pick-you-up.

2107 South Blvd., 704-375-4318

11. Fried squash at Gus' Sir Beef. C'mon, people, shout it with us: “Fresh my farm!”

4101 Monroe Road, 704-377-3210

24. Smoked meat loaf at Ole Smokehouse No. 1. Picture a rough country pate, an inch thick and dense, made of pork and beef. With a smoke ring. This ought to be Charlotte's signature dish.

1513 Montford Dr., 704-523-7222

25. Beer mugs at Hotel Charlotte. Once you have tried 50 beers on their famous beer card, you get an engraved mug. Then it goes on the wall – and never leaves. Come back in 15 or 20 years and they can pull out the registry to find your mug.

705 S. Sharon Amity Road, 704-364-8755

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