Nom Nom Burger isn’t just a great idea – though it is that.
It’s a multicultural history lesson, a quick-service diorama, a culinary-science-fair trifold of the restaurant business in Charlotte over the past four decades.
Partners Tung Ngo and Ronnie Yee grew up in the restaurant business here. Yee’s father ran The Oriental in the ’70s and ’80s; Ngo, who came from Vietnam, took a job at age 13 at Imperial Garden, another Chinese place on the east side.
“You had to Americanize Chinese food back then,” Yee says, for an audience unsure of and inexperienced with the cuisine.
Both continued to work in Asian places (“it’s in the blood”), watching as Charlotte inched toward comfort with Chinese food, then Japanese, then Thai, Vietnamese and Korean (well, a little). Together they opened Sushi at the Lake in Cornelius in 1998. K.O. Sushi and Yoshi’s and another Yoshi’s followed: different attempts to hit the CLT zeitgeist – long lists of small plates and pared-down menus; warm decor and simpler atmospheres – in areas from uptown to University City.
And Ngo kept thinking about burgers. “Most restaurateurs don’t eat what they serve,” says Yee. “We always ate burgers.” Ngo says he considered doing burgers and sushi in ’98 (pre-Cowfish) but didn’t think it was time.
Six months ago, the two executed their turnabout: They Asianized the burger. And what a fine turnabout it is.
The signature, eponymous burger glazes cooked-to-order beef – Nom Nom uses Sterling Silver – with house teriyaki sauce, then stacks it with shiitake mushroom, caramelized onion, provolone cheese and the master stroke: ginger-orange marmalade. I know, I know, but trust me. On a soft, faintly eggy brioche bun, this is killer. Says Ngo: “It’s not the prettiest burger, but I think it’s the most well-balanced.”
The Kalbi marinates the beef with a Korean sweet-edged barbecue-like sauce usually used on ribs, then adds kimchi (here a mix of pickled cabbage and daikon radish, for crunch), nori (seaweed) with sesame, roasted garlic, spicy mayo and a fried egg on top (think bibimbap, if you’re into Korean food). Terrific.
Other beef-centric offerings: the Pad Thai burger (bean sprouts, carrots and a peanut aioli); the Nom-Believer (American-style: cheddar, bacon, lettuce, tomato); the Black and Blue (bacon, blue cheese, shiitake, spinach).
Chicken begins with the Banh Mi, a Vietnamese take on grilled breast with a lemongrass marinade, served with curry aioli, pickled vegetables, jalapeno, pork pate (though mine was missing this) and a bowl of sweet-edged fish sauce for dipping. (Says Ngo, “I’m not trying to be authentic... We don’t have room to make our own baguettes. I’ve got the flavors.”) There are more chicken versions, plus duck (with pork belly), ground turkey, portobello, even a slab of ahi tuna on a “bun” constructed of rice paper wrapped around sushi rice that is both unlikely and delicious.
Servers show enthusiasm, and are speedy and helpful. The place feels like a chain: spare, with colorful signs and weeknight specials, and yes, Yee and Ngo (who’s also a full-time contractor) would like to replicate, though it’s gone slowly so far.
Is that because the concept’s new? The location’s challenging? (You have to climb down steps or take the elevator at ParkTowne Village, across from Park Road Shopping Center.) That Nom Nom (the Asian child’s equivalent to “yum yum,” explains Yee) makes more people think of weird cat videos than affordable food?
You got me. But add fine sweet potato fries and local craft beer to a full-circle story of dining in the American South, and you’ve got Nom Nom.
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