The seventh annual Tournament of Food kicks off today, and we’re adding a bit of a twist.
And not just a pretzel twist.
The 16 apps presented here come from reader suggestions and investigative tastings. As in the sandwich bracket of two years ago, we included all sorts of things, not just 16 iterations of a particular dish, and this bracket was seeded completely randomly.
This year, as always, we encourage you to try each competitor in a pairing before voting on a winner. (In other words: Don’t just vote for ones you know). But we’re also asking this: If you think there’s a better version of the dish than the one listed, let us all know in the comments to this story. (In other words: Spill what you know!)
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That way, the tournament serves not only as competition but as a democratic exercise in crowdsourcing. Include a link to the website of your preferred version, too.
As usual, we eschewed chains with locations outside the Carolinas, and we stipulated no wings, fries or nachos. You’ll notice we put one in, but it’s fake nachos, using chicken skins for chips – which seems completely in line with this collection of fried, cheesy, salty, sweet and bacon-studded things. Most of these apps ain’t for the weak of stomach, or the healthfully inclined.
Get noshing. Readers can vote through March to help choose the Elite Eight, then for the Final Four; after that, a panel will put the four to the test and choose semifinalists and a winner, to be announced April 4.
Greg’s Pickles at Pinky’s
Fried dill slices with ranch dressing: Simple, salty, crisp, crunchy. The small’s enough for me, almost, for $3.50 (large $5.50) and, if you’ve got a Guy Fieri thing, these did show up on that show, back in the day ...
Pinky’s Westside Grill: 1600 W. Morehead St., 704-332-0402; 9818 Gilead Road, Huntersville, 704-727-0142; eatatpinkys.com.
Tableside Guacamole at Azteca
The little cart gets wheeled to your table and a fresh avocado is split, seeded and mixed with (if you say you want everything) onion, tomato, cilantro, finely chopped jalapeno and a rusty-colored seasoned salt (“I don’t know what’s in it,” said our server, believably) for $6.95. Feel free to tinker with the recipe, but try it all first: It’s terrific.
Locations in Gastonia, Matthews, south Charlotte and the one I went to: 7340 Smith Corners Blvd., 704-598-4068; www.aztecarestaurantcharlotte.com.
Stuffed Georgia Hush Puppies at Mimosa Grill
They’re the size of baseballs, cut in half and filled with tender shrimp and crawfish tails in a leek fondue, with a spicy Creole sauce on the side. Crisp, corny and crunchable, they’re one of a kind. Well, three of a kind: You get three halves for $12.
Mimosa Grill: 327 S. Tryon St.; 704-343-0700; www.harpersgroup.com/mimosa.asp.
Khai vi tu cuon at Vietnam Grille
This is the only roll-your-own app in the list: You take a round sheet of rice paper (softened, it’s the consistency of al dente noodle) and dip it into hot water at the table, then lay your choice of protein (grilled meat, seafood or tofu) and accompaniments (don’t forget the mint) and roll it up, little-burrito-style for $10-$13.
Vietnam Grille: 5615 South Blvd.; 704-525-2408; on.fb.me/1i1koJG
Pot Stickers at Ni Fen
These are pork dumplings, made with scallions and ginger and steamed and seared, then dished up with a spicy hoisin sauce for dipping for $6. Shelby may be a drive, but here, you also get the historic downtown to look at.
Ni Fen: 214-A S. Lafayette St. Shelby; 704-481-8882; www.nifenbistro.com/.
Jumbo Gourmet Pretzel at VBGB
Spread-out-hand-size, with thin brown skin and fluffy white interior, it arrives too hot to touch and dusted with classic big-grained pretzel salt, with a side of warm beer cheese sauce, for $5. Grab one of the mustards offered on the condiment table, too, for maximum pretzelishnessness.
VBGB: 920 Hamilton St. (by N.C. Music Factory); 704-333-4111; vbgbuptown.com.
Dirty South (“fake”) Nachos at Soul
I know I said no nachos, and these aren’t: Fried chicken skin takes the place of chips, served with a pimento cheese fondue and pickled okra, y’all, for $8.
Soul: 1500 Central Ave.; 704-348-1848; soulgastrolounge.com.
Bacon Wrapped Jalapenos at Midwood Smokehouse
Five hot peppers are stuffed with Monterey jack cheese, wrapped in bacon and hickory-smoked, for $6. Buttermilk ranch, of course, comes on the side.
Midwood Smokehouse: 1401 Central Ave.; 704-295-4227; midwoodsmokehouse.com.
Zucchini Chips at Nolen Kitchen
A gracious plenty of paper-thin zucchini slices, battered and fried in a magical mix that just doesn’t go limp (even the next day!), arrives, for $8, with cucumber yogurt and Arbequina olive oil.
Nolen Kitchen: 2839 Selwyn Ave.; 704-372-1424; xeniahospitality.com/nolen-kitchen.
Wood Oven Roasted Oysters at e2
You might get four, five or six of these, depending on the size of the oyster, done with a cheesy bacon, onion and spinach topping with what the menu calls “parmesan reggiano” for $14.
e2: 135 Levine Avenue of the Arts; 704-414-4787; www.emerilsrestaurants.com/e2-emerils-eatery.
Double Dip at 131 Main
Accompanying a basket of thin, crisp corn chips is a plate of decoratively mounded mild guacamole, next to pimento cheese, plus a tiny bowl of salsa, for $7 or $12. A nice idea for those straddling the fence.
131 Main: Locations at Lake Norman, Dilworth, Blakeney and Asheville; www.131-main.com/.
Sidewalk Antojitos at Cantina 1511
Ten bucks gets you what the menu calls “a platter of typical hot hand-food being served on the streets of Mexico City right now”: Deadline day, it was pig wings (pork shanks with an orange glaze), steak taquito, barbecue salmon tlayuda (an open-faced tortilla) and crab and goat cheese croquette (crab and cheese in deep-fried potato).
Cantina 1511: 7708 Rea Road, 704-752-9797; 1511 East Blvd., 704-331-9222; cantina15eleven.com.
Buffalo Shrimp with Barbalo Sauce at McKoy’s
The reader who mentioned this specified the barbalo sauce (a barbecue-buffalo mix), but these are pretty flexible: For $15, you get about two dozen shellfish, and you can have them breaded, deep-fried and sauced with teriyaki, Thai chile or Calypso sauce – or grilled or blackened, if you so choose.
McKoy’s: 4630 Old Pineville Road; 704-523-6330; www.mckoysgotsmoke.com/.
Blasted Brussels Sprouts at the Crepe Cellar
They’re seared, and in an arugula pesto, with additional parmesan, so don’t worry that these are too healthy: I mean, they’re sprouts, but app-worthy ones, for $8.
Crepe Cellar: 3116 N. Davidson St.; 704-910-6543; www.crepecellar.com.
Deviled Eggs (Classic or Of The Day) at Heritage
You can go classic – simple, basic, clean – or daily – maybe with pimento cheese, or maybe sprinkled with North Carolina sturgeon roe, or something more exotic. Two halves for $3, four for $5, six for $7.
Heritage: 201 W. South Main St., Waxhaw; 704-843-5236; www.heritagefoodanddrink.com.
Bacon-Wrapped Tater Tot Sampler Duo at Fran’s Filling Station
Bacon + bacon equals the duo: Regular bacon-wrapped tots with maple-rosemary-black-pepper glaze and sweet potato tots wrapped in jalapeno bacon, with a Tabasco honey glaze, for $10.
Fran’s Filling Station: 2410 Park Road; 704-372-2009; fransfillingstation.com.