January brings to Charlotte the clever Restaurant Week, giving diners a shot at $30 meals that usually cost more. So we decided February should be for lovers - of a bargain.
Could we come up with five relatively upscale places where a couple could reasonably get two meals for $30?
Sure! ... as long as you're willing to accept a few restrictions. One: Drink water. Two: Tax and tip aren't included in the totals. Three: This ain't all-you-can-eat. We focused on interesting spots with something special to offer, rather than full-to-bursting portions.
1. Smalls is the relatively new spot next to the Visulite in Elizabeth, and brings chef Zack Gadberry a little farther into town than he was at the Wine Shop in Foxcroft. But you'll find his interesting wings with spicy Korean-style sauce ($10) among the small plates here, and they're worth a look. Yes, they do have a kick, so let the timid beware. Add pimento sliders ($10) - three house-ground hanger-steak burgers, topped with tender fried pickles and a dollop of pimento cheese, in the first appropriately sized slider buns I've seen in town. Those looking for balance can add the mulled pear and arugula salad ($8), which comes with a butternut crème fraiche, while those in search of a little more crunch should opt for a cone of crisp, thin frites ($6). TOTAL: $26-$28.
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2. The Dynasty Cuisine comes from chef-owner Joe Lam, in the spot of his former Matthews restaurant, Buffet Dynasty. Now he offers Cantonese and Szechuan dishes a la carte, and a lovely lineup of hot pot options. If you're not familiar with hot pots, think fondue: You choose the kind of broth you want, then what you'd like to cook in it, and everything is priced separately. One pot with three or four things to cook in it is plenty for two people. The brave or seasoned may opt for Ma-La Spicy Broth ($5). Naïve bravehearts, please note: "Ma la" means "numbing and spicy" in Chinese and there's something to that, what with all the brilliant red Szechuan chiles in that broth and the sheen of chile oil covering its surface. Newcomers might stick with chicken broth ($4) instead. Throw in sliced beef ($4.95), watercress ($1.95), shiitake mushrooms ($2.50) and chive dumplings ($2.95). You drop things in, then retrieve them with a small wire strainer; use the dipping sauces (one sweet-edged, one chile paste) and eat over the accompanying rice. Add a vegetable entrée for balance - perhaps the eggplant with garlic sauce ($8.95) - and you're done. TOTAL: $25.30-$26.30.
3. Uptown's Vida opens your meal with free chips worth eating and salsa with a little character. From there, a pork barbacoa tamal ($7) - juicy meat within a tender shell of masa flour with cheese and cilantro, the whole steamed in a corn husk. It shows nice enough heft to serve as a light entrée, with a side each of plantain and black bean mash ($3) and pineapple papaya cole slaw ($3). Chicken tinga ($13) - a nicely smoky sort of chicken stew, with chorizo and a flour tortilla - can also be topped with an egg, ($1). TOTAL: $26-$27.
4. Foskoskies harbors a strong eastside neighborhood vibe, but the warmth extends to new folks, too. Expect ponytailed folks waving at each other, timing that's a little poky, and the music (if it's live in the adjoining room) not to overwhelm you. Here, we're going to suggest one of you get an order of the Reuben spring rolls made with chow-chow ($7), plus a cup of the day's soup ($4) and house salad ($4). Add an entrée of honey pecan chicken ($14), two big breaded, honeyed slabs with lots of big, intact pecan halves gone a little soft with heat and honey. That comes with a sizable hunk of light but cheesy broccoli casserole, plus tender rice. Downhome. TOTAL: $29.
5. At Flatiron Kitchen + Taphouse in Davidson, pair a big bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels ($11.75) - I got a dozen and a half, all fat and juicy, in a thickish smoky-edged tomato sauce - with a half-rack of the place's pork ribs ($17.75). Ask for extra olive-oiled, grilled toasts with the shellfish when you order - the two thin pieces you get will not be enough. And plan to share, a bit messily: Even though these are not ribs awash in sauce, whoever's got the mussels will be prying a few open and reaching toward the other's plate, and vice versa. Fat, soft-inside, crisp-outside fries and a crunchy, simple slaw accompany the pork. Another new chef here to check out, as well: Thomas Marlow, formerly at Mimosa Grill. TOTAL: $29.50.