What is the taste of this part of the world?
Sure, I love the fried pickles at The Penguin – but it's the jukebox I would miss if the place disappeared. I set out across Charlotte and the surrounding counties to discover 50 essential ingredients that give our home its flavor.
The mushroom and foie gras soup at Zebra. Rich and earthy, it comes to your table in a lidded cup. The better to take in the heady aroma when the lid is removed with a flourish.
4521 Sharon Road, 704-442-9525
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.
Barbecue buns at Hong Kong BBQ. Asian Corner Mall is always an intriguing mix of businesses. One reason to go inside the mall: A stop at this small shop for a huge soft bun filled with chopped Chinese barbecue in a sweet sauce. And it's only a buck.
4520 N. Tryon St., 704-921-3689
Carolina Farm Stewardship. The Triangle gets most of the food attention, but Pittsboro-based CFSA gives this side of the state a lot of love, too. The Web site, www.cfsa.com, is one-stop shopping for all kinds of things, from farms to restaurants.
Grateful Growers pork chops. Forget “the other white meat.” Pork was never meant to taste like chicken. Natalie Veres and Cassie Parsons have developed a fanatical following for meat from their old-breed pigs, sold on Saturday mornings at many farmers markets.
Going to Asheville. Market Place, Tupelo Honey, the French Broad Food Co-Op, markets full of mountain-grown food. One of the nation's most delightful food cities is only two hours away.
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.
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
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.
Down Home Baking's pecan tart. Bakeries are great, but you don't need a glass case to offer good stuff. The shortbread-like crust on Down Home's tarts made believers out of us. Christine Strzepek peddles her wares at several local markets, including Saturday mornings at the Charlotte Regional and the Matthews Community markets. Check her offerings at www.downhomebakingcompany.com.
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
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
The red wagon in front of Berrybrook Natural Farms. So much has changed at the corner 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
Forty-Six restaurant in Kannapolis. The new N.C. Research Campus, founded by Dole Foods owner David Murdock, is remaking the old mill town. Forty-Six is a taste of where it's going – contemporary and health-focused but definitely not bland. Greens as a side dish may be chard and beet greens instead of collards, and food science quotes dance around the tops of the walls.
101 West Ave., Kannapolis, 704-250-4646
The food court at Plaza Fiesta Carolinas. The outlet mall at Carowinds Boulevard and I-77 has been lovingly remade into a Latin American shopping mall. Food vendors offer a mix of flavors – Subway and pizza share space with a cevicheria and Colombian empanadas. Search out the Peruvian bakery, Antojitos Peruanos, for the astonishingly light cookies called alfajor.
3700 Avenue of the Carolinas, Fort Mill, S.C
Marsha Cassedy and Lee Griffin of Rockhouse Vineyards. Mondavi-wannabes are following their dreams to North Carolina's wine country. Charlotte's Cassedy and Griffin were pioneers when they planted a few vines at their weekend house outside Tryon. Today, it's one of the state's friendliest tasting rooms, and the wines are among the North State's best.
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
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
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
The Ask a Chef table at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. This little market has gotten bigger and better, adding innovations like chef demonstrations and baking contests. Our favorite: The Chef's Table. Every Saturday morning in summer, chefs volunteer to help shoppers figure out what to do with squash blossoms and corn shoots.
105 N. Trade St., Matthews, www.matthewsfarmersmarket.com.
Peach ice cream on U.S 74. It's not a drive to the N.C. beaches without a stop at the Pee Dee Orchards Roadside Stand just to the west of the Pee Dee River.
Picking strawberries in late April. We know it's officially spring when we ride out to a strawberry field, take a bucket or a basket and pick our fill. Strawberry season has passed, but The Observer has a list of farms for all kinds of picking. Find it at www.charlotte.com/food.
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.
Makenzie's, Gastonia. It looks like a dive – heck, it is kind of a dive, an old bar in the “Greasy Corner” section of Franklin Boulevard. But the guy cooking – the one with the gravelly voice like Tom Waits – is Isaac West, a Johnson & Wales grad who's passionate about “Southern regional cuisine.” We're passionate about Isaac's mom's coconut cake.
1206 W. Franklin Blvd., Gastonia, 704-868-9998
Julia's Coffee at Habitat Re-Store. “Found art” coffee chandeliers, Saturday afternoon music, racks of 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
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.
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
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
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
“Charlotte Talks” monthly food show on WFAE. Chef/author Peter Reinhart hosts it and Mike Collins keeps the questions rolling. It's usually held on a Wednesday; watch www.wfae.org for the schedule.
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
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
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.
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.
2007 Commonwealth Ave., 704-334-6209
Fresh House. It would take a book to tell the story of Dave Hinson, a commercial pilot who became a grits maker and opened a country restaurant. We'll take a shortcut: It's like a real Cracker Barrel. Country cooking, old-time candy, toys, friendly folks. It's worth the drive to Stanly County.
805 Main St. W., Locust, 704-888-1460
The Snack Bar, Hickory. Every Southern town has a down-home restaurant, but the Snack Bar is different. Bigger than it sounds, with three dining rooms, it has unusual offerings like kraut dumplings (yes, dumplings cooked in sauerkraut) and excellent chicken-fried steak on Wednesdays. The eye-popper is the strawberry pie: A full plate of strawberries topped with a tutu of whipped cream.
1346 1st Ave. SW, Hickory, 828-322-5432
Southern Spirits, between Ballantyne and Fort Mill, S.C. It's in an out-of-the-way location on U.S. 521, but it's a welcome collection of eclectic beer, wine and liquors.
9989 Charlotte Highway, Fort Mill, 803-548-8888
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
Fried squash at Gus' Sir Beef. C'mon, people, shout it with us: “Fresh my farm!”
4101 Monroe Road, 704-377-3210
Bosky Acres. Small-batch cheesemakers have sprung up all over the Carolinas. Charlotte finally scored its own last year when this Waxhaw farm started selling fresh chevre at the Matthews Community and Charlotte Regional farmers markets. Creamy, fresh – and local. At last. www.boskyacres.com.
Pasta & Provisions. Tommy and Debbie George's little Italian market has been a comforting presence on Providence Road for 15 years. A stash of their ravioli in the freezer keeps our meal emergencies at bay.
1528 Providence Road, 704-364-2622
Steve Spoon, Bill Spoon's Barbecue. Barbecue is hard, dirty work, and many old-time restaurants close down when the founders pass on. When Bill died last year, it made us happy to know his grandson, Steve, would keep the place just the same.
5524 South Blvd., 704-525-8865
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
New Town Farms in Waxhaw. A lot of hands keep Charlotte's local-food movement growing. But Sammy and Melinda Koenigsberg are the roots. He was co-founder of the Matthews Community Farmers Market. Their farm was one of the first in the area to add Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions. They're both active in Charlotte's Slow Foods chapter. Oh, and they home-school eight kids. Their enthusiasm for local food is infectious.
105 N. Trade St., Matthews, www.matthewsfarmersmarket.com.
Buttermilk from Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer, S.C. Plenty of people make the two-hour drive from Charlotte for Tom Trantham's non-homogenized, low-heat pasteurized – and very tasty – milk. But we go for the buttermilk. It's got a tang like liquid cheese.
332 McKelvey Road, Pelzer, S.C., 864-243-9699
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
Eric Solomon. Want to find a great bottle of wine? Look on the backs of bottles until you see the name Eric Solomon or his distributing company, European Cellars. Wine expert Robert Parker Jr. has called Solomon “a bright shining star of winedom.” When Solomon isn't chasing French and Spanish wines, he lives right here in Charlotte.
The Yadkin Valley. Ever wish you could go back in time and visit Napa and Sonoma before they got big? You can – drive up I-85 to North Carolina's Yadkin. From fancy facilities like Childress and Shelton to tiny tasting rooms in people's homes, you can spend a day or a weekend exploring.
Caramel crunch cookies at Jimmie's Sweets. Jimmie Williams has made his name with poundcakes. And they are fabulous. But the caramel crunch cookie – a hint of salt, a smack of sweet, and a crunch of his special icing – is a bite we can't resist.
131 Matthews Station, Matthews, 704-847-3242
Bradford Store. This store, in a 1912 building, is surrounded by fields outside Huntersville. Inside, it looks old-timey, but it's really cutting-edge: Owners Kim and Grier Bradford pack it with local products. Even the garden outside is organic.
15915 Davidson Concord Road, Huntersville, 704-439-4303