Want food from around the globe? Charlotte’s got a wealth of international eateries today. But you need to know where to look.
Central Avenue in east Charlotte is a great example of the city’s new “salad bowl suburb” phenomenon. Since 1990, the foreign-born percentage of Charlotte’s population has zoomed from barely one percent to more than 15 percent today.
Newcomers are not settling in enclaves like the Chinatowns and Little Italys of older U.S. cities. Instead people of every ethnicity are intermingling, as mixed as veggies in a tossed salad, especially in suburban areas built in the 1950s-1980s where real estate has become fairly affordable.
Let’s pick a two-block stretch of the Central Avenue “salad bowl suburb” and lunch our way around the world – from Bosnia in eastern Europe to Ethiopia in Africa, with stops in Mexico and the Caribbean.
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2719 Central Ave., Charlotte. (704) 343-9828
Dino Mehic and his family arrived in Charlotte in the 1990s as refugees from war-torn former Yugoslavia. When his wife found a job in a warehouse, Dino started a Bosnian grocery store where he could have his children with him while he worked.
Today the market features Bosnian smoked meats, soft cheeses, jars of sweet cherry compote and a wall of European chocolate temptations.
But we are here for lunch. So slip through a small door into the tiny cafe with 15 seats. Star of the menu is cevapi, Bosnia’s national dish. Stubby little sausages nestle together inside lepinje bread - a pillowy cousin of pita bread. “McDonalds tried for years to go into Bosnia, but people like cevapi better,” Dino says proudly.
2801 Central Ave. 704-589-9940.
The very next establishment down Central Avenue from Euro Grill is El Tenampa, a just-opened outpost of the Mexican state of Veracruz.
Try the picaditas, a favorite in central Mexico. The corn masa, same as used in tortillas, is shaped into rounds with a crispy lip around the edge. It holds a mild tomato sauce sprinkled with bits of grilled onion and crumbled white soft cheese. No meat.
While you munch, enjoy the large wall mural with tributes to singers Cornelio Reyna and Jose Alfredo Jimenez. Their homesick songs about the Veracruz town of Tenampa are beloved throughout Mexico.
2903 Central Ave. 980-349-4015. soulcentralfood.com.
Continue down Central Avenue across Briar Creek to arrive at Soul Central. It features classic American soul food – meatloaf, mac-n-cheese, collard greens.
On Saturdays, curry joins the menu. Owner Joe Mahaboob and manager David Ragoonath are from Trinidad, where immigrants from India have played a big part in shaping cuisine. Try an Indian curry – flavorful, not spicy – with dhal puri roti, a flatbread made from lentils, on the side.
Most folks get take-out, but there are a few tiny tables for pleasant eating on-site.
2917 Central Ave. (704) 536-1851.threeamigoscharlotte.com
Not quite sure about international food exploring? Three Amigos is the perfect place to start.
Owner Dalton Espillat set out in 2010 to create a real-deal Mexican restaurant where non-Latinos would feel comfortable. It’s become one of the city’s busiest eateries.
Order anything on the menu – you can’t go wrong. Wait staff are adept at answering newbies’ questions.
Espillat’s success here inspired him to launch the Sabor chain, featuring Latino streetfood favorites ranging from Mexican tacos to Venezuelan arepas to Argentine empanadas. It now boasts seven eateries across the Queen City.
Abugida Ethiopian Cafe
3007 Central Ave. (980) 237-2760. myabogidacafe.com (Website uses both Abogida and Abugida spelling)
The newest restaurant in this stretch of Central spotlights the rich stews of Ethiopia.
I like the doro alecha, a stewed chicken leg and boiled egg accompanied by injera flatbread. Tear off hunks of injera to scoop up your food – no utensils needed, unless you request.
On Sundays, Abugida offers the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Watch your server pour from a long-spouted clay jug as incense wafts.