In the landscape that is dining in the South – one that’s at last being recognized as complex, polychromatic and evolving – we have to say: There are a few givens you need to get straight with. Quickly.
Here are five of them.
1. Barbecue. ’Cue, Q, BBQ: Yes, this tops the list and yes, you can get some decent versions without driving to Lexington. (That’s where you’ll be told you need to go. Don’t take it personally; that’s where Michelle Obama was told to go when she cited the Queen City’s “great barbecue” back in 2011.)
Try Kyle Fletcher’s in Lowell (winner of the Observer Tournament of Food a couple of years ago), where you’ll drive up and see smoke claiming the parking lot. Or head farther, to one of the Bridges places in Shelby (there’s Red’s – the Lodge on N.C. 74 – and Alston’s, in town), each with a history as long as your barbecue fork.
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Don’t want to go that far? Try Midwood Smokehouse in Charlotte (in Plaza Midwood or Ballantyne), or Bill Spoon’s on South Boulevard. BTW, BBQ here = pork only.
2. Fried chicken. Price’s Chicken Coop is nationally revered, and rightly so, but it is takeout only (for extra credit, try the gizzards). So pop into the King’s Kitchen for a skillet-fried version from chef Jim Noble (and the chance to help the hungry, through this nonprofit restaurant uptown), or try the very casual Chicken Box (we prefer the one on West Sugar Creek).
And yes, if you’ve heard the rumors about good gas-station chicken – they’re true: There’s some great chicken out there. (Try the intersection of East and South boulevards, for one.)
3. Seasonal vegetables, done simply. If you aren’t from ’round here (as in The South), you may have much to learn: We don’t cook them to death, and we have a pretty remarkable range available, now that diners see beyond the usual suspects.
Check out Paul Verica’s work at Heritage in Waxhaw, where he dubs a composed vegetable plate “spontaneous” (as they all should be). Clark Barlowe will have an array any day at Heirloom. And Fork’s chef-owner, Tim Groody, was in the vanguard of farmer/chef collaboration, so try just about any he puts on a plate. (If raw is what you’re after, check out Luna’s Living Kitchen, and watch for pop-ups by Brian “Cataclysm” Williams.)
Want to just see cool pics of in-process crops? Check out @jswoof on Instagram, where Jamie Swofford posts drool-worthy photos.
4. Grits in any form, done by a professional. Sure, you need to learn to make them yourself. But after that – or even before – check out how this stuff can sing in the hands of talent.
Miles Payne might be putting together Anson Mills grits with rabbit sausage at littleSpoon; Greg Collier probably will be serving them with Gouda or ham jus at The Yolk; Chris Coleman at The Asbury could have a boudin blanc employing pickled shrimp and Carolina Gold rice; and Jay Pierce likely will have them under something at RockSalt: maybe an oyster pan stew or a Chesapeake-style crabcake with Boo-Ya sauce.
Taste and learn.
5. Ramen. What? No, bear with me: Finding this will convince the newcomer of Charlotte’s unexpected range.
There’s Musashi, a small, tasteful, classical Japanese place in south Charlotte that’s served it for years. Then there’s the relatively new Futo Buta in South End, the city’s first actual ramen house (as in ramen stars on the menu and there are several forms of it) from chef Michael Shortino. And then there’s the array of fusion-y versions offered at other smart places, from Soul Gastrolounge to Good Food on Montford.
If you know your assari from your kotteri (that’s a broth continuum of light/thin to heavy/rich), you’ve got some sampling ahead of you.
Helen is the Observer’s restaurant critic. @helenschwab on Twitter; blog: bit.ly/1cbXCAh.