Are we a world-class city yet? You sure can taste the world in Charlotte.
It wasn’t always that way. When I hit town back in 1981, ethnic eating choices felt pretty limited: a handful of Greek/Italian spots, a couple of Chinese places, no bagels, not even a Mexican restaurant.
Over the past 25 years, newcomers from across the U.S. and around the world have streamed in, making history: Charlotte ranks as the fastest-growing major Latino metro in nation. Nearly as many immigrants hail from India, Vietnam, Korea, eastern Europe, Africa and beyond.
They’ve all brought food from home. Central Avenue and South Boulevard are the Queen City’s most multicultural business corridors, but you can make discoveries throughout the city and into the suburbs. These seven spots will give you a flavor for what’s out there.
Honduran/Salvadoran/Mexican: El Pulgarcito
4816 Central Ave.; 704-563-6500.
Henry Chirinos from Honduras launched this family-friendly diner with its blue Naugahyde booths way back in the ’90s. Worried that Charlotte lacked enough Hondurans, he put Salvadoran and Mexican food on the menu, too. Try a Salvadoran pupusa – corn-meal pancake stuffed with beans or pork. Or order the Mexican-American fajitas, sizzling on an iron platter.
Middle Eastern: La Shish Kabob
3117 N. Sharon Amity Road; www.lashishkabob.com.
A big, bearded bear of guy, Izzat Freitekh is the friendliest of hosts. Ask him about his previous restaurant in Jerusalem. Just like this place, it offered sword-skewered kabobs, spit-roasted chicken shawarma, lamb shank over rice, plus fresh tabouli, hummus and babaganu.
Korean: China Wing
808 E. Arrowood Road; 704-643-1212.
The sign lulls you into thinking it’s just a wing and cheesesteak joint. But really, it’s stealth Korean. Try bulgogi (Korean BBQ), bi-bim-bap topped with fried egg, or jha jang noodles in glistening black bean sauce. Or ask Min Ae, daughter of the proprietors, to suggest an off-menu cold noodle dish.
601 S. Kings Drive; www.meskeremincharlotte.com.
Charlotte’s got African eateries from Ghana, Liberia, Somalia and more, but this cozy Ethiopian spot is where to start. Tear off a hunk of injera griddle-bread and scoop up stewed meat, savory greens and delicately spiced lentils.
Indian: Blue Taj
14815 Ballantyne Village Way; www.thebluetaj.com.
Sister restaurant to Indian fusion favorite Copper in Dilworth, this suburban spot with kicky decor attracts lots of Indian and Pakistani young professionals. Creamy chicken tikka masala is a signature dish.
Asian: Grand Asia Market
4400 Potters Road, Stallings; www.grandasiamarket.com.
A former Winn-Dixie turned Chinese grocery? That’s the New South! Asian families and non-Asians, too, flock to the in-store cafe with wonderful veggies, BBQ roast duck, and you-buy-they-fry fresh fish. Watch through a bakery window as pastry chefs create savory stuffed rolls and sweet desserts.
Polish: Taste of Europe
10915 Monroe Road, Matthews; www.tasteofeuropecharlotte.com.
Within a block, you can find Brazilian, Korean, Indian and Greek food. But this strip-plaza storefront makes Polish traditions its specialty. Sample Charlotte’s only pierogi (Polish dumplings), as well as chubby sausages, stuffed cabbage and succulent pork.
Tom, a historian at Levine Museum of the New South, is one of the city’s foremost experts on international food.