By Tom Hanchett
Don’t go looking for distinct ethnic neighborhoods; you’ll find neither a Chinatown nor a Little Italy, as in older cities. Instead, everything’s mixed. The gastronomical scene is a salad bowl, if you will, especially along post-World War II shopping strips such as Central Avenue or South Boulevard. Meanwhile, Polk Street in suburban Pineville boasts eateries and groceries from eight countries within a single mile.
Most of the city’s international restaurants and shops are intimate mom-and-pop places where you’ll find yourself chatting with the immigrant owners. Below, find our guide to exemplary ethnic eateries. For each area, we first list a spot that’s a short drive from Center City and then a more suburban destination. Expand your palate and explore!
Portofino's Ristorante Italiano Pizzeria
Childhood friends from Naples, Italy, reconnected in Charlotte to open Portofino’s Ristorante Italiano e Pizzeria in 1996. This original East Charlotte spot has inspired two other locations around the metro. Sample the antipasti freddi and caldi (hot and cold) or dive right into the generous pasta dishes and flavorful pizzas. portofinos-us.com
Taste of Europe Polish Cuisine
Are you from Pittsburgh, Cleveland or anywhere in the old industrial Midwest? If so, your hometown meals likely included pierogi, the potato-stuffed Polish dumplings sautéed in butter and onions. Here in Charlotte, the tiny strip mall restaurant makes pierogi served by natives of Poland. Add a stuffed cabbage main dish for comfort food nirvana. tasteofeuropecharlotte.com
La Shish Kabob
Izzat Freitekh first owned a place just like this in Jerusalem. When one of his children came to the United States to study at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and sent back word of Charlotte’s welcoming business climate, Freitekh shut his hometown doors and reopened on Sharon Amity Road. Dip paper-thin pita bread into the hummus and tabouli appetizers. Then choose the shawarma—chicken grilled authentically on a vertical spit—the lamb shank over rice or the kabobs. You can’t go wrong. lashishkabob.com
Kabab-Je Rotisserie & Grille
The Sadek family, from Lebanon, opened this restaurant next to a suburban Costco store in 2013. Look for the small plates: kibbeh—crispy croquettes of lamb or beef—little sujuk sausages and stuffed grape leaves soaked in olive oil. kababje.com
Novelist Carson McCullers wrote part of her classic The Heart is a Lonely Hunter here when this was a run-down rooming house. The Dilworth neighborhood has reinvented itself, and this Victorian cottage has become an elegant destination for contemporary Indian cooking. The menu changes frequently, but watch for dishes featuring duck or scallops. copperrestaurant.com
Try Chinese food from India. One of the world’s biggest Chinatowns is in Kolkata (Calcutta). Chef Michael Huang came from there to Cornelius, where he cooks Indian-Chinese favorites such as kati rolls—meat kabobs wrapped in buttery, flaky Indian paratha bread—or chicken 65—chicken nuggets fried in an Indian lentils and spices mix. asianafusionsushi.com
Try also: The Blue Taj in Ballantyne for an upscale vibe and creamy chicken tikka masala; Woodlands on Albemarle Road for vegetarian South Indian delights including tiny doughnut-shaped vada—lentil cakes—with coconut chutney.
A Piece of Havana
Cuban-born Belkis Plasencia wanted a spot for Cuban food and good times. A Piece of Havana serves up both. Try the ropa vieja–shredded beef–or camarones al ajillo–shrimp in garlic sauce. And, of course, there’s black beans and rice. On weekend evenings, you’ll likely need reservations. A lively music scene with some of Charlotte’s best Latin bands draws families and friends from across the region. apieceofhavana.com
Machu Picchu Restaurant
The mountains of Peru gave the world both corn and potatoes. So, start with two appetizers: papas rellenas—delicately seasoned ground beef enrobed in mashed potatoes—and choclo Peruano—oversized corn on the cob. Then treat yourself to ceviche—seafood prepared in tangy lime juice—a favorite along Peru’s 1,500 miles of coastline. Save room for dessert: mil hojas (1,000 layers) pastry filled with caramel and dusted with powdered sugar. machupicchucharlotte.com
Try also: Tacos El Nevado (Mexican) on Central Avenue, where an Oaxacan-born abuela hand-presses each tortilla. El Pulgarcito De America (El Salvadoran), also located on Central Avenue, serves street-style tacos filled with pork reminiscent of Southern barbecue.
Tucked in South End, you’ll find this inventive Japanese noodle house, which opened in 2015. It’s at the helm of Chef Michael Shortino, whose culinary career is extensive. The fire and ice ramen bowl, filled with a kimchi broth, hot smoked salmon, mint, cabbage, carrot, radish and black sesame, has quickly become a fan favorite. Also try the tori kara-age—Japanese fried chicken. futobuta.com
Grand Asia Market
Near Central Piedmont Community College’s Levine Campus, on the edge of Matthews, you’ll find this Asian supermarket, which was once a Winn-Dixie. The cafe and bakery draw crowds with specialties like barbecue pork with Chinese vegetables. Co-owner Alice Chang loves teaching how to cook her favorite dishes. grandasiamarket.com
Try also: Lang Van Vietnamese for top-notch Vietnamese food in a downscale spot just off Eastway Drive; Ben Thahn Restaurant, one of Charlotte’s oldest Vietnamese restaurants, named for the big marketplace in Hanoi.
Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine
Born in Fez, Morocco, Hamza Seqqat came to Charlotte as an information technology professional but always yearned to start a restaurant. Under Johnson & Wales University-trained chef Craig Linthicum, Seqqat’s new Ajbani Moroccan Cuisine offers marinated salads plus rich stews, often on a bed of couscous. ajbanirestaurant.com
Queen Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant & Bar
Noah Mesgane and wife, Eden, preside over this daytime restaurant/evening nightspot, one of half a dozen Ethiopian/Eritrean eateries in the Queen City. Start with a sambusa—a pastry pocket filled with meat or lentils. Then order any of the combination platters—medleys of savory lentils, vegetables and meat stews, which arrive on injera griddle bread. queenshebacharlotte.com
Not restaurants, exactly
Cocos Locos or La Michoacana: Mexican ice cream.
Wonderful flavors, many unfamiliar, are locally handmade in small batches. Try the mango or the raspberry at Cocos Locos and the chocolate pecan or strawberries and cream at La Michoacana.
Lupita’s Carniceria & Tortilleria: Mexican carnitas and fresh tortillas.
Drop by this butcher shop to pick up a pound of carnitas (pork chunks) or barbacoa—steam-roasted beef—plus a stack of just-pressed tortillas and some homemade salsa. Then zoom home to your kitchen table and pig out.
Super Global Mart: Korean groceries and everything else.
Run by a Korean family from Greensboro, North Carolina, this former BI-LO on East Independence Boulevard has Latin, Asian and even Russian aisles. Try the Chinese steamed buns and Korean soup at the store’s restaurants.
Compare Foods: Latin American groceries and everything else.
Started by a Dominican family from New Jersey, there are now half a dozen of these international supermarkets scattered around Charlotte. Most house cafeterias serving tasty Dominican or Central American fare.
Taste of the World: Annual food crawl, plus year-round restaurant tips.
East Charlotte neighbors invented TOTW a decade ago to turn residents on to the area’s impressive diversity. The annual event is held each October.
Levine Museum of the New South
Start your journey in the heart of the city with a visit to the national, award-winning Levine Museum of the New South, located Uptown. Here, you’ll find exhibits that highlight Charlotte’s evolution in terms of its economy, culture and diversity.
The interactive, permanent exhibit “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers: Reinventing Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont in the New South” transports guests on a journey through Charlotte’s New South evolution, starting in a post-Civil War tenant farmer’s cabin and finishing with the glistening skyline of the 2010s. The interactive hands-on experience is riveting.
A second exhibit delves into the impact of rapid Latino growth in the South over the past 25 years and how that growth has impacted New South culture. “ꜟNUEVOlutionꜝ: Latinos and the New South,” which opened in September, explores the ways in which Latinos are shaping the New South and how the New South is shaping Latino life here. The power of this tremendous Latino culture shift is paralleled to that of the Civil Rights Movement—a topic further examined in this interactive bilingual collection. museumofthenewsouth.org
This article ran in the November 2015 issue of Charlotte Happenings.