By Chrissie Nelson
Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and as shiny new high-rises dot the skyline, Charlotte chefs are paying homage to our Southern city’s roots. Cody Suddreth, Executive Chef of The King’s Kitchen, says Southern cuisine reflects “the importance of cooking techniques and the food culture of Native Americans, African Americans and European settlers around Charlotte,” making Southern and soul food an integral part of Charlotte’s food history and identity.
Charlotte boasts a blend of new, modern Southern restaurants alongside barbecue joints, fried chicken shops, and meat and three restaurants that have been around decades. According to Matthew Krenz, Executive Chef and Culinary Director of The Asbury, while Charlotte is “still in the midst of establishing [its culinary] identity,” Southern food continuously influences Charlotte’s culinary landscape. “We want to be reminded of our past through food. It reminds us of where we came from. [Southern food] not only nurtures us but feeds our soul.” So, whether you’re looking for an elevated version of a Southern classic or you’re on the search for chicken just like Mama used to make, these Charlotte Southern and soul food restaurants will satiate your appetite while invoking familiar feelings of family and nostalgia.
Meat and Three
If you’re looking for fresh, homestyle favorites, Floyd’s Restaurant will satisfy your craving with a plate of chicken, catfish, shrimp or pork chops served up with three traditional soul food sides. A true family operation, with owner Kenny Adams in the kitchen and La’Wan Adams and her daughters running the dining room, La’Wan’s has been serving Southwest Charlotte family recipes like salt and pepper catfish, smothered pork chops and fried chicken since 2001. Named after owner Kiana Morrison’s grandmother, Nana’s Soul Food Kitchen is a cafeteria-style restaurant that serves the community traditional takes on some of grandma’s favorite dishes. Mert’s Heart and Soul is more than just a soul food restaurant; it’s a community institution. Guests come to Mert’s for an unforgettable home cooking experience. Order one of the daily fixins,’ like ribs, chicken and salmon cakes, or try low country-style and Gullah-inspired favorites like shrimp and grits and Charleston red rice.
A story about Southern food and traditions would be incomplete without a mention of barbecue, and Charlotte has enough ‘cue restaurants to cater to whatever your regional preferences may be. Get your pulled pork with a side of cold craft beer at Mac’s Speed Shop, Charlotte’s favorite barbecue biker bar. Bill Spoon’s Barbecue is a Charlotte staple, having served award-winning, whole-hog barbecue on South Boulevard for more than half a century (don’t forget the housemade hot sauce). The brisket and burnt ends are must-order items at Midwood Smokehouse, where the kitchen burns hickory logs 24 hours a day to slow smoke the delicious barbecue rooted in traditions of the Carolinas and Texas. If vinegar based ‘cue is more your style, check out Bubba’s Barbecue, which serves up some of the best Eastern-style swine in the state. Not sure what variety you’re in the mood for? The Super Q Platter at Queen City Q will give you a little bit of everything.
Breads and Spreads
According to Krenz, Southern food is more than just sustenance. “There is a growing demand for food that takes us back to ‘simpler times’ even if it has been elevated or lifted to a more modern approach.” Krenz takes this route at The Asbury, where a must-order item is the buttermilk biscuit. Krenz adds cinnamon sugar and aged Benton’s country ham to his traditional buttermilk biscuit dough and then bakes and drizzles the fluffy wonders with goat cheese icing. Tupelo Honey Café pays homage to the tenets of Southern cooking by serving up fluffy biscuits with honey or housemade blueberry compote to accompany the fresh, scratch-made, reimagined Southern comfort food. For some of the best in Charlotte, head to Sunflour Baking Company for a cheddar biscuit. The signature pastry is a nod to the traditional Southern biscuit and has sharp cheddar cheese baked right in. Little Spoon’s signature biscuit can stand alone, but to fully experience the menu’s range, order the chicken biscuit; Cheerwine-brined crispy chicken and garlic aioli take it to the next level. If cornbread is more to your liking, stop by Lupie’s Café for a buttery, crispy-topped piece that conjures up dinner table memories. The classic is perfect alongside a big bowl of homemade chili. Or if you prefer a little punch, City Smoke’s jalapeño-cheddar cornbread spices up the traditional side.
New South Kitchen & Bar’s name is emblematic of Charlotte’s growth and change as a Southern city with a menu that reflects the same notion. Menus around the city invite you to enjoy reinvented comfort food and new spins on regional classics like pimento cheese. Dogwood Southern Table & Bar takes a contemporary, locally inspired approach to Southern cuisine, especially when it comes to the elevated house pimento cheese; it’s baked and topped with a to-die-for tomato jam, crispy country ham, chives and housemade bread. Fried pickles are another Southern delicacy, and you can get a large basket of some of the best at two Charlotte institutions: Diamond Restaurant and Pinky’s Westside Grill. Of course, no Southern spread is complete without a hearty array of down-home fixin’s. Head to Dish and order one of the classic country cooking appetizers, like creamy collard dip or zesty deviled eggs, which are made fresh every morning. Nellie’s Southern Kitchen in Belmont also serves up can’t-miss classic specialties, including pecan-crusted fried green tomatoes and creamy, rich pimento cheese.
Fried Chicken is the dish that’s probably most wildly associated with Southern cuisine, and Charlotte is home to a host of spots that specialize in this crispy delicacy. Price’s Chicken Coop is the big name in town when it comes to fried goodness; “It is some of the best fried chicken you will ever have” according to Krenz. The iconic, no frills, cash-only, counter service South End spot serves cardboard boxes full of crispy chicken, which are popular with locals and celebrities—like Jay Leno. Don’t overlook the Charlotte-based chain just because it’s “fast food;” Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits crispy, spicy fried chicken is popular at Carolina Panthers tailgates and church picnics and can quickly satisfy your fried chicken needs. Meanwhile, Leroy Fox’s famous, fresh, all-natural and hormone-free Foxing Fried Chicken is a favorite among Cotswold residents. The friendly and relaxed neighborhood joint is the perfect place for a plate of golden fried chicken or a fried chicken sandwich, served one of six ways. “Charlotte [restaurants are] embracing more local farms, and the state’s indigenous foods and are caring more for the history of the food throughout the regions of North Carolina,” says Suddreth. The King’s Kitchen, where Suddreth is at the helm, is not only well-known for the Aunt Beaut’s Pan Fried Chicken, but also for supporting and giving back to the Charlotte community. The menu highlights Southern cuisine featuring local, high-quality ingredients, donates all profits and proceeds to feeding the poor and operates the “The Restoration Program,” a five-part training program to employ members of the community who are in need of employment.
This article ran in the August 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.