Charlotte's New Course
Can the South's most competitive city finally make a name for itself in food?
Slogans are useful tools for civic salesmen. They distill grand ideas into short strings of words, edited for economy and delivered in pithy bursts. You know the best ones by heart. Chicago is the “city of big shoulders,” a phrase it borrowed from Carl Sandburg. Atlanta, the hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., once sold itself as the “city too busy to hate.”
Charlotte, North Carolina, a twentieth-century center of cotton mill enterprise, did not find its rallying cry until the 1970s. That’s when the local chamber of commerce coined “Charlotte—a good place to make money.”
Despite the recent economic downturn, this Piedmont city of 750,000, chockablock with skyscrapers and interwoven with super- highways, is still a good place to make money. It remains our nation’s second biggest banking center. And it ranks in the top tier of so-called business-friendly cities.
But is it a good place to eat? Does this global city in the making have a defined culinary culture? More prosaically, can a fellow score good pimento cheese here? Those are some of the questions I asked during an eating swing through the city.
About That Cheese
On the topic of pimento cheese, there is no doubt. The people of Charlotte are crazy for the stuff.
At the Diamond, a retrofitted diner in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, I scarf an appetizer of pimento cheese dip that arrives burbling and popping and begging to be smeared on saltines. Down the street at the Penguin, where they take great pride in an eclectic jukebox and a studied drive-in vibe, I eat a griddled hot dog, capped with p.c., and ponder an order of p.c.-topped fries.
Over on the gonzo end of the spectrum, the Cowfish, a crazily popular new restaurant concept that will sweep the country if God doesn’t strike down the owners for crimes against both burgers and sushi, serves a pimento cheese burger topped with blue corn tortilla strips and fried pepperoncinis.