Food & Drink Critics’ Picks 2019

While folks in the gallery snack on circus peanuts, we’re looking for that other level. We all gotta eat, and whether you need a quick stop, a fancy dinner or something else, we’ve got you with some of the most talented personalities and tasty menus available in the city. You could read this section with a full stomach and still get hungry. In fact, take it as a challenge.

Best New Food Item: Israeli Hot Chicken, Yafo Kitchen

In a year when people around the country lined up for hours in order to get a go at a fast-food chicken sandwich (and rightfully so, that #9 at Popeyes is fire), the team at Frank Scibelli’s FS Food Group flew under the radar with a local sandwich that packed its own punch.

Yafo Kitchen’s Israeli hot chicken (Photo by Remy Thurston)

The Israeli hot chicken sandwich was added to the menus at all three Yafo Kitchen locations this summer, and while it may not be creating lines all the way down the block, we’re more than happy to sneak in and order our lunch without having to deal with all that. But alas, the secret deserves to be out. Made with spicy red chug, chicken schnitzel and red cabbage slaw all piled on a bun, the Israeli hot chicken sandwich is a lesson in moderation. It’s filling, but not to the point where it will put you in a food coma like the Popeyes sandwich. It’s also spicy, while not looking to kick anyone’s ass. The spice gives you a jolt, then disappears by the time your bite is down. It won’t have anyone running to the sink, but it’s worth running to your nearest Yafo to try out.

Best Urban Farm: Bennu Gardens

Bernard Singleton has watched the development creep up around Savona Mill, where he runs Bennu Gardens, an urban gardening project he launched in 2014 and has since expanded into three locations. Just over the fence from the mill, Blue Blaze Brewing has been in operation since 2016. Enderly Coffee Co. opened last year just a short walk down the street. Singleton isn’t upset about either business showing up in his neighborhood, but he knows what they signify: gentrification.

Bernard Singleton (Photo courtesy of Bennu Gardens)

“You know when you get a brewery and coffee shop, it’s over,” Singleton told us, laughing. Savona Mill itself — once a paper mill that served as the beating heart of the Seversville neighborhood — may currently look abandoned, but it will eventually be renovated into a mixed-use district consisting of retail, office and residential space.
But Singleton, who lived in a storage unit with his daughter upon moving to Charlotte and began Bennu Gardens with a bag of seeds he bought with food stamps, isn’t interested in playing the victim or giving in to displacement. He sees the coming change as another opportunity to adapt.

“We know the community is changing, but we’re working to educate people to be a part of the change,” Singleton said. “If you can become a stakeholder in the community, you can be part of the change. Change is not always a bad thing. There’s not a level playing field, we all don’t get the same opportunities, but if you be creative and utilize some of those niches, we’ve been able to survive, and as this project developed, what we brought to the project, we will be here when this is developed.”

This year, he became a stakeholder in another community, opening the 11-acre Nebedaye Farms in Indian Trail on property that he leases from the Carolina Farm Trust. There he plans to build a processing plant and other infrastructure to help create jobs and turn Bennu Gardens into a profitable business by harvesting moringa, a superfood grown in Africa and Asia that Singleton has been learning to grow successfully in Charlotte over the last two years.

Best Farmers Market: South End Market

In a world where drawers overflow with takeout menus and meal kit offers, you don’t have to call out or send away for quick, easy, local options to cook a healthy dinner. Sure, the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market has everything from dino kale to bat boxes to donuts, and the local flavor of the Matthews Community Farmers Market is unmatched, but the South End Market is above and beyond.

Easy to access via South Boulevard or the light rail, for many fast-moving millennials and young families, it’s a perfect farmers mini-market. Once held inside, the farmers market at Atherton Mills now sets up in the side yard wedged between South Boulevard and the Charlotte Rail Trail, across East Tremont Avenue from Sullivan’s Steakhouse. All of your basic seasonal produce needs are here. Call ahead and have someone at Windy Hill Farm reserve your eggs and pasture-raised meats. Be sure to see what the folks at Coldwater Creek have in season — from Burgundy okra to variegated organic lettuces to pearly white sweet turnips with greens attached — the pride those farmers take in their work is colorfully apparent.

Best Breakfast: Eddie’s Place

The fact that Eddie’s in Cotswold serves breakfast all day long already gives them a leg up on a lot of the competition. You can order a burger with a side of corned beef hash during a late lunch. Got a strange craving for a gravy biscuit and pancakes alongside your she-crab soup at 9 p.m.? Go for it, just maybe take a pregnancy test when you get home. The ciabatta French toast is the belle-of-the-ball at Eddie’s Place. The same fluffy bread that supports their giant muffaletta gets sliced thick on the bias and dunked in a custard mixture before being griddled to crispy, crunchy goodness, leaving the inside close to its original, pillowy form. Accessories from fruit jam to honey to syrup to butter are simply a fashion statement on this otherwise perfectly crafted breakfast goddess.

Best Brunch: JackBeagle’s

It’s a toss-up on any given Sunday to see what sort of crowd will show up for brunch at the JackBeagle’s flagship location in NoDa, but it’s rare that you’ll have to wait, so grab a seat inside and check out the no-frills brunch menu — an unspoken gem for a place known mostly for its cheesesteaks. Make things simple with the Beagle’s Breakfast, or take things up a notch with the heavy Shit on a Shingle (who needs cheesesteak when you can have gravy steak?) or the classic Waco Eggs Benedict, which places everything you love about an eggs Benedict over two huge slabs of Texas toast. If you’re feeling extra hungry, go for the big daddy, a breakfast hoagie that stuffs a ton of scrambled eggs, meat, onions, cheddar cheese and taters into a foot-long hoagie roll. You’ll be waddling outta there in no time.
After a bit of a hold up, the JackBeagle’s team finally opened their long-awaited third location at the site of the old Savor on West Morehead Street, making it a nice Sunday morning stop before you start your Panthers tailgating.

Best Lunch: Brooks’ Sandwich House

With a flat top griddle seasoning since 1973, three generations of the Brooks family have put on their aprons and stepped behind the counter of Brooks’ Sandwich House in NoDa. First started by Calvin “C.T.” Brooks, the management — and the griddle — are now run by his twin sons, David and Scott. After you fork over a fiver, a third-generation family member will return your dollar change for a hamburger, “all the way,” with chili, onions and yellow mustard at this cash-only joint, and say “Thank ya!’ when you pick up your order at the walk-up window. It’s not only charming, it’s effective. Consistency makes for hot, crispy wedge fries, a well-seasoned and caramelized burger, and a secret chili — the recipe of which is only known to the brothers — that really ties the whole room together.

Brooks’ Sandwich House. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best Dinner: Lang Van

What does it take to be the best? Consistency. Versatility. Excellence in your chosen field. Is Lang Van the fanciest dinner in town? No, and it’s never pretended to be. It’s Vietnamese food done with expert preparation and flawless execution. It’s servers who make sure you want for nothing, and remember you and your preferences when you visit again. It’s a menu that contains nothing short of delicious. It’s a plate full of fresh herbs and fantastic flavors on every table. It’s a restaurant that’s there for you no matter what you need for dinner.

Need a lite bite after a workout? Get the temple rolls or lotus root salad. Need a cure for a cold or hangover? Get pho or sweet and sour soup. Need something warm and comforting? Get the cary tom or hot pot. Need to stress eat? Get that crispy yellow pancake to crunch on. Need a caffeine boost? Vietnamese coffee. Date with a vegan? They got a whole section for that. Need it to be affordable? It always is. There’s no way to go wrong with dinner at Lang Van, and that’s why it’s the best.

Best Brunch Item: NoDa Bodega’s Avocado Toast

Avocado toast gets a lot of shit from a lot of different people. Nobody who’s thrown shade at this often simple dish could hate on what Bryan Moore and his team at NoDa Bodega have cooked up, though. The whole thing began as a snack for Moore and his crew in the kitchen. They threw some of their avocado mash on a piece of multigrain toast with some cashew crema — a pureed blend of cashews, lime juice, cilantro, lime zest — then continued to build on it.

Avocado toast at NoDa Bodega (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“It was just the avocado and the crema, and it was basically just us eating it in the kitchen,” Moore recalls. “And we were like, ‘Oh, pickled onions are awesome on it.’ We used Cholula, which is my favorite all-around, go-to hot sauce, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is good, too.’” That base is just the beginning, and if you want to keep things vegan, it’s a filling meal all on its own. However, those feeling adventurous can pick up where Moore and his crew left off. Gouda cheese, eggs, bacon and/or sausage are all options.

Best Takeout Spot: Oakhurst Grill

It doesn’t matter if you have time to sit and eat or not, Oakhurst Grill doesn’t have any tables, so you need to get the hell out and go on somewhere. Ok, that’s a little harsh, as the staff at this unassuming spot on Monroe Road are more than welcoming any time we’ve come in for a grab ‘n’ go. As for the food, what puts Oakhurst Grill over the top are the inexplicably cheap items that are damn good and filling enough that leftovers are almost a given. Oakhurst has proven time and time again to be the cheapest Postmates option for any hungover, high and/or lazy afternoon. If you do make the trip and go inside, you will be in and out in under 15 minutes or $10. We wouldn’t call the staff of Oakhurst Grill culinary pioneers of any sort, but when you need a fast and cheap lunch or early dinner you certainly can’t go wrong here. They’ve got salads, burgers, whole chickens, jugs of tea, fries, fried okra and squash, steak, Gyros, pork chops and the best damned chili cheese fries you can fit into a box. Just no fucking tables. But that’s alright by us. After all, if they put some in, we’d probably never leave.

Best Takeout Item: Cuzzo’s Cuisine’s Lobster Mac

Cuzzo’s Cuisine may package all their food in to-go containers, but you’re welcome to stick around and finish your food there if you just can’t wait to get home. There are plenty of tables to sit and enjoy your food, and when we dropped by on a weekday afternoon earlier this year, it felt like everyone knew each other. The atmosphere is one of the reasons Kathy Winbush comes from her home near Uptown down Tuckaseegee Road on the regular. The other reason? The “world famous” lobster mac ‘n’ cheese. “I’ve had different people’s versions of lobster mac ‘n’ cheese but this is more authentic as far as that true Cajun cuisine, and they’re nice pieces of lobster,” Winbush said. “That’s an extra because it’s usually minced, but theirs is not.”

Cuzzo Cuisine’s lobster mac (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Best Restaurant: Bardo

If you pay attention to Charlotte’s culinary scene, you already know this dimly-lit, 45-seat industrial space on South Mint Street serves up the most beautifully-composed and sophisticated dishes in the city. With a seasonal menu of just a dozen or so small plates, every dish at Bardo feels special. It’s tempting to order one of everything. Doing so is not cheap, but it’s also not disappointing.

If you’re balling out on a date night or celebration, it’s the best thing you can do. And don’t miss the cocktails, which are every bit as focused and delectable as their culinary counterparts. If you’re unsure what to order, your server will guide you, using the perfect balance of friendliness and encyclopedic knowledge they’ve been trained to leverage. In the two short years Bardo has been open, owners Jayson Whiteside and Chef Mike Noll have made their Gold District restaurant the Gold standard for Charlotte.

Best New Restaurant: Sweet Lew’s BBQ

In the constant barrage of devastating news, 2019 has been a year in which we all longed for comfort and familiarity. And perhaps no food is more familiar and comforting for Charlotteans than wood- smoked barbecue and classic Southern sides. The past year saw the opening of two new spots specializing in this cuisine. Both are critically acclaimed, but the side of homophobia being served with every meal at Noble Smoke leaves a disgusting aftertaste. Thank God for Sweet Lew’s.

Wood-smoked brisket, baked beans, collard greens and corn bread from Sweet Lew’s BBQ. (Photo by Courtney Mihocik)

Owner and chef Lewis Donald’s smoky, tender barbecue and spicy, tangy sauces evoke memories of backyard family meals on sunny days. His mac ‘n’ cheese and banana pudding recipes rival your grandma’s best. His boiled peanuts take you back to gas station stops during summer road trips you wished would never end. And if all that doesn’t feel good enough when you go, you can also delight in the knowledge you’re supporting an establishment that’s a positive presence in the community where it set up shop. Donald intentionally recruits and hires residents of the Belmont neighborhood and pays them a living wage, plus he’s been known to often give out free meals to his neighbors.

Best Late-Night Restaurant: Benny Pennello’s

A lot of pizza purists will talk down on Benny’s sauceless approach to the art form, but let us tell you something that you already know: When it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been bar hopping in NoDa all night, you won’t give a fuck how the pizza is made. That being said, the pizza is fine and anyone who says otherwise is just being pretentious. With slices at just $5 a pop and coming out of the oven the size of your whole-ass head, it’s a great deal for those late-night munchies. Benny’s stay open until midnight Sunday through Wednesday, but then they cater to the night owls by serving ‘til 2 a.m. on Thursday and Friday and keeping it open until 3 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Our parents told us nothing good happens when you’re out past midnight, but our parents didn’t have Benny Pennello’s. Go in for one of the monthly specials — there’s always a meat-lovers special and veggie option — or keep it simple with cheese, pepperoni or sausage, which are always for sale.

Best Hangover-Friendly Eatery: Letty’s on Shamrock

Curing your hangover at Letty’s isn’t just about the food. It is also about atmosphere. Pick your side when you walk into Letty’s: The bar side on the right where they’ll commiserate with you and serve you some hair-of-the-dog, or the white-tablecloth room on the left, where you’ll feel like you’re at a family get-together where you have to be on your best behavior. Either way, you’ll feel at home. Add a healthy serving of honey pecan chicken with two sides and maybe some coffee, and that oughta straighten you right up. Diner-style counter service is recommended for two or less people. Even if you aren’t wearing your sunglasses indoors, Letty’s is a go-to weekend breakfast/brunch/dinner restaurant on the oft-ignored east side of town.

Honey pecan chicken and waffle from Letty’s (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Best Place to Share: Stagioni

Back in 2013, when chef Bruce Moffett was discussing the opening of Stagioni — the Italian word for “seasons” — he said he was modeling it after a very specific regional fare, similar to that of the Delfina restaurant in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. That told us not to expect the Italian immigrant food of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic knots, or paninis from longtime Charlotte favorite Mama Ricotta’s — which has certainly earned its rank as a perennial favorite among Charlotte’s Italian lovers — but rather the classic cuisines of the various and distinctive regions of Italy from Tuscany to Sicily.

From antipasti of cured salume, roasted vegetables, and cheese to handmade pastas and seasonally-inspired sauces to grilled fish and rich braised meats, a traditional Italian meal is meant to be shared. When Chef Eric Ferguson took over the kitchen this year to allow Andrew Dodd to open NC Red in Plaza Midwood — also under The Moffett Group umbrella — he seemed to reinforce that concept.

Best Snack Food: Go Graze

In November, personal-chef-turned-small-business-owner Margo Morrill stepped out of private kitchens and into the public food industry to offer the city something new: Go Graze. Collections of crackers, dips, charcuterie, cheeses, vegetables, candied fruits and pastries sit together beautifully in a variety of grazing platters that Morrill offers through her company. Options like the Lox Box, Gathering Collection and Sweet Collection bring people together over buildable snacks and dippable veggies during special occasions, corporate functions and social gatherings.

Lox Box Collection by Go Graze. (Photo courtesy of Go Graze)

Morrill hand-picks each ingredient and assembles the boxes herself, carefully placing each component and marrying the ingredients from her own tastes. If there’s an allergy or a special request, she will fulfill it for you to bring a specialized grazing platter for your friends and coworkers to enjoy. The collections start at $79 and can serve a small gathering of four to six people or can be made larger to serve a party of 25.

Best Off-the-Beaten Path Restaurant: Johnny Rogers BBQ & Burgers

Every day is a special day at Johnny Roger’s BBQ & Burgers in Concord off Highway 29. By that we mean that every day of the week, owner Barrett Dabbs and his crew craft some super-ridiculous special item that will probably cause your belt to undo itself. Does a Jalapeno Cream Cheese Cheddar Bacon Burger sound good? That’s just one of the hundreds of special options that have been created since they opened in 2018. When you do inevitably make the trip up I-85 and stop in, be sure to grab a brownie sundae for the road. We aren’t the only ones that think Johnny Roger’s is a must visit, they were voted Best Burger and Best BBQ in 103.7’s ‘Best of Carolinas’ awards. Barrett and wife, Sarah Dabbs, have been working in the food service industry in and around Charlotte for 41 years, so don’t go thinking that because they’re in Concord they aren’t as local as it gets.

Best Coffee Shop: Undercurrent Coffee

Former investment banker Todd Huber left the finance world shortly after a mistaken diagnosis led him to believe that his wife, Erin, was facing just days to live due to advanced lung cancer. In fact, Erin later learned that she was actually dealing with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, serious still but survivable. The experience inspired the couple to chase their dream of starting a business together, and in 2018, they opened the doors to Undercurrent Coffee, named after an underground magazine for creatives that Todd and his friends started in college.

Undercurrent Coffee in Plaza Midwood. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

The Hubers had a goal of providing a comfortable space for their neighbors to chill out in, and comfort is certainly key at Undercurrent, but the reason they made it to the top of our list is plan and simple: The coffee is just that good. Prioritizing meticulously sourced ingredients and sustainable practices along with the cozy comforts of their flagship, the Hubers have been successful in quick order, opening a second location in Optimist Hall as one of the first batch of tenants there in August. Their approach to the new location is much the same as the original spot in Plaza, because as they say, if it ain’t broke.

 

Best Coffee for a Cause: Farmers First

Charlotte is awash with coffee shops and specialty roasters, so what makes Farmers First percolate above the pack? The difference lies in the company’s mission. Launched in 2014 by Matt Hohler and Robert Durrette, two friends who have each lived and worked for nonprofits in Central America, the company is focused on giving coffee growers a fair shake. Partnering with three Peruvian farmers, Farmers First offered the growers a 50% bonus above market value for their coffee beans. The economic boost proved crucial to the survival of the small farmers, who are often pushed out of business by market forces.

Simeon Ventura is one of the Peruvian farmers working with Charlotte-based Farmers First. (Photo by Nahun Rodriguez)

In 2018, when Trump and the Republicans were ratcheting up hatred and hysteria with tales of a rampaging Honduran caravan headed for the U.S.-Mexico border, Durrette and Hohler expanded their operations to include two new farmers from Honduras, making sure that as much money as possible finds its way into farmers’ pockets in that poverty-stricken and crime-ravaged country. “We’re going to keep growing, making more noise and helping as many people as possible,” Hohler says. The coffee is damn good, too.

Best Beer: Alpine Wiesen Oktoberfest Ale – Blue Blaze Brewing

Whether it be the changing colors of the season or the drop in temperature, we all love fall for one reason or another. Well, at Queen City Nerve, we love it because of the fresh new seasonal beers that get released around town. Hell, we even threw a whole South End Oktoberfest this year we love it so much. Our choice for the Best Beer in 2019 is the Alpine Wiesen by Blue Blaze. The 5.6% ABV German-style marzen is done up just right by our marzen standards. It has a toasted malt forward flavor that accents the German Noble hops well. The Alpine Wiesen is a good balance of malty sweetness and is only available seasonally. Blue Blaze usually releases it around September after two months of love and care getting it ready. Cheers!

Best Brewery: Free Range Brewing

There’s a lot to like about Free Range Brewing, which brothers Jason and Jeff Alexander opened in 2015. They brewed in small batches and 95% of their ingredients are locally-sourced from community growers. The flavor profiles of their beers are fresh and unique as a result. The partnerships the brothers have formed with local farmers, artisans and creatives are great, but there’s one partnership that has us especially excited about what Free Range has been doing over the last year.

Jason Alexander, co-owner of Free Range Brewery.

Jason has partnered with Midwood Entertainment to bring in top-notch talent to Free Range, and also partnered with MaxxMusic to upgrade and refine the equipment so bands can have a better experience. “We want people to hear and experience this music, but we want to make sure that we are creating an environment that is at the level that the musicians deserve and that is managed in a way that is complementary to the quality of music that the musicians are bringing in,” Alexander said. “We didn’t want to have that kind of disconnect: ‘Man, that’s a great musician but this brewery sounds like shit.’” Together with Heist Brewery just down the street, the craft brewers are stepping up big in a city that’s seen the loss of many mid-sized venues in recent years.

Best Cidery: Red Clay Ciderworks

In July 2015, Red Clay stepped into an exploding craft beer scene and did things a little differently, becomes the city’s first cidery. Nearly five years later, the ones who did it first are still doing it the best. Founded by Jay and Deanna Bradish and with Jamie Bradish running the tap room, Red Clay is a family affair, and they’ve spent nearly a half-decade trying to introduce South Enders to true cider, beyond that sweet stuff you’ll find in a bottle of Angry Orchard, deciding to skip on back-sweetening the cider in order to make lower ABV ciders like The South End and Queen City Common. On top of the great cider, there’s a lot going on at Red Clay, with weekly events like cardio funk and yoga, and even brunch on Sundays from FūD on the MūV.

Best Non-alcoholic Beverage: Not Just Coffee housemade Italian sodas

Since opening in 7th Street Public Market in 2011, Not Just Coffee has expanded to open six more locations since, including in Dilworth and in Hygge on Jay Street. If you have good reading comprehension skills, you may have also guessed that the folks at Not Just Coffee do more than just brew java. You’re going to want to try the housemade Italian soda, though it’s currently only sold at the 7th Street Public Market and Packard locations, both in Uptown.

While the coffee (and more) shop rotates flavors of its seasonal syrups, including grapefruit-mint, plum-allspice or cinnamon-orange, they keep things simple in the winter. So for the time being you’ll only be able to find strawberry, but that’s good enough for us.

Best New Brewery: Armored Cow Brewing

As people living throughout Charlotte constantly bemoan the fact that we have “too many breweries,” UNC Charlotte students and craft beer heads in the University City area have long been wondering when it would be their turn.

Armored Cow Brewing (Photo courtesy of Armored Cow/Facebook)

The time has come. We made our first visit to the brewery, which opened in May, when Beto O’Rourke made a campaign stop there. He may have just been playing to the younger crowd when he kept asking for someone to hand him his beer every 10 minutes, but we were sipping in the crowd, and the beers are great. The tap room also has a welcoming open-air feel that’s good on a stuffy summer day, and the extensive gluten-free beer menu is something you don’t see at all the other breweries in town.

Best Cocktail Bar: Crunkleton

During a recent two-hour discussion on vintage bourbons for a Queen City Nerve article, Gary Crunkleton was mind-blowing in the specifics of his bourbon knowledge. Every once in a while, though, he’d drop something about some other liquor — mezcal, for example — giving a fleeting glimpse into the well-rounded depth of his all-around cocktail mastery.

(Photo courtesy of The Crunkleton)

Crunkleton experienced growing pains early on; people were aghast — standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the entire UNC Chapel Hill alumni association — when wait times for drinks became absurd in their first opening days. But I don’t want a place that plays it safe leading the way in our cocktail scene (For another exemplar, see Dot Dot Dot’s defiance of the silly ABC system with its latest barrel-pick).

Given time, the bar staff has certainly made progress behind the stick. Speakeasy favorites like the Old Fashioned and Sazerac bear the standard for classic drinks in our town. And with barrel-aging, a well-informed and talented staff, antique spirits, and a seemingly-endless inventory of good booze, The Crunkleton will continue to blaze the way for cocktail bars in the Queen City.

Best Food Truck: Killer B’s

Killer B’s on the swarm. When this yellow food truck hit the streets earlier this year, the nod to Wu Tang Clan was a nice touch, but that alone isn’t going to bring people back time and time again. What will bring us back is some fire-ass food, and that’s what Killer B’s has followed through with.

Okonomiyaki fries from Killer B’s (Photo by Brian Twitty)

Looking to bring a bevy of high-end cuisines to the streets in the handheld form, the cooks work all sorts of hybrids out, including influences from Central American and Asian street fare. Favorites include the Sloppy Joe empanada and fried bologna Bahn mi — and any item on the menu can be made vegan. You can often find Killer B’s posted up next to Tip Top Daily Market on The Plaza, and make sure that whatever hungry hybrid you land on, you get the fries with it. There are no food trucks cooking fries this good in Charlotte, that we can guarantee you.

Best Bakery: Manolo’s Bakery

Manolo Betancur

Manuel Manolo Betancur came to America from Colombia with $100 in his pocket, two shirts and two pairs of pants.
After working as a dishwasher near Tampa, Florida, and later unloading and packing fish behind an airport in Miami, he was selected for a scholarship to go to King University in Bristol, Tennessee in 2001. He joined the Americorps in his last year of college, visiting farms in the Midwest and the South. This experience opened his eyes to the conditions that immigrants faced in this country.

“When I saw the agriculture department and low industry points, the labor of immigrants, and I saw how much they suffer and how hard they are working, it changed my vision about that reality,” Betancur recalled. “And that’s when I started noticing the hypocrisy of the system and how broken the [immigration] system is.” That’s why he’s made sure to always support his fellow immigrants in times of need. When Immigrations and Customs Enforcement conducted raids on the east side of Charlotte in early February, it hit his pockets hard.

According to Betancur, business dropped 70% in 36 hours, as families in the immigrant-heavy east Charlotte were afrad to leave their homes. Betancur considered closing shop and moving to a different city — one that is more immigrant-friendly. But the response from his neighbors and the outpouring of support from those visiting and promoting Manolo’s Bakery persuaded him to drop those plans. “Thanks to the community, I changed my plans,” he explained. “Because there have been too many demonstrations of love and affection and sense of community that have made me realize that good people are more than the bad people, and the bad people is just a minority.”

Best Chef: Greg Collier

Greg Collier (Photo by Peter Taylor)

It’s been a long time coming, but 2019 was Greg Collier’s year. In January, he and his wife, Subrina, moved their beloved brunch spot, The Yolk, from Rock Hill to 7th Street Public Market in Uptown. This was just after Collier returned from a national tour with Soul Food Sessions, a dinner series he co-founded to support and uplift people of color in the restaurant industry. The following month, he became a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef in the Southeast. He also co-headlined a sold out, 200-person pop-up with Jarobi of A Tribe Called Quest, which, for a lover of 90’s hip-hop, is almost as cool as the recognition from James Beard.

Last summer, he and Subrina started work on their latest project: a Memphis-style juke joint called Leah and Louise, which will be the first restaurant at Camp North End. In September, Collier and the Soul Food Sessions crew cooked at the James Beard House. And in November, he won a coveted trophy for best chicken wings in Charlotte at Yelp’s Wing Fling.

Between all that, he somehow still found time to guest chef and speak at numerous community events supporting diversity, sustainability and nonprofits such as Heal Charlotte. It’s safe to say Collier has owned the hell outta the last 12 months, and he’s taken all of Charlotte along for a delicious ride on his unwavering mission to enrich our palates, minds and culinary community.

Best Vegan Chef: Chef Joya

For the first 34 years of her life, Adjoa Courtney was just an artist who liked to cook. Over the last year and a half, she’s become one of Charlotte’s most sought-after vegan cooks thanks to her talent for turning traditional soul food favorites into vegan masterpieces, whetting the appetites of carnivores and omnivores alike. As a young girl dancing in an African Dance Company in her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Courtney spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her grandmother while her mother was at work.

Courtney’s mother was vegan, and thanks to a traumatizing incident involving an allergic reaction to a bratwurst at a cookout when she was 7 years old, Courtney jumped on that boat without hesitation. Twenty years later in 2011, Courtney moved to Charlotte to escape the cold Milwaukee winters and be with her brothers, who were attending Johnson C. Smith University. She worked full-time as a freelance makeup artist, hired on by production companies for commercials, corporate videos, short films and the like.

Chef Joya at a pop-up in north Charlotte. (Photo by Ann Norment)

She had since become a flexitarian, sometimes incorporating meat into her mostly vegan diet. One thing about her culinary habits remained steady: she loved to cook. Her friends encouraged her to attend culinary school. Her mentor told her that might not be necessary, as she already harbored such natural talent. It wasn’t until her mentor tasted one of her vegan creations, picked up from her childhood, that Courtney’s future became clear.

“I gave her some vegan food one day and she was like, ‘What is this? This is your niche! This is what you need to be doing!’” Courtney remembers, laughing. “To me it was nothing. That’s the stuff I grew up with. I’m like, ‘Who wants this?’ Come to find out, everybody want it.”

So Courtney became Chef Joya and hopped around a bit as a culinary freelancer — beginning as a meal prepper, then working as a private chef. Since last summer, she’s been building a brand for herself outside of the private kitchens. In 2018, she won Vegan Outreach’s Mac Down Charlotte vegan mac and cheese competition, which led to numerous appearances at local festivals and pop-ups, and has made herself known with one of the most popular booths at the annual VegFest. Her star is only beginning to rise, and we can’t wait to see what she does next.

Best Transition: 300 East

She nurtured it and she brought it praise. So when chef Ashely Bivens Boyd handed over the dessert program at 300 East to her pastry sous chef and mentee, Laney Jahkel-Parrish, it couldn’t have been easy. Of course, Boyd had no lack of confidence in her protégé, but that was her baby! More specifically, that was Boyd’s tres leches cakes that got the attention of Food & Wine magazine in 2017, with Southern Living following in 2018, as they applauded the work of Boyd and Paul Verica, now chef owner of The Stanley, among “The South’s Best Desserts” during their stint together at Heritage in Waxhaw.

But while Boyd was featuring celery ice cream or pumpkin cheesecake with a Peruvian pepper puree, the kitchen was afraid of scaring away guests seeking their favorite dishes. A dedication to pleasing its most valued and loyal customers kept Boyd and team from pushing too many boundaries — especially on the savory menu. The talent of Jahkel-Parrish and the steadfastness of its kitchen staff has made so silky the transition at 300 East that few noticed anything other than a breath of fresh seasonality into a kitchen long hamstrung by its own success. Now with Jahkel-Parrish in control of the dessert program — with the assistance of guest pastry chefs like Miranda Brown — the ceiling is high and the air is sweet for this restaurant team.

Best Local Product: Cloister Honey

Leading up to Christmas 2006, Joanne de la Rionda felt like her husband, Randall York, needed a hobby. Between his banking job and the moving company he independently owned, he had been running himself ragged. The couple didn’t have much of a garden or anything else going on in the yard of the home they had recently bought in the Cloisters neighborhood of south Charlotte. So rather than get him gardening tools, she bought him a beehive.
Thirteen years later, that gift has changed the lives of the couple, who have both quit their jobs and work full-time as co-owners of Cloister Honey, producing about 4,000 pounds of artisanal honey a year and selling even more in over 40 states around the country.

Randall York with one of Cloister’s many hives. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

With colony collapse a constant worry since the business started in 2007, York and de la Rionda ride a constant roller coaster that can take dips at any time. Last fall, they inexplicably lost 65% of their bees. This year, they’re keeping 35 hives alive, down from their average, which sits somewhere between 50 and 60. Despite the struggles, the Cloister company has continued to expand and adapt. Last November, York and de la Rionda launched a sister company, Great River Hemp Company, selling CBD-infused honey and beeswax products like body oils, lip balms and tinctures.

Left In the Best Hands: Lewis Donald Buys Dish

When we broke the story that Penny Craver and her two co-owners would be selling their popular Plaza Midwood diner Dish in September, Craver was still staying mum on who was the buyer. It came at an uneasy time for the neighborhood, as the closure of the long-standing Dairy Queen had just been announced along with the sale of a huge piece of land in the heart of the neighborhood, raising questions about redevelopment.

Dish remains in good hands. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

When Kristen Wile with Unpretentious Palate later reported that Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ was the one buying Dish, we could all breathe a little easier. As should be evident in the fact that we named Sweet Lew’s Best New Restaurant, we are certainly confident in Lewis’ skills as a restaurateur. We’re also happy with his promise not to make any major changes to the neighborhood staple. The changes he has made so far, including adding milkshakes to the menu and opening up for brunch on Sunday mornings, are more than fine by us.

Best Pop-Up: Community Feast: A Charlotte Collaboration

It started with an idea on the menu at Clark Barlowe’s Heirloom: host an eclectic meal aimed at inclusion. The goal was to expose citizens of Charlotte to food they may not have experienced before. Just like Barlowe’s “Family Meal” menu option, admission price was based on the amount you could afford to pay. Tickets started at $20, increasing to $100 as the night of Aug. 18 approached.

Barlowe could reach guests in his dining room one plate at a time. With the help of organizers Jennifer Leigh, Keia Mastrianni, chef Greg Collier and a donated space for the evening, instead of a single “Daily changing dish to support our community,” over 200 guests, 60 of whom received free tickets, packed into Camp North End for Community Feast: A Charlotte Collaboration.

Sitting at large tables, they passed around platters filled with preparations from some of our city’s best cooks. People of all ages and a wide range of Charlotte neighborhoods gathered to enjoy beef brisket and shishito pepper sugo from Charlotte godfather chef Marc Jacksina, a foraged mushroom soup from Barlowe, and a delightful polenta cake from Ashley Bivens Boyd of 300 East — along with dishes from local chefs Bruce Moffett, Joe Kindred, Chris Coleman and others. Every platter was served family-style, reinforcing the theme of the night, proving that the lines between people in our city are so thin, they can be broken with bread.

Coolest Culinary Event: Serving the Culture

Hip-Hop + Food = Happiness. It’s an inarguable equation that serves as the basis for a new dinner series titled Serving the Culture (STC), brought to you by a few of Charlotte’s culinary creatives who share a passion for cuisine and classic verses. Each Serving the Culture iteration is based on a chosen hip-hop group and, from there, all menu items are centered around that group’s personality, music and effect on the culture. In June, STC held a Wu-Tang-themed event that integrated Chinese martial arts, pop culture references, comic books, Biblical tales, Greek mythology, numerology, Zen Buddhism and more.

Attendees at one Serving the Culture dinner paid homage to Wu-Tang Clan. (Photo by Austin Brooks)

One September event focused on the legendary hip-hop duo from down I-85 South: Outkast. The “SpottieOttieDopalicious dinner” was named after the iconic song from Big Boi and André 3000’s Aquemini album.
STC co-founder Shelton Starks said his love for cooking began when he was a teenager. The necessity was born of his mother’s crack addiction, leaving him to feed and take care of his two younger brothers much of the time.
Starks grew up in the early days of hip-hop, days of beatboxing and breakdancing, and said he loves everything about the culture. He added that he still loves the music being released today, though it’s not popular with many folks his age.

Starks connected with fellow Charlotte chefs Greg Collier and Calvin Wright at an event they worked together about a year ago, he said, and eventually pitched them both on the idea for a hip-hop themed dinner. They were all able to reconnect in April of this year to get things rolling. They also brought on Jamie Barnes from the What the Fries food truck and Oscar James. From there, they brought on local mixologist Yashira Mejia, aka Yoshi, to take care of spirituous needs, and it’s been popping ever since.

Best Compromise: Craft Beer Distribution & Modernization Act

After a two-year battle against backroom politics in the NCGA over the 25,000-barrel cap on production for self-distributing North Carolina breweries, a compromise has been reached. The Craft Freedom coalition, founded by Olde Mecklenburg Brewery’s John Marrino and NoDa Brewing’s Todd Ford, can now breathe a sigh of relief — and pat themselves on the back for a fight well fought — as the Craft Beer Distribution & Modernization Act, which passed in March, doubled the cap for self-distribution to 50,000 barrels per year.

Since 2017, local brewers have been vocal about the pressure put on NC lawmakers by wholesale distribution companies in an attempt to update an aged bill that essentially ceased the growth of local companies like OMB and NoDa Brewing. The old law stated that any brewery making more than that 25,000 barrel-per-year cap would need to sell the rights to their brand to a wholesaler for distribution. It is not certain when the new bill will go into effect, but this was a definite win for small businesses around the state as the brewery fetish booms.

Biggest Loss of a Staple: Dairy Queen on Central

In 1950, Robert F. Hewitt opened a Dairy Queen franchise in a small cement block building on the corner of Pecan and Central avenues in Plaza Midwood. According to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, the first ice cream cone was vended from the new business on March 1, 1950. The last was served on November 1, 2019. For many patrons, the business was the heart of the neighborhood.

Dairy Queen back in the day. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Eats)

Owner Lacy Walters, 86, did not want to leave the iconic landmark. “People tell us we’ve been coming here 40 years, 30 years, and we are proud of that,” Walters told WBTV. But Aston Properties, which owns the land the store sits upon, clearly doesn’t give a shit. In a statement, the company said: “We will now begin the process of identifying a replacement tenant that will be a long-term asset to the neighborhood.” They didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge that “a long-term asset to the neighborhood” is what they just gutted.

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