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Food & Drink Critics’ Picks 2020

We don’t need to tell you the dire situation faced by restaurants and just about anyone in the food-service industry this year. From owners to part-time staff, anyone who relied on restaurants to make a living has had a rough go of it. Even while we’ve lost some of our favorite eateries, others have survived through adaptation, community support and perseverance — while delivery drivers and servers literally put their lives on the line to continue serving food. If there’s one lesson we take from this year (and there should be many), let it be that we never take our service workers for granted again.

Note: We brought in Dion Beary of local food blog Inside 485 to help with some of our food choices this year, so when you hear that first-person voice, that’s Dion talking, otherwise we’ll let you know with initials.

All categories


Best New Bougie Restaurant:
Vana

Vana is a masterclass in, well, everything about running a restaurant. The space has bookshelves, old furniture, and a garage door, which makes you feel like you could be either in the 1970’s or the 1870’s. The menus are nailed to a piece of old wood to complete the scene. But it’s not just easy on the eyes.

Mike Noll gets to work on some ducks in VANA’s open kitchen. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The small plates come out with such consistent excellence, you’ll find yourself shocked that the dishes keep topping each other. How could anything be better than this tender pork shoulder? The garlicky grilled shrimp do it. Then the heirloom tomatoes, with their sweet, fresh crunch, somehow top that. Finish off your night with some tequila gummy bears and you’ll see why date nights, anniversaries, and general bougieness don’t get any better than Vana in 2020.


Best New Down-to-Earth Restaurant:
Skrimp Shack

Whenever I don’t know what to try at a new restaurant, I always go for fried fish. It’s comfort food for me. Unfortunately, the higher end dining side of Charlotte can’t seem to figure out there are other seasonings besides salt and pepper.

Skrimp Shack. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

That’s where Skrimp Shack comes in. Its gigantic menu features golden fried shrimp baskets, po’ boys, catfish, and downhome sides like fried okra and hushpuppies. It’s a killer down-to-earth addition to a part of town that needs to remain affordable and neighborhood friendly.


Best New Bar:
Kiki and Tattoo

Yeah, it technically opened in late November of 2019, but that was too late to be on Best Of lists, so we’re using Grammy rules and including it here. I wanted to hate Kiki and Tattoo. Everything about it is so easy to dislike. It’s (another) expensive menu-less cocktail bar in a gentrifying neighborhood. But the concept is so multilayered and intricately designed, it’s basically the restaurant version of an Autobot. From the French cuisine, to the rooftop bar, to the cozy Tattoo side where your cocktail might be served in a foaming brass pineapple, everything about this bar tries extremely hard and succeeds extremely well.


Best New Taphouse:
Charlotte Beer Garden

I’m so sick of big empty warehouses we’re just supposed to drink in. It’s almost contemptuous the way brew folks seem to believe all we need to get drunk is four walls and a quirky name. That’s what was so refreshing about Charlotte Beer Garden. They went for a world record for taps, put a giant tree in the center of the space, made the entire thing three floors high, and served a fun little menu of stuff like elevated corndogs.

The taps at Charlotte Beer Garden. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Ever since owner Niall Hanley announced the opening of the Charlotte Beer Garden, I had a lot of negative speculation about the operation. It made no sense to me how a small team could operate on such a large scale (serving more than 400 draft beers) and expect to keep the beer fresh and the seasonal options up to date. I was curious how you wouldn’t waste all that beer.

The Charlotte Beer Garden (CBG), sister concept of the Raleigh Beer Garden, opened in South End on Feb. 26. The space hosts 436 draft beers throughout a 16,663-square-foot layout and on those three floors, a keg cooler behind each tap wall. The first level is dedicated to only North Carolina beers, with 190 tap handles.

The team goes through painstaking processes of ordering purposefully and monitoring the draft lines for flow and freshness.

With the immense amount of beer and the overall attention to detail in how that beer is stored and served, you are guaranteed to enjoy the selections, even if you hate the fact that you are in South End.


Best Ownership Group:
High Tide Hospitality

What’s left to be said about Ace No. 3 that hasn’t been said? Every new restaurant gets hype as routinely as new babies get a smack on the bottom. Rarely does a restaurant so thoroughly live up to its hype. It became Charlotte’s best burger from day one. But High Tide was already on a hot streak beforehand. The Waterman set the scene on fire, becoming the only oyster bar I’ve ever known to become a legitimate nightlife spot. Sea Level has one of the best lobster rolls in the city and is great for oysters. With two more Ace No. 3 locations planned, momentum is high for High Tide.


New Restaurant That We Can’t Decide If It Sucks Or Not:
The Degenerate

I really don’t know how I feel about this spot. The interior is boring, the menu is basic, the patio is small, and the cocktails aren’t particularly creative. However, I went to The Degenerate more than any other new restaurant this year. There were points when I was going there two to three times a week. It has the effortless appeal of that Cheers-style bar we’re all looking for, that place so perfect for weeknight drinking, catching up with a good friend, happy hours with your coworkers, or a slightly-above-casual first date. It’s not quite divey, not quite bougie, not quite hipster, not quite local. It doesn’t have the best entree or the most ostentatious cocktail, but it does have that undefinable It Factor that makes you think “My heart will break if this place closes.”

The Degenerate. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Most Underrated:
Pizzeria Sapienza

I’m sick of Yankees talking about how good pizza is back in their hometown. Nobody cares. Chicago’s deepest dish doesn’t run nearly as deep as my hatred for transplants who can’t stop talking about how their dough/sauce/cheese is better than our dough/sauce/cheese. You especially have no room to complain because Pizzeria Sapienza exists.

Pizzeria Sapienza. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

This mighty slice spot in Uptown has created a family atmosphere around its genuine New York pizza, other Italian goodies, and cozy bar. I have to physically restrain myself from ordering takeout at Sap multiple times a week, and most days I lose that battle.


Best Brewery:
Resident Culture Brewing Company

With Charlotte’s always growing craft beer scene it is difficult to critically decide which of our 40-something breweries could stand out as the best. Resident Culture resides as the winner in this category for local innovation and quick COVID pivoting. For a taproom and production facility that has been open for just three years, RC has poured heavily into the regional and national market.

This year, after a whisper of an announcement of opening a second taproom in Charlotte, RC owner Phillip McLamb halted the forward progress of a new space and evaluated “business as usual.” As breweries around the city realized the demand for their products from the dog moms and dads of the Queen City, Resident Culture was the first to set up a drive-thru operation for call-ahead and online orders.

They began hosting pop-up activations at neighborhoods around the area like in Union county and Davidson. It was the first step in how local breweries would pivot, at least right up until they had a special designation by the Governor and have operated successfully ever since.

Either way, Resident Culture has been a welcome addition to Plaza Midwood, doing the right thing and serving beer that has garnered a well-deserved following.


Best New Brewery:
Devil’s Logic Brewing

Maybe it’s because I turned 30 this year, but did the brewery scene become a little too “clubby” for anyone else in the last few years? The music is way too loud, you stand at the bar for 15 minutes waiting for a bartender to notice you, and there’s a whole bunch of twenty-somethings up in your personal space.

Devil’s Logic Brewing. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Devil’s Logic took a different approach: a brewery for grownups. Sure, you’ve got flights and hazy IPAs and picnic furniture, all the stuff you expect to see at a brewery, but you’ve also got space to move around that remains cozy, and a clientele who just feels happy to drink a few beers in the sun on a relaxed Saturday.

It’s nice to not have to be an old man yelling at clouds, and just be an old man sipping beer while watching them float by.


Best COVID-19 Response:
Sycamore Brewing

I sympathize with restaurant and bar owners during this pandemic. The federal government hasn’t provided nearly enough relief to help them continue to operate, while the local government has essentially placed all the pressure of policing mask mandates on individual business owners.

I commend Sycamore Brewing for being the first brewery to shutdown voluntarily as the pandemic began to ravage Charlotte. After that, in times where the brewery staff felt like they weren’t able to enforce masks, they closed for service.

(Photo courtesy of Sycamore Brewing)

Compare that to a brewery like Olde Meck, who not only threw a large-scale event, but blamed “cancel culture” when COVID cases were connected to Mecktoberfest, and blocked any journalist or patron who mentioned it.

Sycamore is doing what they have to in order to keep people safe, shutting down again as this paper goes to print due to rising COVID numbers during the cold season.

Now hopefully the government will do what they have to in order to ensure Sycamore and other establishments can continue to survive.


Best Beer:
Edge City Brewery, Black is Beautiful

It’s no secret craft beer has a diversity problem. In this summer’s national uprising against police brutality, a Black brewer named Marcus Baskerville, co-founder of Weathered Souls Brewing Company in San Antonio, asked fellow brewers around the world to stand in solidarity with Black people by brewing a beer called Black is Beautiful and giving 100% of its proceeds to a local organization focused on police reform. Nineteen breweries around Charlotte answered the call, and we got a wide variety of tasty beers and even a mead.

Our favorite came from Edge City Brewery, which incorporated chocolate and vanilla salted-caramel gelato and conditioned it with salted pistachios, cocoa nibs and bourbon oak cubes to make its oatmeal stout. All proceeds from Edge City’s beer went to Heal Charlotte to help raise funds for that organization’s affordable housing campus we discuss in City Life.

Here’s a full list of other area breweries who participated, so you can collect them all: Ass clown, Birdsong, Cavendish, Divine Barrel, Goodroad Ciderworks, High Branch, Hive, Middle James, Newgrass, NoDa, Pilot, Protagonist, Resident Culture, Salud Cerveceria, Sycamore, Unknown, Triple C, Wooden Robot.


Best Step in the Right Direction:
Sugar Creek Brewing Internship for Aspiring Black Brewers

When the Black is Beautiful initiative swept through Charlotte’s craft beer industry, Marques Nash was gratified. As the general manager of Sugar Creek Brewing Company — the only Black  brewery GM in town — Nash approved of the idea of utilizing the popularity of craft beer to raise awareness and funding for a worthy cause. But he also wondered: Why stop with a beer release?

Nash went to his employers, Sugar Creek Brewing Company founders and co-owners Joe Vogelbacher and Eric Flanigan, and proposed that the brewery offer a paid internship to a Black person interested in entering the craft beer field. The internship would cover all aspects of the industry, and upon completion the intern would receive assistance in finding a job in the field or becoming an owner of their own business.

Black craft beer
Marques Nash at Sugar Creek Brewing Co. (Photo by Daniel Clark Cunningham)

“I was thinking of the saying, ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’s set for life,’” Nash told Queen City Nerve. But in this case the idea can be restated as: “Why release a Black is Beautiful beer, when you can give a Black person a livelihood and career.”

In late November, Sugar Creek brought on their first intern, Lashea Johnson, who said she’s excited to start and wants to pursue brewing beer full-time.


Best Food Cart:
Halal Truck

During the large-scale movement against police brutality and systemic racism in Charlotte, we saw Uptown turn into a warzone as kettling and flashbangs were used by police on peaceful protesters. Throughout all the chaos, Halal Truck never left its corner spot on Tryon.

They served lamb gyros to protesters still trying to flush pepper spray from their eyes. It was a tiny piece of warmth in a neighborhood that felt like it was growing cold. This is food service with conviction and courage.

 


Best Foodie Event:
Unknown Brewing Company Cocktail Preview Event

When I got invited to The Unknown Brewing Company’s preview of its new cocktail menu, I was expecting the usual event with the usual suspects. That means sipping small samples with Instagrammers I barely know as we all try to snap a somehow unique photo of the same exact cocktail. What I wasn’t expecting was Unknown to give us nine full-sized cocktails with nine different liquor bases. What preceded was an insanely fun night that led to a whole lot of cars being left behind. The cocktails were phenomenal, but the fun was unforgettable.


Best Menu Item:
Pan-Seared NC Fish, Leah and Louise

Leah and Louise was my most anticipated opening of 2020. When the pandemic hit, they were the first restaurant I thought of. How do you open a restaurant when the local government just commanded that all dining rooms be closed? But Greg and Subrina Collier used curbside pickup to maintain until their dining room could launch. When it did, they received national attention as one of the best new restaurants in the country. You’ll understand why if you try the NC fish.

The NC Pan-Seared Fish at Leah & louise. (Photo by Dion Beary)

The pan-seared NC fish is flaky, tender, and sits in a sweet and savory brown butter sauce. It comes with a balancing seared squash and is presented like a religious relic one might stumble upon in some Aztec jungle. L&L puts out a rapidly rotating menu, but if you might happen to come across any dish from 2020, you going to want to come across this one.


Best Side Item:
Coaltrane’s Char Grill, Half-Stuffed Avocado

Avocado toast is so 2019, millennials have moved on and now this fruit is the foundation (it’s an actual fucking berry, did you know that?!). Coaltrane’s Char Grill offers up the full avocado stuffed with wild rice and quinoa then topped generously with queso fresco, red peppers and salsa roja for about $10, but since you’re going to want some chicken if you’re at Coaltrane’s, our suggestion is that you go with the half-stuffed avocado, which goes for $5 and packs a punch but leaves room in your stomach and wallet for a partnering lunch item.

They also offer an awesome “Avo-keto” stuffed with fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, EVOO, cilantro, bacon and balsamic on a bed of romaine if you’re into that sort of thing.


Best New Menu:
Dish

Dish’s new owners are the same folks who own Sweet Lew’s BBQ in the Belmont neighborhood. You’re always going to get some pangs of worry when an established restaurant comes under new ownership, but the Sweet Lew’s team did a great job at maintaining and expanding upon the no-frills Southern menu that made Dish famous. Expect flavorful Southern favorites, plenty of vegetarian options, and enough sides to bring home leftovers.

Grab yourself a Dish. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Best Breakfast:
Poppy’s Bagels

In a decade in Charlotte, the Rippner family hasn’t seen a year like this one, but they’ve been able to take things in stride and offer up their kettle-boiled-and-baked bagels on a to-go basis, and on the occasions we’ve stopped by the South Boulevard location of Poppy’s Bagels & More, the crowd puttering about outside on the sidewalk makes it seem like they’re doing OK for themselves.

With Owen’s Bagel and Deli shutting down just up the street, it’s all the more important for South Enders that Poppy’s continue to pump out their amazing specialty egg sandwiches, especially that Eggs Benedict Bagel.


Best Brunch:
Uptown Yolk

If you’re just learning about Greg and Subrina Collier because of Leah & Louise, you need to get up on the original: Uptown Yolk located in 7th Street Public Market. Brunch still looks a bit different as restaurants navigate COVID-19, but if you’re looking for a brunch that packs a flavor-punch (even when you order it to-go) that will force you into a “love affair with breakfast,” this is where you need to look. The Mojo Hash and Shrimp & Grits includes melt-in-your-mouth textures and flavors that will have you going back again in the very near future. Start cheating on your previous favorite brunch spot ASAP and experience all the guilty pleasure that you won’t regret.


Best Lunch:
Sub One Hoagie

This unassuming storefront for Sub One Hoagie is tucked away in a Fourth Ward strip mall on Graham Street, but we highly suggest you seek it out. The subs are high quality, and most of them actually come in under $5, which other chains claim on commercials but don’t carry through on. Most of all, the family that runs it, led by owner Richard Jones, his son Derek and nephew Aaron, could not be nicer folks. It’s a go-to for us in the office when we’re feeling indecisive, because Sub One never lets you down or leaves you broke. 


Best Dinner:
Bardo

Bardo (in Tibetan Buddhism) is a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death. And it’s safe to say that one visit to this South End dining experience will certainly have you wondering if you’ve died and gone to heaven after seeing and tasting the beautiful creations of Chef Michael Knoll. Then, you’ll walk out reborn, yearning for more. Bardo rejuvenated the Charlotte food scene when they opened in 2018 and they’ve done it again in the midst of COVID-19, debuting their new tasting menu concept featuring tastings of 3, 5, 7, and 12. As dining experiences go, Bardo is the crème de la crème.


Best Late-Night:
Billy Jack’s Shack

Billy Jack’s Shack has changed a lot since they first opened just two short years ago. In the beginning, they were a formidable new dive bar. You could join their beer club, always find a seat at the bar to drink for a few hours, and crush boxes of Sticky Nuggs like the world was ending. Now they’ve got a huge patio, a line that stretches around the corner, and a clientele that looks like they’d be just as happy at Brickyard. It’s bittersweet watching your secret spot morph into the best late-night experience in the entire city. You’re happy for them, but you miss it a little. Either way, you’re still having a great time.


Best Place to Share:
Hawkers Asian Street Fare

When I die, bury me in a casket full of Hawkers small plates. 2020 isn’t the greatest time to talk about the best spot to gather a with a group of friends, but if you’re dedicated to sucking down your mate’s water droplets, Hawkers is the best place to do it. [Editor’s Note: You can still share to-go plates.] You and your crew will have a killer night if you grab twice-fried wings, tofu bites, wontons, dumplings, and a bunch of other apps and spend a few hours crushing the entire table together.


Best Dessert:
Milkglass Pie

In March, amid the chaos of the sudden lockdown, an email went out from local author and pie goddess, Keia Mastrianni. It read, in part, “Times are wild. Pie helps.” That email turned out to be very true, and started the front porch pie delivery service from Mastrianni’s company Milkglass Pie.

Through months of the most isolation many of us ever experienced, Keia delivered comfort to doorsteps each Friday in the form of flaky crusts, creamy custards and delicate herbs intertwined with farm fresh fruits and veggies. From strawberry chamomile to ginger peach to sweet potato with miso caramel, the pies didn’t lie about what season it was, even as time seemed to stand still otherwise.

As the pandemic rages on, we imagine front porch pie will too. Get on the mailing list to place an order at loveispie.com


Best Coffee Shop:
CupLux Coffee

I love Waterbean, Undercurrent, and Queen City Grounds. I love the nasty burnt pot of coffee in the Shell gas station with spilled sugar all over the counter. I love the free Keurig pods in a cheap hotel. All that to say I love coffee, all coffee, all the time. But ask me about my favorite coffee shop, and the same spot comes to mind year after year. CupLux, a tiny drive-thru coffee shop on Freedom Drive, serves draft cold brew and seasonal specials (their PSL puts Starbucks to shame). For pure coffee, the hot stuff that comes in your cup, I don’t think anywhere in Charlotte can touch it.


Best Food Truck:
What the Fries

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. We all love french fries, so why not open up a food truck where we put a bunch of shit on top of french fries? What the Fries’ loaded fries seem like something my brain dreamed up at its hungriest. Lobster mac and cheese fries? Shrimp hibachi fries? Classic truffle fries? Yes, yes, and yes. The owners got a bunch of hype this year for being one of the standout Black-owned restaurants in Charlotte, and pivoting well during the pandemic. It pushed their awareness into the next level in Charlotte and I can’t think of a group of hardworking folks who deserve it more.

What the Fries
The What the Fries team (from left): operations manager Kaila Williams and co-founders Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams. (Photo courtesy of WTF)

Best Bakery:
Burney’s Sweets & More

Burney’s Sweets & More sits at a mostly quiet section of North Davidson Street heading into Uptown. You’ve probably driven by it a hundred times and never noticed it. But this small North Carolina bakery packs a punch due to its secret weapon: stuffed glazed croissants. Imagine a croissant, but it’s a donut instead. I’m not exaggerating in the least bit when I say this is the most important invention since the automobile. I recommend picking up a dozen so you can try all the flavors. They’ve got your standard donuts, cakes, cookies, and brownies too.


Best Chef:
Greg Collier

There’s plenty of reasons why Chef Greg Collier deserves the title of Charlotte’s best chef. There’s his James Beard nomination, his nationally-recognized debut of Leah & Louise, his mentorship of young Black chefs, and the fact that he and his wife Subrina are total couple goals. But beyond all of that, I recall a marathon phone conversation I had with Greg and Subrina in August. We talked about race, history, family, Charlotte, media, real estate, education, and the South. And that’s the kind of full-fledged thoughtfulness you can feel when you dine in Leah & Louise. I’m not surprised their restaurant says something about the culture it exists in, because Greg and Subrina have a lot to say.

Greg and Subrina Collier in the Leah & Louise space before it was built. (Photo by Peter Taylor)

Best Vegan Chef:
Julia Simon

Since 2012, Julia has helped Charlotteans on their vegan and healthy-eating journeys through her catering and delivery company Nourish Charlotte. In those eight years, she’s been a transformative figure on the city’s vegan scene, which has grown exponentially since her arrival.

vegan in Charlotte
Julia Simon (Photo by Jasiatic Anderson)

She puts in hours of service to our community, educating on topics of nutrition, cooking techniques and sustainability and donating food to organizations like Time Out Youth, Goodyear Arts, and Feed the Movement. Plus, she makes a mean butternut mac n cheese.

In November, she opened her first restaurant, Plant Joy, at Camp North End, and we’re already addicted to her rainbow toast.


Best Brunch Item:
Letty’s on Shamrock, Honey Pecan Chicken

Normally I wander into Letty’s on a Saturday morning after a night of drinking with sunglasses on looking for coffee and a water, lots of water — the staff is always more eager to fill my coffee cup and not the latter. I peruse the menu thinking that I’m going to order something different or try something new, but I know I’m going to get the honey pecan chicken entrée.

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

It comes out fast and is served crispy and golden, covered in a pecan honey butter sauce with two side items of your choosing. It is a hefty piece of chicken that will keep you full well into dinner time that is equal parts sweet and savory. I promise that when you eat this meal for the first time, you will continue to think about eating it for years to come. -JL


Best Old Place:
Lang Van

The best Southern comfort food in Charlotte includes homespun family favorites from the deep South – by which we mean deep in the heart of South Vietnam. Lang Van, the cozy and unpretentious eatery on Shamrock Drive, has been owned by Dan Nguyen since 2009. Before that, the restaurant was launched in 1990 by No Duong who hired Nguyen and took her under the Duong family’s wing.

Upon entering the restaurant, visitors are confronted by a surprising and fanciful bamboo curtain. This tiki-bar-like concession to exotic Southeast Asia aside, the rest of the dining room is pretty basic. Small tables and diner-style booths sport tablecloths emblazoned with multi-hued maps of Vietnam, a reminder of Nguyen’s homeland.

In June, customers learned that Nguyen was keeping those tables empty because she cared for the health of her staff and customers, whom she considered family. But business paid dearly for Nguyen’s decision. For months the restaurant operated as take-out only, even through NC’s COVID-19 restrictions would have allowed 50% indoor seating capacity, and bills piled up.

Lang Van
Dan Nguyen has owned Lang Van since 2009. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

An Instagram post about Lang Van’s dire financial straits from Made To Last Tattoo owner Chris Stuart spread like wildfire. Longtime customer Carly Valigura West started a fundraiser. As funds poured in to save the beloved dining institution, many people went online to share stories of wonderful meals and acts of kindness by restaurant staff.

With her newfound influx of cash, a grateful Nguyen paid her bills and rent, but she also paid it forward. To each of her staff members, who never received a pay cut despite the restaurant’s halting cash flow, she gave a $1,000 bonus. She has also tracked down each and every donor, so she could thank them with gift cards, bottles of champagne or free food.

If Nguyen has any money left over, she plans to donate to cancer research, helping the homeless, and supporting veterans. It’s not a surprising move for a business owner who truly loves her customers and community.


Best Comeback:
Brooks’ Sandwich House

Early on the morning of December 9, 2019, Scott Brooks, co-owner of Brooks’ Sandwich House along with his twin brother David, was opening for the day when he was shot and killed during an attempted robbery. The following night, the tiny burger stop was swarmed with community members wishing to pay their respects to the fallen roadside restaurateur.

“I’ve had a lot of people come to me and … tell their own story about what the Brooks family meant to them,” CMPD Lt. Bryan Crum said during a press conference. “A common thread through all of these is that [the Brooks family] were out in the community, they knew their neighbors and they were there to help them.”

The tragedy forced the restaurant to close after 40 years in business, but on Feb. 1 they reopened.

“I’m just so thankful to be able to open back up and serve the public again,” David Brooks said.

In March, the Brooks family took a step toward justice when police arrested Terry Connor Jr. as the first suspect in Brooks’ murder, which police said was carried out by two people as part of an armed robbery.

David Brooks, brother of Scott Brooks, thanks members of the community attending a candlelight service in honor of Scott on December 10. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

But March was also the month when COVID-19 transmission rates surged in Charlotte. The neighborhood institution with the walk-up window and no indoor seating shut down again.

“We do not want to risk anyone’s health over work,” the eatery posted on its Facebook page.

With the spring, the beloved NoDa restaurant came back stronger than ever, reopening for the second time this year on May 4. Patrons started lining up immediately for burgers, chili and simple sandwiches. In November, CMPD charged a second man in the  murder of Scott Brooks, alleged spree killer Steven Staples. It could be a sign that the beloved neighborhood restaurant’s travails are coming to an end — or it just might mean you can’t keep a good sandwich shop down.


Best Farmers Market:
Mecklenburg County Market

When it comes to farm fresh food, Dale McLaughlin knows what he’s talking about. Now 82 years old, he’s been running Dale McLaughlin Produce at Mecklenburg County Market for over 50 years. On any given morning, the red brick market sandwiched between hospital buildings on the campus of CMC Main near Uptown is filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, most of them from nearby farms.

Shoppers sift through sweet potatoes, bell peppers and squashes, but many make a beeline for the refrigerator cases at the back of the building.

The coolers are stocked with packaged vegan and vegetarian meals — homemade soups, salads, quiches, pies, pasta dishes and more, all made with fresh whole foods. They are all mouthwatering offerings from Beverly’s Gourmet Foods, a company owned and run by Dale’s daughter Beverly McLaughlin. Clearly fresh food is a family affair at this cozy building. Both father and daughter affirm that their products are fresh and wholesome.

As healthy eating becomes increasingly important to consumers, Dale and Beverly stress that the wisest course of action is to know where and who your food is coming from.


Best Veggie Burger:
Eastside Local’s Impossible Carolina Burger

When I became a vegetarian the hit songs were a mix of disco, soundtrack tunes and brothers with the last name Gibb, either alone or in groups: Andy Gibbs’ “Shadow Dancing,” the Bee Gee’s “Night Fever,” and Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” The top grossing movie was Grease, followed by National Lampoon’s Animal House. The point is, it was a different time — a time when it was hard to find decent vegetarian food. If you went to most restaurants, your choices were dinner rolls, soggy overcooked vegetables and iceberg lettuce. I was very thin.

For years, I searched for a decent veggie burger. Slabs of grilled tofu didn’t cut it, and when soy-based burgers eventually came out, they had the texture and taste of hockey pucks. I have finally found the holy grail of veggie burgers at EastSide Local, a hidden oasis for vegan and vegetarian diners, tucked into a courtyard at Eastway Crossing shopping center.

A look inside EastSide Local. (Photo by Pat Moran.)

Gina Stewart runs the café with Brenda Gambill, who also runs vegan/vegetarian catering company Over the Moon Raw Food and develops EastSide Local’s recipes in the kitchen. Popular items include the Shamrock, a green smoothie containing pineapple, mango, spinach and banana, and EastSide Local’s own coffee blends.

But the top of the food pyramid, the eatery’s most popular item, is the exquisite Impossible Burger — done up Carolina style with veggie chili, mustard, slaw and a choice of cheese or vegan cheese. The co-mingling of flavors and the tactile pleasures of munching on an actual burger are almost indescribably delicious. The burger’s size is also a plus. I frequently can only finish half the patty in one sitting, so I doggy-bag it with the satisfaction that I have a mouth-watering lunch to look forward to the next day. -PM


Best Off the Beaten Path:
Korean Restaurant in the back of Super G Mart

There’s an important food rule to live by, and that rule is if you’re ever in an international grocery store and there’s a restaurant in the back, you damn well better eat there.

Walk to the end of the aisles in Super G Mart on Independence Boulevard and you’ll find a mini food court. Go to the side that reads “Korean” for generous portions of bulgogi, bibimbap, hot pots, and the kimchi that fermented dreams are made of.

The menu is limited, probably due to the small space, but don’t let that deter you — they slay the staples.

Don’t let unfamiliarity or fear of a language barrier deter you, either; there’s signage telling you about each dish and how they’re pronounced, making your trip here a good user experience as well as a dope culinary outing.


Best Takeout:
King of Spicy

It was a big year for takeout, obviously, and among the restaurants pivoting to takeout only was King of Spicy, an Indian & Himalayan restaurant on East Harris Boulevard. Previously, they were known for their buffet, and it was aiight, but putting their full menu up for ordering online called new attention to their unique specialties, especially their Himilayan dishes.

Try the momos, which are Tibetan dumplings, or if you’re sick try the thukpa, a traditional Nepali soup that will set you straight, and maybe change your life. You can make several mealtimes out of their portions which are packaged perfectly, and labeled so you can tell your naans apart.


Best Food for a Cause:
Feed the Movement CLT

The committed folks at Feed the Movement work to support movements for justice and equality across the city by feeding protestors and those on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement and other worthy causes.

Nada Merghani (left) and Tatiana of Feed the Movement get folks fueled up before a protest in June. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Throughout the June protests and beyond, FTM organizers Nada and Tatiana could be found at First Ward Park, Romare Bearden, Veterans Park, or wherever they were needed with large tubs full of to-go boxes, offering up food that went beyond protest fuel, but was actually damn good. Always about inclusivity, the team kept vegan options on hand as well.

Outside of the protests, these organizers continue to serve their community. Through the end of this year, FTM is hosting a book drive to distribute to jail facilities in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. During long lockdowns due to COVID-19 books bring peace of mind just like FTM did out in the streets to hungry cause-shapers.


Best Cookbook:
Cooking With Joya, It’s Soul Mahmazing, Vol. 1

Last year’s Best Vegan Chef honoree wasn’t able to host all those private parties or table at the large-scale culinary events that made her popular in 2019, but that’s OK, because she had something else up her sleeve.

With the release of Cooking With Joya: It’s Soul Mahmazing, Vol. 1, in June, Adjoa Courtney shared 23 of the recipes that have shot her to local celebrity status in just two short years as a full-time chef.

“I’m always surprised by how many people show support for what I do,” Chef Joya said upon the book’s release. “It makes me smile every time someone tells me that my food is amazing, even magical. I enjoy showing love through my cooking, and so many people have asked me to write a cookbook, so I figured it was finally time to make it happen.”

Recipes include Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf, Southern-Fried Fysh, Jalapeño Cornbread, Grandma’s Potato Salad, Mama’s Black & White Greens and more, and that’s not even to mention the fire food porn pics from local photog Jonathan Cooper and design work of graphic and visual artist Vashti Crowell-Fowler.

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