Say "soul food" aloud in Charlotte and the first response likely will be "Mert's." It's an institution. Everyone has contemplated sneaking a nap atop those red and white tablecloths after a Roman orgy of savory delight. Along with polished newcomer Delta's and Simmons on Graham Street, Mert's is the star in Uptown's soul-y trinity.
But only fools dine in New York City's Times Square, and Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in L.A.'s Compton beats the hell out of all the brand-new things on Sunset Strip. The unsung heroes of any foodie city's gastronomic life are the hole-in-the-walls, those joints that are off the beaten path, in the cut, places you might have to be a regular to know they exist. Away from the glitz of Charlotte's Uptown, the Q.C. has several lesser-known delights where soul food reigns supreme, and is trending to be healthier. (You read that right.) Here are a few of my favorites:
Rudean's, 2228 Beatties Ford road
Drive too fast and you'll speed right by one of Charlotte's oldest soul food establishments. Rudean's, on Beatties Ford Road, is the corner shop in a tiny strip mall, a small white building nestled next to a late-night tattoo parlor. Step inside the classic shotgun-style bar and you may as well be going back in time to the early '60s, with its checkerboard floor, diner booths lining one side, and cash-only stipulation. Behind the narrow front room is a larger hall set up for overflow seating, weekend parties and events.
One thing is immediately apparent: Someone really, really likes the Steelers. Along a back wall papered layers deep with photos and fliers are posters, pendants, game-day photos and several "terrible" yellow and blue towels. It's an inexplicable choice, since Rudean's has been operating in Charlotte since 1957. Ms. Rudean Harris opened up shop when she was 16, slinging hot dogs and ice cream down the long counter to denizens of Charlotte's west side. When she got old enough to serve alcohol, she added a bar. Rudean's serves a grown-up clientele; after 5 o'clock, you see more dress shirts and slacks than jeans and tees. And although Rudean's stays open until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the place doesn't see much trouble.
"If we do, we know how to get them out of here real quick," says manager Tammie Green, who has worked at Rudean's for 17 years. She has a photo of herself with Chief of Police Rodney Monroe, and says officers are regular customers.
Green makes the restaurant's "very, very, very popular" wings, while Ms. Ida Wilson, soft-spoken with glasses, handles the breakfast rush and tends bar. The crowd is loud and friendly, but a word of advice: If you don't know who Tavares is, please step away from the jukebox and leave the song selection to the grown-ups. The last thing you want is for everyone to know you're the one who slipped Abba in the mix.
Angie's Diner, 3658 Beatties Ford Road
About 15 blocks up on the same side of Beatties Ford Road is another easy-to-miss yet unforgettable landmark. Fans of bad horror may recognize it as the diner from Carrie II: The Rage. Days of Thunder also shot scenes in the building, which from the outside appears to be nothing so much as a very popular white trailer. But inside, it's so much bigger — or is it just brighter? Shocks of lime green and citrus yellow burst from the walls, curtains and the original upholstery of the perpetually packed booths.
"Those are my wife's colors," Leon Smith deadpans. "She likes that green."
While he does the handiwork, Angie's Diner is run by the effervescent Angelina Smith, Leon's wife of 18 years. The building was 55 years old and condemned in 2007, when Leon, a construction worker, convinced the owner to give it to him rather than tear it down. Smith invested more than $20,000 of his own money to renovate it. The result is a quirky, iconic place that smells like fresh corn bread.
"Oh, at first it looked terrible," Angelina confides. "I was like, 'I don't want this!' But it really didn't take that long to fix up." She was working at Madison Saints Paradise South, a nearby church, where she cooked and catered events for loyal clients, when Leon surprised her with the opportunity. At Saints, customers "would call ahead to ask if the light-skinned lady was cooking," she says, laughing. If she wasn't on the shift, many would not order. Needless to say, when she finally put in her two-weeks notice, her bosses weren't happy.
"Well, at least give us your recipes," Angelina says they asked her. "But I don't have recipes. I don't cook with measuring cups, I cook by sight!"
Not only does she cook by sight, but Smith uses smoked turkey in place of pork to season her collards, green beans and other vegetables. It's a small touch that means a lot to her Muslim customers, as well as people who don't eat pork for health reasons.
Angie's has a diverse crowd; seniors to hipsters to working folks flock to the tiny counter. Smith attributes it partly to her prices and also to word of mouth. All dinners are $6.99, which includes a meat, two sides, bread and a drink. Firemen, police, EMTs, postal workers, servicemen and women and senior citizens get a special discount. Leon believes their pricing helped the business weather the economic downturn better than other Charlotte restaurants, especially in 2009 and '10. "We didn't see any drop," he says. "There was a crowd outside the door the first day we opened. Every day we've got to turn people away."
One of Angelina's employees approaches with a sample of beans; she thinks the pintos are ready but isn't sure.
"They're not ready," Smith says, without even a taste.
"But they've been cooking two hours," the young cook replies.
"Then I know they ain't done," Smith says with finality. She watches the girl retreat. "I try to teach them. Otherwise, one day I'll be off and they won't know what to do."
Patrons come from downtown banks, nearby congregations and even the NBA; Bobcat Tyrus Thomas is partial to the fried tilapia. Politicians also stop in; as we speak, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake pulls up in the front parking lot. Smith becomes visibly excited.
"Ms. Leake! She hasn't been in since she hurt her foot! Bet she orders the pork chop."
Sure enough, the commissioner walks in gingerly on a cane and orders pork chops, potato salad, collards and cabbage; she gets a pig foot on the side. Though it is past Angie's 7 p.m. closing time, Leake tucks into her plate without reservation, teasing the staff like family and talking about the Democratic National Convention.
"What I want to know, with all the route changes, is if CATS will be running a bus from off the 16 up Beatties Ford Road, in the black community. Past [Johnson C.] Smith? Look that up," she charges me.
La'Wan's Restaurant, 7520 S. Tryon St.
Far, far south down Tryon Street, a tiny storefront sits empty, next to a Citgo gas station. The location housed La'Wan's for 11 years. With barely enough room for a takeout counter and a bit of squeezed-in seating, La'Wan's developed such a rabid fan base, it won the 2007 Steve Harvey Hoodie Award for best soul food in the country. The award, described as the "urban Oscars," is decided by popular vote, so Charlotte repped hard to beat out larger cities with more famous eateries.
Owners La'Wan and Kenneth Adams put forth a team effort, with her managing the front of the house and him handling the books. It was a good fit, with her degree in food marketing from Virginia State University and his career in sales. "I started the business, but Kenneth came on a year later to help. He always has my back, he's a real partner," she says.
The couple had been eyeing a larger location just across the street, but the asking price was far out of their range. Until the real estate crash.
"Oh, the leasing company made a very attractive deal to get us to come over here," La'Wan says with a smile. They spent a month in limbo between closing down the old shop and getting certifications for the new one, losing money and fielding calls from fans claiming they were getting "skinny as a stick" without their soul food fix. But it was more than worth the wait.
The new incarnation, at 7520 S. Tryon, is about five times larger than the old space, with a main dining room and side banquet for private dinners. Its big windows and tan and red décor are modern and clean. In fact, La'Wan's now looks more like a chain restaurant than a mom-and-pop soul food joint. But the food is still the same: deep fried Southern soul.
A Sunday afternoon saw all but three tables filled with late brunchers, the after-church crowd, families and couples, and a table of county sheriffs. A glance at the menu reveals more fried options than any of the other spots highlighted: chicken wings, chicken gizzards, chicken livers, fried chicken salad, croaker fish, tilapia, pork chops, fried shrimp, fried salmon patties, catfish, even fried okra and fried corn. Lighter fare included broiled fish, pork chops and chicken — and La'Wan's doesn't season the sides with pork, either.
The nature of the food landscape in Charlotte is changing, La'Wan says. "Most people are trying to be more health conscious. Even in my own life; we need to make healthier choices. Sometimes we need to try to be good. So we have some healthy options and I set up the chargrill in the back."
But the top dish is still the pork chop, which even Fantasia Barrino is said to be a fan of. La'Wan is hoping to attract another big fan during the DNC, and is in talks with President Obama's camp to see if he can make an appearance. "That would be the greatest thing ... ever," she shares wistfully. "I've got that spot right up there on the wall reserved for [a picture with] President Obama."
So far, the Oval Office's official word is "maybe."
Upscale, 3108 E. Independence Blvd.
Right off East Independence Boulevard, Upscale Restaurant and Lounge stands out like a slice of fried gold. Because that's the exact color of the building. Glowing between the Golden Green Hotel and a Citgo gas station (what is it with Citgo and soul food?), it draws the eye as much for its hue as for its name; despite the sign touting all-you-can-eat crab legs on Fridays, the exterior is anything but upscale.
Venturing inside yields a pleasant surprise: 5,200 square feet of carpeted dining and black-tiled dance floor, with raised VIP seating, plush leather loungers and a woodgrain bar. Yvonne and Ty Noble grew up in New York City, but they put a Caribbean twist on soul food, courtesy of Ty's family recipes from the Virgin Islands. Their No. 1 seller, the Pistol Pete jerk chicken wings, have been tamed for the Charlotte palette, but still have a kick. His Hennessy-glazed wings are another top request. Ty rules the kitchen with an iron hand, and the jazzy, diminutive Yvonne is happy to take on the business end.
"Working with my husband is challenging," she says with a smile. "But the key to it is love. What keeps it together is being on the same page."
They serve no pork at all, for health reasons, but offer a plethora of Southern and Caribbean flavors. The menu features dishes like Louis Armstrong collard greens (seasoned with smoked turkey), Woody Harrelson chicken (1/4 white meat, grilled or fried), Will Smith turkey ribs (meaty and yes, on the bone), and Bob Marley curry chicken. If you're thirsty, a glass of Obama lemonade and tea mix does the job. The kids menu has Bow Wow chicken tenders and Soulja Boy wings and fries.
Oh yes, the Nobles have got jokes, but "sometimes people don't get them," Yvonne admits. "We're the best-kept secret in Charlotte, because people who know us love us, and people who don't know us, need to get to know us."
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