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True Grits: Cafe Really gets it right 

Cafe Really

8430 Rea Road. 704-541-7880. Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 7:30 a.m to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. www.cafereally.com.

What has happened to Southern food in Charlotte over the years is nothing short of a tragedy. Take grits, for example. If you're a non-Southerner, grits may evoke memories of a watery, gruel-like breakfast side dish served in chain restaurants on the way to the beach. Having had those, you question grits' appeal.

But grits done well are hard to beat. Grits should not be muddled with cheese — that's the cheap way of getting that creamy mouth feel that can only be properly obtained through slow cooking and cream. Yes, wholly delicious cream.

You can find these grits at Café Really, a breezy, upbeat and friendly joint in The Village at Robinson Farms in Ballantyne. Rick Taing, who also owns Sushi 101 and Thai First, opened the café last June with his wife Kelly and nephew Kent Lim. Chef Nick McGowen makes these slow-cooked stone ground grits enlivened by cream. He once worked in the kitchen of the long-gone, but still missed, Vidalia & Grapes in Dilworth. If you miss V&G's sensational shrimp and grits, you can once again find them here.

Café Really attracts a neighborhood crowd. The interior, vigorously idiosyncratic, holds the popular circular booths at the ends of the banquette, just right to corral fidgety children, while a big screen in another area with the long winding bar area attracts a different crowd. Really is a cheerful place: Sunlight windows make the walls of lime green and mango dance. This is the kind of place you want to go for breakfast with fun music and a staff that knows the food. No script, just honesty.

Originally, the concept had been to serve American and Asian fusion (hence the chopsticks in the "R" in the Really logo), but during the past six months, dishes have become decidedly American and less Asian, while other dishes — the lamb sliders and fish tacos — disappeared altogether. Currently, the varied menu yields many delights.

The lure of breakfast draws many. That menu features the expected omelets, Benedicts and egg dishes, each with its own appeal. The grilled salmon omelet spiked with capers, for example, suggests the egg scrambles in Scotland. But the kitchen's strong suit is the sweet dishes. McGowen bakes his version of Hawaiian-styled sweet bread for the French toast. Breakfast dishes, which cost between $5 and $12, are offered until 2 p.m.

Starters are the sharable bar-food styled dishes — a crispy calamari and the perfectly fried zucchini strips, crunchy on the outside, almost melting within. At lunch, well-thought-out dishes include burgers and a regional favorite, a fried chicken salad. The fried green tomato BLT on whole wheat slathered with mayo is scrumptious.

Dinner is more a mixed bag. As delicious as the pork chop with red grape chutney entrée is, its side of sautéed spinach seems out of place. But there's plenty on the roster, from meatloaf to a pack of pasta dishes. Plus, the Shrimp and Grits is offered all day. Entrées range from $9 to $16.

Does this quirky operation in the vastness of vanilla Ballantyne meet expectations? No ... it exceeds them. In terms of ingredients and composition, the kitchen has it spot on. Plus, the Lims and their crew couldn't be more hospitable. While it's a bit odd that a native Cambodian couple are featuring Southern fare, the results are, um, really good.

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