Ethnic eateries are often the unsung heroes in a city's culinary chorus. Some are cheap, fast and good; others are predictably wonderful, while a third category takes an ethnic cuisine to a modern level. The last category is not cheap, but then you do get what you pay for. Quality costs and imported premium food items may be especially costly.
Charlotte has hundreds of ethnic restaurants. Selecting 10 was a daunting task, but the following group represents the ends of the spectrum: from innovative and expensive, to well-crafted perfunctory and cheap.
Ilios Noche, 11508 Providence Road, 704-814-9882. Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., Saturday brunch 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., full menu 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Copper, Modern Cuisine of India, 311 East Blvd., 704-333-0063. Hours: Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday through Thursdays 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m.; and Sunday 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
3. Waldhorn Restaurant: Gitta Maier is another second-generation restaurateur, growing up in her parents' restaurant in Germany. There she decided to continue the family enterprise by going to culinary school, but emigrated to the United States to open the Waldhorn Restaurant (named for her parents' restaurant in Germany) in Pineville with her husband and chef Thomas Maier, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and a second generation German American. Waldhorn is one of those happy dining experiences you want to repeat. If you like beer and food, you won't find a better combo than here. In addition to items that have umlauts, there's pasta pillows with meat and spinach and a selection of gilled sausages. But the best deal is Sunday brunch with dozens of items including homemade breads, omelettes, sauerbraten and spätzle, pork roast and red cabbage, house-made desserts and cheese grits -- we are in the South, after all. Brunch is $16 per person. The tent is up for Oktoberfest activities on the weekends Sept. 28 and 29, Oct. 5 and 6, and Oct. 12 and 13.
Waldhorn Restaurant, 12101 Lancaster Highway, 704-540-7047 Hours: Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday through Friday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 2 p.m.-9 p.m. Closed Mondays.
4. Cuisine Malaya: A while back, Cuisine Malaya added sushi and Japanese offerings to their list, but my favorite dish is still the Roti Canai appetizer: a hand-stretched, paper-thin, grilled bread dough served with a bowl of coconut milk curry and filled with chunks of potato and thin strips of chicken. Malaysian dishes are a melt-in-the-pot blend of Asian cuisines: southern Indian, Cantonese Chinese, Thai, and Malaysian with a dash of Arabia and Portugal. Cuisine Malaya's main dining room is a nod to tropical Asia highlighted by fans and palms. The owners have set the back space for mainly Japanese offerings. But the Malaysian dishes with married flavors and bold sauces are still what distinguishes this restaurant.
Cuisine Malaya, Malaysian Cuisine & Japanese Sushi Bar, 1411 Elizabeth Ave., 704-372-0766. Hours: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; on weekends 11 a.m.-11 p.m. www.cuisine-malaya.com
Thai Thai Takeout, 1412-C East Blvd., Dilworth Garden Shopping Center beside Outback Steakhouse, 704-347-8886. Lunch hours: Monday through Friday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner hours: Monday through Friday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Take out only.
Austin's Caribbean Cuisine, 345 South Kings Drive, 704-331-8778. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Chaat 'n' Chai, 9609 North Tryon St., 704-503-4748. Hours: Lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11:30 p.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Monday. www.chaat-n-chai.com
Lempira Restaurant, 5906 South Blvd., 704-552-1515. Hours 8 a.m.-midnight daily. Breakfast menu available.
9. Fu Lin Asian Cuisine: There's something about eating another culture's ethnic food. At least that's how I felt when I first discovered Fu Lin Asian Cuisine. Just when you think you've got all the Chinese cuisine covered, up pops this hybrid. Fu Lin offers Indochinese cuisine -- an amalgam created by the migrating Hakka people when they set up shop in India. This cuisine is an interesting mix of Chinese and Indian. Included in their "Specialties from India" are Manchurian Beef, Ginger Chicken and Szechuan Shrimp. Entrees arrive in aluminum wok-shaped serving bowls and are passed around the table. Jars of chopped Thai peppers in vinegar dot the tables -- and are frequently used. Appetizers include steamed chicken dumplings and fried chicken wings with ginger and turmeric, crispy vegetable pakoras and beef skewers tasting of curry. Although pork is popular in Chinese cuisine, the owners decided not to have this meat on the menu since it is forbidden in Islam. Rather, Fu Lin offers halal meats. But, there are a limited number of wines and beers, including Indian beers, on hand (Alcohol is forbidden in Islam). The service staff is welcoming of children and Indochinese novices.
Fu Lin Asian Cuisine, 5301 East Independence Blvd., 704-568-8877. Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Saturday noon-10:30 p.m., and Sunday noon-10 p.m. Closed Monday. www.fulinasiancuisine.com.
10. Ben Thành: For almost 20 years, the Duong family has delighted Charlotteans with herbaceous Vietnamese food. Traditional Vietnamese dishes are lighter and crisper than Chinese dishes and are not as fiery as Thai. Clean herbaceous flavors are the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine. Their latest endeavor, Ben Thành, (this family was the original owner of Lang Van), is named for the large open market in Ho Chi Minh City (in Vietnam) and filled with fresh foods. The interior of this restaurant may be sparse, but the food is perfection. The Pho, Vietnam's national dish, is a quart-sized bowl loaded with rice noodles, thin slices of beef and vegetables lazing in a flavorful broth. Banh Xeo Chay is the Vietnamese equivalent of the Indian dosai -- a large, thin, yellow, rice-flour crepe folded over slices of pork, bean sprouts and shrimp. Wrap this in a lettuce leaf, gussied up with a sprig of basil and mint and then dunk it into a savory sauce. The best dish here, though, is the hot and crispy quail appetizer gloriously spritzed with a cooling lemon and a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper.
Ben Thành Vietnamese Restaurant, 4900 Central Ave., 704-566-1088. Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Wednesday.
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