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2011: A raucous year in the Charlotte food industry 

The wild ride continues

Krazy. That's the best way to describe 2011. The range of the 42 restaurants reviewed in 2011 spanned from several dedicated to serving pristine local and organic products to one serving fried sushi rolls. During the year, I watched an extraordinary Master Pastry Chef from Taiwan crafting brilliant Dim Sum at the Grand Asian Market in Stallings and enjoyed Ishiyaki steak — slices of well-flavored pan-seared Wagyu hanger steak served straddling a red-hot stone — at Kalu Asian Kitchen (before the talented Chef Bryan Emperor departed). I threw down mahi fish tacos at the aptly named Krazy Fish and a sloppy torta ahogada at Carnitas Guanajuato.

In 2011, small was big. Bakeries flourished and provided the community with a range of pleasures from Argentinian factura, pastries, at La Guerrerense Bakery in Monroe to ma'amoul, Lebanese shortbread pastries, and Lady Locks, a Hungarian cream horn, at The Baker's Joint in Cornelius.

A year ago, I predicted we would see more burgers, tacos and sushi places in 2011, and we did. The economy has not recovered, and affordable, fast casual places are popular. It may be awhile before high-end chef-driven restaurants re-emerge in the Charlotte market.

In 2011, The Diamond reopened to standing room only. At Harvest Moon Grille, the hearty pork sliders created by chef and farmer Cassie Parsons, some with local cheeses, were delightfully inventive, but then I have only praise for a chef who raises her own meat. Owners Jill Marcus and Karen Teed scored big in 2011, first with the wonderfully artsy Halcyon, Flavors from the Earth, and then with Fern: Flavors from the Garden, a vegetarian restaurant.

One top spot of the year was Kien Giang Food 2 Go, a mom-and-pop eatery featuring southern Vietnamese home cooking, small in everything except flavor.

This year brought North Carolina moonshine, now legit, to center stage. Piedmont Distillers in Madison, N.C., has been producing Catdaddy Moonshine since 2005, but recently added the family recipes of former stock car driver Junior Johnson to their roster. According to the state ABC Commission, nine small micro-distilleries hold permits to distill liquor. Expect that number to increase. Near Charlotte, distillers are already producing gin and apple brandy.

Last December, I wrote about the scarcity of Charlotte food trucks due to the city's restrictive code regulating such issues as length of permit, operating hours (8 a.m. until 9 p.m.), location, and parking. But now Charlotte has more of these moveable feasts, even specialty trucks. Ironically, just as folks are jumping on the bandwagon, er, food truck here, food truck operators in other cities, notably L.A., are parking the truck and opening brick and mortar shops — like Parsons did when she opened Harvest Moon Grille, inspired by the popularity of her food truck. The ending of the food truck trend may have been signaled by chains such as Jack in the Box and Applebee's getting into the food truck business. During the building boom, Charlotte had many Latino food trucks around construction sites. Now, there are few sites and fewer trucks. As long as Charlotte has restrictive codes, traditional ethnic street food trucks will remain a rarity.

In 2012, Whole Foods will open in SouthPark, and Emeril Lagasse will open e2 Emeril's Eatery in the Levine Center for the Arts. In September, the Democratic National Convention will bring the national media to the city. Which restaurants will receive the most notice? Those serving fried chicken and barbecue, no doubt.

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