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Declaration of Independence (Boulevard) 

Exploring Charlotte's offbeat eateries

This much is certain: There's a lot of great food to be found outside of the so-called Charlotte Center City. And while there are lots of intriguing, under-the-radar establishments all across our ever-expanding "New South" burg - Dilworth, Elizabeth, NoDa and Plaza-Midwood come to mind - there's also an underappreciated culinary hotbed right underneath our noses, one we might easily whiff during our daily commutes if not for the choke of diesel fumes and road tar. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Independence Boulevard. The grand old dame of Charlotte thoroughfares has reinvented herself, and this time she's clad in belly-dancer beads, afghans, kente cloth and fine silks. She's prone to carrying around big skewers of sizzling beef, and likes a friendly round of Korean karaoke from time to time. She'll sing at your table, and sit down and make you coffee — from scratch. You see, after massive construction efforts to streamline her, she found that most mainstream restaurateurs didn't want her any more. But to another group of more adventurous suitors, she looked beautiful just the way she was.

The Kabob House restaurant — not to be confused with the Kabob Grill on East Boulevard — does have belly dancers (call in advance for info on times and days), which is perfect for those who like a little shimmy-shake to go with their shish kabob. I could take it or leave it, really, thanks to the warm golden décor and deceptively intricate cuisine they offer. I had the Khoresht Ghormeh Sabzi, which sounds like some sort of nuevo-Waco creation, but actually is a classic Persian combination of stew beef, herbs, dried lime, kidney beans and a lot of spice served over rice, as well as the Chicken Kabob, which is marinated in saffron sauce and perfectly charbroiled. Throw some sumac (a traditional spice blend) on there, and you've got one of the better straightforward chicken dishes Charlotte offers. Too often, diners (especially in the South) associate "spice" and "spicy" with Scoville units — heat, in other words. A visit to the Kabob House will put you straight. And did I mention that it's connected to a Mike's discount beverage store, so you can get your beer and smokes to go? All the place needs is a video store on the other side, and you have a recluse's wet dream. Can you say wet dream in a food piece?

The meat-happy Brazas Brazilian Grill is also connected to another establishment, the vegetarian-friendly Indian restaurant Namaste (the effect is something akin to placing a strip club next to a church).

At Brazas, you pay one price (which, it should be noted, they did not mention up front), get a few side dishes (collards, okra, fried bananas, beans) from the hot bar, and then wait for people to come by and offer you all manner of fresh-roasted meat (pork, rabbit, chicken, skirt steak) from large skewers.

Do not attend this place on a date, unless you want to get absolutely zero talking done (that said, if you're tired of hearing your spouse talk, by all means pull up a chair). People are constantly stopping by the table, even if you have your red "no thank you" card in full display (the flip side reads "yes please" if you desire more flesh).

The meat: On the night I attended, they might as well have renamed the place the Gristle Stop Café (the one exception: the lamb was exemplary, perfectly cooked and minimally seasoned). The chicken wings were (dive) bar quality, loose and lacking in heft and spice. The skirt steak and ribs were rather fatty, as was most everything else I tried, including the bacon-wrapped turkey. It could be that Brazilians like their meat this way. And it could be that I just don't like Brazilian food, as 60 dollars later, I was feeling like I'd just had a Brazilian wax job. But some fun was gained with the language barrier: One of our servers would always answer, "Thank you" with "Excuse me." One other server — I swear on James Beard I'm not making this up — answered my thank you with "You're welcome... to the junnnngle." (Guns 'N' Roses are still big south of the border, evidently.)

Yet another conjoined restaurant adventure awaited me on my tour, that of Don Pedro Restaurant/Skandolos, a food/frolic adventure located in the same shopping center as, let's see, a rock T-shirt store, two adult stores, a strip club and a boarded and chained TGI Friday's. Run by the same folks who run the Azteca chain, Don Pedro continues that local chain's m.o.: reasonably authentic, moderately priced food served in gargantuan portions on steering wheel-sized plates. I kept trying to figure out how this place could also host salsa dancing and gay Latino dance nights, as most of the folks dining when I did were of the heavily mustachioed and machismoed variety and seemed very intent on alternately watching Brazil play futbol on Telemundo and the waitresses' cabooses. I had a combo plate (enchilada, tostada, taco) and a Dos Equis, and stuffed myself for under $10. Add in some tableside music, and I can see why people might be moved to dance. (Likely waitservice in-joke: When my receipt came, the name of the restaurant read, "Do Pedro.")

Granted, Meskerem Ethiopian Restaurant isn't on Independence Boulevard, but for the sake of narrative thread, I'm including it anyway. Located on Kings Drive right off of Indy, the restaurant isn't connected to a nightclub or package store, but it does boast the CD Warehouse as a next-door neighbor. I'd called a few days prior to my visit to request a coffee service ceremony, a traditional part of Ethiopian culture. Not unlike a Japanese tea ceremony, it's designed to slow down the day and provide time for family and friends to talk while mindfully observing the preparation of the beverage.

Our server, clad in native garb, sat on a small stool pan-roasting green, freshly washed and de-husked Ethiopian coffee beans over a low fire until they browned and began to ooze oil. After the beans began to smoke, she carried the pan around the restaurant, allowing the other diners to take in the aroma. She then lit some incense, and carried that around the room, too. After the olfactory tease, the beans were ground with a mortar and pestle and placed in a clay pot called a jebena, which was placed back on the fire. The jebena was tilted at regular intervals to allow the grounds to settle in the bottom of the pot. Close to an hour later, my stomach settled by some wonderful sambusas (a sort of pastry crust filled with spiced meat and green onion), the coffee was ready... and well worth the wait. The careful preparation, coupled with the wonderful sauce that is anticipation, made this one of the single most enjoyable cups of coffee I've ever tasted. At $10 for up to six people, it's only a few dollars more than a fancy cuppa at your local Starbucks.

None of the places I visited boasted fancy chandeliers, valet parking or white linen tablecloths. There was no amuse-bouche, and no sign of "vertical architecture" or other fancy food presentations. There was a fundamental lack of "fusion," unless you're talking about neighboring beverage stores and dance clubs.

What I did find was that some of the best food experiences you can have often hide in plain sight, much like the lives and cultures of the people who bring them to you.

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