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Locating authentic dishes in Charlotte

We all know that person who bemoans the lack of "authentic" ethnic cuisine in Charlotte but then spends time looking for these authentic spots solely in SouthPark, Ballantyne or Birkdale. Come on: The best ethnic spots are in ethnic neighborhoods. And for the Yankees-come-lately, Charlotte doesn't have the neighborhoods reminiscent of "off the boat circa 1900." You're not going to find a North/South/ East/West End Italian restaurant section of town. The Italians who moved here probably flew in from other states -- probably a Yankee state.

But Charlotte does have an intriguing group of ethnic restaurants. They're not bunched up, although Central Avenue is an extraordinarily diverse street. The interiors of these eateries may not be much to look at -- in fact, they may be a bit shabby, albeit in a charming way. But let your fork boldly go forth. Here are a few dishes around town not to be missed:

At the La Canasta Dominicana Restaurant, you'll find a cheerful, family-owned restaurant celebrating the simple foods of the island nation of the Dominican Republic. At the heart of Caribbean island food are plantains, root vegetables, and tubers, known as viandas. None of these are new to Charlotteans who've been in any local produce section recently. The most traditional dish in the DR is Sancocho, a stew with impossibly tender oxtails, chicken, plantains, yucca, potato and malanga, all steeped in a gently spiced, rich brown sauce and served with a gargantuan mound of white rice. Yum. La Canasta Dominicana Restaurant, 4808 Central Avenue. 704-536-0009.

Not having a Paper Masala Dosai, available at Woodlands, is like not ever trying a foot-long hot dog. This is a wondrous dish: a two-foot-long thin rice crepe, much wider than the plate beneath it, loosely wrapped around a spicy mix of potatoes, onions and nuts. Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine, 7128-A Albemarle Road. 704-569-9193.

At the Red Sea, go for the beef chili and chicken legs, though they're not called that. Any chili lover would enjoy the zegenie, described on the menu as a beef stew, but it tastes more like Western style chili with clarified butter. This dish delivers multidimensional taste and the heat dissipates with a few bites of injera, the spongy bread upon which it is dished. Also good are the chicken legs, doro wat, coated with a velvety heated sauce which also permeates the accompanying hard-boiled eggs. Red Sea Restaurant and Bar, 206 East Independence Blvd. 704-375-4999.

Ben Thanh may not look like much on the outside, but inside lies extraordinary food from a family that has been serving Vietnamese food in Charlotte since 1990. One of the best dishes here is the Vietnamese crepe, Banh Xeo, a large yellow rice flour pancake filled with shrimp, tender pork slices, onions, and bean sprouts served with a dish of large sprigs of holy basil, cilantro, mint and a sweet/sour sauce. Ben Thanh Vietnamese Restaurant, 4900 Central Avenue. 704-566-1088.

At Restaurant y Taqueria La Unica, expect a strange look from your server if you only order one taco. Look around and you'll notice servers delivering large platters of five or six tacos to a plate to the neighboring tables. The tacos here are the two soft corn tortillas augmented with grilled onions and flavorful cilantro. La Unica is known for the Al Pastor Taco, a taco filled with seasoned pork that is grilled vertically (like gyros), then sliced off. The results are sensational, and speaking Spanish is helpful here. Restaurant y Taqueria La Unica, 2801 Central Avenue. 704-347-5115.

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