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Getting Real About EthniCity 

Charlotte cuisine covers the globe, but do the locals care?

Next Generation Consulting, that now-notorious outfit that hired focus groups of "young professionals" to determine Charlotte's hipness factor, noted that one element that would make the Queen City "cool" is to have "authentic" ethnic restaurants, especially "authentic" ethnic restaurants in the city core. I'm going to assume for the moment that these "young professionals" did not mean putting in an Epnic (Disney's Epcot + ethnic) restaurant along the lines of a P.F. Chang's on the Square. I'll go with the hopeful premise that what they want are locally grown ethnic restaurants operating in the downtown environment. The study folk call this a "cultural amenity," since eating ethnic is a popular fad for grads.

But just how many ethnic restaurants does Charlotte actually have now? I asked Bill Hardister of the Mecklenburg County Health Department this question, since his department inspects all the food operations in the county. Unfortunately, his office does not stratify restaurants by type or size. On the MCHD list are 1,758 active food operators. This number takes in all the fast food franchises, including the 31 McDonald's and the 46 area Subways, the deli counters at the Harris Teeters, even the jail.

So although there is no official document with the precise number of ethnic restaurants, I culled through the list and arrived at approximately 300-plus locally owned and operated ethnic restaurants. I did not include the hundreds of Italian restaurants and pizzerias, local burrito-type chains such as Salsaritas, regional burrito chains such as Southwest Moe's, or locally grown gyro shops such as Showmars. Nor does this list include the growing number of ethnic bakeries or food markets. I tried to keep the list to actual ethnic eateries. In many cases, I made the distinction of ethnic from non-ethnic by calling the establishment and asking the owner if he, or she, considered the restaurant to be ethnic. Some non-ethnic eateries are owned by folks who have very ethnic sounding names.

I went further to break these 300-plus eateries into ethnic groups. The largest turned out to be the 110 area Chinese food vendors. Not all of these spots are restaurants. Some are take-out-only places while others are large, full-scale restaurants such as Wan Fu, Dragon Court, Shun Lee Palace and Baoding.

The next largest ethnic eatery group was Latino. In this category were about 90 Latino spots: 70 from Mexico, three from South America, four from El Salvador, and about 10 from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Granada and Cuba.

Next are the "other" (non-Chinese) Asian spots. This list includes over 30 Japanese eateries, a few sushi-only places; 12 Vietnamese restaurants (one is a soup shop); 12 Thai restaurants; 11 Indian (two of these are south Indian vegetarian); two Korean (one of these is a small Japanese/Korean take out, while the other, Koryo, has been operating in Charlotte for 15 years); one Malaysian; and one Laotian.

Charlotte has four Middle Eastern eateries and one Persian restaurant (in addition to the Kabob House, Ali Baba take-out says it serves Persian, too). Two spots serve New Zealand cuisine and two serve African (non-Middle Eastern) cuisine. Of these, one serves Ethiopian exclusively, while the other serves Ethiopian and Eritrean. Regrettably, the West Africa restaurant, Katchikally, closed last year.

In addition to the plethora of Italian places — and Italian-American places — Charlotte is host to a handful of eateries from Europe, including France, Spain, England, Ireland and Germany. (If I've left out your restaurant, please call me: 704-522-8334, ext 136.)

Surprising, though, is the lack of a Russian or Eastern European style restaurant, given the burgeoning number of ex-pats from the former USSR and Yugoslavia who now call Charlotte home. There are a few ethnic markets: two Russian, one Russian/Armenian/Eastern European, and one Bosnian market.

But are these ethnic restaurants genuinely authentic? In a brief Spanish survey given to a random sampling of Latino eateries, I asked if the owner considered his restaurant's dishes authentic. The answer was unanimously yes. All but one owner came from the same country as the food served, and all agreed that the specialties of the house could be ordered at a restaurant in their native country.

More interesting was the answer to the percentage of clients who were US citizens. Not one of these restaurateurs indicated that the "Charlottean" customers amounted to more than 40 percent. In fact, at a majority of places, the number was closer to five to 10 percent.

When asked why Charlotteans have the perception that there's a dearth of authentic restaurants in town, the owners looked perplexed. Here I was speaking Spanish on a street with dozens of similar establishments. Most owners just burst out laughing. Some tried to help by indicating that Charlotteans might not know these restaurants exist (after all, the focus group didn't). Others said that Charlotteans may be uninformed about the various Latino cuisines. One Caribbean restaurateur, visibly annoyed, noted non-Latinos thought all Latino food was the same: Tex-Mex. "I do not serve burritos here," she said, shaking her head.

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