Morehead Street from Third Ward to Freedom Drive has slowly changed over the past five years. An older eatery, The Open Kitchen, has made Morehead its home for decades and a few new ones have become urban pioneers. Now, at the corner of Freedom and Morehead, Pinky's Westside Grill has staked its claim.
There's a bit of back story here. After the meltdown in Plaza Midwood created by the reshuffling of the Penguin, one might think that Charlotte defines itself gastronomically by fried pickles. Perhaps, it does. But years before September, entrepreneurs Greg Auten (a founding partner of the Penguin), Dave Rhames and Andy Cauble looked westward to the Triple G Automotive property, which sported a rusting 1966 Volkswagen bug on its roof. The site, built in 1954, was a landmark (if not an official one) along Freedom Drive. Opening that location as an eatery, however, was fraught with challenges. For a time, zoning would not allow the car on the roof of a restaurant, and the N.C. Transportation Department wanted the access from Morehead Street closed. But the owners of Pinky's and the neighborhood association prevailed and Pinky's has access on Morehead and the VW bug now sports a fresh coat of "freedom" paint. (Toy replicas are sold in the restaurant.)
Parking at Pinky's can be tricky, but an additional lot is located across Morehead Street. The emergence of Pinky's, though, is quite remarkable. Already, it has anchored that connection of Morehead to the center city and it's only been open for two months.
The 68-seat interior is what you would expect of a transformed automotive garage, with its large garage doors fronting the parking area, opening in warmer weather. A sweeping transverse line of windows above the long back bar gives the room a spacious vibe during the day. Quirky knick knacks add authenticity. Service is still gaining ground, which may be important if you only have one hour for lunch.
Auten features his compulsively snackable fried pickles, "Greg's Pickles," on the menu. While many of the items are fried, including the "Nature Boy" burger — a deep fried pinto bean and chickpea patty — quite a number of items are not, although many of the salads do have fried items like fried shrimp or chicken.
"You'll love the fish tacos," the woman beside me at the bar unexpectedly gushed. Out from the kitchen arrive two tacos on plate-sized flour tortillas with fried tilapia, cole slaw, and a choice of salsas. But both condiments lack the gutsy base needed to harbor fried fish and the side of black beans lacks gumption. The burgers, on the other hand, will tempt you. The Westsider is an entirely satisfying, wondrously sloppy affair with chili and slaw. Don't wear anything that may need to be dry-cleaned. Beef hot dogs and organic soy sausages are flat-top grilled, at times glistening with a veneer of chili or sauerkraut, or corn-dog style, including a veggie corn dog. Pinky's offers several hearty vegetarian selections, including a wind-chill-warding-off chili which is enlivened by melted cheddar (which may or may not be vegetarian).
Overall, its confident simplicity is what makes Pinky's what it is — a legendary place long before it opened and a welcome addition to the Westside.
Pinky's Westside Grill
1600 W. Morehead St. 704-332-0402. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.