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To Grandmother's House 

When it gets busy here, I expect you to help yourself, just like you would at your grandma's house," Abdul Bilal, owner of Grandma's Country Kitchen, told our table. This Kings Mountain native is serious. At times, veteran diners from surrounding tables migrate to the drink station to refill their foam cups with sweet tea or lemonade. The 36-seat dining room is located in an older house on North Tryon. Before it became Grandma's Country Kitchen a little more than a year ago, it had been a dental office, but there are no signs of the former tenant. The dining area is enlivened by the bright yellow paneling and orange trim. A signal light greets you at the door and on a back wall is a neon sign proclaiming the day's special. On opposite side walls are dry erase boards with the day's menu and beside the cash register is the dessert display case. On the walls are doll sized red Radio Flyer wagons and framed pictures of old country stores. Booths and tables bear seasonings and the ubiquitous hot sauce, and plastic utensils arrive rolled in napkins. Soul food restaurants are as close as Charlotte gets to the foods which are remnants of our collective past. In a sense, this cuisine is akin to the "Old Country" restaurants of certain immigrant enclaves of New York and Boston since one has a sense that the recipes here haven't changed much in the past 100 years -- and thankfully so. Southern country cooking is associated with family traditions handed down from one generation to the next. Bilal was taught his family recipes by his mother Aleane, who makes the desserts for the restaurant. Her repertoire includes a North Carolina apple cake, a rum and 7 Up cake, banana pudding, cherry, peach, and apple fruit pies, as well as sweet potato and navy bean pies. "Many of the dishes we serve were my mother's grandmother's recipes," says Bilal. "I don't have any of these recipes written down. My mother taught me at the stove." Customers are made to feel at home and the staff, many of whom are related, are more focused on the food and the customer than in giving their autobiographies. If Bilal takes your order, be warned not to order too many fried foods. He wants everyone to eat healthy. The food arrives when it's ready, which means that food in the deep fat fryer will take a bit longer. The ingredients Bilal uses are fresh and he describes his restaurant as "Dilworth with Soul." He notes, "We don't use any canned vegetables. Everything is fresh from the farmers' market." Since Bilal is a vegetarian, he uses extra virgin olive oil and vegetable oils when he cooks and does not use eggs in his johnnycake recipe. One of his most popular dishes is a veggie burger. His religious beliefs preclude the use of pork products and indeed his collards are cooked with herbs, not streak o'lean. He plans to open his restaurant for breakfast this spring and will include soy bacon and homemade beef livermush as well as egg dishes and French toast. Slices of hot johnnycake and steaming whole wheat bread arrive at the table with a plate of molasses. Johnnycake is not the same as cornbread although both are made from cornmeal. In fact, the origin of johnnycake is uncertain. Generally, it is thought that yellow corn meal was used in johnnycakes and white cornmeal was used in cornbread. In French Canada, a johnnycake is known as "jaune-gateau" or yellow cake. Bilal said his johnnycake recipe is his great grandmother's and his ancestors lived in the French West Indies and Louisiana, another French colony, before being relocated to the Carolinas. The use of molasses says a lot about families in the South. Where Italians dunk their bread in olive oil, and Germans slather theirs with fresh butter, Southerners dip their johnnycakes in molasses. During much of our history, refined sugar was not affordable to many people but molasses was. Molasses traditionally was made from pressed sugar cane stalks. The extracted syrup was then cooked over high heat. The first few runs produced a higher quality of syrup: the last run produced "blackstrap," a thick, dark, and somewhat bitter syrup. One run of the cane press was typically held back and reserved to make unrefined brown sugar. Sorghum molasses, one of today's commonly found varieties, is made from the cereal grain sorghum. At Grandma's, everyone dips their warm johnnycake through the sweet dark syrup. On any given day the menu roster changes. Typically Bilal has fried chicken wings, baked chicken, grilled fish, fried whiting or croaker, Salisbury steak or meatloaf, salmon patties, beef liver and onions, veggie burgers, and tuna melts. Vegetables include corn, Southern style cole slaw, green beans, field peas and snaps, yams, perfectly done fried okra, macaroni and cheese, pinto beans, potato salad, fried potatoes and onions, French fries, and collard greens. I was pleasantly surprised by the grilled salmon entree, a dish I ordered to get the restaurant high note. The salmon was thick, perfectly grilled, and wonderfully moist. Their baseline fried chicken wings and croaker were crispy and not a bit greasy. One of the best dishes is the macaroni and cheese. Bilal uses a variety of cheese to make this dish, sometimes as many as eight varieties. For dessert, try the North Carolina Apple Cake, a sweet cake, but not overly heavy. Bilal opened this restaurant after 30 years as a prison warden. He says, "I wanted something more peaceful. It makes me happy that people come in to eat and share my food. Meals should be comfortable. This food is good, too. Something nutritious." Not only is Bilal's food good, but it would be hard to find more reasonably priced food in Charlotte. Lunch is $5.75 with a choice of one meat with rice, two vegetables, and bread. Dinner is $7.95 with the same selection as lunch with an additional vegetable and larger portions. Vegetable plates are $3.75 at lunch and $5 at dinner and child plates are $3.85 at lunch and $4.85 at dinner. Just before New Year's Eve, a recently relocated banker approached me in a local store's produce section as I selected collards. She said everyone had plastic bags stuffed with these greens and asked what we were doing with them. "Carrying on family traditions," I smiled. I suggested she take a trip to Grandma's for some collards and johnnycake with molasses. Even if she didn't have a grandmother who made these Southern specialties, the Bilal family did -- and they're willing to share. Grandma's Country Kitchen, 6615 N. Tryon Street. 704-598-1221. Hours are Monday through Friday 11am until 9pm; noon until 9pm on Saturday. Closed Sunday. Take out available. MC, Visa. Note: there is a Grandma's Country Kitchen in Concord which is not associated with this restaurant.

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