“It’s just not as good as the real thing!” is a common refrain in kitchens and restaurants around Charlotte. A heavy influx of transplants from above the Mason-Dixon Line have shuffled into the Queen City over the past years, leaving behind a trail of melted snow and nostalgia for the food they love and miss back home.
As one of these Northerners, I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of saying such things. As a resident of Charlotte for nearly two decades now, however, I can also tell that you that there’s plenty of Northern staples done just as well, and in some cases maybe even better, than their “authentic” counterparts. Here’s my list of five in particular:
(1) A Buffalo-style hot dog: JJ’s Red Hots
1514 East Blvd., Charlotte; 15105 John J Delaney Drive, Charlotte.
If you’re from around the bend of Lake Erie where snow drifts accumulate what feels like 12 months out of the year and you happen to have a pair of Buffalo Bills Zubaz pants sitting in your closet, you’ve likely had a Sahlen hot dog. If you did it right, you probably went by Ted’s Hot Dogs to get that frankfurter and washed it down with a Loganberry.
Fortunately for you, my friends, Charlotte has JJ’s Red Hots, an oasis in a sea of Oscar Mayer hot dog options. The menu combinations are a bit eccentric (they work!) but if you want a tried and true Buffalo-style hot dog, get the No. 1 and a glass of TRU-ADE and enjoy the fact that you can still wear shorts in December.
(2) Cincinnati chili: Lupie’s Cafe
2718 Monroe Rd, Charlotte.
Cincinnati chili has been under attack in recent years as food critics and pundits alike have questioned whether this southern Ohio delicacy is simply unappealing or downright gross. In this case, they both would be wrong. When done right, piles of homemade chili, chopped onion, layers of shredded cheese, a plate of spaghetti and a dash or seven of hot sauce makes for a great comfort food option. Lupie’s Café has been doing chili for years now and those interested in venturing out of their palette comfort zones should come out here to give this dish a try.
(3) Philly cheesesteak: DD Peckers
10403 Park Road, Charlotte.
A recent long layover in Philadelphia gave me the chance to try an authentic cheesesteak from Geno’s Steaks, a local favorite for decades. The sandwich was a revelation and I returned home adamant that I could find a worthy imitator somewhere in Charlotte. And I did at DD Peckers. The Real Deal Philly is piled high with meat and, most importantly, Cheese Whiz. It’s the simple pleasures in life, and if a can of cheese gives me that pleasure, I’m gonna chase that feeling.
(4) Reuben sandwich: Thomas Street Tavern
1218 Thomas Ave., Charlotte.
Reubens have long been associated with traditional New York City delicatessens, and rightfully so. The slabs of tender corned beef slapped on marbled rye bread and covered in sauerkraut and Russian dressing is about as tasty a sandwich as you can find, regardless of where you live. Fortunately for Charlotteans, Thomas Street Tavern has a great local alternative with the Midwood Reuben. Those interested in trying the sandwich without all the red meat can get an equally superb turkey variation of the dish, providing a little Northern comfort while surrounded by cornhole, ping pong and more than a few Southern twangs as people bustle in and out of the bar.
(5) Buffalo wings: Beantown Tavern
130 Matthews Station St., Matthews.
While Mooseheads on Montford certainly can make a case for having some seriously good wings and Duckworth’s offers some of the best sauces you’ll find anywhere in the country, Beantown Tavern, located out in Matthews, has been quietly serving up the best wings in the city for more than a decade. Crispy, tangy, cooked just right and more than affordable, the Beantown variation of the Buffalo wing is easily the best Northern dish being replicated in the South … and possibly even better than any of the wings I’ve had back home.
Now excuse me while I duck, cover and hide from any lightning strikes heading my way.
Photos: Todd Sumlin; Sallie Funderburk; Katie Toussaint