After a connection made over livermush — and confirmation it would be Neese’s today — David Brooks popped out of his chair in the kitchen and said, “I’ll throw yours on the griddle myself.”
Along with his identical twin brother, Scott, David owns and runs Brooks’ Sandwich House at the mouth of the NoDa neighborhood. A concrete building in a gravel parking lot, surrounded by new construction of condos, apartments and single family homes, Brooks’ Sandwich House has proven resilient — even responsive — to all the changes around it since first opening in 1973.
When my editor asked that I help continue this restaurant series on “Charlotte gems” — spots that have stood the test of time and development in a city that doesn’t always appreciate its history — a few immediately came to mind, and I wanted to do them justice.
Charlotte likes new things. New restaurants are lauded as “game changers.” New chefs and menus are all-of-a-sudden “groundbreaking.” One or two comments later by local influencers, and they are “the best — trust us.”
We don’t always appreciate old.
Giants like Eddie’s Place in Cotswold, Mert’s Heart & Soul and Green’s Lunch in Uptown, Landmark Diner in Windsor Park, Barrington’s in Southpark and Mama Ricotta’s in Midtown have been serving loyal customers and employing dedicated workers for decades.
And it’s not just about their food.
Menu items from these spots would likely grace my last meal table. But what makes them truly special — what makes them ‘gems’ in the Queen City’s crown — is the people around them, their unique spaces in their neighborhoods, their loyal customers and their steadfastness in a town constantly seeking change.
With a name like Brooks’ Sandwich House, it may sound to the unaccustomed like a good place to sit down, order a pastrami on rye or a turkey and avocado BLT. But in reality, the aforementioned “sandwich” is a burger — a really damn good chili burger to be specific.
Yes, Brooks’ has other sandwiches on the menu. Recently, on a visit with a few friends, I decided to go with the fish filet in lieu of my usual order, having eaten at Bang Bang the night before. It was how I imagine McDonald’s fish sandwich tasted when Brooks’ first opened in 1973.
Before Brooks’, and before it was called NoDa, North Charlotte was a textile mill neighborhood. Its houses were built to support the population of workers employed by The Mecklenburg Mill, Highland Park #3 factories, and others, manufacturing everything from gingham to women’s hosiery.
A soda shop, a couple of grocery stores and an ice cream parlor allowed workers to remain in the neighborhood for food choices.
But when Scott and David’s father opened Brooks’, neighbors were unsure.
“People thought we were crazy,” David Brooks said.
“The neighbor who used to live right behind the cafe here, him and his wife, they used to work at the mill. And they said, ‘You are absolutely nuts for opening a hamburger place. Nobody’s going to eat hamburgers here. All they want is a convenience store.’”
“Daddy said, ‘No. I’ve got my mind made up.’ That was his dream all along.”
While we were talking, Brooks spotted a man in a city dump truck.
“Just a minute. He doesn’t know my daddy passed.” Calvin “C.T.” Brooks died of cancer in August 2017 at the age of 90. The Charlotte Observer’s food writer, Kathleen Purvis, wrote his obituary.
“After we opened up, it was slow. It was really slow. We were in a bad recession then,” Brooks said.
“But slowly and surely, about 1978, ’79, people started to go back to work. And people started coming in here. It caught on, and I’m still here. It still works.”
Standing in line at Brooks’ Sandwich House today, you’ll probably be surrounded by similar blue collar workers, tasked not with spinning spools but with erecting one of the many dwellings in the area in various stages of construction.
And boy, do they line up for Brooks’. It’s not without a sense of historical repetition that you are likely to pass by a dozen reflective vests, several pairs of jeans and a baseball hat or two before seeing a necktie.
“My base is still the working class.” But Brooks said they gain more and more white collar workers every day.
“Everybody around here found out about us by word of mouth. They have one thing in common: They all have an appetite.”
The menu is refreshingly simple and designed around Brooks’ golden recipe, its chili. Announced proudly on the menu, “Fresh Brooks CHILI” is “Great for breakfast, lunch, and DINNER,” and for now, only two people in the world know it — and they share the same DNA.
“It’s one of the most simple recipes you’ve seen in your life. So many people try to get it out of me and I say, ‘You know, I could tell you what to put in it. But it’s not what you put in it — it’s how much you put in it,” Brooks said, with a confidence in his voice.
“That’s all I’m going to tell you.”
French fries are served as short, stubby wedges — typically not my favorite style as I prefer more fry to potato — but these are my exception. Golden brown and crispy — the inside is always pillowy, always cooked just right. No ketchup is necessary in this relationship. But no one sitting at the outside picnic tables will judge you either way.
Pro-tip: Bring cash or use the ATM inside. And if you ask about ApplePay or Bitcoin, I don’t know you.
Breakfast starts at 7 a.m. — plenty of time for neighborhood hard hats to slam an egg sandwich with salty country ham or fried bologna before starting the day’s work.
Alongside the griddled burgers, options include hot dogs and chili cheese fries. Sandwich meats range from smoked sausage to breaded chicken to fried fish — but not much further.
My David Brooks-griddled livermush sandwich was “all the way” — topped with mustard, onion and, of course, their classified chili. Dark and crusty on the surface, a first bite through the livermush revealed the creamy center of a well-made forcemeat. Bright yellow mustard cut through with acidity and chopped, raw onions sank into each bite for a welcome textural contrast. At $3.75 with sales tax included, I’d challenge you to find a better per capita bite in Charlotte today.
And if you can, I’d love to meet you there.
Charlotte has more gems than most realize. It’s up to us to seek them out, explore their riches, and share the wealth with our fellow neighbors. Because once we’ve lost them — we’ve lost a part of the history of our city — which echoes a question you may hear amongst NoDa home shoppers:
‘Is that something we can truly afford?’
Brooks’ Sandwich House
2710 N. Brevard St.
Cash only, all outside seating