Want food from around the globe? Charlotte’s got a wealth of international eateries. But you need to know where to look.
Since 1990 the foreign-born percentage of this city’s population has zoomed from barely one percent to about 14 percent today. Newcomers are not settling in enclaves like the Chinatowns and Little Italys of older U.S. cities.
Instead we’re seeing what I call “salad bowl suburbs.” People of every ethnicity are intermingling, as mixed as veggies in a tossed salad. It’s especially visible in suburban areas built during the 1950s-1980s where real estate has become fairly affordable — Central Avenue in east Charlotte, South Boulevard below South End. But it’s happening in new areas, too, such as Austin Village Plaza on the far edge of suburban Matthews.
Four miles of diversity — that’s Central Avenue. Start in this two-block stretch where you can walk from Bosnia in eastern Europe to Ethiopia in Africa … by way of Trinidad and Mexico!
2719 Central Ave. (704) 343-9828
Dino Mehic and his family arrived in Charlotte in the 1990s as refugees from war-torn former Yugoslavia. When his wife found a job in a warehouse, Dino started a Bosnian grocery store where he could have his children with him while he worked.
Today the market features Bosnian smoked meats, soft cheeses, jars of sweet cherry compote and a wall of European chocolate temptations.
But we are here for lunch. So slip through a small door into the tiny cafe, with 15 seats. The star of the menu is cevapi, Bosnia’s national dish. Stubby little sausages nestle together inside lepinje bread – a pillowy cousin of pita bread.
“McDonald’s tried for years to go into Bosnia, but people like cevapi better,” Mehic says proudly.
2903 Central Ave. (980) 349-4015.
Stroll down Central Avenue across Briar Creek to arrive at Soul Central. It features classic American soul food — meatloaf, mac-n-cheese, collard greens.
On Saturdays, curry joins the menu. Owner Joe Mahaboob hails from Trinidad, where immigrants from India have played a big part in shaping cuisine. Try a Trinidad-style Indian curry — flavorful, not spicy. Ask for a side order of dhal puri roti, a flatbread made from lentils.
Most folks get take-out but there are a few tiny tables for pleasant eating on-site.
2917 Central Ave. (704) 536-1851
Not quite sure about international food exploring? Three Amigos is the perfect place to start.
Owner Dalton Espaillat set out in 2010 to create a real-deal Mexican restaurant where non-Latinos would feel comfortable. It’s become one of the city’s busiest eateries.
Order anything on the menu — you can’t go wrong. Wait staff are adept at answering newbies’ questions.
Espaillat‘s success here inspired him to launch the Sabor chain, featuring Latino street-food favorites ranging from Mexican tacos to Venezuelan arepas to Argentine empanadas. It now boasts nine eateries across the Queen City.
3007 Central Ave. (980) 237-2760.
The newest restaurant on this stretch of Central spotlights the rich stews of Ethiopia.
I like the doro alecha, a stewed chicken leg and boiled egg accompanied by injera flatbread. Tear off hunks of injera to scoop up your food — no utensils needed, unless you request.
On certain Sundays (call ahead), Abugida offers the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Watch your server pour from a long-spouted clay jug as incense wafts.
The aging suburban plazas along South Boulevard rival Central Avenue as a location for international eateries. Three of my favorite spots cluster near the Tyvola Road intersection.
5033 South Blvd. (980) 207-1859
Chef/owner Mohammad Khaled Mahrousa comes from a distinguished family of restaurateurs in Aleppo, Syria.
He and his busy staff make a fine mazza platter, the traditional array of Middle Eastern appetizers. There’s hummus and baba ganoush to dip your pita bread in, plus green tabouli salad and stuffed grape leaves.
Look behind the counter for the shawarma: meat roasting on a revolving spit. I get the beef/lamb shawarma wrap, which comes with some of the city’s best French fries.
Chef Winston Reyes offers hearty flavors of the Dominican Republic. It’s hard to settle on one entrée when the menu includes both masa de cangrejo a la criolla, a crab-meat stew, and also pernil with mofongo, roast pork with mashed plantains.
Don’t miss the Dominican signature drink called morir soñando (literally translated “to die dreaming”). It’s an orange creamsicle of a beverage made with fresh-squeezed OJ plus milk.
Saturday evenings after 9 p.m., Punta Cana turns into a Caribbean disco with DJ Sharry El Showman spinning Latin dance hits and sing-alongs.
5100 South Blvd. (980) 859-1580
A new generation of young Vietnamese-American entrepreneurs opened Crispy Banh Mi in 2016.
It’s the place for frozen fruit slushies or tea drinks in two dozen day-glo colors. Plus street-food favorites such as salad rolls and noodle bowls.
And of course, the sandwich called banh mi. French colonizers brought the baguette to southeast Asia. Vietnamese people filled the bread with their own pickled vegetables and grilled meats. Where to start? The bar-b-que pork is a big seller.
AUSTIN VILLAGE PLAZA
Even Charlotte’s newest suburbs draw populations from afar. Just look at Austin Village Plaza, anchored by a standard-issue Harris Teeter grocery, on once-rural Potter Road beyond the village of Matthews.
1361 Chestnut Lane, Matthews (704) 684-0107
Armenian food blends Russian influences with flavors of the Middle East. No wonder, since the country of Armenia touches both the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan.
Arrarat 17’s white tablecloths and well-stocked bar attract a convivial crowd of emigres from all over eastern Europe.
They like the borscht soup, the meaty dumplings called kinkhali, and the tight-rolled crepes filled with beef and lamb called blinchik (close cousin of the Jewish blintz).
1369 Chestnut Lane, Matthews (704) 821-0676
Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis recently saluted Chef Joe Lam’s new restaurant as one of the region’s best authentic Chinese (not American Chinese) destinations. You’ll see many Asian customers in the tiny dining room.
She recommends the “snow pea tips with crab, an elegant version of a classic dish.” More adventurous? Try the cold appetizer beef tendon and tripe: “The tendon is tender, not chewy, and the combination of cold food in a fiery red chile oil is hard to stop eating.”
1381 Chestnut Lane, Matthews (704) 821-8003
Bisonte means “Buffalo” in Italian. That’s the tip-off that this place is run by a pair of Italian-Americans who moved here from Buffalo, New York.
Owners Jim and Steve Dapolito brag about making their own pasta sauces, including a tomato cream. Pizza comes with New York City’s thin crust or the puffier crust favored in Buffalo. They even sell Buffalo’s signature beef-on-weck sandwich: thin-sliced roast beef on a caraway seed bun.
1311 Chestnut Lane, Matthews (704) 234-0247
And while we’re talking about newcomers from New York State, we’ve got to mention Poppyseeds Bagels at the other end of Austin Village Plaza.
Kim Porto and her family offer over a dozen bagel varieties, an array of cream cheeses, black-and-white cookies and more – just like they did back home on Long Island.