One weekend a year, we become tourists in our own city. Once a year we challenge ourselves to discover new and different things to do in our hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. The occasion is our friend Bill’s annual fall visit.
Somewhere along the way, we (meaning me) instituted an unwritten rule that we are required to try all new things while he is here. This was quite easy to accomplish in the first few years but it gets tougher the longer we live here. That is not a complaint. I love the challenge. As soon as he leaves, I start collecting ideas for next year’s visit. Geeky, I know but it’s part of the mystery that makes me who I am.
In years past we have hit most of the major sights in this Queen City. One of the first places we went to was the U.S. National Whitewater Center where visitors can, among other things, raft, kayak, climb walls or swoop down a zip-line. Couple that with bars, restaurants and music on warm summer nights in one hilly location, and it’s a pretty action-packed place to visit.
Other hot spots have included the Levine Museum of the New South that chronicles the history of segregation and bigotry that went on here not long ago; the new Levine Center for the Arts complex that constitutes the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Mint Museum and the Knight Theater.
We’ve bowled for an exorbitantly expensive hour at Strike City in the EpiCenter; toured the Latta Plantation and drove around Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker’s old Heritage U.S.A. complex in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. And we’ve dined in more restaurants than I can remember.
This year I have pulled a few ideas out of my collection and want to run them by Bill. I’m thinking that we focus on an international theme this year. Bill and my older brother have been friends since they were 7 years old. Being the younger sister it’s safe to say that I have known Bill almost all my life. Of course back then he was my yucky brother’s friend but I like to think that I have matured.
Bill started visiting back when we lived in Denver and has followed us around the country. Who wouldn’t want to come stay with us? We live in great places, are riveting company and gracious hosts! I guess that’s why my older brother (let’s call him Big Sib for short) decides that he needs to get in on the weekends of fabulousness and started joining us a few years ago.
Bill lands around noon and Big Sib won’t get here until around 3:00 pm. Mike is golfing and has to go back to work so Bill and I decide to get something for lunch. Sushi sounds great.
RuSans has a lunch buffet for $10 a person but if we get it to-go, we can fill a Styrofoam container with all the sushi that will fit. One container can easily feed two so we will get two orders for all of us. As usual at lunch, the line to get in is out the door. The sushi is fresh and good and it’s a great deal so this is the weekday lunchtime norm.
But wait, there’s a note posted on the door. Shockingly sad, but not surprising, buffet to-go has been discontinued. Evidently sit-down diners didn’t like the competition from the take-away folks at the buffet table. That, and the food cost for RuSans is too much to bear. We understand that it was quite ridiculous that two people could have a large amount of sushi for $5 each. I mourn the demise of the best lunch deal in Charlotte while alerting Mike and Big Sib that they out of luck. The sushi orgy has been cancelled for them.
Not so, for Bill and me. The sushi at RuSans is good, but not so good that I will wait in a long line for it. I have an errand to run in the SouthPark area so we decide that we will go to Yama instead. I think Yama has the best sushi (that we’ve found so far) in Charlotte.
It doesn’t disappoint. We start with an order of their super light pork gyoza. We also order the King Crab Roll, a Crunchy Roll and a spicy tuna roll. Bill and I catch up as we devour the fresh, fresh fish. I would have included a picture but it’s gone before I even give the camera a thought. (This picture is from a subsequent visit with the Crunchy Roll, spicy tuna and a Hawaiian Roll – with scallops.)
Big Sib arrives and we all hang at home until Mike gets out of work. Big Sib is working part time in wine sales and has brought samples. By the time Mike comes home, we have a few bottles open for our own wine tasting. Of course I really am only tasting since I am the designated driver for our dinner plans.
Midwood Smokehouse has been getting rave reviews. Frank Scibelli owns it. He has quite a few successful restaurants dotted around town including an Italian place called Mama Ricotta’s; Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar; Cantina 1511, a Mexican cantina; and Tex-Mex Paco’s Tacos & Tequila.
Mike and I have been to all of them. They all have pretty tasty fare so I’ve been looking forward to going to the newest incarnation. Scibelli does a lot of research before he opens a new venture. I’d read that he traveled to several BBQ meccas to gain inspiration for the Midwood menu.
The place is packed so we belly up to the bar and order from their extensive beer menu. Our choices are Fat Tire and Yuengling, both on draft, and a can of Guinness Stout. Bill says he has never had fried pickles (although I think he did when we took him to the original Penguin) so we get a $7 order of Fried Pickles with Buttermilk Ranch dressing.
Just as the beer hits the bar, our reservation pager lights up like a happy, vibrating beacon. Because we agreed to take any table including one on the heated patio (the temperature is now in the 40s F), our wait is super short. The fried pickles will have to follow us to our table when they are ready.
At the outside picnic table, even though it is cold out, we are bordering on sweltering thanks to an industrial strength outdoor heater and the plastic enclosures surrounding the patio. What better than a pitcher of cold beer to cool us down? And better still, it’s a pitcher of Fat Tire.
By now, we are less and less interested in a big meal so we go for the Pig Out Platter. I know it sounds counterintuitive but it’s not really. It’s a combo platter with many choices. We get the Carolina Pulled Pork, Beef Brisket, Saint Louis Style Pork Ribs and Hickory Smoked Sausage with 2 sides – Crinkle Cut Fries, Smoked Veggies for $28. The side of Mac & Cheese for an extra $3.50 is also calling Mike’s name.
We devour the food before I can even get my camera out so you’ll just have to settle for my description. Also, we decide that the only must-have to order on that platter is the ribs. The rest are okay but not as stellar as the ribs. The only thing that is a true flop is the Smoked Veggies. They are awful. And even being die-hard veggie lovers, we can’t choke them down.
With enough alcohol lubing the group, we decide to skip dessert at the Smokehouse and make a beeline to 131 Main. 131 Main is a favorite restaurant of mine because I love their Awesome Roast Beef Sandwich (and that’s what it’s called on the menu.) Yes, we break my rule and return to 131 for a favorite dessert, a sinful brownie studded with an assortment of nuts, with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with silky caramel, chocolate sauces. Bill downs a giant slice of Key Lime Pie.
As designated driver, I get us safely home so we can rest for round two tomorrow.
No Saturday morning is complete for Mike & I until we go to the Farmers’ Market. Rain or shine, year round, this is where we shop for our week’s veggies.
Besides us, our dog demands it. He is not happy without his daily salad course. Our chowhound will scarf down the usual doggie delights of carrots and apples (not the seeds because they contain arsenic) but he also loves broccoli, asparagus, lettuce (including the core) and many other scraps of vegetable trimmings.
Today, though, our must-have item is 20 limes for margaritas at home tonight. Big Sib has brought a bottle of tequila and now we need to drink it. We are making margaritas with fresh lime juice. This is in addition to many bottles of wine he brought for our little tasting party. He’s a good brother!
Another missing ingredient for our margarita madness is Triple Sec, something that is not in our bar. After we’ve checked out at the liquor store, we find out that we can use the Grand Marnier (that we do have) and make them “top shelf.” Oh well, now we’ll just have to use both and make them top, top shelf!
At home we immediately squeeze the limes and refrigerate the juice so it will be cold for Margarita Madness later.
Now its time to turn our sights towards breakfast. Until recently, Charlotte was severely lacking in choices for breakfast. These days, we have lots of new spots to choose from. One that we haven’t tried yet is called Toast Cafe in the Dilworth neighborhood. We’ve been in the space when it’s been other incarnations that are now, well, uh, toast (couldn’t resist) but technically we are trying a new place, in keeping with the rule.
Bill goes for the MBS, a mushroom, bacon, Swiss cheese omelet with whole-wheat toast & hash browns ($8.95). The hash browns are really what would be considered home fries. The omelet is a good version except the accompanying home fries that are a bit undercooked.
Big Sib is a big bore with basic scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and rye toast ($4.95). He asked for the hash browns to be cooked crispy but they end up being just like Bill’s – undercooked. His toast is a nice surprise, marble rye instead of the regular caraway seed rye that usually arrives at breakfast.
Peanut butter is one of Mike’s siren songs to the detriment of his diet. He succumbs to the seductions and gets the Stuffed French Toast filled with peanut butter and banana with a link of chicken sausage ($8.95). The execution was not as good as it sounds.
I am the winner with my choice of a fall special – pumpkin-spiced pancakes with bacon and real maple syrup ($8.95). They are quite delicious and disappear in moments.
Ugh. We’re stuffed. We need to work off the heavy breakfast so we take off for the Carolinas Aviation Museum. The museum has been around since 1992 and moved into its new hangar in 2010. In June, it snagged a piece of aviation history, landing it on our to-do list.
US Airways Flight 1539, also known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane was pulled out of the Hudson River in January 2009. After the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finished investigating what caused Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to ditch the plane in New York’s Hudson River, it was trucked to its original destination of Charlotte and now resides as part of the permanent collection.
On our visit, they are still putting the aircraft back together so the wings are out on the tarmac waiting to be reattached along with other pieces and parts. Mechanics volunteer for the work so it’s sort of a work in progress. There is an interesting video that tells the story through interviews with passengers, crew and rescuers. Another display contains artifacts taken from the plane after it was plucked out of the water.
The volunteers are very enthusiastic about the exhibit and are happy to patiently answer any and all questions. And no, you cannot go inside the aircraft because there’s mold and other possible hazardous materials but there are pictures of what it looked like when it was pulled out of the water and what it looks like now.
While the US Air plane is the main attraction, there are many other aircraft on display. A few, where with a volunteer, we are able to sit in the cockpit. At the landing gear for a 747, Mike demonstrates how much it would hurt to have your foot run over by a tire. Yes, we will never grow up! It’s a nice little museum and we are happy to pay the $11 each to support it.
We pick up the booze at the ABC Store and shop for pet supplies for the Big Sib’s dogs. He can’t get what he needs in his tiny town so a trip to the Big City includes a supply run.
For years I have seen articles about a giant metal head sculpture in a South Charlotte office park. This is the year that we are going to seek it out. It’s called Metalmorphosis. It’s a giant stainless steel water fountain in the shape of a head. There are 7 plates that move and the skull spins.
Well, that’s what I’ve read. The captivating cabeza is turned off on the weekends so we didn’t get a chance to experience the full wonderment that is Metalmorphosis in person. Using the tools at our fingertips, we found a few YouTube videos and watched the movement in the shadow of the real thing. The cranium tells me that it seems like there is something wrong with this but it just can’t put a finger on it.
Nearby, an old outlet mall in Fort Mill, South Carolina has been converted into a mall with a Latin emphasis and with our quest for all things international, we want to check it out. Plaza Fiesta is hopping, especially the ginormous children’s’ area slide. This monstrosity looks to be six stories tall and consists of an eye-crossing jumble of uncountable slides and staircases. It sounds like there must be a thousand screaming kids crawling all over this thing like ants. Big Sib is the only parent in our group. Maybe he can appreciate how fabulous this is but all I can do is imagine the germs that are also screaming with glee within the fence. The clamor is so loud that I need to cover my ears and step away.
We walk around peeking into the little shops. Really, most are not more than a stall in what looks like an indoor storage place with roll up, corrugated metal doors. Some sell traditional Mexican clothing, others sexy lingerie.
One that catches our interest is the Pucker Butt Pepper Company. I only wish I had known the name when we were in there because we four adults (in number only) would have been snickering like 12-year-olds. They sell an interesting array of fiery fare including hot sauces and pastas. Big Sib and I, the fire-eaters, are busy sampling while Mike strikes up a conversation with a mannequin. Yes, I already said that we are 12.
Hard to believe but we are slightly hungry. La Poblanita Taqueria offers a relatively quiet respite from the shrieking, happy kids. This looks like real Mexican food from Mexico. We take a tamale for a test drive. This one is pork with red salsa. Yup, we’re ready to buy. It’s definitely the real thing and we can’t wait to try more.
Because we have cold lime juice waiting to become wonderful margaritas, we decide to get food to go and have dinner at home. I love good tamales and these were pretty darn good. Masa harina or cornmeal is wrapped around spicy, shredded meat, pork in this case, and then wrapped like a package in a dried cornhusk and steamed.
We fill little containers with red and green salsas. I don’t know what’s in them but the fiery red is my favorite. The green is a bit too salty for my taste. The tamales are a bargain at $1.50 each.
Big Sib goes for the Campechano Tacos. These are not Americanized tacos. These are more like the style you find in Mexico. They start with a delicious tortilla made by hand. The tortillas are topped with asada (steak) and crumbled chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage). He also adds chopped onions and fresh cilantro. On top, there are sliced radishes. That’s it. No cheese, no lettuce or anything else that normally comes on an Americanized taco. They are simply delicious and a great deal. Four tacos for $6.
Bill chooses the Asada (steak) quesadillas with lettuce, guacamole, sour cream and a side salad also for $6. He is a very happy camper.
Mike opts to make dinner at home because he has some of his beloved salmon in the fridge and doesn’t want it to go to waste. While he seems happy with his dinner, I see a bit of envy as he eyes the other plates. Guarding mine like a German Shepherd, I think, “Get you eyes off my plate buddy. You had your chance. Grrrrr.” Of course instead of biting him, we all offer him bites of our food.
Needless to say, the food and margaritas are a good match. The total tab for the food is under $19 for dinner for 3. Such a deal!
Sunday morning we are up and ready to go fairly early. We want to try a new place for breakfast that has gotten some buzz. It’s way down south, past the Ballantyne neighborhood and near the South Carolina border. And we want to get there before the church crowd – this is the Bible Belt after all.
We pull up to Cast Iron Waffles at 9:30 and watch a line form behind us. Perfect timing. This place is the “Home of The Authentic Belgian Liege Waffle” and is nothing like what we expected. Not so much a restaurant. More like a local coffee shop with pastries (waffles).
We step up to the counter to place our order. One of us steps over and snags one of the four inside tables. There are also five seats at the bar and five tables outside but there is a winter chill in the air this morning so we definitely want to sit inside.
Big Sib and I order Leige Waffles “Naked” with powdered sugar ($3 each). There is no maple syrup here because, we are told, the waffles are so sweet on their own that they don’t need it. If we really need maple, we can have maple-flavored butter. We both pass and will judge the waffles on their own merits. Mike gets the “Extra Sweet” with Nutella, maple butter and a Belgian chocolate drizzle ($3.50) and Bill goes for Kiwi & Banana ($4.25) – both of theirs are topped with whipped cream.
The waffles are brought to the table along with our coffee orders. Our first reaction is that they are much smaller than we expected but I have to say that one is plenty, and yes, it is just fine without any maple syrup.
One of the big landmarks in South Charlotte is the giant pink church (now been repainted to more of a tan color than pink). It’s always been a mystery to us since the first day we got here. From the outside it looks like it is roofless. It boasts a massive Möller pipe organ with 11,499 pipes ranking it as one of the largest in the world.
Since we are kind of in the neighborhood and it’s a Sunday morning, we think it would be a great idea to sneak into a service so we can see inside. We have always seen it from the surrounding thoroughfares and have never driven up its driveway.
All I can say is wow! We did not see a single spot to park the car. This giant, evangelical Calvary church seats over 5,000 and from the parking lot, it looks like it is standing room only in there. Maybe we’re coming down from the breakfast sugar high and feeling lazy but we decide that we don’t want to walk miles for this experience and instead press on.
Big Sib is still searching for the exact items he needs to spoil his dogs so we make another stop at a different pet supply store, the Pet Supermarket. He hits pay dirt. They have everything he needs and at a better price than PetCo.
In keeping with our international theme, we want to check out something called the Great Asia Market. I’ve heard it’s an Asian supermarket with a restaurant and bakery. In my head, I am planning for us to end the food orgy trip with lunch here.
Located in a small strip mall in Stallings, NC, the Great Asia Market carries products from China, India, Malaysia, Vietnam and many other countries. We are captivated by the fresh fish and live blue crabs.
On this day, they have various samples of pot stickers available in the frozen food section. There’s also a large bakery with a glass wall so we can watch what’s going on in the kitchen. For anyone searching for a particular Asian ingredient, I’m sure it can be found on one of the aisles filled will rows of sauces, chilies, noodles and rice. It looks like an excellent resource for cooks.
We look at the food but it doesn’t grab us. I don’t know who is the instigator but we decide to break the rule once again and return to La Poblanita Taqueria. My suspicions are that Mike planted the idea because he didn’t partake yesterday. It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get us back in the car mapping the fastest way across town to South Carolina.
It’s a repeat of our meal from yesterday with a few additions. This time we add a tamale stuffed with chicken and green salsa ($1.50) and an order of the Carnitas Tacos ($6) – kind of a seasoned pulled pork. These are again topped with onions, fresh cilantro and sliced radishes. Simply delicious. And that is again for take-out. I vow that we must go back to sit and eat there next time.
Big Sib is anxious to get on the road because he wants to be home by dark so he zooms out the door after lunch. Bill has a couple of hours before he needs to check in at the airport so we just hang out and digest the gluttony of the weekend.