Burgers, Banh Mi, & Tortas

Want to experience a Charlotte beyond all the flash and dash? Then you need to check out one of my favorite dives

Written by Van Miller
Photographs by Chris Edwards
 

 

When friends come from out of town to visit, they look at all of our tall buildings and new shiny shops and restaurants and they ask: Where is the real Charlotte? Yes, I tell them, but we have a Trader Joe's, a Nordstrom, an REI, and we're getting an IKEA. We have a football team and a basketball team, and a baseball team is in the works. We are the Queen City, Crown Town, a real city.

Yeah, right, so? they say, bored and a little disappointed in me, we have those too. We want to see the authentic Charlotte.
When this happens, I take them to a local dive. I'm not talking about some dangerous place filled with borderline lowlifes who shave with Bowie knives. My dives are good places. Modest establishments run by unpretentious, hard-working people who just want to serve good food and drink in a place to relax and be yourself. These are low-budget, no-nonsense places. A lot of them are run by families and frequented by mostly neighborhood clientele. The people who work at dives are real. They may even tell you what they think of you.

A few years ago, I came up with a standard for dives while driving to upstate New York with my teenage daughter. She wanted to stop and eat only at places that were part of a chain. I wanted to get off the interstate and drive into the small towns and find old cafés and diners or obscure ethnic places that would give us a feel for the local culture. My daughter was horrified at the places I picked, because we had no idea what was behind the door. A great dive was a place that initially shook her up, but when we entered and sat down, she relaxed and realized that the food was great and the people friendly.
So now my standard for a dive is if my daughter would look at me with fear and disgust in her eyes, her fingernails tearing into my forearms, squealing, "No way am I going in there! Just look at that place! It's a dive! What are you thinking?" Yes, I'd say, but is it a great dive? Let's check it out.

I've begun a search for the great dives of Charlotte. So far, I've found five. These are places that would cause my daughter to shudder with fear but would eventually win her over. These aren't all greasy burger joints, either—it's time we expanded our definition of a dive. Great Vietnamese banh mi for three bucks? Count me in. Mexican tortas served out of a truck? If it's good, I'll eat it. The most important criteria are authenticity, quality of the food, simplicity, all at an affordable price. Here are my top five so far: