Older cities have a Little Italy or a Chinatown. Charlotte has Central Avenue. Travel east along the road and you'll find not so much an immigrant neighborhood as a collection of neighborhoods: Little Vietnam here, Little El Salvador a mile farther down the road. In a single shopping plaza you'll find grocery stores, hair salons, doctors' offices, and, of course, restaurants. In their midst are the time-honored outposts of working-class Americana—diners, breakfast joints, and the city's most famous Dairy Queen.
In the last decade, Plaza Midwood made a spectacular comeback, transforming a three-block swath along Central Avenue into a kind of hipster utopia. Here's a block-by-block guide to the culinary inner workings of this cozy neighborhood outpost. —Tess Gadwa
1601 Central Ave.
The neighborhood needed another tasty midrange independent restaurant, if only because lines were getting rather long at the other Plaza Midwood eateries. But Zada Jane's excels in its own right, especially when it comes to brunch and vegetarian menu items. Plus there are shuffleboard courts outside the restaurant.
1431 Central Ave.
This DQ has become a local landmark. But to truly understand its unique position in the neighborhood, you have walk up and stand outside in line for a while. (Trust us, there will be a line.) You'll find all ages, races, and socioeconomic groups in that line, and people are always friendly. There's no inside seating, and the service is never particularly fast, but by the time you've got your dip cone, you'll almost be sorry to walk away.
1220 Thomas Ave.
Will it be the meatloaf or the vegetable plate with the macaroni and cheese? These are about the only dilemmas that confront one while settling into the vinyl booths at Dish. Owner Penny Craver has found a winning formula for this low-key setting, serving up comfort food with a Southern accent. Of course, you'll want the sweet tea to drink.
1511 Central Ave.
Sure, there are pastries, coffee, and a charming interior, but really, it's all about the bread. Baguettes, peasant loaves, sourdough, and whole wheat…all are crusty and just dense enough. Nova's has passed the true test of a European-style bakery.
1921 Commonwealth Ave.
Once a place gets featured on the Food Network, you can't really claim it's a hole in the wall or your own personal discovery anymore. Darn. Those burgers were just too good for word not to get out. Open since 1954, renovated eight years ago, the Penguin's following keeps growing. Everyone comes here—retirees, tattooed twentysomethings, cops, and families. If you still want to feel like you're hip and in the know, ask for the pimento chili cheese fries (not on the regular menu, but they should be).
2007 Commonwealth Ave., 704-334-6209
Part deli, part bodega, and part bar, no single establishment better expresses the neighborhood's eclectic, unconventional personality. Grab a California wrap at lunch or come back in the evening for a wine tasting. If the weather is good (and isn't it nearly always in Charlotte?) head to the narrow alleyway patio behind the wine racks—festooned with plantings and awnings, it's a hideout if ever there was one.
Dim Sum Restaurant
2920 Central Ave., Ste. B, 704-569-1128
"We also serve real Chinese food," reads the famous caption on the menu. If you're looking for something beyond General Tso's, ask for the Chinese menu—or come on Sunday for dim sum. With cart service, part of the fun of dim sum is actually picking the selection of appetizer-size items that you want to try. While not up to the selection of dim sum in San Francisco or Vancouver, the steamed dumplings and sesame balls are enjoyable. First-time visitors are advised to skip the chicken feet.
1911 Central Ave.
As the most upscale entrant to Plaza Midwood's restaurant scene, it was initially debatable whether Lulu could succeed. Yet more than two years later, Lulu is still here and apparently thriving. Executive chef Marc Jacksina has wisely scaled back his early enthusiasm for country ham as a substitute for prosciutto. The menu today is a confident fusion of French, New American, and Southern influences, offering both escargot and fried green tomatoes. For lunch with the girls, the Mimosa Salad (green apples, brie croutons, champagne vinaigrette) is hard to beat.
Central Oriental Grocery
2920 Central Ave.
Central Oriental is not the largest Asian grocery store in town, but it has an impressive selection of curry flavors as well as fresh breadfruit and Café du Monde coffee from New Orleans. Good selection, clearly marked prices, and friendly staff make this a great place to shop for Asian ingredients.
2615 Central Ave.
There are just a few things that Europeans do better than us, and one of them is chocolate. This Bosnian-Central European market is the only place in Charlotte where one can obtain Swiss Milka bars (the ones with the purple cow on the wrapper) and with their creamy, calorie-filled texture, that's probably a good thing. The market stocks a range of other specialty grocery items, including fruit and vegetable preserves and cevapi—lightly spiced all-beef sausages that work remarkably well on the backyard grill.
Casa de los Enchiladas
2917 Central Ave.
If you thought that enchiladas only came in "red" or "green," you're in for an education. The menu here features such varieties as poblanas, jalisciences, potosinas, horno, and calabaza, all with different ingredients and spicing. (Yes, they have red and green chile enchiladas, too.) The menu has plenty of pictures if Spanish is not your strong suit—the mole sauce comes highly recommended.
3000 Central Ave., No. 1
Complete with illustrations and step-by-step instructions, the menu at this Vietnamese franchise restaurant actually guides you through "pho for beginners" (noodle soup with meatball and steak) all the way to "the adventurer's choice" (noodle soup with steak, flank, tendon, and tripe). If you are new to Vietnamese cuisine, this is an excellent place to start.
Café Central Comidas
2919 Central Ave., 704-535-4500
With flowerpots hanging from the windows, Wi-Fi and low couches, and an attractive menu handwritten in chalk, this Mexican coffee shop wins on ambience. Beverages include moka and numerous coffee variations, as well as batidos (milk mixed with fruit) and licuados (fruit smoothies). The lomo de cerdo (pork loin) sandwich is tasty and freshly made, if a trifle plain.
Inner Harbor Seafood Market
3019 Central Ave., 704-567-0283
There's something immensely satisfying about picking out the fish you're going to cook for dinner, then seeing it cleaned and prepped before your eyes. Inner Harbor has long been known as one of the best bargains in town for red snapper, shrimp, and other fish and seafood. Now managed by the same family who owns the popular Lang Van restaurant, the selection only promises to improve.
Atlantic Farmer's Market
3122 Eastway Dr.
Flags drape the walls and the ceiling of this giant Latin-American supermarket. Cans of coffee and beans are piled high like ancient Mesoamerican pyramids. The produce department stocks tamarind, aloe vera, fresh and dried chiles, fingerling bananas, and two different types of papaya. If you're looking for something tropical, odds are you'll find it here.
Parthenon Café & Ice Cream Hut
3718 Central Ave., Ste. A, 704-567-6477
This is the kind of Greek-American food that dominated Charlotte's restaurant scene for decades. Jalapeño poppers and buffalo wings coexist with hummus, souvlaki, and gyro platters. There are more authentic places to go, but can you order a banana split for dessert?
Da Nang Market
3648 Central Ave., Ste. B, 704-535-1277
This brand-new Vietnamese supermarket is clean and modern inside, and the selection inspires awe. More than a dozen varieties of dried mushrooms, plus jasmine rice, sticky rice, black rice, and red rice line the shelves. The store stocks live tilapia, catfish, and blue crabs. And you can even buy green jelly and grass jelly in cans.
3124 Eastway Dr., No. 510, 704-568-7933
Strangely enough, in Charlotte Italian has become something of an upscale cuisine. You could almost call it the "new French." Largely missing from the restaurant landscape are unpretentious Italian-American places where you can pick up a pizza or eat a simple meal. Portofino's is one such place. The chicken Parmesan sandwich may just be the best in town.
4429 Central Ave., 704-532-1153
Now that the Athens Restaurant is no more, the Landmark Diner is one of Charlotte's few remaining late-night spots. At 2 a.m. you may have to wait a while for service, but you can do some interesting people watching. Desserts are homemade and worthy of attention any time of day or night, and the coconut cake gets high marks.
Bahia Carribbean-Dominican Bistro
4808 Central Ave., Ste. C
Caribbean meets Latin American cuisine on the menu of this restaurant, which doubles as a dancehall on weekends. There is mondongo (tripe soup) for the truly adventurous—and an array of pasta, chicken, and seafood dishes for everyone else.
El Pulgarcito Salvadorean
4816 Central Ave.
One of several restaurants that make up Charlotte's "Little El Salvador," good food, friendly service, and a picture menu make this place stand out. Make sure to try the tamales, the chicharrones, and the pupusas (a thick corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, meat, or beans).
3145 N. Sharon Amity Rd.
Just around the corner from Central Avenue on Sharon-Amity Road, attractive wooden booths create a plain but hospitable atmosphere at this Middle Eastern restaurant. As soon as you walk in the door, the husband-and-wife proprietors do their best to make you comfortable. The dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves) here are homemade. Other specialties include kabob and kanafa (shredded wheat and sweet cheese topped with pistachios and syrup) for dessert.
4832 Central Ave., 704-535-9662
Wonderful Mediterranean food arrives in enormous portions at this welcoming Lebanese restaurant. The only problem is trying to finish everything all in one sitting. If you're not sure what to get, try the falafel (best I've had in Charlotte) or the mixed grill. Homemade baklava is also worth tasting, if you can remember to save room.
El Rey del Pollo
5111 Central Ave.
From the outside, it looks like a slightly run-down fast food joint. Inside, the "King of Chickens" is like no other establishment in Charlotte. Loud mariachi music plays. Silk flowers and beer banners festoon the hand-painted walls. Patrons lounge in woven leather armchairs—stamped with the name of a different Mexican restaurant. The food is delicious, but takes a while to prepare—allow at least fifteen minutes for roast chicken and ribs, served with tortillas, salsa, and rice.