Global Feast: 50 Dishes for Adventurous Eaters in Charlotte
Charlotte’s international food scene is more dynamic than ever. From ceviche and kebabs to enchiladas and pho, we’ve explored the city’s best global cuisine, and we’re sharing the stories behind the dishes and the people who make them
THIS CITY is full of, and getting fuller on, food with international flair. Among the Mexican eateries and pupuserias along Central Avenue, you’ll find an Ethiopian restaurant that serves meals on spongy injera bread you use in place of silverware (with your right hand only, please). Down in Pineville, you can find a Polish deli in the same building as a Pakistani/Indian restaurant and, just down the road, a German restaurant that looks like an Alpine ski lodge where you can drink lager from a 32-ounce stein and nosh on bratwurst and schnitzel. Drive back up to East Boulevard in Dilworth, and you have your choice of pad thai, tikka masala, or Irish stew.
Charlotte’s international food scene is as dynamic and fluid as the city around it. Don’t worry too much about what is and isn’t “authentic.” Some restaurants have adapted their dishes to American palates more than others, and this package will never truly represent what you’ll taste in their countries of origin. Consider this a snapshot album of Charlotte’s best global cuisine, from ceviche and kebabs to enchiladas and pho. Get out there. Eat adventurously. —Taylor Bowler
Claims to authentic Mexicanness had better be backed by genuine enchiladas. The modern world has Betty Crockerized this ancient dish—thought to have originated with the Mayans, for heaven’s sake—into a microwavable trifle on the level of chicken nuggets. Three Amigos, the cozy Mexican eatery on Central Avenue in east Charlotte, embraces the real thing, as it has since the days when the restaurant was named after the dish.
Dalton Espaillat, the son of Dominican parents, and two partners bought the struggling La Casa De Las Enchiladas during the post-2008 recession, which threatened to torpedo Espaillat’s career as a civil engineer. The three friends reopened in 2010 as Three Amigos. (Not Trés Amigos; they wanted to signal that non-Latinos were welcome, too.) The new place, in a strip mall next to Briar Creek, struggled for a while, too, until diners in the Plaza Midwood and Merry Oaks neighborhoods discovered it.
“It was the community,” says Nalleli “Nelly” Aules, Three Amigos’ longtime manager. “It was the people spreading the word to everyone.”
The staff has packed the menu with everything from bistec encebollado to arroz con camarón, but enchiladas remain the specialty; Thursday is $8.99 all-you-can-eat night, with beef, chicken, or vegetable enchiladas served with roja, verde, or poblano sauce. A colleague and I recently passed on that perilous choice but did indulge in the three-enchilada lunch special. I chose chicken enchiladas verdes, with a delicately spicy green salsa made from fresh tomatillos, onion, and garlic. This was the real thing, all right: The tortillas were fresh and the pulled chicken tender and juicy, all topped with a crisp salad of lettuce, tomato, onion, and queso fresco, a white cheese crumbled atop the vegetables.
My colleague, feeling a touch more adventurous, chose chicken enchiladas poblanas, topped with rich, traditional mole sauce, which includes seemingly incongruous ingredients like nuts, plantains, salt, cinnamon, and semi-sweet Abuelita brand chocolate. “It’s a long process to make the mole sauce. Like, an hour to get all the condiments together, then blend, then cook again,” Aules tells us. “It’s got to be between sweet and spicy.”
Not spicy is not an option. The word “enchilada” derives from the verb “enchilar,” which means “to add chili pepper to.” Alejandra de la Cruz, Three Amigos’ primary chef from the start, hails from the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero but lived in both Aules’ home state of Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast, and Mexico City. “So she learned a lot of things about how to cook, and then she came to the United States,” Aules says. “She has been working since Casa De Las Enchiladas, and she only uses fresh condiments.”
Three Amigos prides itself on never saving rice, beans, or meat overnight for use the next day. I ask Aules how the restaurant makes its verde sauce, and she emphasizes something during her explanation that Three Amigos, the erstwhile House of Enchiladas, could use as an unofficial motto:
“We don’t use cans.” —Greg Lacour
EXPERT'S PICK: “It has very authentic Colombian food, which has similar ingredients to Venezuelan food, so I feel at home. I tried their sobrebarriga (beef flank steak), which was really good, and the red snapper with seafood sauce over rice and plantain chips. The short rib soup reminds me of my mom’s soup. Their fried green plantains (topped with beef, chorizo, cream cheese, and avocado) is my ultimate favorite, similar to our patacón relleno.” —Ivo Sandrea, executive chef at Gallery Restaurant
Ceviche de Mariscos
Ceviche is Peru’s national dish, a combination of fish, shellfish, or both marinated in lemon or lime juice and served cold with sweet and regular potatoes and the roasted corn snack cancha. Machu Picchu in Pineville (there’s also a Matthews location) serves six types of ceviche, plus a shrimp cocktail-inspired version and a three-shot marinade sampler called leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk. The flavors of the tart lemon marinade and pungent rocoto chilies turn your mouth into what feels like an over-stimulated electron (in a good way). —G.L.
Anntony’s Caribbean Café
Dr. Tony Martin immigrated to the United States in 1968 from Guyana and lived in New York before he moved to Statesville, where his small practice specialized in natural medicine. When he relocated to Charlotte in 1986, he was working with the pioneering ophthalmologist Charles Kelman to develop a tool for cataract surgery.
He’d always invented things, and two years before, Martin had opened Anntony’s Caribbean Chicken, a restaurant in Statesville that combined his mother’s and his first names and re-created the Caribbean dishes he’d grown up with. When he relocated to Charlotte, he moved (and renamed) his restaurant, too.
“People in North Carolina don’t know anything about Caribbean (cuisine),” he says in his patois-inflected English, “so I developed some(where) they could get a taste of the island.”
Tom Smith, former president and CEO of Food Lion, told him that if diners liked his sauces and seasonings, he would carry the products in his stores. Today, the sauces are sold in Food Lion, Publix, Harris Teeter, and Lowes Foods.
Martin says the oxtails remind him most of home, but the quarter chicken and island wings are the most popular items on the menu. The roasted chicken comes drizzled with Anntony’s all-purpose sauce, a mixture of 40 island spices, and served with a side. Most diners pick the callaloo greens, a Jamaican mixture of spinach and collards.
Anntony’s occupies space in the Cheshire Commons Shopping Center next to—yep, you guessed it—a Food Lion. (Martin says that this is just a coincidence.) Inside, flags from Caribbean nations hang from the rafters, the walls painted bright blue and orange. A mural of Martin’s home in Guyana covers the rear wall, while a mural of a Caribbean marketplace hangs above the kitchen window, creating a visual rhythm: market to kitchen to table. Soulful R&B pours through the speakers as Martin (most regulars just call him Tony) ambles from table to table and asks patrons how they like their taste of the islands. —Casey Moss
El Pulgarcito de America
Combination plate with steak and shrimp
EXPERT'S PICK: “I go at least once every two weeks. My mom made ceviche all the time, and theirs is pretty close to the way she made it. I like the combination plate with steak, shrimp, rice, and salad. It’s not Argentinian-style steak; it’s skirt steak done Central American-style (with a tangy marinade, grilled medium well). There’s, like, seven different things on the plate. Everything complements everything. It’s the best Hispanic food I’ve had in Charlotte.” —Felix Godward, owner of Felix’s Empanadas
Saffron, in Ayrsley, captures all the tangy, sweet, and spicy flavors of India. Everything on the menu is homemade, including the paneer (cheese). The potali samosas aren’t unique to Saffron, but they ace this traditional Indian snack. The handmade, hand-rolled pastry, which envelopes a mix of potatoes, peas, and spices, is fried to crisp perfection. —Michele Huggins
Lamb Shish Kebab
“Opening the first Armenian restaurant in Charlotte went beyond business,” says Artak Vardanyan. Artak’s father, Vardan, opened Ararat17 in Matthews in 2017, more than 20 years after moving his family to the United States from central Armenia. Artak and Vardan see the restaurant as a place that reminds them of their roots and a place where they can share their home with guests.
“Ararat17 is a cultural mosaic of cuisines likely to be encountered in an Armenian household,” Artak says. Because Armenian food has both influenced and been influenced by other cultures—the small country, just east of Turkey, sits near the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East—even a first-time diner will recognize menu items like the lamb shish kebab.
You can taste the charcoal smoke on the hearty cuts of lamb; the Vardanyans mainly cook over charcoal instead of an oven, a cultural tradition that has endured through a century of displacement that followed the World War I-era Armenian genocide. Armenians adapted themselves and their dishes to their new homes, incorporating rice, hummus, beef, and pork when bulgur wheat and lamb were unavailable.
Like the shish kebab, Ararat17’s menu emphasizes flavor more than heat. The Vardanyans serve pepper- and basil-infused olive oil with pita bread for dipping. Dolma (stuffed grape leaves) are hand-rolled, tender, and fragrant with red pepper sauce and lemon. I finish my meal with a simple yet flavorful hummus that I scoop with leftover pita. I sip on sweet pomegranate wine, watch the kitchen door swing open and shut, and catch glimpses of the Vardanyans as they gesture, knead, and chop. —Katie Rath
Kabab-Je Rotisserie & Grille
Yasser Sadek grew up on Mediterranean food in his native Beirut long before it was trendy. Vegetables, grains, and olive oil were the foundation of the Lebanese meals his family shared. They’re the same ingredients that anchor the menu at Kabab-Je today, which relies on seasoning and lemon juice—not heavy cream-based sauces—for flavor.
Sadek came to Charlotte in 1978 and worked in the restaurant business for more than three decades before he opened Kabab-Je in Sycamore Commons in Matthews in 2013. (He has a second location in Stonecrest, too.) He’s never adapted to an Americanized Middle Eastern restaurant with falafel sandwiches and packaged pita bread. Here, you’ll see chicken or lamb slow-roasting on the spit and smell pita baking in the custom-made oven.
Dining is communal in Lebanon; sharable plates of kebabs, tabbouleh, and stuffed grape leaves crowd the table. For the most authentic experience, order a mix of plates to share with family and friends. The appetizer-sized falafel plate comes with four crispy croquettes of ground chickpeas, fava beans, and spicy herbs, along with salad and tahini sauce. The kibbeh, spicy minced lamb and onion encased in a shell of beef fillet and cracked wheat, are like three-bite lamb meatballs. Have them plain or dunk them in garlic sauce, tahini, or hummus. Any combination is a sensory circus. —T.B.
Stir Fry Snow Pea Tips
EXPERT'S PICK: “There's more than just lo mein and General Tso’s chicken. Sometimes I just leave it up to the servers, but I usually get the stir fry snow pea tips (snow peas sautéed in sesame and garlic sauce) when it’s in season; if you don’t eat meat—or if you do—it’s a great option.” —Michael Chanthavong, executive chef at O-Ku
When she named her restaurant, Nancy Park kept it simple. “I wish she would have thought of something,” jokes Jade Chong, Park’s daughter, “but she only wants to stick with this.” Chong and her 64-year-old mother operate the Super G Mart food stall six days a week. “From Tuesday through Sunday, she’s always here—unless I force her to leave,” Chong adds. One of the most popular dishes is bibimbap (number 11 on the menu), a colorful mix of vegetables, egg, and beef on a crunchy layer of rice, all served in a hot pot (a.k.a. dolsot). —Emma Way
Pad Gra Pow
This herbal stir-fry dish pulls most of its flavor from fresh basil leaves. Served with jasmine rice and your choice of protein (go with beef), pad gra pow is light and aromatic. Local favorite Thai Taste has three locations in Dilworth, University, and Matthews. —E.W.
FUN FACT: Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly is a Thai Taste regular; the Dilworth location displays a bulletin board with photos of him. His favorite? Pad thai.
Hot & Heavy Roll
At $25, the hot & heavy roll at O-Ku is a specialty sushi roll. This bite-sized flavor bomb is worth the splurge, though. The combination of tuna, lobster, avocado, spicy aioli, and sriracha are like fireworks in your mouth—and it’s filling enough for one person as an entree. —T.B.
Family-owned Lang Van has operated for 29 years at Shamrock and Eastway drives. Dan Nguyen, the restaurant’s owner, remembers regulars who frequent Lang Van for its pho, vermicelli bowls, tofu and green beans, and spring rolls. I’ve been going to Lang Van for 20 years, and without fail she knows my order and asks about my son. The menu is long and perhaps best known for its variety of pho noodles served piping hot with a plateful of mint, basil, and cilantro. It has something else: bánh xèo.
It’s a savory rice flour pancake with turmeric, which gives bánh xèo its bright yellow color. The pancake—or Vietnamese crepe—gets folded over sliced pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. It’s served with a plate of lettuce, mint, basil, and cilantro to be stuffed inside. There’s no hot spices or sauces, though; the ingredients alone strike a delectable balance of flavor and texture. —M.H.
The Cooking Pot
Moi-Moi with Beef
This Nigerian restaurant in the Independence Shopping Center may be small, but the portions are not. Owner Esther Ikuru’s moi-moi is a West African staple, a bean pudding made with blanched black-eyed peas and blended with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Pair it with beef or chicken or eat it plain for a hearty helping of savory Nigerian comfort food. —C.M.
Jollof Rice Plate
Order the jollof rice plate at this carryout-only Ghanian restaurant, and you’ll have enough food for two (or three) meals. The deep red rice, similar to Cajun or Jamaican jambalaya, comes topped with two chicken drumsticks, Mama Gee’s tomato stew, and fried sweet plantains. —T.B.
Abugida Feast with Injera
“Growing up here, I got asked crazy questions, off-the-wall questions,” says Yodite Tesafye, who owns Abugida Ethiopian Café & Restaurant. She was 15 when her mother moved her and her three siblings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to the United States. As a student at Independence High School, Tesafye says many classmates had a false image of her life in the African country. “They all assumed I saw animals running around … or that we didn’t have food.”
Today, the 35-year-old co-owns Abugida in Plaza Midwood, where she corrects those stereotypes. “For people to learn somebody’s culture, food is the best way.”
Tesafye opened the restaurant in 2017 with her brother Zemaf, who runs the kitchen and serves the city’s best injera, a spongy flatbread made from teff flour. The menu has two “feast” options—one with meat ($18), one without ($12)—that come with a sampling of dishes that include gomen (chopped and seasoned collard greens) and yemisir kik wat (split red lentils cooked with berbere sauce). Berbere is the most common seasoning used in Ethiopian dishes; it’s a mix of cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and 19 other spices.
With its many flavors and dishes, an Abugida feast represents the diverse neighborhood around the restaurant—the neighborhood Tesafye calls home. “I think we’re lucky because we’re right in Plaza. Most of this generation, like the people who live around here, they are very adventurous,” she says. Tesafye teaches them to ditch silverware and use injera as a utensil, and to sip strong Ethiopian coffee poured from an ornate clay pot called a jebena. “They want to try new things. So we’re lucky in that sense.” —E.W.
Traditional Irish food has a reputation for being heavy, bland, and lacking the complex flavors of more upscale European cuisine. But Mark Murphy wants to dispel that myth. In April, he opened Inishmore, an Irish pub in Dilworth that he named after an island off the coast of Galway. Inishmore, which means “large island” in Gaelic, “was my dad’s utopia,” he explains.
Murphy, who hails from West Cork, designed the menu to reflect what the islanders eat, so you’ll find a number of seafood-inspired dishes like barbecue prawns, pan-seared crab cakes, and creamed kale and oyster gratin. He also offers traditional Irish fare like shepherd's pie, the heavy, stick-to-your-ribs dish you’ll find in most pubs in Dublin. In early cookbooks, this meal (also called “cottage pie”) was a means of combining leftover meat with potatoes, a crop readily available to the poor.
Executive Chef Josh Galit’s version starts with a mix of minced beef and lamb, peas, and carrots that he tops with whipped potatoes. That’s it. No tangy seasoning or artful garnish. No need for utensils beyond a spoon. It’s a “working man’s dish,” and there’s no reason to reimagine it. It’s hearty, filling, and best eaten before a chilly St. Patrick’s Day parade. If you’re looking for something lighter, or more complex flavors, order a side of grilled asparagus or truffle fries. —T.B.
Wienerschnitzel, the traditional fried-cutlet Austrian/German dish, is a triumph of texture more than flavor. Done right, it’s a moist, tender (but not greasy) veal or pork cutlet with a golden breading fried just enough for a bit of crunch. Waldhorn Restaurant in Pineville serves a robust version of the German pork variety (vom Schwein) for lunch and dinner with sweet red cabbage, brown sauce, and spätzle, the slightly chewy central European pasta. —G.L.
Valhalla Pub & Eatery
Norwegian Meatball Plate
Inside the uptown pub, named for the hallowed hall of Norse mythology, names like “Valkyrie Wings” and “Lagertha's Turkey Sandwich” fill a sticky, laminated menu. The Norwegian Meatballs have me feeling Peak Viking: The family recipe, complete with rich brown gravy, is majestic—whether you’re coming from an ancient battlefield or your cubicle. —Andy Smith
This Spanish-style seafood stew comes from the Basque region of Spain, but it remains popular in most Spanish-speaking countries and is often served on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Malabar’s adaptation is loaded with clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari, and the fish of the day. The tomato broth, with just a hint of herbs and spices, is great for dipping crusty bread. —T.B.
Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub
Bubble and Squeak
The name comes from what the traditional English dish does in the pan as it’s cooked over a fire. “Boil, chop, and fry, with a little butter, pepper, and salt, some cabbage,” writes Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell in A New System of Domestic Cookery, published in 1806, “and lay on it slices of raredone beef, lightly fried.” It was always a dish cobbled together from holiday or Sunday dinner leftovers. But at some point—maybe during the beef-scarce days of World War II—bubble and squeak evolved into its modern-day version: cabbage and mashed potatoes shaped into roughly hand-sized cakes and fried.
At Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub in South End, it doesn’t bubble and squeak in a pan. It sizzles on a griddle, another modern variation. “It’s like an extension of a meal,” observes Marcus Hart, Big Ben’s manager and chef. “A lot of English food is based on poverty. They never threw anything away.” An African-American man from Augusta, Georgia, Hart nods and chuckles when I suggest that bubble and squeak is a kind of English soul food, a vehicle for recycling excess to ensure nothing goes to waste. It’s a little lumpy, pleasantly crusty, a bit bland. (England.) You can, of course, season to taste, but it’s not necessary. As its warmth glides down your gullet, you can appreciate its fundamental appeal on a wet, chilly, typically English day. —G.L.
Sit among the regulars on the South Boulevard restaurant’s patio and do as the locals do—play checkers, nibble on a mezze platter or gyro (with extra tzatziki), and forget you’re in Charlotte, not Santorini. —E.W.
Aqua e Vino
EXPERT'S PICK: “I dine here when I don’t want to cook Italian at home. I tell (chef Gabriele Grigolon) to just cook for me. I love when he does his charcuterie plates—it reminds me of Italy because we all start with prosciutto melone and mozzarella. When I get there, he doesn’t follow the menu; he just cooks for me, and his pastas are always fantastic.” —Luca Annunziata, executive chef at Forchetta
Intermezzo Pizzeria & Café
A popular dish in the Balkans and the Middle East, musaka or moussaka is a layered casserole with eggplant, tomatoes, and minced meat. Branko and Djordje Avramovic fled Serbia at the start of the 1998 Kosovo War and opened Intermezzo on Central Avenue in 2007. Their musaka is rich and comforting with a blend of spices like oregano, cinnamon, and paprika and a dusting of Parmesan on top. —E.W.
Talk Dessert-y to Me
International desserts to hit your sweet spot, and where to find them
➊ Clafoutis aux Fruits
This smooth, creamy custard from the Limousin region of France is served with a granola crisp and diced peaches
Where to find it: La Belle Helene, Fourth Ward