Charlotte’s culinary jewels shine at lesser-known eateries showcasing traditional cultural fare. Photographer Tonya Russ Price takes us on a journey to some of the city’s hidden gems.
by Michael J. Solender | photographs by Tonya Russ Price
One tasty byproduct of Charlotte’s dizzying population growth over the last decade has been a dramatic expansion of the culinary landscape. Options abound for culturally curious restaurantgoers, with new bakeries and cafes opening nearly every week.
Growing alongside restaurants led by headline-making, culinary institute-trained chefs are legions of independent, immigrant-owned bistros and cafes bringing rich cultural traditions and vibrant flavors of distant homelands to eager new audiences.
Charlotte photographer Tonya Russ Price makes it her mission to discover and share the best of our city’s lesser-known restaurants, one delicious food photo at a time. Price, who works in catering sales for a local restaurant group, has spent 25 years in the hospitality business and knows her way around the plate. She’s also the founder of Poprock Photography, where for the past 11 years she’s photographed events, weddings and restaurant openings. Her Instagram account @poprockphotography regularly features photos of her favorite finds, mostly mom-and-pop places in working-class neighborhoods around town.
For Price, the friendships are even more important than the tasty food she finds on her journeys around town. “It really is all about the connections for me,” she says. “Exploring different cultures through the experience of food is such a great way to get to know and understand others. Sharing that through my photos is a way to build those bonds, too. I’m always looking to capture the love.”
SouthPark Magazine recently tagged along with Price recently to experience some of her go-to destinations. Here’s what we found.
Sri Balaji Caffe
716 Main St., Pineville
This tiny vegetarian/vegan eatery off Main Street in Pineville is one of Price’s mainstays. “Indian food is so comforting,” she says. “All the warm spices and complex curries come together in ways that leave me craving for my next visit, even when I’m still here.”
Sri Balaji, the name of a Hindu god, offers an extensive menu of south Indian staples. Tiffin (think: an Indian version of the Japanese Bento Box) is a great beginner’s option. Trays come with choices of fragrant sambar (a type of lentil stew), poori (light, airy fried bread pockets), lentil cakes, potato masala and a variety of chutneys.
Dosas — impossibly thin, spongy Indian crepes as big as a stop sign — come filled with potatoes, lentils, onions, spinach, sesame seeds, chutney and sambar. Uthappams, spicy rice-flour pancakes, are served with fiery chili paneer (a fresh Indian cheese) or a sweet-and-spicy coconut gravy. Heavenly aromas of turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, cardamom and tamarind surround diners inside the tiny, sunshine-yellow dining room. Eat in or dine outside on the covered patio at this casual, counter-service bistro. “I come here at least once a week,” Price says. “It’s that good.” sribalajicaffecharlotte.com
Crispy Banh mi
Three locations: 5100 South Blvd., Ste. C; and 2934 Shamrock Dr.; and 2130 Ayrsley Town Blvd., Ste. C
Upon entering the original Crispy Banh mi on South Boulevard, Trung “Joe” Do greets Price with an ear-to-ear smile and a welcome reserved for special guests. Do, who co-owns the popular cafe with his brother Than, hails from Vietnam, where warm, toasty baguettes stuffed with salty, sweet marinated and grilled pork and crisp pickled vegetables are the favored fuel for the on-the-go working class. “Everyone loves the convenience and flavors of banh mi,” says Do, who serves up more than 1,500 of these classics weekly from his three shops.
Price is such a frequent regular, Do practically has her drink order ready before she even requests it: Thai tea, tall, iced with a floater of sweetened condensed milk and tapioca pearls (boba). Specialty drinks and juices are not an afterthought here. Vietnamese coffees, milk and fruity teas, and juice libations all sing with Asian ingredients like fresh sugarcane juice and coconut milk. The slightly sweet tea is a perfect complement to the classic Bar-B-Que Pork Banh mi. Chicken, fried fish, meatball, cold cut and vegetarian versions are also available. “The baguettes are the perfect texture of crusty outside and soft and chewy middle. It’s the best cheap eats in Charlotte,” Price says. “It makes me happy.” crispybanhmi.com
La Unica Supermarket Internacional
5938 South Blvd.
Mini-mart, bakery, taco and torta shop combine at this ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ Latin-style market on South Boulevard. Colorful desserts line refrigerated pastry cases filled with Mexican specialties such as chocoflan (chocolate egg custard) arroz con leche (sweet rice pudding), mi hojas (flaky layered pastry with custard filling) and freshly baked cakes. Head baker Sergio Ruis shows off tray after tray of Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread pastries) like conchas, picones, ojo de buey and mantecados (shortbread sugar cookies). Buttery cinnamon churros are in abundance here, as are Mexican cookies and muffins.
Price knows to ask at the counter for the torta and taco menu, today ordering tacos barbacoa — low-and-slow barbecued beef on fresh tortillas with pickled radish, cilantro salsa and fresh pico de gallo.
There’s a small eat-in area here, but most visitors prefer to take their goods home for a Mexican feast on the cheap.
9010 Monroe Rd., Unit 1
Climb a mountain of Nepali flavors at this tiny bistro on Monroe Road serving lunch and dinner. “I’m mad about the chai tea here,” says Price, who often comes in for a snack when she’s out and about. The special tea is a custom blend of mountain black and green tea, cardamom, pepper and bay leaf. “It’s sweet and spicy and is nice to savor with their samosas.” Crispy fried patties with a potato and green pea filling, the triangular stuffed pockets come with tamarind and mint dipping sauce.
Nepali cuisine is similar to that of northern India. The landlocked country is an international crossroads, and its cuisine reflects Himalayan influences from around the region. Everest’s Cauliflower Furaula is a house specialty. Crispy florets are bathed in a spicy mélange of ginger, garlic, onion and cilantro in a tangy furaula sauce. Order on a heat scale of 1-10, paying mind to the mid-range as the top end is reserved for brave souls and Nepali natives only.
Momos, Nepali-style filled dumplings, come stuffed with ground chicken or mixed veggies. One order is easily an appetizer for two or a meal for one. everestbistro.com
Manolo’s Latin Bakery
4405 Central Ave., Ste. C
Manolo Betancur is a community connector and an entrepreneur with a mission to help Charlotte’s immigrant community by providing jobs — and a taste of their homeland. Betancur’s Central Avenue bakery and production kitchen serves as the base for his expansive outreach. His business employs 35, and his baked goods are sold in more than 100 restaurants and markets throughout Charlotte.
Our visit finds Betancur just back from a relief mission to Poland and Ukraine. He spent two weeks rebuilding a bakery in Bucha, a Ukrainian town devastated in the recent Russia/Ukraine conflict. To date, he’s raised more than $10,000 in support of Ukraine and will return in the fall to continue helping others.
In Charlotte, his international breads, savory empanadas, Latin pastries and coconut milk vegan gelato garner a steady stream of patrons, many of whom Betancur knows by name. Manolo’s special Tres Leches cake can be made with a variety of fillings, including chocolate chips, strawberries and caramel, and is pure bliss. “I am in the happiness business,” Betancur says. “It is a privilege to connect with so many of my neighbors.” manolosbakery.com
5937 South Blvd.
This family-run Charlotte stalwart brings South Vietnam’s signature dish of pho — deep, earthy beef bone broth with rice vermicelli noodles and floral herbs of mint and cilantro — to wondrous heights. Hai Pham, together with wife Nga Thai and son Andy Pham, have been delighting Charlotte diners with the authentic tastes of Vietnam for 10 years at their casual restaurant on South Boulevard.
Pham’s alchemy begins with 70 pounds of beef bone combined with 30 pounds of beef brisket infused with a secret spice blend and simmered for up to 16 hours in specially filtered alkaline water. Pham makes three batches every week to yield his deeply satisfying soup base. Diners choose add-ins, from eye of round, beef ball, brisket, shrimp or vegetables to make the dish their own. It’s not just soothing in the winter months; the light and flavorful soup is a nutrition-packed summer sensation.
“I’m crazy for the grilled beef fresh summer rolls,” says Price, who often stops by to pick up an order (or two) for the perfect between-meal snack. She’s also a big fan of the Vietnamese Yellow Pancake. Stuffed with shrimp, chicken and bean sprouts, this flavorful crepe is served with fish sauce, lettuce, basil and lime. “I love the genuine mix of southeast Asia flavors — sweet, salty, sour and savory.” facebook.com/DoansRestaurant
Golden Bakery & Halal Market
3145 N. Sharon Amity Rd.
This Middle Eastern gem on Sharon Amity Road serves up freshly baked flatbreads like naan, shrak and lavash alongside pitas, fatayer (stuffed pastries), sambousek (flaky, savory filled pies) and sweet treats with exotic names like basbooseh (dense cake), borma (stuffed cookie) and ghoraybeh (soft shortbread cookie).
A great stop for a quick snack, Golden prepares individual mini pizzas to order in its always fired-up brick oven. Four varieties of baklava are found here, including traditional pistachio, walnut, rolled and almond. The freshly made hummus is silky smooth and made daily.
The Syrian owned bakery and Halal market offers spices, fresh cheese, fresh-butchered lamb and goat meat, and specialty grocery items from the Mediterranean and Middle East. goldenbakerync.com SP