Charlotte showed me many of its facets as a city. My first stop back in the south, I saw a lot of development, cultural variety, and an interest by many residents and workers to move the Queen City into a new era. I arrived at an interesting time. The weather was warming up and the crowds were rising. I had chosen one restaurant to visit and one had been chosen for me by the folks hosting me in the city.
My first meal was at Haberdish, a spot much loved by the team @charlottesgotalot for its low country scratch kitchen and craft cocktail bar. It was a welcome reprieve with a lot of my favorite foods on the menu. The staff was comprised of many different people at different ages with different goals but there was a unifying sense of pride in one’s work. From the award winning bar staff to the freshman busser, it was obvious this team worked well together. If you are looking for fun cocktails with big points for presentation, this is the bar for you. Every drink I was handed had its own unique an enticing presentation with powerful flavors to match. The bar staff has a creative integrity that really left an impression.
The kitchen provided me an enormous array of food to try. Housemade pickles, a pimento cheese ball, and deviled eggs with smoked trout were my first offerings. Paired with their take on a Pimm’s cup, the combination of home grown flavors had me feeling nostalgic instantly. The smoked trout deviled eggs left a huge impression, not only for their flavor, but the presentation as well. The plate on which they arrived had been painted with enough yolk filling to make the egg halves stick. It’s a common issue for restaurant that serve deviled eggs to struggle with how to keep them intact from the kitchen to the table, especially in a packed bar on a busy night. While there are chefs that go hard on garnish, I’m of the opinion that easy to eat, nicely garnished food is more accessible than something ridiculously over the top and awkward to eat. Haberdish provided me southern staples made with innovation and love. That holds more value in my book.
The other bite that swept me away was the sweet potato dumplings. A fun take on grandma’s gnocchi recipe, these were the perfect texture and pan fried with sage butter, topped in Parmesan. While on first bite you get the sage immediately, I was surprised by how much flavor came through in the dumpling itself. It was uncompromisingly sweet potato with a nice spring back to each bite. Dumpling texture can be a real point of contention, some like flat, some like puffs, some like pan fried. I’ve never met a dumpling I wasn’t thankful for so I’ll abstain from that battle myself.
I followed this with the stone mill grits of the day and a bite of fried chicken, both were homestyle comfort food presented lightly garnished on old timey serving plates. The mason jars, serving spoons, and vintage style cocktail glasses presented in a modern meets farmhouse space seem very on trend with the new southern aesthetic I’ve seen grow in the last decade.
The North Davidson neighborhood, branded as NoDa provides some artistic spaces and modernity to an old city. Accessible by light rail, bike, or scooter, it is an up and coming space that with attention to inclusivity and zoning, could be a huge selling point for Charlotte moving forward. Offering bars, cafes, art galleries, and community spaces, it is an interesting move into the future. If housing and access to public transportation are kept reliable and affordable, it will be worth the buzz it has begun to generate.
The following day, I spent the morning walking around downtown and cruising the light rail. One of the funny things about blogging, photographing and filming my summer is that I can almost always be found with a stabilizer, tripod, or headset in hand. While taking photos of the transit center, I was approached by a number of locals asking if I was filming for a tv show or YouTube. One man that approached me asked if I would share his story because as a passenger he had felt some distrust with his public transportation service and hoped that as a representative of the passengers association I would help him find answers. I had a few hours before I was to meet with Chef James at Mert’s so we stepped outside of the bus area and talked through his issue.
This seems like the kind of issue that has a clear path of resolution though he had not received any help thus far. While the light rail has been around for years and is now pushing cashless app based passes, my passenger in need informed that multiple stations had issues with the Ticket Vending Machines. Because of this, he had two incidents that require answers. The first occurrence happened when he was on his way to work. Not being able to get a ticket at his neighborhood station, he rode the rail to the next station down where he had planned to hop off, buy a ticket and hop back on.
As he arrived at that station, he was approached by fare enforcers that were unreceptive to his plea for help and served him a hefty fine for not having a ticket. He lamented that he felt profiled considering the guards on duty did not check everyone’s tickets yet managed to fine him even though he had cash in hand and was disembarking in an attempt to pay for fare at the TVM. The second time he approached the same station three weeks later, he found the same issue with the ticket machine so he rode the bus instead. This resulted in him being late for work and he was reprimanded by his supervisor.
I would like to see a transparent resolution to this. I called the lynx office twice and at this time have received no comment or statement from their team. I have reviewed their rider alerts and committee meeting notes as far back as April. Nothing released to the public directly addresses the ticketing issues or provides a clear strategy providing for those struggling to afford the weekly or monthly pass costs. If a member of the lynx team is reading this – shoot me an email, I’d love to talk.
While public transportation is environmentally and socially responsible, it loses respectability when issues like this transpire. We require accessibility for all. If those most marginalized in our communities are voicing that their services are inadequate, we have a responsibility to hear that and speak up for them. Charlotte has a very complex history and if it the Queen City is to maintain its crown, it must serve all of its people. I would implore the city to provide anti-bias training for its enforcers as well as open lines of communication for those who rely on the rail as a primary form of transportation. After having this difficult conversation and making sure my new friend had his ticket in hand to leave the transportation center, I headed on to my next destination hoping this passenger would one day feel secure about reaching his.
A walk down the block brought me to Mert’s Heart and Soul. I met with Chef James and Deanna from Charlotte 5 as we toured the restaurant, kitchen, and ate our way through his signature dishes. Chef James is an absolute powerhouse and his dedication shines through his work. The restaurant has a mostly open kitchen, wrap around bar featuring a variety of locally sourced cakes, and a spacious dining area. A friendly staff comprised of family, friends, and familiar faces treated me as Chef wrapped up a conversation with the AC maintenance team. A familiar conversation to any chef in the South battling the summer heat.
James is originally from Georgia but relocated to Charlotte many years ago. He creates healthier southern options with no pork fat and minimal animal byproduct in his vegetable side dishes. There’s a few options for vegans and a multitude for vegetarians as well as hearty meat dishes all prepared with love and expertise. His menu is classic comfort food prepared with great attention to detail, the kind of experience that only comes with time and practice. Though his kitchen crew makes it look effortless, this kind of consistency and standard come only through technical curation.
While we chatted and laughed through our interview, we also chowed down. The soul roll is a signature item on the menu. A wonton wrapper stuffed with greens, rice, chicken, and black eyed peas, the flavor changes slightly by season but the iconic impression it makes is timeless.
Mert’s blew me away. The Soul Sampler paired the rolls with salmon cakes and whole chicken wings. Salmon cakes take me back to my mom frying them up in a skillet on Sunday afternoons once the lawn was mowed and the sun tea brewed. James’ were absolutely lovely. With the trinity base and a hearty rough shredded salmon, it was an instant classic for me. The chicken wings were divine as well. The whole wing, ever so lightly dredged begging to be snapped apart and dunked in the house sauce.
The BBQ Beef ribs, sweet yams, red beans & rice with turkey kielbasa, as well as the cornbread and greens had me at a level of bliss I had thought myself to jaded to once again experience. By the end of supper, I had tasted my way through so many dishes, I was sweating on the verge of pain while packing away my leftovers. Though I definitely bit off more than I could chew, it was the good kind of hurt. I was able to give away the untouched portions to folks in need of a hot meal so that effort helped alleviate the shame of overeating on my end. So far, this has been my favorite eatery of the trip not only for the food, but for the enduring spirit of what Mert’s Heart & Soul stands for.
As I was preparing to leave town, I witnessed how the locals were preparing for the rally soon to descend upon their city. There were tones of mixed emotion as the insignia of some of the attendants and visitors became more visible. While I’m sure there is some reason the rally was held in Charlotte, I can not speak to how it incentivizes or supports any of the initiatives the people of Charlotte uphold as their beacon of the celebrated diversity they broadcast. Overall, I see great opportunities for growth and development of the arts and food scene in Charlotte. It is important to remember ones’ history while moving into a new era. Simultaneously we must lay to rest dated notions which do not serve the people.
As I arrived at the station around 2:00 in the morning, I was blown away by the dedication of the on-duty CSR Rodrick Gould. He made sure that despite the late night boarding, everyone at the station was safe, well informed, and taken care of. While there have been many station volunteers, amtrak employees, and support staff that have worked tirelessly to assure safe passage, I would like to personally thank Rodrick for his dedication to his work and his station during such a late departure. He set a great example for how much passenger rail and hospitality industries overlap to create great riding experiences. There are times where it can feel unsafe traveling overnight and Rodrick’s commitment alievited that concern not only for myself, but for the multiple women headed out of town so late in the night. I hope there are more people like Rodrick and James committed to the future of Charlotte whose light can shine as a beacon of welcome in North Carolina.