WFAEats: The Best Things We Ate In 2018

December 22, 2018

As the year draws to a close, lots of us are looking back and making lists of what was memorable. In a town that’s getting as culinarily complex as Charlotte, that gets harder to do each year. You already know about the famous restaurants and their iconic dishes, so here’s a look at some other food experiences you might not know about. Each of them left an impressive aftertaste.

Let’s start with anything cooked by Dan “The Pigman” Huntley. Saying he makes good barbecue is like saying New Orleans has a few decent spots to stop for a snack. Whenever he pulls up it’s a party, especially when he fires up the giant mobile cauldron called the “Gumbo-tron.” At a neighbor’s brunch earlier this year, he and his helpers roasted oysters in giant pans that were as big as the tables where we waited for each batch.

And speaking of barbecue, the best briskets in Charlotte this year didn’t come from a restaurant. They were the highlight of the Charlotte Kosher BBQ Championship. Held each year on Labor Day, pitmasters compete to win the title for best beef, chicken, and beans – everything except pork. Put this one on your calendar now.

Fair warning: Eating the ramen at Yume will ruin you. After you’ve had this traditional Japanese dish of slow-simmered broth and noodles, you won’t be able to stomach the dried pasta in those sad little packets anymore. This is a new noodle benchmark and rightly so.

You’ve probably heard about the chic décor and the delectable rotisserie chicken at La Belle Hélène. But it’s those gorgeous roasted potatoes that are the scene stealers. With rosemary and garlic, they’re both perfectly crisp and meltingly smooth, with layers of flavor that make them truly next-level.  

I ran into Beverly McLaughlin at a potluck dinner recently and was glad to see she brought her amazing artichoke dip, which I quickly commandeered for my own. I also felt a bit sheepish for not remembering she’s been making great small-batch vegetarian and vegan prepared foods for years. She was way ahead of the current trend that’s challenging us to go animal-free in what we eat. You can buy Beverly’s Gourmet Foods in Reid’s, Whole Foods, and a few other spots locally. I got reacquainted with her and now you can, too.

Sure, everyone knows the flavor of chocolate – but have you actually tasted it? And by that I mean: Have you learned how to actually understand what you’re tasting, how to discern the differences among the different types of chocolate, and truly appreciate them? I didn’t either until I attended a tasting event at Potts Chocolates in South End. Blair and Margo Potts make magic from bean to bar.

I remain intrigued and mystified by the talents of chef Clark Barlow, proprietor of Heirloom in Charlotte’s Coulwood neighborhood. He goes out into the woods and brings back all sorts of things, like mushrooms, that sometimes look terrible but always taste remarkable. So when he offered up a bowl of yellow jacket soup at the Carolina Farm Trust dinner, more than a few of us recoiled. I tried it and it was unlike anything else, earthy and sweet, and a little nutty.

Weeks after Sioux chef Sean Sherman’s visit (which I wrote about here) I can still remember the taste of the sunflower-crusted trout that was served at his visit to the Catawba Indian Nation. As someone who’s eaten countless helpings of fish in her lifetime, I’m still trying to determine what made this one particular plate so memorable. I’m thinking it likely had something to do with the spirit of hospitality that always welcomes guests to the Reservation.

Chef Njathi Wa Kabui, who hails from Kenya, gave food demos throughout the summer at the weekly Rosa Parks Farmers’ Market. He turned simple ingredients such as millet, greens, and spices into satisfying dishes that were hearty and healthy. He’s based in Raleigh but we hope he comes back to the Queen City next season.

There are lots of good Mexican restaurants serving authentic dishes in Charlotte, but for me, nothing beats a smoky stalk of grilled Elote corn from Sabor Latin Street Grill.Are there fancier places? Yes. With more expansive menus? Yes. But this is my list – so Elote it is.

I learned about Veltree, the Vegan Experience just this week, thanks to esteemed writer Emiene Wright. I drove over to check it out immediately. Named for its founders Velvet Jacobs and Treona Kelty-Jacobs, Veltree is take-out only. So be warned: You’ll want to dip those succulent drumsticks into that spicy-sweet barbecue sauce right away, so pull over and don’t drive while you do it. The proprietresses of this small but vibrant spot also offer health and wellness events, and they’re in the midst of doing a holiday bike giveaway for neighborhood kids. What a delicious way to wrap up the season.

That’s our look back at what tasted best in 2018. Next time we’ll look forward to the new year with some food resolutions and a prediction or two.