Beef Brisket in Pork Country

Charlotte is a town that loves its barbecue and when it comes to barbecue in North Carolina, pig is king.  Now barbecue in this state differs greatly but I’m not even going to get into the whole Eastern Carolina vs. Western Carolina debate because I love a good ketchup based sauce in the west I’ll save that for another meal.  For now we’ll just stick to, ironically, the barbecue that doesn’t even really fit in this state: beef brisket.

No slight to the pig because I love me some smoked pork.  My all-time favorite has to be the countless chopped pork sandwiches from our family friends’ lakeside smoker in Virginia.

Not quite pork but you get the idea.  Our best family friends have the most perfect lake house in Virginia and Mr. Q not only makes to best pork sandwich I’ve ever had but also smokes the best turkey known to man.  And has a pretty good view while doing it…

I digress.  This is supposed to be about brisket and that’s where I’m headed.  When I first moved to Charlotte I heard all about the various barbecue joints in the city. Not too long after, my own neighborhood got its very own barbecue in a very good way in the form of Midwood Smokehouse.  I immediately loved it.  Local beers, custom-built wood smoker, within walking distance, and some pretty delicious barbecue.  Over the next few months I sampled bits and pieces of the menu; bacon wrapped jalapenos, pimento cheese fries, Carolina pork (with Eastern NC vinegar sauce), and banana pudding just to name a few.  I became hooked with my first bite of Midwood’s incredibly juicy Texas style Beef Brisket.  Now I’m no expert, and confess that I have never eaten barbecue in Texas, but I do know food and this meat was perfect.

So incredibly juicy and tender its hard to describe.  Literally melts in your mouth.  The smoker imparts a mild flavor that preserves the integrity of the beef.  No artificial liquid smoke type flavor here–just savory, flavorful, fall apart beef with that wood-fire taste that good barbecue should have.  It’s flat-out impossible to exercise portion control, it’s just that good.  I usually go with both the lean and fatty option to make sure I get the best of both worlds.  Trust me, you want it.  Smoked veggies, bacon jalapeno, and hush puppies rounds out this balanced meal.  Balanced in flavor at least.  I have never been one to order brisket at a barbecue place; it’s always been pork, but Midwood Smokehouse has really shown me the side of brisket that can’t be ignored.  It rivals a good pork barbecue any day.  Try it for yourself and see.  It’s heavenly to me.

Midwood Smokehouse is also turning out some pretty delicious specials with their brisket like this one served on Texas toast with crispy onion straws.

Now as much as I love Midwood’s brisket, I do have to point out some not so good brisket I had at one of Charlotte’s most popular barbecue places.  In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have ordered brisket dining with a Texas native but I wanted something to compare Midwood’s greatness to.  Honestly, when it came to the table I gave it a fair chance.

But it just wasn’t very good.  The meat was tough, lacked flavor, and wasn’t juicy at all.  It didn’t even taste like barbecue.  Just a strip of meat, with some sauce poured on top and weird grill marks.  And then I realized what it looked like…

McRib

Like McDonald’s fake meat concoction that randomly advertised as a special event.  Now I wasn’t the only one who ordered the brisket and wasn’t the only one who hated it.  My advice is stick to NC barbecue at Mac’s and order yourself some good beer to wash it down.  If you want to try some delicious Texas-style barbecue get your fix at Midwood Smokehouse.  You won’t be disappointed.

Midwood Smokehouse on Urbanspoon
Mac's Speed Shop BBQ on Urbanspoon

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Best Pizza in Charlotte?

Sorry for the long hiatus.  Life has gotten a bit crazy with long hours at school, meetings in the evening, running, and more.  I promise though, I have still been eating tons of good food all around Charlotte and have lots to share, starting with a food I simply could not live without…

As you may have noticed by now, I am a bit of a pizza junkie.  I could eat pizza every night of the week and never get sick of it.  There’s just so many things you can do with it and so many different styles.  From New York, to traditional Neapolitan, to creative twists like this red sauce with pesto drizzle from The Pizza Peel, the variety is endless.Ever since I moved to Charlotte I have been on a quest to find the best pizza in the city.  My favorite pizza of all time comes from Pizzeria Orso in Fairfax, Virginia, which features a handmade volcanic brick oven spitting out the most incredible pizza I’ve ever eaten.  If you’re ever in the DC area you have to try this hidden gem.  Since moving to Charlotte I have been looking for something to satisfy my cravings for Pizzeria Orso’s specialty pies and have tried it all.  I have found some pretty delicious pizzas in the city.  I absolutely love Villa Francesca’s Grandma Pizza: square, 16 x 16 thin, crispy crust with mozzarella cheese and dollops of their special “Grandma sauce” for its simplicity.  Revolution’s NoDa pulls me in for their creativity (and beer) with its red sauce, grateful grower’s pulled pork, peppadew peppers, caramelized onions, and balsamic reduction.  I love Aria’s gourmet, thin crust wild mushroom pizza and can always eat a Naples specialty from neighborhood favorite Zio,

but…I was truly in pizza heaven when I discovered Portofino’s Italian pies at their flagship location in east Charlotte.  

  This is the kind of pizza I’ve been missing.  A chewy, thin crust, authentic Italian toppings like buffalo mozzarella and delectable, salty prosciutto make this pizza a favorite.  The crust is perfectly cooked, the sauce is flavorful but not overpowering, and the toppings are high quality ingredients.  Portofino’s is owned and operated by childhood friends from Naples, Italy and their authenticity shines is undeniable.  The Eastway location is very basic, no frills, and welcomes all walks of life.  Located in a strip mall where an old Walmart used to be, it doesn’t scream urban sophistication, but it does scream authenticity.  Don’t be tempted to judge this restaurant by its curb appeal, look past its strip mall residency and venture inside for some delicious pizza in an informal setting.  It’s perfect for a casual dinner or just to pick up pizza for take-out.  Portofino’s has three other locations in the Charlotte area: Park Road, Ayrsley, and Moorseville that you could also check out.  I’ve found my new spot to satisfy my pizza cravings in Charlotte and I highly suggest you try it out for yourself.

Portofino's Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

I am also very excited to try Wolfgang Puck’s new pizzeria opening sometime time in April in Phillips Place (southpark).  Completely different style than Portofino’s but I’m excited to try it! Read about it on Restaurant Traffic here.

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Weekend Happenings in Food and Fun

Happy Thursday!  In college, Thursday meant the weekend; out in the real world, not so much.  While we may not be staying out until the bars close on Thursday nights anymore, there’s still plenty of room for fun.

There’s a lot going on in Charlotte this weekend, especially in NoDa, as Yelp kick’s off its Passport to NoDa, an event aimed at getting locals to explore the neighborhood’s pretty awesome businesses).  Check out some of these options for food lovers and beer drinkers:

  • Thursday March 8 (5pm-9pm): Food Truck Rally in NoDa, click the link to see which food trucks are going to be where
  • Saturday March 10 (9pm-11pm): NoDa ‘Stache Bar Crawl
  • Sunday March 11 (2:30pm-5:30pm): Charlotte Beer Babes Social at Vintner Wine Market
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New Good Food at Good Food (on Montford)

Whenever people ask me where to go for a nice dinner out in Charlotte, or where to take friends or family visiting, my response is always Good Food on Montford.  The place is run by a James Beard nominated chef, provides unique and creative small plates on an ever-changing menu, handcrafted cocktails, delicious wine, craft beer, and a gorgeous setting.  I’ve had a one or two not-spectacular servers, but on my most recent visit the service was exceptional (ask for Kim).  I headed out with the girls for a night in Montford and was delighted to see a new menu.

They kept the original warm and cold plates separation, and added a few more distinctions; pasture, sea, pasta, and sides.  While I always, always order the steamed bun, my eyes were drawn to several  new dishes on the menu including gnocchi, fried oysters, risotto, arctic char, lamb belly, shrimp arepas, and Korean beef.  After taking our servers suggestions we went with some of the usual’s and got to taste three delicious new dishes.

arugula salad with sweet potato, pecans, goat cheese, and dates

Loved the sweetness paired with the peppery arugula.  Good Food almost always has an arugula salad on the menu and changes its flavor with seasonal and creative ingredients.  This was one of my favorites.

roasted shrimp arepas with red cabbage slaw and chipotle bbq sauce

Crunchy corn cakes, smoky bbq sauce, tangy slaw, and perfectly roasted shrimp with a hint of spice made for a real winner.  Every component went together harmoniously and will definitely become a regular rotation for me.

korean beef with crispy rice and scallion kimchi

This is my kind of dish.  I loved the combination of Asian flavors; soy, sesame, and Sriracha, with a perfectly cooked piece of tender beef.  Not to mention the rice.  I’m not talking about plain old steamed white rice, but the authentic sticky rice that’s soft and chewy on the inside with a crispy crunch on the outside.  I don’t know how they do it but when you taste rice like this you know what I mean.  The dish was not only beautiful but full of the best Asian flavors executed flawlessly.

Old standbys: the never disappointing cheese plate (bad photo, delicious cheese and accompaniments).  Also new to the table, a mouth-watering tasting of roasted garlic, savory-sweet spread over a piece of fresh bread.

and…

The lusciously decadent chocolate cupcake with toasted marshmallow topping.  Even better than I remember.

While a Friday night might not be the best time to go, as Good Food never fails to draw a crowd, it was well worth the wait for us.  A drink next door at Braswells, a stiff cocktail at the bar, and the hour or so went by quick.  I really don’t mind waiting for good food but if that’s not for you, check it out one night during the week and try some of the new menu items.  Let me know what you think!

Good Food on Montford on Urbanspoon

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Aria Tuscan Grill, a Bit Inconsistent

I apologize for my long absence from the blog world but sometimes life can just get too busy.  Don’t worry, I have still been out and about around Charlotte, trying everything from eating with my hands Ethiopian to brewery crawling in NoDa.  So on to the good stuff, reviews.

Friday nights are traditional girls nights for us.  After the long school week there’s nothing better than a night out with the girls, bottles of wine, good food, and lots of catching up.   We ventured uptown to Aria Tuscan Grille on two separate occasions recently.  The first experience was lovely, hence why we came back.  The second time, not so much.  Let’s start with the good.  Aria has a wonderful atmosphere, very chic, warm, and alive.  The interior is beautiful.  The bar is lined with bottles and bottles of wine, champagne, and liquors; live music creates a relaxed vibe; and the dining room is full of life. We started the meal with some of their signature Champagne cocktails.  I ordered the Italian Bliss; campari, rose wine, a drizzle of cherry syrup, and prosecco.  A very delicious combination of fruitiness and bitterness to start a fabulous evening.  Followed by an earthy white bean dip and fresh bread.  Simplicity at its best.

The bread had a crusty exterior and soft inside, perfect for scooping up the rustic white beans with just a hint of onion and herbs.  Good quality olive oil elevated the beans taste.   Next came cheese.  You can bet if there’s a cheese plate on the menu we’re ordering it.  I think most of the girls I dine with, myself included, could live off cheese, and maybe a side of prosciutto.  Delicious cheeses, perfect accompaniments.  On to the salad.

Tuscan salad with arugula, beets, shaved fennel, endive, gorgonzola, and walnut vinaigrette.  My salad was a little under seasoned and under dressed.  Luckily they had some really good olive oil at the table and that problem was solved.  Once I added the olive oil, salt, and a bit of pepper the salad came together very nicely.  At this point in the night cocktails had been finished and I was sipping on a delicious Barbera anxiously awaiting our pizza.  Let’s talk about that for a second.  The amount of pizza we consume is pretty absurd, but to me,  there’s nothing better than a meal consisting of a good salad, pizza, and wine and Aria definitely does it right.  The pizza was pretty amazing.  We shared the Wild Mushroom with goat cheese, caramelized onion, arugula, & truffle oil.

Thin crispy crust all the way through with a heavenly combination of toppings.  The mushrooms earthy flavor was rich and concentrated like they had been roasted before added as a topping.   Every thing just went together perfectly, I couldn’t get enough of it (hence why we came back).

After splitting the pizza, we decided some dessert was necessary.  And not just one dessert, but two.  We really wanted to try the marscapone cheese cake but needed some chocolate too, and hey, girls’ gotta have chocolate.

Word to the wise: do not skip dessert at Aria.  I’m really not even a huge fan of cheesecake, but this cheesecake was so light and fluffy that it even turned me into a lover.  Must have been the marscapone.  And the cake.  There aren’t even words.  Layers of chocolatey hazelnut majesty.  Served with homemade hazelnut gelato. It was to die for.

Our first dining experience at Aria was perfect.  Our server was friendly and charismatic, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was both energetic and relaxed.  That’s why I was so sad to have to share the bad news…our second dining experience at Aria just didn’t hit the mark.  We came back the next week when a friend was visiting and we were planning on a night out on the town.

We ordered drinks and it started off well.There were some highs: Aria does it right with their drinks.  Spot on.  I forget which drink I got but it was some sort of cucumber and herb combination.  Cool and refreshing.  I would definitely order it again.

We ordered our food, salads and pizza again, and then it got a bit confusing.  After about ten or fifteen minutes our pizza came to the table.  No salads, no explanation.  Just dropped off by a not-so-nice server.  We couldn’t find our own server to explain so we just started eating.  After a decent lull in service, he finally came over to the table and when we inquired about our salads he replied matter of factly that they would be out next .   After the pizza?  It was bizarre.  I know there are people who prefer to eat their salad after, but we made no such request and salad is listed before pizza on the menu and we knew that isn’t Aria’s norm because we  had just dined the week before!  It was a mistake that he tried to cover up instead of fixing.  Unfortunately, there were a lot of lows: dinner was rushed, it was hard to find our waiter to order a glass of wine to have with the pizza (since it came out so early), and just an overall weird experience.   Our first time at Aria was a nice, long, relaxing dinner, that made me want to come back.  I had such high expectations for the second night and was pretty disappointed at the end of it.  We did manage to try a new pizza, along with our favorite mushroom pizza.  Pizza d’Aria with prosciutto di parma, gorgonzola, and sundried tomato.  Great, crispy crust and a creative combination of toppings.  I still prefer the wild mushroom pizza but this was tasty as well.  After the bad experience, we decided against staying for dessert, sadly.

Bottom line: Aria was inconsistent, providing a wonderful dining experience one week, and a not-so-great time the next.

Pros: great cocktails and wine, delicious wild mushroom pizza, desserts

Cons: spotty service, inconsistent, didn’t fix mistake

I will probably give Aria another try, and don’t want to write them off completely.  The wild mushroom pizza is pretty heavenly, as well as the desserts.  And if you’re looking just to get drinks, their cocktails are great .  I hate to see a restaurant not get good reviews because of bad service, but if you want to have a successful business and develop a loyal following of diners, you have to train your employees.  There are too many good restaurants out there for anything less.  Hopefully, if we dine again, I can share good news with you.

Aria Tuscan Grill on Urbanspoon

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Spanish Tapas at Malabar in the Heart of Uptown

Small plates, when done well, are by far my favorite way to dine.  Jose Andres’ Jaleo in D.C. and Good Food on Montford in Charlotte are two of my personal favorites.  I love sharing plates and getting to taste multiple flavors, tastes, and styles throughout the meal instead of sticking with one dish.  Malabar, a new Spanish Tapas restaurant in the heart of Uptown, does it very well.  An authentic Spanish menu, attentive and informative staff,  beautiful interior, hip ambiance, and a fabulous location fills a void in Charlotte’s uptown dining scene.

Malabar took over the former Coco Osteria location in uptown after Charlotte restauranteur Augusto Conte decided to move to a Spanish tapas concept.  Not wanting to disappoint devoted Coco diners, he moved some of Coco’s popular dishes to Luce, his Italian concept on North Tryon. Conte Restaurant Group also owns Mezzanotte, which I’m dieing to try (for their Neopolitan style pizza), Toscana, and Trattoria Antica in Waxhaw.

Malabar’s location is perfect, right in the center of Uptown in a trendy, urban setting.  The dining room is small and intimate, perfect for girls night out or a romantic date.  The server/manager was extremely attentive, charismatic, and helped us navigate the menu by offering his favorites.  I loved the way the menu is set up, divided into categories: meats, cheeses, vegetables, fish, entrees, and paellas.

As recommended, we started our meal with two delicious plates.

The first was an eggplant bruschetta, with roasted red peppers, almonds, garlic, and tomatoes.  The creamy eggplant was perfect with the perfectly toasted bread and elevated by the bold flavors of the garlic and peppers.  I wanted more.  The lamb skewers were juicy and tender, I didn’t get tons of flavor, but the hit of lime juice was a nice complement.  Next up was one of my favorites of the night, Pimientos Rellanos, or stuffed roasted red peppers.

Soooo yummy.  Delicate, juicy, brightly roasted red peppers stuffed with cheesy goodness.  I wish I had gotten a picture of the inside.  These are fabulous.  We followed up with a tasty Spanish cheese, aged Manchego with rosemary rind.

Pretty simple, could have used some accompaniments.  It was however, a good segway into these crunchy, salty, and pillowy-light Croquetas filled with creamy potato, nutty manchego, and salty serrano ham.

Not at all heavy or greasy like some fried food can taste, these Croquetas were delicate and crispy on the outside, creamy and luscious on the inside.  Delicious. Not wanting to pass up any traditional Spanish dishes, we ordered a plate of Jamon Serrano and were delighted when this came to the table

Serrano is a dry-cured ham found all over Spain, similar to Italian prosciutto.  It is much less salty than American ham and has less fat than prosciutto with a firmer texture.  The curing of the meat imparts a deep flavor and aroma.  It was perfect served on its own.

Next up was something I never fail to order when it’s on a menu: sautéed clams with chorizo.Or, Almejas a la Plancha.  The spicy chorizo and saffron combined to build a delicious, rich, and deeply flavored broth.  The clams sucked up all of that chorizo-saffron goodness and were tasty, but the creamy broth was by far the best part.  Everyone was dipping the extra table bread into the bowl by the end of this to soak up the last of it.

The next plate was amazing: Champinenes, or sautéed wild mushrooms.  Simple concept, amazing outcome.These weren’t just any old mushrooms. These were the most earthy, meaty, delicious mushrooms I can remember eating.   You have to get this dish.

After working our way through the tapas menu, we decided to sample some desserts.

The favorite of the table was by far the tres leches cake.  The fried churros were a bit disappointing and the flan was decent, but the tres leches cake was definitely a winner.

We had a lovely dining experience at Malabar.  If you’re looking for something different, try it out for an authentic Spanish dining experience.  The tapas menu has a lot to offer, not to mention four different paellas to choose from.  The staff was welcoming and very helpful talking us through the menu.  I will definitely be returning to Malabar for those stuffed peppers, rich and meaty mushrooms, and to sample the paella.

Malabar on Urbanspoon

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Whole Wheat Pasta with Rapini and Sharp Provolone

I have been craving a Pattison Avenue Hoagie from Taylor Gourmet in Washington, D.C. since I left my parents house in December.  The thought of the salty pork, melted cheese, and bitter rapini all melding together on fresh made bread was enough to make my mouth water.  Things didn’t get any easier when my friend Lucy started sending me pictures of the glorious sandwich when she visited D.C.   The cravings wouldn’t subside, so I decided to do something about it.  I wasn’t going to try and recreate the actual sandwich and screw it up and I also wanted to stay slightly on the healthier side, so I decided on this dish.  It’s got tons of flavor from the garlic, red pepper flakes, fennel, and shallots; not to mention three delicious cheeses, bitter rapini, and fresh made whole wheat pasta.

While it’s certainly no Pattison Avenue Hoagie, the rapini takes on the flavors of the heralded sandwich and makes for a fantastic pasta dish.

I have made this dish with dry spaghetti and fresh made pasta and both work beautifully.  Lucky for me, we have an amazing specialty food store in Charlotte called Pasta and Provisions which specializes in hand made pastas and other Italian specialties.  It’s one of the best food stores in the city.  If you don’t have fresh made pasta, don’t worry, it’s delicious with dry pasta as well.  I went with whole wheat pasta for two reasons: it’s healthy and I find that whole wheat pasta goes best with sauces made with olive oil bases instead of tomato.  The acidity of tomato sauce doesn’t mesh as well with whole wheat pasta like olive oil based sauces do.  I also love to pair whole wheat pasta with hearty green vegetables, there’s something about the combination that is just perfect.

Pasta and Provisions offers a wide variety of delicious fresh pastas like wild mushroom, roasted garlic, arugula & black pepper, tomato basil, gnocchi, and more.  They also specialize in unique homemade ravioli fillings as creative as sweet potato,  lobster & crab, and smoked chicken & jalapeno.  Check out their website for even more.  Beyond homemade pastas, they also have imported Italian cheeses, wine, antipasto, meats, sauces, bread, and other Italian specialties.  I especially love their giant focaccia bread and can’t leave the store without buying a loaf.

Back to the recipe.

Beautifully bitter broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, woody stems removed.Blanched and shocked.

Shallots, garlic, fennel, red pepper flakes, all sauteed in a hot pan with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper.  I use this a base for a lot of meals (minus the fennel).  Such great flavors, simple ingredients, and so easy to do.The bitterness of the rapini is mellowed out perfectly through the blanching and saute.  Lots of yummy cheese and fresh parsley. I used three different cheeses because I happened to have had them in the house; parmigiano reggiano, sharp provolone, and pecorino romano.  If you only have one kind it’ll be just fine.

With every bite, I was reminded of the delicious Pattison Avenue Sandwich from Taylor Gourmet.  The bite of the rapini paired with the salty cheeses and kick of red pepper flakes was heavenly.  I love using the vegetable peeler to shave huge chunks of cheese at the very end.  Makes for great presentation and is absolutely delicious.

I make this for a quick weeknight dinner, but it’s definitely special enough for entertaining.

Whole Wheat Pasta with Rapini and Sharp Provolone

(Printable Recipe)
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 lb whole wheat pasta
  • 2 bunches rapini, stems trimmed and roughly chopped
  • 2 large shallots (about ½ cup), sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp fennel, crushed
  • ⅓ cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • ⅓ cup pecorino romano, grated
  • ¼ cup parmigiano reggiano, grated
  • ¼ cup sharp provolone, grated
  • ½ cup chicken broth or pasta cooking liquid
  • extra cheese for serving
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper

Directions

Place one large pot of water on for rapini and one large pot for pasta, bring to a boil.  While water comes to a boil, prepare an ice bath to shock rapini.  Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water.  You can even put a strainer in to make it easy to pull the rapini out when you’re ready to use it.  Once water comes to a boil, add a palmful of salt and rapini.  Blanch for 2-3 minutes, drain, and immediately plunge into ice bath.

Meanwhile, heat one tablespoon olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Add shallots, garlic, red pepper flakes, fennel, and saute until shallots are tender, about 5 minutes.

Drain rapini from ice bath and add to shallot and garlic mixture.  Add 1 ½ tsp salt and ½ tsp pepper. Cook until all water evaporates, about 15 minutes.  While rapini is cooking, add a generous palmful of salt to boiling water and add pasta, cooking al dente.  Reserve ½ cup pasta water after cooking (if using).  Add pasta, parsley, and shredded cheeses to rapini and toss to combine.  Taste for seasoning and add more salt, pepper, or red pepper flakes to taste.  Transfer to serving dishes, top with shaved cheese, and sprinkle with salt (I got a new collection of gourmet salts for Christmas that I love to use to finish dishes).

While nothing can compare to the epic Pattison Avenue hoagie, this pasta certainly reminds me of the delicious, salty flavors in a healthier version, without having to make the long trip to DC.

Happy Eating!

Emily

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