When I go out to eat or crave take-out I always want something adventurous. Something spicy, crunchy, tangy, crispy, juicy, fresh, and unique. I want something that I either don’t know how or am not capable of making at home. These cravings typically lead me to seek out food from another culture. I want to taste what somebody else is making in their kitchen. When I eat out at an ethnic restaurant, I feel like I am learning about another culture. Through the food and through my plate, I am somehow growing a little bit closer, somehow understanding just a little bit about how another family eats. Many international or ethnic restaurants cook with recipes passed down through generations of families and can make you feel like you’re sitting in their own kitchen sharing a meal. It might be hectic inside, it might be calm, you may not speak their language, but it doesn’t matter because food is universal. You are connected through that meal. That’s why when I find myself craving a meal outside my own kitchen, I often want something from another culture. Something different, something that will teach me something. This is why I’ve decided to set out on an international food tour of Charlotte. I want to venture into the small neighborhoods, find the hidden gems, and eat my way around the world here in the Queen City.
I decided to begin my quest close to home and headed to Austin’s Caribbean Cuisine in Elizabeth, right across from the Met. Austin’s is a take-out only spot hidden in the small strip mall behind Target that houses a Domino’s, Subway, and Chinese takeout. Look for the bright yellow sign. The inside’s a pretty humble place. You walk in and are greeted by an oversized counter, large cooler filled with various Caribbean sodas, and a simple menu. Beyond the bulky, high counter is an unassuming stove topped with large silver soup pots and rows of hotel banquet pans filled with big scooping spoons. I took a quick look at the menu and ordered the recommended jerk chicken with collard greens and rice. As I watched the owner walk back to the pots and tins to scoop out the unknown food I admit, I was second guessing myself. I’m not one to ever shy away from even the most eccentric food, but as ladles full of who-knows-what were being dumped into a white styrofoam container and I was a little worried. I left with a tightly sealed plastic bag and couldn’t resist opening it in the car before I drove home for a peek. I was met with the overwhelmingly delicious smell of braised meat and aromatic spices. Things were looking up. I headed home in anticipation of what that amazing smell would taste like. Upon arrival, I poured myself a beer (Smuttynose Shoal’s Pale Ale, which I highly recommend), and opened up the styrofoam container.
The smell alone is enough to make you fall in love with this dish. Every doubt and worry immediately vanished with my first bite. I really didn’t know what to expect when I dug in, but I was in foodie heaven. The chicken was literally falling off the bone tender. It tasted like it had been braised and stewed for days. The meat was juicy and tender and had the most incredible combination of sweet, smoky, and spicy flavor. I don’t even know what’s in authentic Caribbean jerk seasoning but whatever it is, I want it. I could not stop eating that chicken. Now I know where the term finger-lickin good comes from because not a drop of that sauce went to waste.
When it comes to the accompanying rice at many restaurants I am simply not impressed. To me, it’s usually just a filler with not much flavor or importance. I typically don’t even find it necessary to have it along as a side. And with my first bite of rice I thought the same thing here, until I dug under the chicken and found the rice that had sopped up all that spicy-sweet jerk sauce and chickeny goodness and my-oh-my did I enjoy that rice. I had to stop myself from filling up solely on rice in my anticipation of a night out. The juices and sauce that dripped down into the rice had transformed that ho-hum regular old rice into an addicting saucy side dish.
On to the collard greens. Anyone that knows me knows how much I appreciate a good green. If it was up to me, kale would have its own food group. Growing up in the mid-atlantic though, I never really experienced collard greens, and since moving down south I take every chance I get to order the delicious greens. Austin’s were stewed until tender and served in their juices. A perfect complement to the meaty chicken and smoky sauce.
Austin’s Caribbean Cuisine is a true take-out dive, but one that should be in high demand. My hunt for authentic international cuisine could not have started off on a better foot. I plan on heading back to Austin’s asap to taste the other Caribbean dishes beyond traditional jerk chicken. If you live in Charlotte, and haven’t yet experienced this hidden gem my advice is to look past the humble interior and get a taste of the islands right here in the QC. One bite of that chicken and taste of sauce and you’ll be back for more.
Next up? I’ll be heading into East Charlotte where on Central Avenue Asian and Central American cuisine can be found in abundance. Suggestions welcome!