On a blustery morning in early May, a group of food buffs set out on foot to discover the thriving ethnic culture on Charlotte’s East Side. We didn’t have to walk far. Within a block or so on N. Sharon Amity near the corner of Albemarle Road, we visited an Ethiopian café, a Jerusalem sandwich shop, a Syrian bakery, and a Japanese grocery. If we had been willing to cross Sharon Amity, we could have added Turkey and Peru to our travels.
The occasion was the annual Jane Jacobs Walk. All over the world, people on this weekend were walking through the streets, getting to know their own cities. Jacobs, a keen observer of human interaction and avid believer in healthy cities, wrote the game-changing book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” back in 1961. In it, she raised issues of neighborhood, diversity, conservation, reuse, and urban design that now dominate the struggle to save our cities.
In her honor, an organization founded by her friends and colleagues helps organize walking tours on her birthday in cities all around the globe, aimed at promoting a greater sense of community among local folks. In Charlotte, two Jacobs walks were planned in 2013, one to the ethnically diverse East Side corridor; the other to trendy South End. PlanCharlotte.org, a project developed by the UNCC Urban Institute, sponsored the Charlotte walks, along with the Levine Museum of the New South.
Leading the East Side “munching” tour was Dr. Tom Hanchett, top historian at the Levine Museum, and a foodie himself. Hanchett is no stranger to this side of town. His bus tours exploring ethnic restaurants along Central Avenue, Sharon Amity and Albemarle Road for the Levine consistently sell out, and inspired the annual Taste of the World traveling food fest in East Charlotte. Hugely successful, this event sells out months in advance and has expanded to include some two dozen restaurants.
Tom Hanchett is an enthusiastic proponent of cultural diversity and a fan of equally diverse foods and flavors. A whole series of Hanchett’s essays on Charlotte history, music, architecture, and – yes – ethnic restaurants can be found at the HistorySouth.org website. Holding a copy of the Jane Jacobs book, he shepherded us into each establishment, where he introduced the owners and their cuisine.
Click below for a list and a look at the stops on our tour.
Coffee roasting at the Nile Restaurant
Nile Grocery and Ethiopian Restaurant surprised us with a traditional coffee ceremony where the coffee beans were roasted before our eyes. The owners here roast all their own coffee from imported beans and serve several traditional dishes – both meat and vegetarian – in the back-room cafe. All come with injera bread, a traditional flat bread, baked fresh each day from imported teff flour, made from a grass native to the Ethiopian Highlands and one of the oldest domesticated grains on record.
Falafel at La Shish Kabob
La Shish Kabob, operated by a restaurant owner from Jerusalem who relocated in 2008, makes ordering easy, with pictures of each item above the counter and a menu that describes each dish in detail. Known for its tasty falafel, La Shish also delivers delish versions of all the Mediterranean favorites, including tabouli, hommos, grape leaves, and baba ghannouj (spellings may vary from country to country, but you will find the flavors very familiar). The kabobs are fresh from the grill and come in beef, lamb and chicken, plus several kafta blends. Another specialty is shwarma, a sort of chicken gyro, cooked on a rotisserie.
Manakish at the Golden Bakery
The Golden Bakery, operated by Syrian-born Ahmad Azazi and his family, offers a case full of tempting Arabic treats, from the familiar baklawa to the more unfamilar borma, stuffed with pistachios, to choose from. Nan and pita breads come fresh from the brick oven, along with manakish (small pizzas) and other tasty treats. Most of the business here is take-out but there are a few tables along one wall where you can sit down to enjoy a snack. The family also owns the Halal Market next door, and the adjacent Aly Baba, with a buffet of Mediterranean favorites and a nice patio for outdoor dining.
Items from Lucky Oriental Market
The final stop on our food tour was Lucky Oriental Market, a fun place stuffed with items rarely seen on Charlotte shelves, including an impressive array of Asian teas, toys, and candies. We scored a heart-shaped box of dried candied ginger – perfect for upcoming Mothers Day gifting.
Mily & Lalo Peruvian Restaurant
Had we the energy and appetite to continue our cultural food tour, we could have crossed Sharon Amity to Mily & Lalo, a restaurant specializing in authentic Peruvian cuisine. Specialties include seafood, such as ceviche, and chicken roasted in a traditional coal-fired Peruvian oven. The inside of this colorfully painted house is a sort of tribute to the cultural diversity of the neighborhood – elaborate Oriental carvings remain from the location’s previous life as a Thai restaurant.