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From Concord, with love…

7 May

We had a grand adventure this weekend featuring things we love. Allow me to tell you a story…

It all started when we were invited to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday at Piedmont Social House. We had a great time at the party, but happening at the same time was Game 4 of the NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals, featuring our team, the Tampa Bay Lightning (Go Bolts!). There was still one period left of the game once the party wrapped up, so we headed over to Carolina Beer Temple at Arysley to watch.

Living in Indian Trail, we never travel to this side of Charlotte, so we’ve never been to the Arysley version of Beer Temple. Having spent more time than is probably healthy at all the other locations in the Beer Temple/Temple Mojo/Seaboard family, we knew not to expect a sports bar. But the game was on, even if the sound wasn’t, service was fast and friendly, the beer list was extensive, and there was another hockey fan hanging out across the bar.

We settled in, ordered some beers, and watched the Lightning do their thing against the Boston Bruins. And that’s when we met Reynolds, the hockey fan from across the bar. Reynolds is a Penguins fan, and he soon asked if he could join us to watch the game since hockey is definitely better if you’re watching it as a crowd. The discussion didn’t take long to turn from hockey to breweries to food, and he told us about his favorite Cuban restaurant in the Charlotte area: Havana Carolina.

The Lightning won in overtime, we were drinking great beer and cider, and we were meeting new people. Spirits were high, and Reynolds waxed poetic about this place. Working off a buzzy, post-hockey-win high, we decided that we would go on an adventure the following day.

We don’t know much about Concord, to be honest. We’re aware there’s NASCAR and an outlet mall. We shopped at the Depot Antique Mall a while back and even visited High Branch Brewing a few months ago. But it’s about a 40-minute drive from Indian Trail, so getting there takes a bit of planning and commitment on our part.

The plan we hatched was simple – head up to Concord for the afternoon, hit up a few breweries, and then end the evening at Havana Carolina for dinner. Easy, right?

The following day, we set our plan into motion. Before getting into beer, we knew we needed some sustenance. We didn’t want to drive all the way to Concord until we had food in our bellies, so we decided to begin our adventure closer to home at one of our favorite restaurants, The Loyalist Market, in downtown Matthews.

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The world’s fanciest fried bologna sandwich 😉

Look at this fried bologna sandwich. This is a sandwich that you only get if you ask for it and if you’re lucky enough for the ingredients to be in stock. The Loyalist Market works hard to keep everything fresh, so having mortadella isn’t always a given. That’s why this sandwich started as a special but isn’t on the regular menu. And it’s the fanciest fried bologna you’ve ever eaten, with Creminelli mortadella, spicy Korean mustard from Burnt & Salty, Duke’s mayo, kettle chips, greens, and cheddar, all on sourdough bread (locally baked, of course).

By the way, you can purchase many of the ingredients for this sandwich at The Loyalist Market. They make amazing sandwiches, but their primary focus is on cheese, charcuterie, and other local/regional products that you can buy to take home. If you enjoy meat and cheese art, check out their Instagram.

We Googled and plotted our Concord afternoon while chowing down on this beautiful sandwich and what we learned was this: there are five breweries in Concord. Back in the day, we would have thrown caution to the wind trying to visit all five, but we’re older and know better now, so we settled on three: Twenty-Six Acres Brewing Company, Cabarrus Brewing Company, and High Branch Brewing Company.

First stop: Twenty-Six Acres. Fun fact, the brewery is named after the size of the original town limits: 26 Acres. Another fun fact, it’s situated behind the NASCAR Research and Development facility. This fun fact would have been helpful for us to know beforehand, which is why we’re sharing it with you. We missed the turn for the brewery because we were distracted by the NASCAR building and didn’t see the teeny-tiny Twenty-Six Acres sign.

The taproom is beautiful, with high ceilings and lots of gorgeous tile/woodwork. You can tell that lots of love and care went into conceptualizing and building this place. There are a few games to play (dogs and kids are welcome) but there’s also a small “Chill Zone”. We opted for flights to get a taste of what they offered and found a few beers we enjoyed as they warmed up. Overall, a good first stop.

 

Our next stop was Cabarrus Brewing Company. It just so happens that we stopped by during the Concord Micro-Con. There were a ton of vendors selling comic-related products, folks running around in superhero costumes, and an overall atmosphere of mayhem (I mean that in the best way possible!). Despite having an event going on, the space is large enough that it didn’t feel crowded, and we found a great table overlooking the patio. The Sew Juicy IPA was delicious.

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Our final beer stop before Havana Carolina was High Branch Brewing Company, which is right across the patio from Cabarrus Brewing. We’ve visited this brewery before, and loved everything they had on tap during that trip. This time was no different. It’s a small space, but it’s gorgeous, and you have the option to sit inside or on the patio.

 

There should be more pictures of High Branch because these definitely don’t do the space justice. We have no excuse except that we were focused on the beer and forgot to snap any good shots. We drank the Hello Cerise, which is a dark sour aged in red wine barrels with cherries, and the Promise Ring, a hazy IPA. Both were quite good, but we were also distracted by the promise of Cuban food. After one drink, we decided to continue on to our original goal destination: Havana Carolina.

Growing up in Florida exposes one to a number of things: alligators, love bugs, cockroaches that fly…but also good things too, like Cuban food. Even at non-Cuban restaurants, island influence on Tampa cuisine is strong. Those who know me know that I have some feelings about Cuban sandwiches, which most of Charlotte doesn’t seem to quite understand. But that’s okay – I’m still trying to wrap my head about Duke’s mayonnaise and putting coleslaw on hamburgers, so we’re even I guess?

Getting to Havana Carolina is easy since it’s in historic downtown Concord. There’s street parking, but if you can’t find a spot there’s a free public parking deck about a block away. The Carolina Havana storefront isn’t actually on the street, it’s within another building, but signage is good and it’s a piece of cake to find.

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We didn’t have to wait to be seated, but according to many Yelp reviews, sometimes you might need to wait for quite some time before a table opens up. We started off with the carafe of Sangria (because how could you not?) along with the Cubanitas sampler, which was described as Cuban-style croquettes filled with ham and served with a cilantro dipping sauce. Apologies, we just dove right into the hammy goodness and failed to snap a shot of it, but here’s the sangria:

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Don’t worry, this sangria won’t give you monster-sized hands 😉

The sangria is a little more dry than sweet, so we loved it. All those cut up bits of fruit also make you feel as if you’re doing something healthy. Not really, but you tell yourself what you have to. That entire carafe, which was so large we were unable to finish it, was roughly $13.

On to the entrees! Since this was our first visit, we decided to go with our favorite dishes: the Cuban sandwich and Picadillo.

 

We enjoy making picadillo at home, but never seem to let it cook long enough to develop the stew-like authentic flavor that we crave. Our picadillo is definitely better the second day…if we don’t eat it all on the first. If you’re curious about recipes, we like to use this masterpiece by Arroz y Frijoles.

Havana Carolina’s picadillo tastes like it’s supposed to – the flavors are really well developed, and the meat has a great texture. This is a helping of “come-over-here-and-relax” comfort food. Along with some rice, black beans, and fried sweet plantains – Heaven.

Havana Carolina knows what they’re doing with a Cuban sandwich. Roasted pork with ham, Swiss, mustard, and pickles, on pressed Cuban bread. Notice the mayonnaise as a garnish. There’s a bit of a debate as to whether a Cuban sandwich should have mayo or not, and I appreciate Havana Carolina is erring on the side of “let’s all get along.”

For dessert, there were a ton of fun options to choose from, and in keeping with the classics, we chose flan.

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So. Darn. Good.

Service was friendly, decor was tropical, and the music was Cuban. All the dishes we saw coming out of the kitchen looked delicious, and all around us were people enjoying good food and fellowship.

Havana Carolina points out on their menu that the most important ingredient in each recipe is “love” and after eating here, we are definitely in love with this place.

And in that spirit, I realize it was love that got us here. We went to a neighborhood we never hang out in to celebrate with a friend, and then met a person who is as passionate about sports, beer, and food as we are. The enthusiasm and love he used in describing this restaurant convinced us we needed to travel out of our way to try it, and in the process we also got to try some great beers created by people who love their craft. And our day came full circle at Havana Carolina, where love is an essential ingredient.

That, my friends, is a weekend well spent. Much love to you all.

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Getting Into That Beach Frame of Mind

21 Jun

What’s a beach trip without music? As we all get ready for the upcoming 4th of July celebration, we’re curious what everyone is listening to when lounging on the beach with a cold drink in hand?

I have a collection of songs in a Spotify playlist that I’ve dubbed “Beach Drink” and serves as a good jumping off point when festivities begin for my own liking, but I want to add to it.

Lately for me, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is a band I can put on and not have to worry about skipping through songs.They’re probably most widely known for their song “S.O.B.”, a song everyone equates to a raucous drinking good time but is actually about Rateliff’s own struggle with sobriety.

My favorite of theirs at the moment is “Howling at Nothing,” a soulful three minute song that feels like something out of the 1960’s.

Other favorites from the playlist below are:

Upbeat
Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That – Robert Randolph & The Family Band
You Don’t Have to Believe Me – Eric Hutchinson
Jackson – Carolina Chocolate Drops

That Beach Feel
At The Beach – The Avett Brothers
Watermelon – Sol Driven Train
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley & The Wailers

Winding down the day/night
El Camino – Amos Lee featuring Willie Nelson
Hold On – Alabama Shakes
The Gardener – The Tallest Man on Earth

What’s that song/band that puts you in beach/drinking mood?

Not Your Dad’s Uptown Charlotte

17 Jun
View from BB&T Park

View from BB&T Park

Let me apologize to Uptown Charlotte. You’ve been neglected, and I won’t let it happen again. For some time, Christy and I rarely found ourselves traveling to Uptown on the weekends. With so many other areas of the city booming (South End, Plaza Midwood, & NoDa to name a few), it was easy to turn a blind eye to the tall buildings and all the city has to offer. Now it seems like we can’t get enough. Over the last month, Uptown seems like a second home…and we can’t wait to get back soon. Here are some highlights:

Van Gogh Alive @ Discovery Place – A really unique and powerful exhibit about Vincent Van Gogh that highlighted both his art and writing. We weren’t expecting to have such an emotional response from the display, but a focus on Van Gogh’s own mental health coupled with the powerful backdrop of music and imagery left us in awe. I only wish we mentioned this sooner, as the exhibit has come to an end.

The Asbury – Located in The Dunhill Hotel, The Asbury offers a unique take on Southern food. The kitchen uses local and regional ingredients to create visually stunning dishes that are equally delicious.

Charlotte Knights Baseball – There isn’t a better view of the Charlotte skyline than when you’re sitting in BB&T Ballpark during a Charlotte Knights game. I’ve actually been twice in the last four weeks, and each time was equally fun! Some outstanding food is available at the park, including Queen City Q and Whisky River. Craft beer fans have plenty of options as well, including local favorites Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and NoDa Brewing. Regional craft brewers with beer options include Natty Greene’s and Foothills. You don’t have to be a fan of baseball to go to a game. Honestly, I can’t even tell you who won either game. If you plan on going though, make sure you buy your tickets well in advance. The Knights are leading the league in attendance and sellouts are frequent.

Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment @ Mint Museum – The exhibition covers 11 women photographers and their assignments while working for National Geographic. Each presents a unique story through the lens of their camera. A pretty inspiring collection of photographs that aren’t only visually stunning, but showcase the often dangerous lengths assignment photographers go to get a story.

5Church Restaurant – 5Church feels like it belongs in a bigger city like New York or Chicago. Attention to detail runs rampant in both decor and the food. I’d argue it is probably the most popular restaurant in the city. If you go, be sure to look up. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is handwritten in its entirety across the restaurant’s ceiling. On this trip, we enjoyed the Artisan Cheese Plate, Black Bean Hummus, Grilled C.A.B. Hanger Steak, and Carolina Catfish. Dessert made us pucker with the “Lemon Tart” Pistachio Cookie & Pomegranate Sorbet.

Charlotte Symphony Summer Pops @ Romare Bearden Park – Another new addition to the Uptown landscape is Romare Bearden Park. The open area was the perfect setting for the Charlotte Symphony’s first live concert in Uptown in 10 years. Food trucks were on hand to feed the masses before the free concert. The symphony played “Music of the Movies” and included:

  • Highlights from Jurassic Park
  • Suite from Gladiator
  • Theme from Schindler’s List
  • Star Trek: Into Darkness
  • Themes from 007
  • Cinema Paradiso
  • Suite from Titanic
  • Imperial March from Star Wars

If you aren’t finding something to do in Charlotte, there really is no excuse. In addition to all we did in the last month, SpeedStreet and Taste of Charlotte were also taking place in Uptown. Navigating the city isn’t hard (except when festivals close down streets). If city parking seems difficult, park further out from the city and take the Lynx Light Rail into town.

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Something Old & New

17 Apr

So we’ve been to some really great places recently and just wanted to highlight two that we love.

Rooster’s Wood Fired Kitchen (Southpark)

roostersRooster’s isn’t new, and it certainly wasn’t our first visit…but it had been some time since we were last there. It never really disappoints, which is why it is almost always busy no matter the time of day. The hickory wood fired-ovens fill the restaurant with a great smoked aroma that instantly makes you hungry.

Anyone who enjoys southern cuisine should drop everything they’re doing and head to Rooster’s immediately.

Our suggestion is to order a few of the vegetable sides for the table (they’re all large enough to share). We started with fried okra, skillet fried corn, and fire roasted beets. Fried okra is quickly becoming a favorite thing for me. Most I’ve had is heavy on the batter and completely overpowers the okra itself. Rooster’s batter is really light and flaky and seems to barely hang onto the okra, allowing you to really taste the hard-to-describe flavor of the vegetable. You won’t be disappointed with the corn or beets either. I’ve never been a fan of beets, but Rooster’s is making me a believer.

I ordered fried oysters and the arugula salad with chevre, and Harmony Ridge Farm apples for my entree. I was worried the oysters wouldn’t be enough because it came from the antipasti portion of the menu. I was pleasantly surprised when 6-8 large, meaty oysters were presented in front of me. A more firm batter than the aforementioned fried okra made for a nice crunch that complemented the soft of the oyster itself.

Christy’s hangar steak was cooked perfectly and really tender. A friend ordered the boneless beef short rib, which piqued my interest, and will likely be on my list for a future visit. Looking forward to coming back soon.

Pint Central (Plaza Midwood)

pint-central-logoWow…we really like this place. Our visit was mid-day on a Saturday during March Madness, just as the weather was getting warmer. We got our first taste of NoDa Brewing’s CAVU here (very highly recommended). Pint Central has 28 drafts and over 50 bottles of craft beer available.

First impression – The place feels cared for…which after talking with one of the owners, Carlos, is absolutely validated. He came to our table and introduced himself (something that should happen everywhere, but never does). He mentioned they did most of the work themselves, including building the bar and having his mom design the tables.

pint-centralCarlos’ brother is responsible for the menu. The food isn’t your typical bar fare. The empanadas were some of the best we’ve had, with a light, croissant-like crust that almost had us order another round. The garlic parmesan fries were a great blend of flavors piled high on curly fries (who doesn’t love a curly fry?). Other highlights were the eggplant dip and Brussels sprouts.  I look forward to trying the avocado fries and caprese stack on a future visit.

Just a great experience all around. If you’re looking for a place to hang out, give Pint Central a visit. With the weather warming up, they have a really nice patio that’s sure to get busy as more people discover it’s there.

Long Live Peruvian – A Visit to Viva Chicken

23 May

I always get a weird look when I tell people we had Peruvian food for dinner. And after they shake the look off their face, they always ask, “What is that?” The short answer is “delicious”. However, it’s a cuisine with a foundation in local (Peru & Inca) food with heavy immigrant influences from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Corn, potatoes, and chili peppers are staple ingredients, with marinated meats, kabobs, and stir fry being popular entree options.

Viva ChickenViva Chicken recently opened on Elizabeth Avenue, just down from CPCC. Viva Chicken describes itself as, “a Peruvian inspired restaurant in Charlotte, NC focusing on Pollo a la Brasa (Peruvian rotisserie chicken). Peruvian flavors, affordable prices and a great atmosphere…” What’s not to love about any of that? We had to make a visit.

I had an expectation that this would be a traditional sit-down restaurant, so I took a double-take when we had to order our food at the register. But it really wasn’t a big deal, as once you’ve ordered, a server comes to your table for the rest of the meal and takes care of you.

I would urge you to sit outside on their covered patio. Summer temperatures might make it less attractive, but on the night we were there, the weather was perfect and I think it only enhanced the experience. Peruvian feels like a cuisine that should be eaten outdoors. Maybe it’s a personal opinion, but Peruvian and other food from tropical climates (Cuban, Mexican, etc.) taste better with a warm breeze and cold drink in hand.

There are a couple of local craft beer options available on draft. After ordering a Ramble on Red by NoDa Brewing Company, we found out there was an issue preventing them from pouring beer that night. So instead, they gave us some of their house-made red Sangria. It was freshly made with pieces of fruit throughout it and not overly sweet like so many seem to be. It was the perfect accompaniment to go with the food and warmer temperatures.

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Quinoa stuffed Avocado

We began the meal with the Quinoa stuffed Avocado appetizer. As you can see from the photo, this whole avocado is split in half and then filled with organic quinoa, onions, cucumber, tomato, cilantro, olive oil, and lime. We opted to add rotisserie chicken to it for a nominal fee which is highly recommended, though you get so much food, probably isn’t necessary. A love for avocado won’t hurt anyone’s feelings in this joint, or anywhere you might go to get Peruvian food. It plays heavily in and around many dishes – something I’d advocate more restaurants consider doing.

Christy ordered the Viva Tacu Bowl (Peruvian canary beans, rice, aji amarillo, fresh cilantro and salsa criolla). I took a few bites of it when Christy wasn’t looking and would have been happy if I’d ordered the same thing. Just a nice combination of flavors and seasoning, further accentuated with a spicy Huacatay Sauce – a Peruvian black mint infused with fresh herbs.

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Viva Tacu Bowl

I had the Pollo a la Brasa (Rotisserie Chicken) with white rice and sweet plantains. The chicken had a crispy skin and was so tender it left me continuously picking at the bone trying not to leave a morsel of it behind. A mild Aji Amarillo sauce (referred to as the “yellow” sauce) was good for dipping and if I had more, would have been used on my rice. Only after I ordered did I realize there was a cilantro-infused rice side available, which I’ll opt for instead of the plain white next time.  I want more of the yellow sauce in my daily life. Maybe we’ll try this recipe sometime soon?

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Pollo a la Brasa with White Rice & Sweet Plantains

I have a special place in my heart for plantains. Having lived in the Tampa area before moving to Charlotte, a strong base of Cuban food was always available and plantains were always on the plate. I can’t not order them when I see them on a menu, and Viva Chicken’s did not disappoint. Sometimes plantains are really mushy, but these were firm and sweet. If you don’t get them as a side, consider ordering them at the end of the meal.

We were so pleased with the service. The girl who took our order at the register (sorry I don’t know her name!) checked on us often, cleared our plates, and kept us hydrated with water….all with a smile. As we left, everyone wished us a good night…something you can’t help but love as a nice finish to a great dining experience. Walking out, a sign caught my eye which pretty much sums up why we’ll be back and why this place is destined to succeed – great customer service and sense of “community”.

Perhaps the coolest part of the restaurant was this sign.

Perhaps the coolest part of the restaurant was this sign.

Our Love Affair with Craft Beer Started with One Brew

28 Oct Harpoon Winter Warmer

A couple of years ago, we were going about our lives like any normal couple – recovering from the onslaught of holidays and birthdays that make up our Fall every year. Our weekend plans had been centered around our beloved Florida Gators and whatever opponent they might be matched up against on any given Saturday.

Living in the South, college football is a way of life – so there’s usually a good deal of beer that goes along with the glory and defeat we all experience from September to December. For as long as I’ve been drinking, beer choice was centered around cost (read cheap) and my ability to still be standing after a 3-hour football game (coping with the ups and downs 4 quarters of football will bring).

The usual suspects (Bud, Miller, & Coors) made plenty of appearances over the years. When I converted over to Yuengling, I patted myself on the back and declared, “Now that is a fancy beer!”

Continue reading

So sorry to bother you…

20 Jul

“It’s not just about the beer – it’s about the beer community too.”

How many times have we said those exact words to a Miller Lite-drinking friend?  Trying to convince them that even though there’s no vortex bottles or commercials featuring an ode to calorie counts associated with craft beer, there’s still a population of great people interested in coming together to enjoy it.

Craft beer is a special thing, but so is the craft beer community.  The people you meet are part of the appeal, and make us want to seek out local breweries and watering holes when visiting a new town.  You can’t get a lot of the local stuff in grocery stores.  If you love this beer and want to drink it, you need to go some place that serves it where you will undoubtedly find other like-minded beer people.  And it’s not just the people who drink the beer who are special, it’s the people who make the beer too.

We’re fortunate in Charlotte that we have some great breweries run and staffed by great people.  The product is good, the people are chill, and there’s very little gimmick.  Continue reading

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