photograph by Tim Robison

You can start your day with fresh corn tamales for breakfast, move on to Japanese ramen with an 18-hour broth for lunch, and end with Bosnian sausages for dinner. There are plenty of ways to eat around the world when you come to Charlotte. The trick is finding them.

Charlotte doesn’t have a Chinatown, like New York City, San Francisco, and Vancouver. It doesn’t have a Koreatown, like Los Angeles, or a Little Havana, like Miami.

What Charlotte does have is a world of food that’s jumbled together and located all over the place, from the young and hip restaurants that crowd districts like South End to the smaller family-owned places sprinkled around more affordable neighborhoods along Central Avenue and the outer reaches of Matthews.

“Charlotte is a globalizing city,” says Laura Simmons of the Urban Institute at UNC Charlotte. “To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about living here.”

Chow down on Korean-style wings and bao buns at Hawkers Asian Street Fare in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood. photograph by Tim Robison

By far the biggest international population in Charlotte, Simmons says, are people from Mexico. That’s followed by people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia. Asian countries are well-represented in Charlotte, too: People from India are the largest sector, but other countries of origin include Vietnam, China, and Korea. All of that diversity — racial, ethnic, and national — helps feed Charlotte’s economic success, Simmons says.

It also means that Charlotte is becoming a very diverse place to eat.

Today, there are dozens of international restaurants across the city. But how do you find them? Single districts where people group together by nationality are more common in older cities — this isn’t something that happens much in younger cities with newer immigrant populations, like Charlotte.

Instead, what you’ll find is what Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett has dubbed “the salad-bowl suburbs”: People are moving into areas with affordable housing and reasonable rates for commercial spaces, not distinct neighborhoods. The result is a mingling of ethnicities, like a mix of ingredients in a salad.

Which means that if you want to explore the city’s diverse food scene, you’ll need to get in your car — and be ready to venture into some holes-in-the-wall. These neighborhoods are a good place to start. You’ll find many more restaurants than we can list here, but this guide will give you a taste of international Charlotte.


Pick a neighborhood …


Central Avenue/Plaza Midwood

Central Avenue has long been Charlotte’s most diverse corridor, attracting residents and restaurants from around the world.

Lang Van
One of Charlotte’s oldest Vietnamese restaurants, Lang Van opened in 1990. Today, it’s known for owner Dan Nguyen, who always remembers repeat customers, and for the menu of more than 130 classics. Don’t miss the bahn xeo, a crispy egg pancake; crispy-soft tofu with garlic; and pineapple fried rice served in a pineapple half. Surprise touch: Your check arrives with a little plate of Vietnamese cookies.

3019 Shamrock Drive
Charlotte, NC 28215
(704) 531-9525

 

Euro Grill & Café
You can’t miss the sign at this Bosnian market with a tiny café on the side: “House of Cevaps.” The short, stubby sausages are a specialty, but so is the spicy Bosnian sausage. Both are served with a tasty flatbread called lepinja and the traditional sauces: ajvar (roasted red peppers) and kajmak (a creamy, milk-based spread). Save room for Bosnian coffee, served in a copper pot with a square of Turkish delight to hold between your teeth as you sip.

2719 Central Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28205
(704) 343-9828

At Euro Grill & Café, order Bosnian coffee, served with a square of Turkish delight. photograph by Tim Robison

 

Tamales La Pasadita
This little restaurant is so spare and simple, you might think it’s not even open. But take a seat at the bar, and the women who run it will hurry out of the kitchen. There’s a short menu of things like mole, menudo, and excellent tacos, but tamales are the main event, with fillings that range from chicken to cheese to pork. They even have sweet tamales.

3112 The Plaza
Charlotte, NC 28205
(704) 830-8189
facebook.com/tamaleslapasadita


Abugida Ethiopian Café

If you don’t know Ethiopian food, expect rich meat or vegetable dishes served on and with spongy sourdough flatbread called injera. Make sure you order Ethiopian coffee: It’s a presentation, including incense wafted over your table. On holidays, family matriarch Shito Nigussie performs a more elaborate version, donning traditional dress and roasting green coffee beans to start.

3007 Central Avenue
(980) 237-2760
Charlotte, NC 28205

abugidaethiopiancafe.weebly.com

 

South End

Thanks to Charlotte’s light-rail, what used to be an industrial neighborhood is now young, hip, and definitely happening. You can’t swing a set of earbuds without hitting a brewery, coffeehouse, or artisan ice cream shop. International restaurants here have a different vibe from the smaller cafés: Expect lines, excitement, and lots of noise.

YUME Ramen, Sushi, & Bar

Owners Tony Yum and Rosena Tong started in a small space on the outskirts of Matthews before moving into a much larger restaurant on South Mint Street near Uptown. Both are natives of Hong Kong, and Yum’s father was a Cantonese chef in San Francisco, but their food is totally Japanese: impeccable sushi and serious ramen, along with donburi (rice bowls) and curries. Since this is South End, there’s a cocktail bar, too. 

1508 South Mint Street
Charlotte, NC 28203
(980) 858-5678


Seoul Food Meat Company & Let’s Meat

Owners Tim Chun and Lisa Kamura first opened Seoul Food with their “Korean-inspired Southern barbecue,” then added Let’s Meat next door with the full Korean-style tabletop barbecue experience, with meats like fatty beef brisket and pork belly cooked in front of you.

1400 South Church Street
Charlotte, NC 28203
(980) 299-5143

seoulfoodmeatco.com, letsmeatkbbq.com

At Seoul Food, owners Tim Chun and Lisa Kamura serve Korean-inspired dishes like (clockwise from top) kimchi fries, Fire Chicken, kimbap, sriracha cracklings, soy-garlic wings, and beef ribs. photograph by Tim Robison


Futo Buta

Michael Shortino, who also owns Lincoln’s Haberdashery around the corner, isn’t Asian. But he’s serious about ramen, right down to the housemade noodles and 18-hour pork bone broth. Don’t just stick to bowls of tonkotsu ramen, though. Try two local obsessions: crispy rice with spicy tuna, and fried brussels sprouts with sweet soy sauce and bonito flakes. Save room for the daily soft-serve ice cream special, featuring flavors like green tea and ginger.

222 East Bland Street (facing the light-rail tracks)
Charlotte, NC 28203
(704) 376-8400

futobuta.com


Hawkers Asian Street Fare

Based on the markets that pull together vendors in large Asian cities, Hawkers draws a diverse crowd with a menu of Korean-style wings, bao buns, rolls, wraps, and curries. Start with the roti, Indian flatbread served with a gravy-like curry sauce, and hope they’re not out of the Jo-He-Bag O’ Donuts when you get to dessert.

1930 Camden Road
Charlotte, NC 28203
(704) 464-0770

eathawkers.com/charlotte

 

University City

While some locals lament the lack of independently owned restaurants in this area, there’s plenty of diversity if you know where to look.

Bánh Mì Brothers
If you’re looking for a fun sandwich shop, this is your place. It’s fast-casual Vietnamese, with bright graphics and big chalkboards. The porchetta is made in-house with Chinese spices instead of traditional parsley and basil. Two dishes you won’t expect: Pho-tine, fries topped with meat and pho-flavored gravy, and freshly fried porchetta skins, the best version of pork rinds that you can imagine.

230 W.T. Harris Boulevard
Charlotte, NC 28262
(704) 900-7842

banhmibrothers-clt.com

At Bánh Mì Brothers, the Porchetta Bánh Mì comes with roasted pork belly and a savory-sweet caramelized sauce. The Classic Bánh Mì features cold cuts of Vietnamese ham, pork roll, head cheese, and pâté. photograph by Tim Robison

 

Zafran Kabab Palace
How about some Pakistani barbecue? Zafran, just beyond University City in Harrisburg, specializes in tandoori meats. If you go for lunch, there’s a traditional Indian-style buffet, but take a friend and order the mixed grill for two (or more). You’ll get chicken, lamb, and beef kebabs; seekh kebabs (ground meat packed around skewers); and Afghani-style rice.

4250 Main Street
Harrisburg, NC 28075
(980) 258-0651

zafrankababpalace.com


Caribbean Hut

Tucked in a strip mall, this is full-on Jamaican, with a small bar and a full list of jerks, stews (including oxtail), curries, and meat patties. They even make their own fruit drinks. If you’ve never tried sorrel (a popular drink made from hibiscus blossoms), this is your chance. And, of course, they also have Red Stripe.

9609 North Tryon Street
Charlotte, NC 28262
(704) 593-0030

caribbean-hut.com

 

Matthews

What was once a small farm town was long ago swallowed by Charlotte’s sprawl, merging small town and suburbia. Many immigrants find their homes here, where there’s more space and affordable housing than in the heart of the city, which means that shopping centers are peppered with a variety of international restaurants.

Lam’s Kitchen
Every town has Chinese restaurants that are tailored to the American palate. That’s not Lam’s: Chef and owner Joe Lam focuses on authentic Chinese dishes, including a heavy helping of Szechuan. Try the fiery tendon and tripe appetizer, rich clay-pot dishes, and elegant stir-fries. Even the familiar sesame chicken and orange chicken are a cut above. Plus, a clue that this tiny place is the real deal: Most of the seats are often taken up by Chinese families.

1369 Chestnut Lane
Matthews, NC 28104
(704) 821-0676


Kabab-Je

Middle Eastern food is popular all over Charlotte, but here, owner Yasser Sadek puts the focus on his native Lebanon, with falafel, kibbeh, shawarma, and fresh pita bread. If you can’t wait for a table (and the restaurant is often packed), there’s also a takeout case loaded with salads, meats, and prepared dishes.

2233 Matthews Township Parkway
Matthews, NC 28105
(704) 845-0707

kababje.com

At Kabab-Je, try the chicken shawarma with saffron basmati rice, grilled veggies, and freshly baked naan. Or opt for the veggie plate, filled with (clockwise from top) batata harra (hot potatoes), falafel, hummus, and tabbouleh. photograph by Tim Robison

 

South Boulevard

South Boulevard and South End parallel each other and sometimes overlap. But as you move away from the Uptown area, South Boulevard becomes more commercial — and more authentic. This area rivals Central Avenue for diversity, with smaller family-owned restaurants.

Punta Cana
The food here is thoroughly Dominican with touches of Cuba thrown in. Expect dishes that are tropical and richly flavorful, with plenty of plantains, shrimp, and fish, plus pork, chicken, and goat. Two favorites: chicharrón de pollo, chunks of bone-in chicken marinated and fried to a crisp, and Dominican-style mofongo, a garlicky mound of green plantains that have been fried and mashed.

5230 South Boulevard
Charlotte, NC 28217
(704) 529-3599

puntacanagrill.com

At Punta Cana, order your Cuban sandwich — stuffed with Swiss cheese, roasted pork, and dill pickles — with a side of fried plantains. photograph by Tim Robison

 

Choi’s Korea & Wing
This neighborhood spot draws fans of bulgogi, bibimbap, and yaki mandu (dumplings). Pace yourself: Entrées come with a half-dozen banchan (side dishes), including kimchi and several kinds of pickles.

808 East Arrowood Road
Charlotte, NC 28217
(704) 643-1212


Arepas Grill

Venezuelan arepas are a little like sandwiches: Griddled cornmeal cakes are stuffed with fillings such as shredded beef, cheese, and beans, or shredded chicken and avocado. (Colombia’s version is usually topped instead of stuffed.) And the ones at Arepas Grill are irresistible. Take note: It closes by 6 p.m. most evenings.

4740 Old Pineville Road
Charlotte, NC 28217
(704) 522-1211
arepasgrill1.com


Vietnam Grille

There are pho houses and Vietnamese restaurants all over Charlotte, but this one has more fish and seafood, plus a long list of tasty vermicelli and rice dishes.

5615 South Boulevard
Charlotte, NC 28217
(704) 525-2408
vietnamgrille.com

This story was published on

Purvis is the food editor for The Charlotte Observer. She is the author of two Savor the South Cookbooks: Pecans and Bourbon. Purvis has been cookbook awards chair for the James Beard Awards since 2000.

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