To the Heart of Charlotte and the Heart of Mert’s

8 Mar

Uptown Charlotte is a grand buffet of gothic-styled high rises and battered niches. Walking around there can feel very classy, but there’s always a few welcome signs, and a recent trip there with a friend took me to one of the most welcoming (not to mention delicious) landmarks in downtwon Charlotte.

After leaving through the sterile and Ministry-of-magic-esque lobby of the Hearst building, I saw the much-recognized EAT sign written in white neon across Church St. It was quite a change from the black marble and hushed voices in the looming ceilings of the building. Something about it communicated warmth on a cold March night.

Courtesy of Lisa Parks @ flickr.com

The golden arches of McDonald’s have nothing on this. Countless times I’ve walked past this sign and wondered about all of the talk about it’s host, Mert’s Heart and Soul. I’m a big fan of Hominy Grill’s Lowcountry menu, and Dave’s Carry Out’s little nook on the corna’ of Morris and Coming Street may be one of the best soul food experiences I’ve had.

So, I’m familiar with what Southern food kind of is, but I’m not crazy about some of its incantations are.

Underneath this Gatsby glow facing the Hearst Tower and Pita Pit is Mert’s Heart & Soul, which now tops Dish on Thomas Ave. for spectacular Southern comfort food. Fortunately, it and Hominy Grill are in 2 different camps, with Hominy being the breezier and baby blue cousin focused on fresh fish, where as Mert’s is that traditional and edgier older brother that has a looot of history. The idea of one topping the other is slightly troubling, so I’m glad they’re different kinds of cuisine, at least in my mind.

The wall is sepia toned in the same way properly fried okra is on the outside. There’s lots of red and hand painted acrylic decoration.

Courtesy of Mobiletraveler

I sat next to a beer stash and 2009 Hogmaster trophy. In between heritage photograph prints of locals, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles album covers droop on the wall, with the logos peeling.

I felt like I was on the set of a cleaner and even more fun version of the Blue Brothers.

The sound of the place is the mixture of conversation, frying catfish, and the best of the best soul hits. James Brown and Motown revues go particularly awesome with the food and ambiance, to the point where I feel like donning shades and a fedora to dance around.

I made the mistake of ordering water here at first, a Freudian slip to the worst degree.

Sweet tea.

Of course.

Four later, I’m muttering every nonsense joke I can remember and am spiked with an inspiration to learn the tricks and heart that goes into making this cuisine that strikes in ways on a different planet than any other kind of palate pleasers. French food makes me think about cooking more delicately and ambitiously, and pancake restaurants require a wheelchair. This stuff makes me want to converse more and learn how to replicate not a recipe, but a feeling.

The cornbread, a miniature loaf, makes me wonder about getting baking pans to replicate the same look. It came out onto warm plates and had the moisture and texture of a cake, and that was before I added butter. Not gritty, not dry, not like the desert plain that troubles so many cornbreads.

I know it’s weird being a tall, blonde white boy from Wisconsin wanting to search the soul of soul food. There’s got to be research and journals about the philosophy behind it. I’m finding an attention and love for food that brings happiness and comfort, a cheer that celebrates itself. Walt Whitman would have loved fried okra.

It’s the waitress bringing boil’d peanuts (proper spelling) and telling jokes (“What do you call a dog with no legs?” It don’t matter what you call him, he ain’t comin’!”) with these kids from the suburbs.

It’s the smile and dedication that goes into everything. The guy at Dave’s deep frying an entire pork chop has just as much passion as Michelle Weaver delicately topping clams with cilantro tomato salsa at Charleston Grill.

It’s not knowing what-on-this-South-eastern world collard greens are or where the come from. Origin of Species? Origin of Collards.

If that’s not philosophical food for thought, green tea and antioxidant-bloated blueberries aren’t either.

I got sauteed salmon cakes with a cajun “trinity” (celery, peppers, and onions) incorporated into the pulse of them They’re as moist as the butter, but even better with the “Louisiana remoulade:” n.: a spicy red or orange sauce with a mayonnaise consistency. They often contain green onion, parsley, and little specks of cayenne pepper.

Blackened on top, the salmon cakes’ insides are pinker than the remoulade or Wilbur the Pig. They’ve got that buzz around the lips spice that cayenne pepper hurls and are just the right offset for the hearty and sweet cornbread.

As far as getting a whole meal, Mert’s, like any good Southern purveyor of fine food, offers vegetables, or sides (a useful term for Yankee expatriates like myself). For the record, Hominy Grill revolves their list of 10-12 items out a little more often, but Mert’s has a reason why they’ve offered the classics. I got collard greens for the first time, and these green pulpy masses got a cover of tomato and onion to add a crisp (and pseudo-healthy?) side to the vinegary and fatty fried greens. They went really well along some hot sauce with a label in Spanish.

Rounding out the balanced food groups was macaroni and cheese, which I know understand and faithfully believe is a vegetable, and a really great one. Not a crunch in any of the forkfulls means this must be a macaroni without any crisp cornerpieces. Kids would not have a problem eating veggies if these were the ones to pick from.

Mert’s had all new experiences for some items that have been around longer than my grandparents, but I now think something’s been established in my heart and soul for something that’s always been around. I’d like to learn more about this stuff, just like I’d like to get to know more about a neighbor living in a Charleston single home.

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2 Responses to “To the Heart of Charlotte and the Heart of Mert’s”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Notes from the Napkin: Birthday Meals « Table Scraps - June 11, 2011

    […] them a rundown of the restaurant. It’s one of the most iconic places in Charlotte area and topic choice of mine before, but just as classic and enjoyable as the music swooning out of the place’s speakers. […]

  2. The Hunger Games, On Hunger « Table Scraps - January 23, 2012

    […] I really like that line near the end of Mockingjay. It’s a topic I’ve talked about: how Mert’s hit the spot on a cold March night, or how nothing beats a cheap chocolate milkshake after a week of work as a camp […]

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