As Big as the Ritz

5 Jun

Guy Fieri, even though I’m not his biggest fan, has a concept that’s as slick as his hair gel: going on an American roadtrip and stopping at the dive bars and diners, the holes in the wall of the United States.

Tony Bourdain has a lot of the same goals, but goes about meeting the people in the restaurants differently. They’re both rock stars I guess, but Tony just seems to be a lot cooler when he walks into a dive.

So maybe it’s responding to a trend, maybe it’s being frugal, or maybe it’s hunger for an experience of my own, but I’m very interested in checking out the other diners in the Charlotte area. A Google search revealed to me that there’s a lot to look into. Landmark, Big View, The Penguin, Tic-Toc, Mattie’s (originally located in New Jersey but brought down here on a flat bed),  the list goes on and on, and most of these are beautiful holes in the wall.

My first trip to the Penguin was the summer before I left for freshman year in college, which was the wrong time to be introduced to something so fantastic. Memorable meals deserve a post of their own, but my Black bean burger and fried pickle dinner is something I still think about, but now with a grain (or maybe more) of salt.

Guy has been to the Penguin, but a lots changed since the spiked hair goofball stepped foot onto Commonwealth. The ownership changed November 1st, and a lot of Charlotte-natives and fried pickle-lovers have chosen to avoid the classic restaurant now. Brian Rowe and Jimmy King refused to give in to the owner of the building’s financial deal, which caused a food war on the scale of the great Butter Battle.

The way it all turned out, the owners decided to leave and reopen the historical Diamond restaurant, and this is where disillusioned Penguin fans have turned up.

Curious about how the traditions (since 1951) have translated from the Penguin to the location just around the corner (it’s like seeing CVS from the front door of Walgreens), I went with a friend to check out the new location but classic set up.

For the best context, I don’t think the cartoon picture does the place justice. It’s got the joy down, but the inside is a lot darker, and there’s a little more variety in the clientele. We saw a family with their baby, and team of bro-ish guys with their button-ups draped over their shoulders, some guy looking like Mike Huckabee, and a group of guys that have been bumming around in Charlotte-based bands for years. The Penguin always boasted a weird collection of people, and I was excited to get a cast of characters without getting knifed.

The interior of the place looks old. I don’t know how a place that’s been open since late November has managed to get the look down, but maybe they got some help from Disney Imagineering. I thought the teal color on a lot of counters is worth getting a t-shirt the shade of, and the outside logo reminds me of a Las Vegas casino.

Courtesy of WBTV3

The menu is diner staples (fried chicken, pork chops, green beans), but my friend and I were like magnets towards the Penguin staples: The Block Burgers and the Fried Pickles.

Because I had been nursing a stomachache earlier in the day, the concept of deep-fried pickles and Ranch dressing, especially from a different place, seemed a little uncertain. I was feeling better, so I went with the go ahead. The pickles are best when a little bit crispier, but the half order (actually the size of  an Ultimate disc) had some more chewy ones as well. I might be crazy, but this might be trying to cater to all pickle palates at the customers’ tables, so I would order them again.

Instead of the burger though, I went with a pulled pork sandwich. On my last trip to the Penguin, a friend gave me a tip that the barbecue, with North Carolinian vinegar sauce, was pretty good. For the most part, I think it was. I liked the slaw on top, but without the sauce, the pulled pork didn’t have as much smokey flavor. I loved the sauce (a more soupy, stronger variant than the gloopy orange stuff at Duke’s or the brown glack that often comes in bottles), but I’d ask for extra next time.

I loved the feel of the place and would definitely show my dad and brother, both big fans of diners, the great new location of some half-century old Charlotte traditions.

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