Charlotte, NC. I don’t often get here, but covering a meeting for a colleague brought me to town for a quick overnight. Such a trip begs the obvious question: where am I going to eat? There are plenty of options, but as I perused options, one restaurant caught my eye for more than just their food and a hopefully great experience – The King’s Kitchen.
Nestled right in the heart of downtown Charlotte, The King’s Kitchen looks like any other trendy spot. Hip lighting (around the bar the shades are colorful strainers) sleek white tables and walls, light marble bar, hardwood floors. Staff dressed in white, just a cool vibe all around. Unlike any other trendy spot, this is a restaurant with a mission, and that mission goes far beyond the cuisine. The King’s Kitchen is a non-profit organization. Noted on their website and on the menu is the fact that all proceeds from their service go to feed the less fortunate in the Charlotte area. Wow. Additionally, all of the ingredients are locally sourced. Southern comfort food in an upscale setting, all for a good cause.
I was greeted with a smile and shown to a seat at the bar (as a table for one, this is usually where I like to end up). The bartender greeted me as well and presented the menu. The wine and beer menu was diverse, but there was an option that caught my eye immediately: a flight of local drafts. There are six taps, so pick four and you’re off. Not being from the area, we had a conversation about it. I’m typically a Yuengling and Guinness guy with a touch of IPA. My barkeep took it from there. 3C’s IPA was first up, followed by a number of OMB drafts; and amber lager, Pecan Brown, and a porter, all four brewed within 10 minutes of where I was sitting, the definition of local. Now to be fair, I was fighting the tail end of a head cold, but what I tasted was delightful. The IPA was hoppy, but not too hoppy (not at hoppy as a Founder’s All Day IPA for example). The Amber Lager drank much like a Yuengling, which is my personal go to beer. The Pecan Brown and Porter also did not disappoint. All four helped accompany the onslaught of delightful dishes that followed.
After spending a few minutes looking at the menu, we were off to the races with starters. I had three in mind, but asked for some guidance on narrowing the field. Without hesitation, the staff favorites were the fried oysters and the pimento cheese. Ok, I’m game, make it so good sir. When I tell you the service was prompt, it would be a remarkable understatement. It seemed that I had no sooner put down the menu and returned to my beverage of choice when a bowl brimming with tender fried oysters appeared. I was able to get one in my mouth just prior the the board carrying the pimento cheese and crostini. I’m a sucker for a good oyster in any form. Raw, fried, broiled, grilled, Rocky Mountain, whatever. The key to a great fried oyster, in my not so humble opinion, is crisp batter that holds onto a juicy oyster inside. These nailed it. First envision if you will a bowl of no less than a dozen oysters, half a lemon, and a small container of remoulade. some micro greens gracing the top, and that’s it. Simple presentation. Now how does one test the first key standard for a fried oyster? Pick it up with your hands! To the touch they were plump, not greasy, and the batter held onto the oyster like a child holds onto their blanket. I always try the first one naked, no sauce, just a slight squeeze of lemon. Pure.Bliss. Masked by the perfectly crisp batter was a plump, juicy, briny oyster; fresh and salty from the sea. This was a true delight. Another with a quick dip in the remoulade and another wonderful treat. I could go all night on these, but then there was that lump of orange goodness over there on the board next to my beer…
Pimento cheese is an interesting dish. As I write I’m still not totally sure what’s in it, but I know from a certain Californian friend I met in New Jersey by way of Cincinnati (follow that?) its a southern classic. It was a treat for sure. Creamy and spreadable, on toasted bread, pairing well with the Amber Lager, and surprisingly with the oysters as well. There was not chance I would finish this and still have dinner, but it was a great sampling. The oysters, on the other hand, were all to die that night. Amazing. I can still taste them as I sit on a plane to go home, and I’m pretty sure I just drooled on myself. Hope the guy next to me doesn’t notice.
Continuing to ponder the menu I had a number of choices. Fried chicken was high on the list, as was the pot roast. Apparently the scallops were delicious and the pork chop looked like it was to die for. But I was in Charlotte, and I made it clear I was at the mercy of my faithful Bart ender, and he didn’t steer me wrong. If I wanted the true experience, he said, I had to try the shrimp and grits. Now I’ve had shrimp and grits in New Jersey and most of the time it’s been fine, even delicious. To have it here, however, was altogether different. Again faster than I could have my water refilled my meal was presented. A modest bowl was placed before me. Creamy grits sat atop a shallow pool of tomato pan sauce, topped with six shrimp (peeled and tails removed) with some smoked ham bits in and among the grits for obvious porky flavor. My first bite was the grits. These were different, nothing like what we pass off for grits at home. While creamy they had distinct texture and a firmness that held up in the sauce. They were rich and flavorful, and when paired with the sauce and a touch of the ham, were a savory morsel. The only thing missing at this point was the shrimp, so onto the fork one goes and we have the perfect bite. The shrimp were cooked perfectly as well. Good bite, lightly seasoned, a wonderful compliment to the hominy cloud on which they were presented.
As the meal continued a conversation began among the other solo diners at the bar and I. Both were northeastern transplants to the south. One young man was two weeks into his Charlotte residency, while the other was a mother originally from Philadelphia, now in Tampa, in town for work. We discussed food, travel, out northern roots, and of course the meal we were all enjoying. As an added bonus, Kings Kitchen was mostly gluten free, which was necessary for one oh my accidental dining partners. We all lingered a bit and talked, engaging the staff at several points, while in the background other parties laughed and dined with classic Christmas music filling in the rest. A warm goodbye from our hosts wrapped up the night as we each departed. Accidental comradorie, a wonderful meal, and a worthy cause. When in Charlotte, make a point to visit The Kings Kitchen. It will impact your culinary senses, and the community which is serves daily.