Foodie Travels: Pinky’s Westside Grill, Charlotte, N.C.

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Restaurants in converted spaces offer an added bonus alongside a meal. You can daydream about the building’s former life and inhabitants, and sometimes even enjoy the atmosphere created by hints of the past.

That kind of experience is one of the many cool things about Pinky’s Westside Grill on, you guessed it, the west side of Uptown Charlotte, N.C. The eatery is set in the location of a former Volkswagen garage, evidenced by the bay doors on the front wall and the old VWs sitting on the roof and in the parking lot.

In addition to the fun of eating in an old garage, Pinky’s offers a lively vibe with both a bright dining section and an active, and spirited, bar area. But that’s not what’ll have you coming back after your first visit. It’s the food that will hook you on Pinky’s. Creative, delicious and quickly-tabled food.

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That’s right: corn dog shrimp! It’s tough to name just one must-try item on the Pinky’s menu, but this might be it.

First up: corn dog shrimp. They’re just what they sound like. Large shrimp covered in delicious, sweet corn dog batter. Someone at your table should try them because they’re one of the most satisfying and unique culinary finds around. Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives ordered them on the show’s visit to Pinky’s.

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With all of the great menu choices, don’t miss out on the delicious burgers!

You also have a lengthy list of menu items from which to choose some of the American favorites you love—burgers, tacos, wings, hot dogs and salads. You won’t be able to sample everything you want on just one visit, even if everyone at your table tries and shares something different. (A tip though: someone should get the sweet potato fries with honey mustard. The combination is amazing!) Guess that means you’ll have to enjoy a few visits to get the full experience. That’s our plan.

Pinky’s Westside Grill is a gem of a find, especially considering each member of your party can eat for about $10. This one will be one of our top #FoodieScore restaurant recommendations in the Charlotte area. Check it out next time you visit the city!

Pinky’s Westside Grill

1600 West Morehead Street, Charlotte, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Webb Custom Kitchen, Gastonia, N.C.

Like many cities across North Carolina, Gastonia has seen the center of its activity move away from its downtown area over the decades. The older west side of town used to be the lifeblood of the community, but over time much of that vitality moved east, closer to the Charlotte metro. Growing up in Gaston County, I watched the economy and entertainment move along Franklin Boulevard, seeing longtime businesses close in the west/downtown and new shops pop up by the dozens toward the east side.

But following and coinciding with all of that movement in Gastonia and other cities throughout the state, there has been a trend toward downtown revitalization. Many cities have made concerted efforts to bring back the importance, the interest and the people to downtown areas and main streets, and that’s certainly been no exception in Gastonia.

Perhaps the grandest example of a desire to revive Gastonia’s downtown is Webb Custom Kitchen, a longtime former theatre that now operates as a first-class American restaurant that beautifully partners the past with the present and the future.

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Stepping inside Webb Custom Kitchen is almost like being in two places at once. You get the feel of the old theatre, with camera and projection equipment throughout the space. Much of the music is from decades past, and you can enjoy Turner Classic Movies films on a large screen viewable from all of the seats. At the same time, there’s a fresh and modern feel to the accents of the place, from the chic dinnerware to the updated lighting to the opportunity to watch all the action in the kitchen. These pieces come together in a classy way that almost makes you feel like you’re dining in a scene straight out of The Great Gatsby.

Of course, we’re talking about a restaurant here, and despite the A+ grade we’d give Webb Custom Kitchen for everything from atmosphere to service, the highest marks of all go to the menu and the food itself. We visited for an early dinner on a Saturday afternoon, and we experienced what was quite possibly the best three-course meal we’ve ever enjoyed anywhere. (And particularly across the South, we’ve sampled our share of fare.)

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For starters, we sampled the Duck Cigar, a spring roll with light and flaky pastry containing savory duck cooked in its own fat and a mixture of fresh vegetables, all served with three flavor-packed, house-made dipping sauces. Molly told me after our dinner that she’s never had a better spring/egg roll. I just wish it was a bottomless appetizer; it’s that good!

Then came the main course. For me, I couldn’t stay away from the cheeseburger on the menu, and that led me to enjoy one of the best gourmet burgers anywhere. The beef was light, juicy, cooked to perfection, and surrounded by mushrooms, bacon, fresh lettuce and tomato, all on a hearty and flavorful brioche bun. I chose to enjoy it with a side of creamy, buttery country potato cakes. (Think mashed potatoes in a compact pancake form.)

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Molly decided to sample a chicken dish (containing three juicy cuts of charbroiled chicken), served alongside a fresh salad of spinach, tomatoes and goat cheese, and drizzled with a delicious sweet sauce with a hint of red-wine vinegar. She’s a big fan of Greek-style chicken dishes, and this one ranked among the best she’s had. For her side, she chose the stone-ground cheese grits, which offered a hearty and creamy accompaniment.

Dessert’s not often on our priority list after a sit-down restaurant meal, but after the first two courses were so grand, how could we not at least hear the options? Just about the time we made that decision, one of Webb Custom Kitchen’s managers stopped by our table to check on our meal experience. He shared some suggestions of his favorite dessert creations– including our eventual choice, a Chocolate Mousse Cake with mousse, chocolate cake, chocolate cheesecake and hints of cocoa. That was the winner, and it was a scrumptious, surprisingly light and not-too-rich closer to a phenomenal meal.

As we soaked in our evening visit to Webb Custom Kitchen, it was fun to imagine the past life of the Webb Theatre. The classic movies on the screen in the restaurant certainly aided that reflection, as did the camera equipment on the steps leading from the upstairs dining area to the front entrance. Webb Custom Kitchen wonderfully incorporates so many pieces of the past in its presence, and in doing so it has brought a vibrant life back to the western end of Gastonia.

 

Webb Custom Kitchen

182 S. South St., Gastonia, N.C.

WebbCustomKitchen.com

Foodie Travels: Pike’s Soda Shop, Charlotte, N.C.

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When we occasionally visit Uptown Charlotte, we like to eliminate the stress of navigating parking and one-way streets by using the high-speed rail service to travel into the city. And sitting right off one of the rail line’s stops, in the South End district of Charlotte, is Pike’s Soda Shop.

Pike’s is the fusion of an old-school soda shop and a new-age American diner, offering everything from burgers and fries to delicious home poked meat-and-side plates. You can also get a variety of milk shakes and delicious desserts. This place is actually responsible for Molly and I developing an affinity for Toll House Pie.

Nostalgia covers the walls, and the first thing you see when you walk inside is an old-fashioned soda counter. It’s the kind of atmosphere that immediately tells you that you’re in for a treat.

For us, that treat usually involves a good cheeseburger. I know what you’re thinking: “Matthew, you always try the burger.” Yes I do, but this is one of those places where you can build your own juicy, unique burger with a variety of toppings.

If the burger’s not your item of choice, try one of the home style plates. Whatever you get will fill you up. But if you have room for dessert afterward, opt for a milkshake or the pie. Your meal will be made.

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Molly and I enjoy a mint chocolate chip ice cream milk shake at Pike’s.

Pike’s gets a $ on my $ (very affordable), $$ (middle of the road), $$$ expensive dining cost scale. That’s especially true if you plan to eat a simple sandwich and side. It’s up to you, of course, whether you want to add more to your meal. Two people can easily have a simple meal here for $20 with just the basics, and that’s often my benchmark for a reasonable place to get a good meal.

A #FoodieScore tip: The light rail method is a great way to eliminate the hassle out of driving around and parking in Charlotte altogether. We like to park at the Woodlawn station and then ride the train to South End to eat, then get back on the train to go into uptown for a Hornets game, a cultural event or to just explore. HOWEVER, a friendly stranger tipped us off once that parking around Pike’s is free during a certain time period on weekdays and on weekends. If you drive, be sure you have to pay before you drop coins in those parking meters.

Pike’s Soda Shop

1930 Camden Road, Charlotte

Pikessodashop.net

Foodie Travels: Cupcrazed Cakery, Fort Mill, S.C.

A whisk handle, the smell of icing and a counter full of cupcakes greet you at the door of Cupcrazed in Fort Mill, S.C. This baked goods factory has received praise on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” competition show, and you quickly understand why when you enter their space, just off I-77 a few miles south of Charlotte.

We discovered Cupcrazed on Instagram, and we’ve liked and commented on the business’ foodie posts for months. On a recent trip through South Carolina, we stopped in for the first time.

The atmosphere is like a cross between a cozy coffee shop and a big-city bakery. Colorful decor, including room for a few patrons to sit around tables and on couches, awaits, as well as an employee at the counter.

This is the kind of place where it’s helpful to stand in line to have time to make your selections. In addition to cookies, brownies, cake pops and cakes, an assortment of cupcake options awaits each day. Be advised that specialty concoctions change daily, but there are always the classic vanilla, chocolate, carrot cake and other options.

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When you’re interested in more complex flavors, it can be a tad difficult to decide what choice your stomach wants to make that day. So, step back and take a minute. We had to select between Cookies and Cream, Reese’s Cup, Key Lime Pie, S’mores, Triple Chocolate, Raspberry and a variety of other unique flavors. You should know that these aren’t basic cupcake flavors. My S’mores cupcake came with a Graham cracker topping, a toasted marshmallow and a fun-size Hershey bar on top.

Individual cupcakes at Cupcrazed are $3, but you get a bit of a deal if you want to buy a half-dozen or dozen and share. Six cupcakes will cost you $15, essentially giving you a free cupcake. Twelve cupcakes will cost you $30, meaning you’re paying for 10 treats and getting two for free at that rate.

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We enjoyed a cupcake each on our visit and then took four cupcakes to our family to share. One cupcake at a time will more than fill your need for a sweet treat, but later that day or the next, the memory of that delicious cupcake makes you wish you had bought more while you were in the bakery. Luckily, this place is easy to find in a shopping village less than a mile off the interstate. That’s a good thing because the Instagram posts each day make me a bit Cupcrazed.

Cupcrazed Cakery

936 Market Street, Fort Mill, S.C.

Cupcrazed.com