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Sarah shares holiday wisdom and visits to two Charlotte staples: Thai Taste and Dilworth Tasting Room
Moving to Charlotte from elsewhere comes with figuring a lot of obvious tasks: going to the DMV, changing your address, registering to vote, etc. These are givens.
Then come the unexpected tasks, like figuring out new holiday traditions. It’s an important part of making a new city feel like home and one that is especially exciting if you moved here in the last three years when traditional holidays were taken away from us all during the pandemic.
For me, a restaurant worker, a food writer, a person with Italian heritage on my maternal side and a paternal grandmother who worked in a German kitchen for years and hand wrote a recipe book with a dedication, “to the girl who shares the love of cooking,” food is clearly going to be a big part of tradition making.
It’s exciting to figure out what new food traditions await me in my new southern home. In 2020, my now boyfriend shared his mother’s Hoppin John: a dish I had never heard of before and immediately loved. This year, I had her Oyster Stew on Christmas Eve for the first time. To say I was excited is an understatement. I spent much of December brainstorming dishes I could bring to dinner on Christmas Day in order to share my holiday memories.
I made cookies in the week leading up to Christmas with a level of enthusiasm and zealousness I didn’t think such a scatter brain was capable of dreaming up. I’m looking at recipes from my mother’s weathered and seriously annotated copy of The Art of Sicilian Cooking, the New York Times Cooking App, my grandmother’s aforementioned cookbook, trying to find the intersection of it all and cherishing the process. Like any foodie I’m always brimming with excitement to share what I’ve made with the people I hold dear.
I’m also finding the spots in Charlotte that feel cozy and like places I’ll want to return often. So far the list is short, but what I’ve found, I think will fixed options going forward.
Dilworth Tasting Room
I’ve visited the original Dilworth Tasting Room ($$$) before, but something about it this time of the year makes it feel like an extra special place to gather with friends, perhaps after shopping in the area, or just because you need dinner with your girls before the holidays take you all in a million directions.
Their wine list is incredible, but the food and the atmosphere seal the deal for me. I know I’m done for when the first thing on the menu is mixed olives ($7). I also can be counted on to order brussels sprouts ($14) just about anywhere, but Dilworth’s are truly some of the best in town and deliver great seasonal flavors of apple butter and pecan with the perfect acidic balance from balsamic vinegar.
Our group of three then moved on to the medium charcuterie board ($35), and selected the Rocket’s Robiola, a North Carolina-made cheese, the Le Cabrie from Wisconsin, Bresaola, and the Salame Rosa.
I’m snobbish when it comes to charcuterie, which I’m sure will annoy anyone who dines with me who doesn’t care as much. I grumble about unimaginative cheese picks - especially if they come in cube form - and get annoyed when it’s clear that the portions aren’t fair for the price and cheap fillers have been added. I’d rather have nothing than be presented with “craisins” in a restaurant in this century.
That said, I was really happy to see Dilworth had clearly put careful thought and serious market research into their charcuterie boards. I appreciate the truly perfect execution on my bougie adult lunchable, and if you ever see the Rocket’s Robiola on a menu, order it.
We rounded out our visit with truffle gnocchi ($18) and hanger steak ($21). I get worried about what I might be in for when I see these two dishes on a menu. The trend of truffling everything made me tired of truffles and afraid of getting a low-quality ingredient masked by truffles. I have the same sort of hesitations around hanger steaks as I do around truffles. They were everywhere over the past decade, but the quality was not.
Luckily that’s not the case here. DTR feels like the kind of place that set these trends and caused others to copy poorly. The gnocchi was soft and pillowy, and the truffle didn't overshadow the cheese and the garlic. Our table debated getting another even though we were all very full. The hanger steak was also a leader, not a follower. It was perfectly cooked and seasoned, with a bright, herby topping on a tender, sharable steak.
As we concluded dinner, I thought about how I’d love to bring my mom or my favorite aunts here after shopping sometime, and I will. I’ll probably also go back anytime I want an interesting glass of wine by the glass. Overall, I’d say go. Bring a date, bring your food and wine snob people here, but go and find out why it’s a highly recommended Charlotte favorite.
On the topic of highly recommended and conveniently located for holiday shoppers, Thai Taste ($$) has been on my radar for awhile. I’ve wanted to go every time I visited Paper Skyscraper, but haven’t been able to for one reason or another. Maybe it’s because I usually feel guilty about how much I’ve spent at Paper Skyscraper.
Not so this time. I decided after some holiday gift buying was done for everyone else, it was time for a present for me.
I love Thai food a lot. The first published restaurant review I ever wrote was me waxing poetic about how I love Thai cuisine. It wasn’t great writing, but the enthusiasm was genuine.
Why do I love it so much? I love all food, but especially less ubiquitous flavors. Maybe it’s jealousy that everyone I know seems to have gone to Thailand in their twenties and I didn’t get to, or maybe it’s watching Anthony Bourdain and countless others seem genuinely emotional about street food in Bangkok and longing to experience what they felt. Whatever the case, I explored, and now I’m hooked and I crave it constantly, especially in the winter.
Thai Taste is a gem. First of all, it’s beautiful. The décor is traditional and elegant. There’s a lot to take in, but everything about it is stunning and creates a welcoming, serene vibe. I get the sense that the woman who served me might have been the owner, but I didn’t ask because the only time I’ve revealed that I’m a food critic the service shifted slightly from good to over-the-top great. As someone who has been charged with the pressure of impressing reviewers, I hate the idea of adding that to someone’s work day. Plus, the first time I visit, I want a normal, no frills, objective experience.
The server was very welcoming and informed me they had been in operation for more than thirty years. She pointed me in the direction of what to order with the ease and passion of someone invested in the business. I selected the Tod Mun Pla ($9) because I’ve never heard of it and wanted to explore. I expected crispy fried white fish, perhaps a chef quality fish stick. I was way off, and happy for the surprise. The dish is more like large coin shapes of chewy fish cakes, like you might get in a ramen or a fish ball soup, and more spice forward than fish forward. I liked the unexpected texture a lot and liked the dipping sauce it came with even more. It was bright, acidic and included minced pickled veggies. It could have been shared, had I brought company, but I devoured them myself instead.
I had to stop myself briefly until my main course came because it’s a dish I knew I loved and was excited to try the Thai Taste version. Thai Taste has all of the major curries a curry lover would expect - red, green, yellow and coconut (Phanaeng) - but they also have the more elusive Massaman curry ($27).
I like all the above a great deal, but this is my favorite, and in my opinion, the most seasonally appropriate curry. I ordered mine with the crispy duck for protein, which certainly affects the price, but it’s well worth it in my opinion. Tender, juicy duck meat is encased in a crunchy casing over a bed of curry sauce with potatoes and carrots. The curry itself is slightly sweet from coconut milk and slightly sour from tamarind, but somehow finishes as savory. It’s warm and comforting and hard to stop eating. I ate the first few scoops in their brothy form and debated going that way to finish the meal, but ended up adding the accompanying rice, mainly so that I didn’t look like a ravenous heathen weirdo shoveling pure curry into my mouth.
The duck massaman curry is the dish that inspired this piece. I never noticed how the creamy, slightly sweet, warm spices were so similar to Western holiday flavors, but now I can’t unsee it. I’m adding this to my Christmas rotation for sure. I’ve heard great things about their lunch from industry peers and I’ll be back as soon as possible to check it out. Thai Taste is worth every bit of the hype they get, and I’m excited to join that chorus.
I’m enjoying getting to know Charlotte holiday flavors and carving out my own traditions from all the intersecting cultures we have assembled here and adding my own nostalgic American mutt flare to the mix as well. I hope your holiday season was full of flavors cooked lovingly by folks like me and all of the many cooks I admire.