Weekend Wedding in Charlotte, N.C.
I love a wedding. I have been so fortunate over the last six months to see two of my good friends from Ohio University get married. While these weddings are, of course, about celebrating my friends’ love, it’s also a chance for me to take a mini vacation.
In early November, I packed my car and headed down to Charlotte, North Carolina for my friend Maggie’s wedding reception. I was excited to meet Maggie’s husband and reconnect with old friends, but I also knew I had to squeeze in some time to try Charlotte’s local fare.
The road trip gods were NOT on my side when I departed Virginia Beach Friday afternoon. As I cruised down U.S. 58, I contemplated taking a little detour to see what eats were off the beaten path. Instead, I decided to stay on the road since I wanted to get on I-85 before it got too dark.
I initially made plans to stop in either Greensboro or Durham for an early dinner. Thanks to construction and a freak thunder and lightening storm, I had fallen way behind schedule. Maggie was kind enough to host her out-of-town guests and serve cocktails and appetizers. While I typically have no problem showing up late to a function, I wanted to be semi on time. I kept my focus on the road and powered through until I arrived at the Airbnb my friends and I rented.
At Maggie’s, I quickly moved in on the beer, buffalo chicken dip, leftover Halloween candy and mini quiche. I caught up with some fellow Bobcats and mingled with the other guests. I had a rather lengthy and informative conversation about the McRib with a few people, which inspired me to try the elusive sandwich and write a blog post about it. Click here to read it.
Saturday morning came and my friends and I had our sights fixed on a boozy brunch and Southern food. My friend Hayley researched some spots and thought Mert’s Heart and Soul would be our best bet. Featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, Mert’s seemed to be a favorite with both locals and visitors. Just look for the “EAT” sign on the building and get ready to grub.
Despite its downtown location, amidst a number of corporate buildings, Mert’s serves down-home country soul food. The restaurant had a decent-sized crowd but it didn’t take long for our table of six to be seated. While the food at Mert’s met expectations, I need to address the less-than-boozy elephant in Mert’s dining room.
As soon as our server arrived, we let him know that we were all going to have the “unlimited mimosas.” As you can see on Mert’s menu, the unlimited mimosas cost $17 while a single mimosa costs $9. We thought we were getting a great deal since we would absolutely drink more than two each. When our server returned, we raised our cups to toast then took a sip of our “mimosa.”
When a drink is 90% orange juice and only 10% champagne, I refuse to consider that a mimosa. We finished our cups then ordered another round. This time, we watched our server. I don’t know what kind of authoritarian management is at Mert’s but I’ve never seen someone measure champagne using two-ounce plastic containers. After seeing the server pour about four ounces of champagne into a cup of orange juice then calling that a mimosa, we were baffled. I don’t at all blame the server for doing his job, but how can you be that stingy? You were on Food Network and have been written about by a number of travel websites. I guarantee Mert’s isn’t so broke that they have to rip people off like that. We later read a few Yelp reviews learned that’s their standard practice.
After witnessing the biggest scam of 2018, I had a mild attitude and was more than ready to eat. After scarfing down the complimentary corn bread, we anxiously waited for our food. Fortunately for Mert’s, their food made up for their awful pour counts.
A popular choice at our table was to order the Soul Sampler, complete with Mert’s signature Soul Roll, salmon cake and fried chicken wings. This sampler is the perfect way to taste some of Mert’s most iconic dishes. Since it was a soul food restaurant, I had to order a couple of sides as well.
When Guy Fieri visited Mert’s, he had a Soul Roll and called it “a soul food missile pop.” Since I didn’t fully read the menu, I thought the roll would be like a dinner roll. Much to my surprise, it was an actually an egg roll filled with rice, black-eyed peas, collard greens and chicken. Guy was 100% right. Drizzled with a spicy honey mustard, this low country take on an egg roll does not skimp on the flavor.
Next, I moved on to my salmon cake that was accompanied by a house-made remoulade sauce. The “Cajun Trinity” (onion, celery and pepper) and combined with poached salmon and formed into a cake then pan fried.
According to the menu, these salmon cakes are “almost as famous as the cornbread.” To me, my Grandmama’s Salmon Croquettes will always be the best salmon cakes, but Mert’s was a close second. The remoulade was a bit too mayo heavy for me, but the salmon cake was so moist that you didn’t even need it.
I wanted to show some love to the side dishes I ordered before they got too cold. I couldn’t miss the chance to try their yams, green beans and macaroni and cheese.
Some of the juice from my yams got on the green beans and mac and cheese. While I usually don’t like for my food or food juices to run together, I always make an exception when it comes to yams.
I started with the green beans. On the menu, there is an asterisk by them to indicate that animal fat was used in the preparation. That’s how I knew they’d be good. You can tell that Mert’s green beans had been slow cooked since they were mostly soft with a small crunch.
Next, I moved to the mac and cheese that was baked to perfection so every nook was filled with cheese. I was beyond excited to see that I had received a heaping scoop from the top layer. This was classic macaroni and cheese. No cheese sauce. Just crispy cheese on top and melted cheese between soft noodles.
At this point of the meal, I was too full to finish my two large and crispy chicken wings and the sweet yams. They did, however, make for a delicious breakfast and tasty snack on the drive back on Sunday.
When we left Mert’s, we were so full that we had to walk off all the food we ate. We used that time to explore a bit of the downtown area. We made our way to Charlotte’s Epicentre, an open-air space filled with shopping, restaurants and entertainment venues. After having a drink at the Strike City bowling alley, that was also an Ohio State bar, we headed back to the Airbnb to get ready for the main event.
Saturday, the Wedding Reception
Maggie told me to be ready to eat some barbecue. I was eager and ready to ingest anything she served, especially barbecue.
The Parker wedding reception was held at The Foundry. The commercial space for local businesses was transformed into a party room with rustic touches. The signature drink at the open bar was an apple cider Moscow mule. Moscow mules are my favorite so I had no problem throwing back a few of these fall cocktails.
The night flew by and before I knew it, it was dinner time. A long wooden table was filled with southern comforts like pickles, macaroni and cheese, slaw and slow-smoked meats.
Outside, the parking lot had been taken over by a massive smoker. My barbecue desires were fulfilled by Noble Smoke BBQ, a local catering service specializing in true Southern barbecue. I spent a little too much time hovering over the pitmasters and mobile smoker. Thankfully, they didn’t mind my presence and even let me taste little samples.
I watched as they hand-pulled pork for traditional Carolina pulled pork and sliced into juicy brisket. The Noble Smoke team moved quickly to prepare the mouthwatering barbecue and make sure that nothing was missing from the buffet table.
I did a little happy dance in my seat while I savored each bite of food. Under the influence of too many Moscow mules, I even wrapped a piece of brisket up for later. Thank you, Hayley, for getting me an actual carry out container instead of the napkin I was using.
Back to Virginia Beach
By Sunday morning, when it was time to leave the Airbnb, I began to regret making so many trips to the open bar at the reception. After a tiresome drive, I began to plan my next trip to Charlotte. Stay tuned to see where I eat next in the Queen City.