Thanks to a public Facebook shaming about how I never visit, I finally made plans to go and see my good friends Chris and Michelle and their kids Nora and Hank on their home turf of Charlotte, NC. Of course, while I was there I had to check out some of Charlotte’s finest grub -- #1 on my list being The Penguin. Not only is it the top ranked restaurant on Urbanspoon, but it came with a strong recommendation from Chris and Michelle, too.
The Penguin is notably small, with four booths, six tables and about 15 or so stools for lunch and side counter seating. Combine that with the popularity of the establishment and you’ve got yourself a bit of a wait. Everybody from the staff to the patrons handles this in stride, though. No exasperated sighs or snarky comments -- the wait is just part of the experience.
Once we finally got seated, we ordered drinks and hot dogs for Nora and Hank, and then Chris, Michelle and I started drawing up our battle plans. So we could sample a variety of stuff, we settled on splitting fried pickles (half-order for $3.25), buffalo wings ($6.75), and a Small Block Burger topped Southern Style with chili, mustard, onions and cole slaw ($3.25). At Chris and Michelle’s urging, I also had to try the famous Winky-Dinky Dog -- a hot dog loaded with pimento cheese and chili ($2.75).
I’ve had fried pickles before in Kansas City. First, years ago at BJ’s Lounge (now the Lava Room) where they were spear-cut and reminded me of overcooked bananas. The second time was the other week at Tomfooleries, where they were served with an overly thick, bready battered coating. The fried pickles at The Penguin were a completely new and utterly tasty experience.
At The Penguin, the pickles are cut into chips and dipped in a kind of light, flaky batter that made me think of a fish fry. On their own, these fried pickles are tangy and almost buttery without being too greasy. Dip ‘em in a little ranch, and you take it to a whole new level.
The Winky-Dinky Dog was also a new experience, although at first I didn’t think it was going to be a pleasant one. The first couple bites grossed me out a bit, registering as salty, squishy and distinctively processed. Somehow by the end I was convinced it was awesome.
Less impressive but still good, the Southern Style Small Block Burger represented itself well. However, the wings proved to be just okay. The buffalo sauce struck me as spicy without a lot of flavor and almost watery.
The price is definitely right at The Penguin, and the menu is filled with all kinds of national and local diner favorites. With a few brews in me, I could see myself making lots of deliciously bad decisions there. But I don’t care if they are just chicken tenders -- I’m not eating anything called “Penguin Fingers.”
Next time on Lunch Blog: My trip to Charlotte concludes with Fuel Pizza and Price’s Chicken Coop.
1921 Commonwealth Ave | Charlotte, NC 28205