I think my first taste of a fried pickle was over ten years ago standing at the end of the bar in a downtown Louisville, Kentucky bar called The Pub. It was early afternoon, and stumbling on a new appetizer was exactly the door we wanted to open as we began the last day of our weekend Bourbon Excursion. These particular pickles were spears, which differ from my now more preferred chip variety and I believe that day the fried pickle spears were served in a red, plastic bowl, with red & white checkered paper covering the bottom. My friends and I passed them among one another, sharing and commenting on our interesting new discovery. I’m sure there was some sort of dipping sauce, but can’t remember what it was.
Now, after a dozen years, of off and on fried pickle eating, I have discovered Charlotte, North Carolina, either by experience or by hearsay, has a number of good joints that serve delicious fried pickles. And, by way of having really nothing to do on last Saturday, I felt Jennifer and I should try, not only some of the fried pickles we have already eaten, but maybe a few we hadn’t. Maybe hit three or four within the Charlotte Uptown area.
The plan was simple. By way of Uber, we would travel north to a spot in the fourth ward, Alexander Michaels, where Jennifer’s hairdresser swares by the pickles; then travel a few miles southwest to Pinky’s Westside Grill, a happening spot where we once tried the pickles after returning from a long morning hike of Crowder Mountain; make our way back to Southend for a few of the tobasco fried pickles at Macs; and finally, ending close to where we started, at The Liberty, a short walk from our apartment.
We arrived at Alexander Michaels, to a cool, dark, uncrowded bar. Restaurant side was fairly busy, but plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy our pickles. Bartender arrived with menus, takes our drink orders and we settle in to view the menu. Immediately, there seems to be a problem. No fried pickles on the menu. This is not the first time this has happened on a food tasting excursion. We had a somewhat unfortunate incident with fried chicken skins in The Plaza/Midwood area a couple of months ago; which, turned out ok, just had to wait for the 4pm dinner menu.
There wasn’t really anything for us to do other than ask if they would be willing to prepare fried pickles, off menu. And, we were lucky. Fried pickles are served all day on Saturday’s.
I was now feeling much better about our day; particularly, after biting into one of Al Mike’s fried pickles. These guys let the pickles shine. There’s just enough breading to let you know you’re eating a fried appetizer, but not enough to overpower the taste of the pickles. Paired with a ranch dip that rivals Primos in Akron, it was the perfect blend of vinegar, pickle, bread, oil and creamy dressing. So impressed with the ranch dip, we ordered a potato chip chaser to ensure no dip would remain.
We then proceded to fried pickle joint number two.
Pinky’s Westside Grill is a popular spot located in a somewhat undeveloped, but up and coming area of west Charlotte off of Morehead street. It’s eclectic, and arguably could have begun as a hipster hangout, but now you see all kinds of folks. Case in point, there’s a volkswagon bug sitting on the roof. Unfortunately, it was very crowded at Pinky’s on our ealy Saturday afternoon, so we audibled and walked across Morehead St. to The Great American Burger Co., which we were not certain served fried pickles, but knew all would turn out fine anyway. You see, Great American serves some of the best queso I have every tasted. It’s queso prepared with light and creamy white cheese and, for a little extra heat, sliced jalepeno peppers. The chips are the blue and red kind, served warm.
Great American is bar food exemplified with their fried pickles focused on the outside fried chicken breading and less on the inside pickle. These are pickles best shared with friends while watching football and paired with a side of wings.
Now up to this point in our teasting, all efforts had been focused on fried pickle tasting. We really hadn’t spent much time for any barroom activities like some banter with a local, or maybe a conversation with the bartender about the local sports team on the television behind the bar.
And as usual, spend enough time in a bar, and something interesting happens.
Our interesting happened to be a youngster and a skill crane game. A young boy, probably around 8 or 9 years old had convinced his folks to give him a few dollars to play the skill crane game located in the corner of the bar. The boy was having a tough go of it and the nice lady bartender decided to stake him a few dollars.
As the boy continued his efforts, here is our conversation (as I can remember it).
Me: There once was a magical day a number of years ago where I defeated the skill crane.
Jennifer: And when was this magical day?
Me: Mid-nineties, Lubbock, Texas, pre-game of a Texas Tech/Texas A&M college baseball game. Never before or ever since have I won at The Skill Crane, other than that day. It was magical!
(Side note. Me and my buddy Bill had the best baseball banter and chatter during that college baseball game. The crowd loved us. More entertaining than Dean and Frank at a Vegas show. In addition, Texas A&M won. As I said, a magical day.)
Jennifer: Feeling lucky?
(The boy has given up and I have a clear view of the machine.)
Me: See something you like?
(Jennifer gazes longingly at the machine.)
Second Bartender: Go for the duck in a sweater.
C. Smith’s Tips for The Skill Crane:
1) Look for the stuffed animals that sits on top of the pile. Lodged in won’t work.
2) Stay away from stuffed animals that are close to the window.
3) The size of the stuffed animal is critial. Not too big, not too small, just enough to fit within the crane’s arms.
4) Loops and round accessories are a bonus.
5) Don’t be sucked into that large Lion King knockoff in the back, middle. Too big, and too heavy. There’s a reason these machines are hard to beat.
So, I plop a dollar bill into the machine. The boy is behind me, trying to a little too hard to muscle in, while shouting very loudly which stuffed animal to grab. I craftly move the crane forward, and a little too the right. I had my eye on the dolphin (loop on it’s back), sitting justly slightly off dead center. But just to the dolphin’s right, sits Duck in a Sweater. Remembering Second Bartender’s advice, and shrugging off the boy’s shouting, I tap the crane a few inches to the right and drop. The crane lowers, dead center as the arms open. We hold our breath as the crane plops down on the pile of stuffed animals. Then, the arms close over the stuffed duck and the crane raises. It’s happening. Duck in a Sweater is clutched in the cranes arms as it slowly moves back toward the drop hole. The boy is going crazy. I’m going crazy. Jennifer’s fumbling for her phone.
Meet Duck Wellington.
Now you may have thought that I sucked any kind of remaining luck out of the bar with my first try skill crane grab. But you would have thought wrong. Seeing that it actually is possible to acquire a stuff animal from a machine, the boy became even more determined and talked the lady bartender out of a few more bills. With alot of confidence and some crazy moves, the boy did the unthinkable. With a single drop of the crane, the boy successfully pulled two stuffed animals at the same time. Unbelievable moment in the history of skill craning. Remarkable achievement, and even more impressive, the boy gave one of the stuffed animals to the lady bartender.
With newly acquired sidekick (Duck in a Sweater, not a 8 or 9 year old boy), we moved to our next destination for our third round of fried pickles, Mac’s Speed Shop. I suppose Mac’s is first, a bar-b-que restaurant and, secondly, a sports bar; which, I think they do both well. Not as eclectic as Pinky’s, Mac’s still has a few quirks. For example, it’s a hangout for bikers, has a patio where local band’s play Southern Rock, and has as many television’s playing sports as an ESPN Zone. The bar-b-que is good and Mac’s provides everyone the opportunity to try four different types of sauces, depending if you are East, West, South Carolina or traditional.
Mac’s was where we had our first fried pickles in Charlotte and I have tended to grade all other fried pickles against this first experience. My favorite part of their pickles is the hint of Tobasco sauce that is mixed into the breading. These fried pickles are sneaky spicy, and the perfect combination of spice, breading and pickle. The side of ranch, although not as excellent as Alexander Michaels, is more than adequate to help lower the hot sauce party in your mouth. Paired with one of the local beers from Mac’s extensive list, these pickles are really top notch.
While at Mac’s, we met two guys from Ireland, who was sitting next to us at the bar. Lively pair, and if not for our fried pickle mission, would have stayed and swapped stories about Ireland the rest of the afternoon. However, we felt we had come this far, and wanted to end this day at one of the best places for beer, hamburgers, and of course, delicious fried pickles, The Liberty.
You can sense immediately what you are in for by the banner that hangs on the patio railing indicating The Libery has been voted the best burger in Charlotte. I can’t disagree. Jennifer typically orders the simple burger; however, the pork/beef combination patty is also exceptional. Regardless of the burger you choose, the homemade fries are a must.
But we are here for the fried pickles; something we have ordered many times and fitting we should end here. The pickles are just the right combination of cornmeal breading and pickle, but the dipping sauces are the real game changer. The Liberty’s fried pickles are served along side Frank’s Red Hot and ranch dressing. Double the dips, double the fun. We also find the service at Liberty is fast and reliable, and if you are lucky, you’ll have Allie serve you. Great craft beer knowledge.
I think it would be both unfair and silly to rate the different fried pickles experiences on that Saturday afternoon. Plus, after looking back at my iPhone notes, I noticed the last five characters I typed were silly symbols instead of letters. Honestly unclear if those symbols were on purpose, fat fingered, or too many pickles coupled with draft beer.
I do know Jennifer and I had some wine and appetizers at the Sullivan’s Steakhouse bar before making our way back home. Sullivan’s doesn’t serve fried pickles; however, the mac and cheese and cheese steak egg rolls are outstanding. Ask for Jordon behind the bar.