Today I ate banana pudding that made me want to cry. This is a rarity for me, as I am a self-proclaimed non-sweet-toother. I’m also a Carolina native who did not grow up on Southern food. I may have spent age 3 forward in this hog-wild state, but I am a Jewish kid with northern roots (go Mets!). However, thanks to growing up around pulled-this and creamed-that, I’ve experienced my share of solid barbecue. Without a shadow of a doubt, after one fluffy hushpup, Charlie Turkey Q’s soared to the top of my finger-lickin’ list.
Charlie’s had lingered on my restaurant list, but the words “Castle Hayne” kept me at bay. Admittedly, my three Wilmington stomping grounds are downtown, midtown, and the beach. So, even eight miles away into Castle Hayne can seem like a hike. But for Charlie’s it’s worth every mile. My 16-minute drive was up when I spotted the sign in a sole strip mall. There were taped signs in the windows, exclaiming, “Baby back ribs every Wednesday!” The foodie in me smiled. I could tell this was about to be one helluva meal.
When tasked with reviewing reasonably priced eateries, I try to bring a crowd or I’m left drawing attention to my single ordering nearly every item on the menu. Occasionally, with a lunch review, however—thanks to friends and fiancés having stupid day jobs—I’m forced to ride solo. Then again, when my profession requires eating ribs in the middle of the day, really, I shouldn’t have much complaining to do.
I used my go-to method of anonymity by telling the cashier I would be ordering some food for myself here, and taking a large order home to friends. Little did she know…
Charlie’s is a quaint spot with a modest interior, a straightforward menu, and a 100 percent sanitation rating. I purposely planned my meal for a Wednesday when I could take full advantage of their rib special. Even with an hour until close, I learned I was snatching up the very last order.
The cashier informed me the kitchen sometimes runs out, and sometimes has too many leftover—so rib day is a risky one (unless diners show up early). My recommendation: Show up early. This classic “meat and two sides” plate was more than enough and only $10. As I write, several hours post-meal, I am genuinely still as full as if I had eaten $40 worth of food. Five enormous baby-back ribs stood center stage on my Styrofoam. Sweet and sticky, but with a hint of heat, each tender piece of meat fell right off the bone.
In addition to several complimentary crisp hushpuppies, I ordered my side staples: coleslaw and potato salad. Both blew me out of the water in comparison to those I had at similar restaurants. The slaw was fine chopped and gloriously creamy, while the yellow, mustardy potato salad was equally as luscious and bursting with bits of flavor from red peppers, eggs and relish. It’s far too often these type of “salads” are quickly thrown together with mayonnaise and not nearly enough salt. Both were thoughtfully made by hand with expert amounts of herbs and spices.
In sandwich land, I went with Charlie’s namesake: the Classic Turkey Q. And for good measure, I ordered fried chicken. The pulled turkey was doused in a sharp East Coast vinegar sauce that had flecks of heat on the back end. I loved how light the meat was (in comparison to pork), but it was missing a little of bit of that fat and smoke that typically comes with ‘cue.
On a personal note, however, my parents don’t eat red meat, but are surrounded by pig-centric restaurants. What I especially appreciated about Charlie’s is the focus on being accessible to those who don’t eat standard pork barbecue (and aren’t crazy about the only alternative being fried chicken). It’s like a vegan getting to eat something that resembles a cheeseburger.
The fried chicken sandwich came on a large soft fluffy white bun, and I opted for pickles, mayonnaise, and shredded lettuce. There were several crunchy tenders between the bread that had a nice flavor and saltiness. The acidic pickles and generous spread of rich, smooth mayo were an ideal contrast to the breading.
My last savory feat was the pulled barbecue pork plate. The meat was juicy and shredded, but still had a lovely balance of textures. I find some pulled pork can be so overcooked or over-sauced, it loses its bite and becomes a pile of mush. Charlie’s pork featured bite-size stringy pieces mixed with charred chunks of bark. Nom.
Side-wise, I chose baked beans and macaroni and cheese. The brown beans were sweet, hearty and undoubtedly stewed for hours. The mac and cheese was, unfortunately, the only disappointing mouthful I encountered, as it was in desperate need of salt. If I’m being honest, though, I’ve found this to be the case more often than not at barbecue joints.
And then it happened: banana pudding time. When a restaurant endorses a dessert as something they don’t always have (or they have until it runs out), that’s the kind of thing diners should get their hands on. I’m usually not blown away by this Southern specialty—or many desserts for that matter. But sweet baby bananas! This adorably misshapen scoop of vanilla cookies, custard and pudding tasted like it was straight from the depths of the baker’s soul. The silky pudding and crumbly Nilla wafers together on one spoon were like taking a bite of perfect harmony.
With having to sample so many dishes during a review, I typically limit my taste tests to avoid getting overly full. At Charlie’s, each bite was so addictive, I found myself sheepishly going back for more (as if it was wrong to eat the entire menu). To sum up: This out-of-the-way restaurant is out of this world.