There were three things on my agenda for my mere 24-hour visit to Charlotte, attending John and Brendan's surprise 30th birthday party, seeing my family— and eating fried pickles at The Penguin, a Charlotte landmark that stays open late and serves southern food staples.
The North Carolina heat was sweltering, but the skies were a crisp, clear blue when my plane landed at 10:20am. My father was already waiting in the car outside the gate. It was just past breakfast, but he knew right where we were going for lunch.
“Late night last night?” He asked. He could tell I was out of sorts from a late night and an early flight. “Fried pickles will cure you in no time.”
We drove up to the tiny box of a building that housed The Penguin and surveyed the parking lot. Normally, there is a line around the corner. It was 10:30 in the morning though, so this assured us we would beat the crowds. There was still a 30-minute wait. “Name?” the hostess asked. “Joe,” my father said, whose name is really Nils, about as foreign sounding and un-southern a name as one can get. “Joe” just made things easier for everyone.
Men with red faces and frothy breakfast beer mugs perched themselves on stools lining the bar. Waitresses donned the obligatory dive bar tattoos. Johnny Cash blared from a jukebox. “Joe!” Our table was ready. We walked not even two feet to our table, and the waiter set down cups full of water.
“Fried pickles.” My father said, before our server could even ask what we wanted to eat. Of course, we were just getting started with the pickles.
Contrary to popular belief, there is such a thing as “too fried.” According to Jim Villas’ cookbook The Glory of Southern Cooking, fried pickles originated in 1969 at The Hollywood Café in Tunica, Mississippi. In terms of the actual conception of the recipe, Villa’s quotes the owner, “Big Man” Bobby Windham who said, ‘One day we’d ‘bout run out of food and we were hungry, so somebody just cut up some dill pickles, and battered ‘em, and fried ‘em up,
They are, just like Bobby Windham says, dill pickles thinly sliced and lightly fried. There needs to be just enough batter and grease to leave a buttery, crisp flavor in your mouth when you bite into them. Too much batter and it slides off before you can even taste the okra/pickle/onion/chicken/Oreo/Snickers you are biting into. Couple the perfect amount of fried with the sweet and sour flavor of a pickle, and gourmet cuisine suddenly becomes casual. This is a dish to be reckoned with.
Most restaurants serve it as an appetizer, and some even serve the whole pickle fried, rather than just the slices. As a meal, they are delicious with a cold beer.
Back at The Penguin, the fried pickles arrived, along with their faithful companion ranch dressing. In most restaurants in the south that serve this dish— it’s ranch dressing with a secret ingredient. The texture is a little thinner than typical ranch dressing, and the flavor is a tad bit sweeter. The crispy round bites were piled high in their red, plastic basket lined with a red-and-white-checkered piece of wax paper. We dipped, and we dipped, and we dipped. A thin layer of grease was left in the bottom of the basket as my pimento cheeseburger arrived.
“Did that cure you?” my dad asked. He had no idea. “Yes, dad.” I was home, and I was satisfied. New York City may be the most amazing city in the world, but only in the south can you find true fried (and not too fried) pickles.