Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review: The Penguin

Souvenir cup!

While watching a piece on The Penguin Drive-In on Charlotte’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, I practically ran out of the house to catch some of this home cookin’. It was all I could do to wait for my gals to find a time to join me for this greasy fest. I had a lot of confidence that The Penguin was going to be an unforgettable dining experience. But when I read rumors that this eatery had changed (for the worse), since its management switched hands in October of last year, I had to go see for myself.
Hold your breath no longer people, because whoever is a Debbie Downer about the Penguin needs to move on because I can’t stop thinking about how delicious the fare is.

We started with the famous Penguin fried pickles. I don’t think it matters if pickles are your favorite, these will make you a believer. They are flaky and thin, melting in your mouth.

Next, was the The Billy Goat. No, you will not have any goat on your plate but rather a 1/3 lb burger topped with an unexpected list of ingredients that formed the perfect blend of salty (bacon), crunchy (onion rings), creamy (pimento cheese), and sweet (slaw)!

If you are a bacon and hotdog fan, you must order the I Can Hear You Getting Fatter. This dog will set your mouth singing, as it takes “chili dog” to the next level, topped with bacon, chili and Queso cheese sauce. You may want to wear stretch pants for this one – well worth the getting fatter part!

Don’t hold your breath for our next “sammie” as the No Street Card was the only lullaby I can remember last night. This pimento cheese dream grilled on Texas toast with bacon and tomato is a winner! I have to watch where I am going today or I am sure my car will auto pilot me back to the scene of the crime.
Despite the controversy that has thrown this restaurant through the gossip mill in the past few months, the place still shines. It has become such a part of Charlotte's history that a movie is in the works - so hurry now before the lines to get in get even longer. It’s awesome, and I am itching for more!!!


A note from Aurora

I’ve had a hard time writing my input for this review. I agree with Stephanie’s fabulous review of the food, and our fried pickles rated far better than Helen Schwab’s. I would, however, like to weigh in on the Penguin controversy. Restaurant relationships are always fickle: owners, lessees and chefs exist in delicate balance. In October 2010, Brian Rowe and Jimmy King stepped down from managing The Penguin (and later Chef Greg Auten resigned as well). Some reports describe discord between the parties, whereas others describe an amicable separation. The restaurant is owned by Lisa Ballentine, daughter of the original owner, and has never really been out of her hands. Local entrepreneur, and owner of Big Game Brands, Martin Sprock, manages the Penguin; his goal is to create a nationwide franchise.

I’ve read a great deal about this story. I’ve read about the evils of making a local family owned landmark into a big chain. I must admit, I am a fan of the original Five Guys, and it tickles me to find them outside of the Washington, DC area. There is no reason to think a franchise, done well, cannot remain good. Many of the people who complain about this eat voraciously at places like Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, and Capital Grille, all of which are simply high-end chains. I’ve read complaints about how the Penguin has trademarked its name, which, frankly doesn't mean much at all.

My point is that, while I understand that the Penguin is a landmark restaurant and many people loved it for its managers and chef, but maybe now it’s time to love it for its food. As newcomers who did not know the restaurant prior to the takeover, we feel that we are suited to judge from a solely food-oriented perspective. We come with no notions of politics, and no reason to take sides.

As for Mr. Rowe, Mr. King and Mr. Auten, kudos to them for building up a restaurant and making it into something successful! We look forward to visiting Chef Auten at Pinky’s Westside Grill, and Mr. Rowe and Mr. King should they open at Diamond Restaurant or elsewhere.


Penguin Drive-in
1921 Commonwealth Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28205

Penguin on Urbanspoon

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