By Dan Cava
January 23, 2020
For the restaurant NC Red to become what it is today, both its chef and its historic location had to go through a lot. The South-meets-North concept from Charlotte-based Bruce Moffett Group will celebrate its first anniversary in 2020. But the road that brought executive chef Andrew “Drew” Dodd into Plaza Midwood’s most bitterly beloved restaurant building is a winding path that stretches back over three decades. It’s a story that involves an embattled place, a resilient man, and a passion for authentic food.
Technically, NC Red’s immediate predecessor in its current locale is Comida, a short-lived Mexican concept, but the only real legacy belongs to a restaurant whose now-historic sign still stands just outside NC Red’s front door: The Penguin Drive-in. Fueled by locals, celebrated by visitors (Guy Fieri featured The Penguin on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), and always packed during mealtimes, The Penguin’s short-order-style kitchen became one of the few food destinations of the mid 2000s that felt legitimately like “Charlotte.” The Penguin’s “Big Block” burgers, fried pickles, and eclectic jukebox radiated real-people authenticity. The Commonwealth neighborhood took a kind of communal pride in a hometown joint whose peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches (the “Tupelo Special”) attracted both businessmen and bikers alike.
But all that proletariat pride backfired when the building’s owners ejected the Penguin’s brand-defining managers in favor of a botched attempt at franchising. The naked display of copy-and-paste corporatism ran completely counter to The Penguin’s one-off appeal, and the move demolished the goodwill of kitchen staff and customers. Soon the managers (and much of the menu) migrated over to The Diamond nearby, and The Penguin languished its way through court battles and poor patronage to an ignominious ending in 2014. Comida came and went after the building changed hands, and The Penguin’s original managers moved on to other pursuits. Over time it became clear: the magic would not be recaptured. The Penguin was not coming back.
The shell of the Penguin building remained a melancholy monument of the once-beloved hangout, but its insides were still fertile ground for a new restaurant. Commonwealth’s indifference toward Comida made it clear that any old culinary concept wouldn’t not make the cut. If something was going to have a shot, it had to feel genuine. So when award-winning Charlotte restaurateur Bruce Moffet (of Barrington’s, Good Food at Montford, and Stagioni) had the idea of blending Southern comfort food with his Rhode Island roots, he needed an executive chef who would, above all, know how to keep it real.
On the afternoon of our conversation at NC Red, Drew Dodd is in full neighborhood-chef/food-prep mode. He sits down at a table full of his own culinary creations, sporting a Duke’s Mayonnaise trucker hat, a well-worn Ghostbuster t-shirt with Japanese lettering, some up-late-all-the-time facial hair, a light kitchen sweat, and zero pretense. Dodd is instantly likable, a straight shooter. Whether he’s listing ingredients in his food or recounting a step in his tumultuous journey to chefdom, he speaks with the same sense of candor and latent gratitude.
“I hate to say a cliche, but the kitchen saved my life.”
Two themes emerge from Dodd’s memories: hustle and food, with the latter creating the redemption of the former. The hustling started early, and not always for the better: “In my late teens and early twenties, I was in a lot of trouble.” Born and raised in Nashville, Dodd moved out west for a change of scenery, right when the “trouble” was starting to take a toll on him and his friends.
“Stuff was starting to collapse,” Dodd recalls. People around him were getting indicted, and tough conversations with investigators and attorneys exacted a heavy emotional toll. “That was when I was, like, I gotta get out of the scene. I feel like it was weighing me down.”
But Dodd’s earlier experiences of bonding with his family over food would set the stage for turning his life — and his hustle — around. “I always had a job, and I always had a passion for cooking, even since I was real little.” Dodd explains. “All my memories are based around food.”
At age four, he picked strawberries with his grandfather and by six he started cooking for his family. Dodd was eight when his brother returned from a sleepover one morning to report that the breakfast he’d had at his friend’s house was good, but that Dodd’s eggs tasted better.
Later in his late twenties, when Dodd needed a legal way to make a living out west, his talent for whipping up good food came to the rescue. Starting as a dishwasher, he honed his chops at an upscale restaurant in Seattle (“I was one of the only kitchen staff not doing meth”), before heading back to the East Coast a few years later. A culinary stint at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte was soon replaced by full-time on-the-job training at some of the Queen City’s then-best kitchens: uptown’s Ratcliffe On the Green and SouthPark’s Georges Brasserie. Timing and talent colluded to put Dodd in a couple of coveted executive chef positions, first at Georges and then later at Stagioni, where Dodd began his working relationship with Bruce Moffett. The hustle of the line cook replaced the old hustle of the street.
Anyone who’s worked in food service knows that the industry is brutal on work/life balance, and Dodd built a respect for Moffett’s care-filled approach to both the food and the staff. Dodd’s role at Stagioni was a good gig for a good company, but Moffett’s idea for NC Red, a chef-driven marriage of Northeastern and Southeastern essentials, gave Dodd a chance to return to his culinary roots and contribute to the menu from page one.
The owners of the Comida were eager to lease out the old Penguin building, and Moffett and Dodd’s concept found a foundation. Moffett redecorated, moving the bar back to its original location, improving the patio, and adding touches to match the menu’s regional inspirations. The kitchen remained exactly where it had been all along. In early 2019, the old Penguin door opened to a new restaurant: NC Red.
NC Red’s food pairs well with Dodd’s story. Many of the menu items won’t surprise anyone familiar with Southern and New England staples: cornbread and biscuits, stuffies, fried chicken, oysters, collard greens, etc. But the juxtaposition of two classic American working-class comfort cuisines, the restaurant’s very concept, feels surprisingly inevitable on the plate. There’s a directness to the core flavors and textures– buttery, crispy, spicy, vinegar-y, and sweet– a homestyle vibe elevated by flares of chef-driven specificity. The menu feels both familiar and curated, unpretentious and precise.
The classically flavored yellow filling of Dodd’s deviled eggs is enhanced by savory strips of house smoked trout and clusters of orange fish eggs. A decadent hot lobster roll has NC Red’s homemade bread stuffed full of buttery lobster (shipped daily) and topped with a clever collage of chives, parsley, and tarragon. Mussels, cooked “Gansett Style” with tomatoes and garlic, come with a handy helping of garlic bread to soak up the Narragansett Beer-tinged broth. Biscuit breadcrumbs give the bacon-laden Rockefeller Oysters a subtle Southern fluffiness.
The centerpiece of the menu (it’s literally listed in the middle of NC Red’s clipboard menu) is Dodd’s Nashville Hot fried chicken. Legend has it that Nashville Hot chicken was the invention of a furious wife trying to spice her cheating husband to death. And while Dodd’s chicken is not quite deadly, it’s still plenty hot: a juicy Springer Mountain Farms bird covered with a rich crimson crust and a layer of sweet pickles to offset the heat. When ordered with NC Red’s hoppin’ john (the customary black-eyed peas on crisped sushi rice, bacon, and sweet yellow chow-chow) and some uncomplicated cast iron mac and cheese, the full chicken tray is unabashedly Southern.
For dessert, the north/south straddle continues. Among the options, Dodd’s version of Atlantic Beach Pie puts a not-too-sweet-not-too-tangy lemon cream in a traditional saltine cracker pie crust, with bite-sized limes and fresh whipped cream on top. Soft serve ice cream flavors rotate by the season, and the Cheerwine Float is a nice nod to North Carolina.
Time will tell whether Charlotte fully embraces NC Red, but in keeping with every other part of the story to this point, Dodd doesn’t expect anything to come easily. With The Diamond having taken up the menu– if not quite the affection– of The Penguin, Dodd embraces the tricky balance of pulling off an entirely different, yet wholly authentic new restaurant in a community still wary from not-too-distant disappointments.
“There’s a lot of culture here,” Dodd says of the Commonwealth area, one that he knows has “a strictly Charlotte identity.” It reminds Dodd a bit of Nashville, which might be why he champions the value of creating a hometown distinctiveness. “You gotta become a part of the neighborhood.”
Some of the chef’s earliest postures seem promising, like acknowledging the location’s legacy. Every Wednesday, NC Red homages the Penguin with a burger and fried pickles, and two seafood large meals– “towers”– carry the Penguin’s car-themed burger names: “Big Block” and “Hemi.” Dodd also continues to welcome customer input. When diners suggested the addition of a chicken sandwich, he added it to the menu, and it now flies out of the kitchen as a top seller.
But if anyone knows how to embrace the past without being held back by it, it’s Chef Dodd. His present involves raising his two sons and charting out NC Red’s future, where he remains confident about what he and Moffett quite literally bring to the table. “There’s value in this food,” he says without hesitation. “It’s hand curated. We make everything in-house. We do it the right way.” For Dodd and for NC Red, the only right way is the real way. “We want to bring a different cuisine, [and] we want to do something that’s got some authenticity.”
The rest is history, something that Drew Dodd and his restaurant’s location have already seen plenty of. For NC Red and its executive chef, history comes with the territory.
NC Red opens for dinner Monday through Saturday at 5:30 p.m., and will begin serving lunch starting January 27.
1205 Thomas Ave
Charlotte, NC 28205