Restaurant Review: Penguin Drive-In, Charlotte, NC

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Upon moving to Charlotte, I took it upon myself to seek out those iconic Charlotte eateries that give every city its own culinary identity. As part of my research I found an old episode of Adam Richman’s Man v. Food that featured a quaint little diner in the heart of the city the Penguin Drive-in. After watching the segment on the fried pickles, burgers, and pimento cheese I decided I had to go try it myself.

Upon arriving at the Commonwealth Ave. location, I was quickly surprised by two things. One, the location was featured in the movie Bad GrandpaWhile I have yet to see the film, the owners made sure to post as many pictures of the scene in the movie as they can in and around the location. The second surprise came in the lack of customers at the Penguin.

From all the reviewswrite-ups, and television features, I was expecting a jam-packed lunch crowd. However on this Tuesday around Noon, there was only one couple in a booth, and a mother getting takeout while pushing a stroller. 

Overall the decor inside of Penguin is old. Not necessarily a bad thing as the owners obviously like to keep nostalgia alive in a place that has existed since 1954. I overheard the sever telling one of the other customers how the cash register sitting on the bar, now just a decoration, was the original. There was also one of the original menus framed on the wall near the entrance. The only things that looked particularly modern were the Bad Grandpa memorabilia, metal-clad “Barbecue” sign, christmas lights and the flat screen television located above the bar showing ESPN.

As for the menu, it featured a pretty straightforward, close to the cuff menu with almost everything fried or cooked on the flat top. Not a bad thing, but obviously the menu hasn’t been revisited very often. The word on the street (or Internet) and the menu was that the Fried Pickles were where this place is made famous, so obviously we started there.

Our server explained that “regulars” always ordered Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. And for a 24 oz. can at $2.75, how could they not? I certainly did. After all what is better than the light yet hoppy flavor of a PBR out of a can and a platter of fried food? The pickles are fried in a peppery batter that coated the dill chips well. To be certain, these fried delights cannot be enjoyed right away, as you will burn every portion of your mouth instantly. However after a few seconds, the pickles are delicious paired either with the “Penguin sauce”, a smoky mixture that is reminiscent of a barbecue flavored 1,000 Island, or the Ranch dressing, which I am told is homemade and tasted as such.