Restaurant Review: Penguin Drive-In, Charlotte, NC

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Before we could finish the tray of pickles, our meals were upon us. In front of my dining partner, a heaping plate of “FRESH Chicken Tenders”,  while I took on the “Kitchen Sink Burger”. The chicken was indeed fresh, although I am not sure of why you would need to say that on the menu in all caps. I assume the name it is to make clear these aren’t frozen as most diners would do, but still, if they weren’t “fresh” there would be problems. In addition to being fresh they came out golden brown with a tempura meets southern fried chicken batter, that gave a nice crunch while keeping the chicken inside extremely juicy. These were good chicken tenders and there is no denying that. The fries that accompanied the fowl were hand-cut and seasoned pretty well. The cook in the semi-open kitchen, there was only need foe one on this day, obviously knew how to work the fryer.

Another interesting and semi-refreshing trait of the Penguin was its ketchup. I happen to hate bottled ketchup. I think it is pure sugar paste with tomato flavoring, however my dining partner mentioned this tasted different. I tried it, and to my surprise, it actually wasn’t bad. Still very sweet, this was either a doctored version of the junk from stores or a homemade recipe. Either way a big step up from Heinz.

My burger earned its name as it comes loaded with two beef patties, chopped bacon, pimento cheese (also homemade), Penguin sauce and onion rings all stabbed inside of a less than substantial bun. Now that I look back, I realize my slaw and tomato that was promised to me on the menu was somehow left out of my burger, but to be honest, where would it have fit? As is, the burger pretty much became a messy one note meal that was hard to eat with your hands. That one flavor, greasy cheese and meat, with a hint of smoke (from the bacon, not the sauce) was a good one, although I think the design of the burger is pretty flawed.

We also ordered a side of onion rings, but at a nearly $6 up-charge, I wish I had stuck with the fries. To charge that much for a tasty basket of onion rings makes no sense, especially since the batter is the same one used on the pickles, regardless of the heaping portion. There is no extra work or cost here and the pickles, and appetizer, ran us the same price.

Overall, I can say I enjoyed the meal, but not the way I would have if it was accompanied by some illicit hunger provoking drugs or an intense session of binge drinking (there happens to be a full bar stocked with tons of whiskey and beer!).  The service I might add, truly represents “Southern Hospitality”, which is surprising given the lack of tips our server was undoubtedly receiving.

As far as diners go though, this one is both unique and somewhat delicious with some technical flaws. Really though, I am splitting hairs. You have to respect a diner that does the majority of their food from scratch.  If you are in Charlotte and extremely hungry, The Penguin is definitely worth a try. Just make sure you bring an appetite and a friend who is as hungry.