HERE IT IS, THE WHAT IT IS.
Savor it, because the waitress is almost certain to ask how it was.
Where it is, is where it’s always been—Alexander Michael’s, or Al Mike’s, a 33-year-old restaurant in Fourth Ward that occupies a building that’s been here since 1897. That’s right, this is one we didn’t tear down. This is a place where a dish called What It Is can make a name for itself, year after year.
It’s the most popular item on the menu in a restaurant that’s almost always full, and truth be told, it’s just blackened chicken over Cajun cream sauce, with one simple twist the owner will never share. Really, never.Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives called a couple of years ago to say they wanted to feature Al Mike’s in an upcoming episode. The owner said, “No, thanks.”
Who the owner is, is Steve Casner, a Charlotte native with a Van Dyke beard. Steve was the manager of the place the day it opened, April 27, 1983. There were 77 customers that night; Steve still has the ledger. His bosses then were owners Alexander Copeland III and A. Michael Troiano, Jr. Everybody knew them as Zan and Mike, but Al Mike’s sounded better than Zan Mike’s. Mike bought Zan’s share in the early 1990s, then sold the restaurant to Steve in 2004.
Mike now lives at the beach in Hilton Head. Zan’s story is a sad one.
He died in an early-morning fire at his home on Runnymede Lane in 2010. More than a restaurateur, he was best known as a youth baseball coach, having spent 41 years coaching Little League. A Louisville Slugger somehow survived the fire. Steve hung it on the wall at Al Mike’s, right above the corner of the bar.
Just under that is a sign for Atlantic Ale and Beer. A friend of Steve’s found it in an old barn near Greensboro and gave it to him. Steve kept it on the back of his truck for a few days, and one day a man noticed it and said, “My dad used to go there with his buddies after work.” Turns out, Atlantic Ale and Beer’s Charlotte office was less than a mile away from Al Mike’s, and when it opened in 1936, it was the only brewery in North Carolina that produced beer for sale and distribution.
Of course, that’s changed. When Steve upgraded the bar a few years ago, he restored the old cooler, original to the building. John Marrino, owner of The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, helped Steve upfit the draft beer lines. Olde Meck always has at least two beers on tap here, in case you were wondering.
The floors are made of tongue and groove planks from the building’s original walls. The mirrored back bar and the front of the main bar are made from the oak doors of the old Independence Building, Charlotte’s first skyscraper, torn down in the early 1980s. Steve registered for the draft lottery in that old skyscraper when he was a teenager.
Before this place was called Al Mike’s, it was a general store, a paint store, a Laundromat, a gym. Tinker Todd, an old British wrestler, worked out here in the 1950s and 1960s. Funny story about Tinker: He was actually on his way to Texas when he got sick coming through Charlotte. He checked in to Presbyterian Hospital. That’s where he met a woman named Barbara. They got married, and he stayed.
That story fits in these old, wood-paneled walls, just like all the others.
Here’s one more, about the What It Is. Al Mike’s always has an off -the-menu special, in the hopes that it might become a permanent menu item. In 1989, a cook named Donald Campbell created the blackened chicken over Cajun cream sauce. The dish was popular, so Steve decided to add it to a redesigned menu in 1991. He figured a dish that simple needed a good name, but he couldn’t come up with one. In frustration, he scribbled down “What It Is.” He waited several days for inspiration for something better, but it never came.
“So I said, ‘What the hell. I’ll keep it.’ ”
And there it is. —Michael Graff
Excerpt From: http://www.charlottemagazine.com/Charlotte-Magazine/January-2016/50-Best-Restaurants-in-Charlotte/
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