The Charlotte debut of Shake Shack taught us a lot about our city's food culture.
Months of social media hype created lines wrapped around the corner of the Park Road location. All this over a fast food burger? It was so embarrassing that I know several people who started new websites and blogs just because they thought Charlotte deserved better than this.
My tone has softened in the year and a half since Shake Shack opened. I started to understand when I was driving back from Myrtle Beach last summer, and passed through a little town called Conway, South Carolina. On my right, I noticed something I hadn't seen in years: a little burger stand called Central Park.
Central Park had a location around the corner from my childhood home in Goldsboro, North Carolina. My parents would grab us lunch from the drive-thru after church twice a month. It closed before I was a teenager. To this day, I consider it the best fucking burger I've ever had. I almost crashed my car when I saw it in Conway, immediately texting my brothers and sisters that I was about to eat at Central Park again.
It's probably rose-tinted glasses and nostalgia more than beef and fries, but call it what you want: it was just as good as I remembered it.
I think everyone misses their hometown burger. In and Out. Whataburger. White Castle. Shake Shack. Central Park. Nothing will ever quite compare to the first burger you really loved, and no one will ever understand it quite like you do.
Ace No. 3, a newcomer in the Belmont neighborhood, is the kind of burger you can carry with you the rest of the your life. It's a place you'll remember if you leave, the first spot you'll come to when you're back to visit, and your rebuttal to anyone who presents you with the best burger you'll ever have.
"It's good, but there's this spot back home that's better."
Ace No. 3 sits in a neighborhood that most of the foodie crowd won't want to come to at night. The community of Belmont will rapidly change as gentrification sets in, with Sweet Lew's next door and a FOR LEASE sign in a spot across the street. Groups of people stand in the street smoking after dark. Folks wander around half-dressed and ride bicycles not for exercise, but because it's their only transportation.
It's hard not to wonder where everyone's going to go when all of these homes get bought, demolished, and converted into condos. That's not Ace No. 3's problem to deal with, but it's impossible not to feel the slow creep of gentrification as you walk from your car to the restaurant.
The interior is under-thought, but I suppose that's the point. Bench and counter style seating will have you rubbing elbows with your neighbor, like up north.
The kitchen is semi-open, and their ketchup, buns, and mayo are displayed. This space would be more apt for displaying cookware or spices. It would give the space more of a bespoke feeling. All burger spots have to differentiate themselves from all other burger spots to justify their price point. Design and decor would help assure me that I'm spending more money to get something better.
The menu is straight-forward, because when you're good at something, you don't need to complicate it. The only named item "The Ace" is essentially just a burger. Two patties, cheese, special sauce, pickle. You can alter your burger with bacon, a fried egg, or a veggie patty. Your sides are fries and "onion rings" that are actually onion strings. They've also got shakes.
I think there's some opportunity on these shakes. I'm not saying go full Cook Out and have dozens of flavors, but adding some unique iterations like strawberry cheesecake, or rotating the shakes seasonally, would add some replay value to Ace No. 3. Or bake a cake daily and sell slices. They could sit it where they currently display their ketchup.
The counter staff was friendly and helpful, full of smiles. I ordered The Ace, a veggie burger, fries, onion strings, and two beers. Total was $37.39 with tip. That places its price point just below Bang Bang Burger. All the burgers are cooked to the same temperature. The food was out in about eight minutes.
Biting into The Ace is intensely satisfying. The sweet pickle is the superstar here, adding an element of intrigue to the gooey cheese, tangy special sauce, and warm bun. No doubt the timing by the line cooks is phenomenal.
The fries are the best thing on the menu. There's an extra ingredient or seasoning there I can't quite catch. It's vinegar or yeast. Whatever it is, they didn't take the easy way out on the fries and doesn't go unnoticed.
Upon repeated visits, as grand opening hype gives way to day-to-day existence, most restaurants begin to struggle. The veneer of newness wears off and the food has to stand on its own.
This is where Ace No. 3 shines. It's a burger you want to eat again and again. I went back the day after originally publishing this review. When I think about getting a burger, there's no internal debate about where to go.
Simply put, this is Charlotte's best burger hands down.
There were a few kids in the restaurant when I visited the first time. They ate fries and small bites of burgers and got ice cream all over their faces. When Belmont gentrifies, I'm guessing there will be a lot more kids here. These kids will grow up with Ace No. 3. It'll be their Shake Shack, their In and Out, their Central Park. They'll get a text from someone visiting Charlotte, asking for recommendations. They'll say "You've got to check out Ace No. 3."
Ace No. 3 builds a damn good burger, but more than that, they're a part of building a damn good city.