The $25 Challenge

Spending $25 on dinner out is not a difficult feat to accomplish. Afterwards you are full and content—full in the belly and light in the wallet. Unfortunately, unless you have a great job or no expenses or have your damn life together, it is not something you can do every night. So, what if you want to go out all week but you are, for lack of a better word, poor? Can you be a baller on a budget in Richmond? I was determined to find out. I took $25 out of my sad wallet, created some rules, did my online research and formed a plan. Then I recruited some friends and set off to make it rain. Well, sprinkle. Maybe mist? Whatever… TO THE CHALLENGE!!!

 

First off, the rules:

  1. You have $25 FOR THE WEEK. Not per day, but for the week. For those playing at home, that is roughly $5 per day. You can carry money over to other days as long as you don’t surpass $25 for the whole week.
  2. You MUST include all tax and tip in your $25 total.
  3. This does NOT include alcohol. It does include soft drinks if you get them, but not booze. I did that because I don’t believe booze must be part of a meal.
  4. You must go to a different place each night. At the end, it is five different types of food from five different restaurants.
  5. You need to leave fairly full. What’s the point of eating dinner out if you’re just going to go home and eat dinner?

That’s it. Basic, pure, clean and simple. No room for questions or modifications. On to the research.

 

Finding where to go was the hardest part. Thankfully Richmond has a great resource to help: RVA Specials. This website does an excellent job of listing food and drink specials from across the city in one easy-to-use place. They rely on help from people emailing them confirmation that specials exist and are up to date, so feel free to help them out. I used this website as the basis for crafting our plan and I highly recommend you make it one of your go-to websites before going out. If the folks from RVA Specials see this post, I owe y’all a drink for making this easier. Email me. Seriously.

 

It took me just over a week of research, scratching math on a pad and readjusting to nail down a fairly comprehensive schedule. Keeping in mind that the combined total of sales and meals tax in Richmond is 11.4% and assuming a $1 tip at each place, that left $3.50 a day to work with.  Not a lot of money, but do-able. Now, before people get upset about my $1 tip, I would like to explain quickly. My goal is to have a bill that is less than $5 a day. Tipping $1 is still tipping 20%. I know servers do a lot of work so I hope for these few meals they will forgive me.  In the end, here is what I came up with:

 

I was nervous going into this, but I rallied the troops to complete our mission.

 

When most people think of Station 2, they think of fancy burgers and adult milkshakes. At least, that’s what I think of. Hence I was very surprised to see them listed on RVA Specials with $1 hot dogs on Monday night during my planning. Still, I was willing to throw caution to the wind and see what they were bringing to the table. According to our server, you could get your hot dogs dressed with any of the burger toppings, of which there were many. In order to be as cautious as possible I ordered just three plain hot dogs. I wanted to ensure that adding toppings didn’t add cost. Plus, there was mustard, hot sauce and mayo available which are excellent hot dog toppings. I was impressed with these dogs. They were grilled perfectly with beautiful grill marks. They weren’t huge, but they were filling. You can’t go wrong for $1 each. Three of them was $3 plus $.34 tax and $1 tip was $4.34 for the night and a full stomach. That leaves $20.66 left for the week.

 

Those Grill Marks

$1 Dogs

 

Tuesday night was time for tacos!! Not surprisingly Mexican food dominated the majority of specials I found offered during the week. The key was to find a cheap, yet quality special which isn’t always easy. I had heard wonderful things about Su Casa so that is where we went. It is not a big place at all with limited parking, but there was lots of room on the surrounding streets. You can only get hard tacos, but you have a choice of beef or chicken. I went  chicken and one beef, which turned out to be a great choice. The tacos all are dressed with lettuce, tomato and cheese. The shells are crunchy and hold up very well to the fillings. I enjoyed the ground beef which had a good texture and was seasoned nicely. The star was the chicken, hands down though. Shredded chicken runs the risk of being very dry. This was not the case here. The chicken had been cooked in a very flavorful tomato-y sauce that clung to it like an oyster does a rock. The sauce wasn’t runny and elevated the taco to a whole new level. I would eat nothing but $1 chicken tacos if they all tasted that good. Totaling things up we had three tacos for $3. Add in $.34 for tax and $1 for tip. Once again we sit at $4.34 on the day. Only three days left and $16.32 to work with.

 

$1 Tacos

Ground Beef Being Awesome

Triple Stack

 

Wednesday is the day I always tend to panic about. It’s halfway through the week and that total amount of money feels like it’s dwindling quickly. To make it worse, we had a big ole storm whip into town during the early part of the day which knocked power out to The Fan, which is where we were going. Thankfully, it was mostly restored by dinner time, which meant our stop was good to go. I chose Curbside Cafe because the Wednesday special seemed like a dream come true. Their Curb Burger (a half pound cheeseburger with a side of fries) is half price!! All in all this was a great deal as it was quite the filling meal. I have yet to figure out what spices are mixed into the meat to give it its flavor, but I didn’t hate it. The portion size of the fries was a charming surprise as they didn’t skimp out, which you almost expect people to do when they halve their price. This stomach packing meal was $3.75 with an added $.43 in tax. Tipping $1 brought the meal to $5.18 for the night. Three meals down and two to go with $11.14 left in the till.

 

$3.75 Curb Burger

Burgers For Everyone

Don't Be Coy

 

Thursday rolled in so I rolled over to the one place with rolling meals, Hardywood. I knew hitting the food truck court was going to be my most challenging day because prices there would be above my hopeful $5 a day. The key to success was the standard lap. Check out all the trucks, figure out the price of things and make an educated choice. That choice was the gouda mac & cheese from the Return of the Mac truck. As I had never eaten here, I was worried that the meal wouldn’t satiate my fat man appetite. This bowl of mac was up to the challenge thankfully. The gouda sauce was creamy and smokey. There was a good ratio of macaroni to cheese. The bowl was packed to the brim so by the end I was full. Total cost of the bowl was $6 and I admit that I did not tip. Yes, I’m ashamed of that, but it happened. Let’s move past, shall we? Doing the math gives me $5.14 left for Friday.

 

Return of the Mac

$6 Gouda Mac: The Aftermath

 

Friday is always the toughest day to plan, which is really not surprising. Every place knows that people are ready to go out Friday night after a long week at work, so why discount stuff? Still, I needed to find someplace to go. Then I remembered hearing talk of a cheap bahn mi place in the West End. So, to the internet I went and found Catina. You can find this little Vietnamese sandwich shop over on the corner of Horsepen and Broad in the Tan-A shopping plaza. While it isn’t much to look at, I was more concerned with the food. All of the bahn mi sandwiches are $3.75 each which fit into the budget perfectly. I went with the banh mi thit do, which is pork belly. I was a big fan of this sandwich. The bread was crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. The pork belly had a nice crisp to the outside yet still had that fatty creamyness. The winner for me was the pickled veggies. They were crisp and tangy which helped balance out the sandwich. I am not a huge fan of cilantro so I took most of it off, but I appreciated its freshness. This was a steal at $3.75. Add in the $.43 in tax for a total of $4.18 and I came in under budget!!

 

At the end of 5 days of eating out, I managed to come in under my $25 limit. I spent $4.34 on Monday, $4.34 on Tuesday, $5.18 on Wednesday, $6.00 on Thursday and $4.18 on Friday. The grand total all week was $24.04, which is $.96 under budget. Not bad at all, if I do say so myself. So there you have it, my thrifty readers. With the proper amount of planning, it is possible to eat out 5 straight nights on a budget. With the amount of places I left on the table, I could probably do this at least two more weeks and not repeat a location. So get out there and try your own challenge. See if you can beat my $.96 leftover. Bet you can’t. Until next time, my penny pinching readers, may your bellies be full and your budget not busted.

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The Fancy Biscuit

Breakfast, the meal that jumpstarts the day. It’s the smallest part of the word brunch, yet does all the heavy lifting of that meal. When offered in place of dinner, it elicits cries of joy. Breakfast brings everyone together. Yet, what we eat for breakfast quickly sets us apart.

 

The differences between a northern and southern breakfast are stark. In the north we dine heartily on huge helpings of corn beef hash (at least my family does). We rely heavily on crispy home fries with grilled onions. Syrup is thick, rich and coats just about everything when pancakes are involved. Full disclosure: that freaks me out. I don’t like syrup touching anything that’s not pancake, waffle (hopefully with chicken) or french toast. Here in the south you bring stewed tomatoes and apple butter to the table. You spoon massive helpings of grits with cheese cuddled right up next to your eggs (I had never even really heard of grits until I moved to Virginia). Your bacon is thick, smokey and plentiful upon the plate. Different, yet delicious all around.

 

The true difference can be seen in the bread products. I live my life for a NY bagel, soft on the inside while crusty on the outside, with a thick schmear of cream cheese and a touch of real butter. If you want an egg sandwich, you get a fresh baked hard roll (also known as a Kaiser roll) or a crisp english muffin, the insides lathered with butter. To sop up your runny egg yolk, you use buttered toast, mayhaps a marble rye if you are so lucky. It’s a plethora of options for a variety of situations. In the south, this has been condensed into one bread that does all this: the biscuit. Flaky biscuits are everywhere, from breakfast sandwiches to sides to tiny little gluten-filled gravy dishes. They do the work of 5 bread products and don’t ever get tired. Quite the industrious little workers.

 

To this day, I’m not in love with biscuits. That’s right, I said it. As I said above, I love bagels and probably always will. Still, I have been slowly trying to combat years of viewing them simply as the occasional dinner accoutrement and accepting them as a viable breakfast option. Thankfully there are several places in Richmond that make excellent biscuits which helps. Let’s talk about one of them now, shall we?

 

After a long, hot walk with the dogs around Belle Isle it was time to consume some breakfast. Knowing my audience, I suggested to Katie and Jeremy that we try out The Fancy Biscuit. Located on W. Cary, The Fancy Biscuit is from the same brilliant minds behind Shyndigz and is located right next door to that bastion of dessert euphoria. The front of the building is bright and cheerful. Its outward friendliness greets you as you would hope a breakfast place would. There is both indoor and outdoor seating available. As we had the dogs, we chose outside. There were a variety of tables to choose from along the sidewalk. Inside the restaurant is divided evenly between kitchen and seating. The kitchen is big and bustling. The constant movement reminded me of the chaotic perfection of a beehive. The seating area to the right is not big. The booths are able to possibly accommodate four people, but two looked more comfortable. The counter where you order is right inside the door. The menu is displayed largely right behind it and a specials board to your left.

 

Out Front

Specials

Menu

Inside Seating

 

The menu is broken down, as far as I can tell, into either basic biscuits with things like jam, butter or pimento cheese and biscuit “meals” that require both hands and some dedication. They call them “fork & knife” biscuits. After a torturous mental debate, I went that route. How could I not? If I’m giving this whole “biscuits as a breakfast food” thing, I might as well go all in. Jeremy and Katie were already all in as they are biscuit folk. Jeremy went with the Got Your Goat—fried chicken, pepper jelly and goat cheese. Katie got the Number 52, which is crafted with country ham, pepper jack sriracha hollandaise and a poached egg. I settled on the Big Poppy which is assembled with fried chicken, pickles and a mustard poppy sauce. Let the conversion begin.

 

The server returned with a breast of beautifully crisp fried chicken resting upon a biscuit as if it were a down-filled pillow rather than a doughy bit of edible goodness. Topped with thick pickle chips and drizzled delicately with mustardy, poppy sauce, I almost couldn’t help kissing my fingertips and yelling, “Bellissimo!” even before digging in. I made sure to get a little bit of everything on my first bite—you know, to sample the full flavors right away. The chicken was great. Crunchy on the outside and juicy on the inside. The biscuit was the perfect vessel. It was soft and flaky, but held up to the other components of this sandwich in both taste and sandwich strength. The pickles were tangy and crisp adding a great element to the sandwich. What brought it all home was the mustard poppy sauce. I’m a sucker for mustard in all forms and I worship the simple, yet elegant poppy. A combination of the two was unstoppable. It was aromatic, creamy and sharp. It joined hands with the flavor of the pickles to clothesline the richness of the fried chicken like two sugar-high elementary school kids in a vicious game of Red Rover. In the end, all of the flavors balanced out resulting in an excellent sandwich.

 

Got Your Goat

Number 52

Big Poppy

 

All three meals certainly owned the title of “fork & knife biscuits”. It would have been highly impractical, if not impossible, to pick most of these up and eat them in a sandwich like fashion. Katie’s Number 52 was swimming in a pool of rich spicy hollandaise sauce. She was very pleased with the whole dish and I was satisfied with the bite I had. Jeremy’s Got Your Goat was basically a biscuit supporting a huge chunk of fried chicken. It had a drizzle of balsamic on it, which helped bring a bit of acidity to the lavishness of the goat cheese. In order to defy convention, Jeremy found a way to eat his as a sandwich. For the most part. It did start to lose basic structural support about 3/4ths of the way through.
The path to biscuits for breakfast enlightenment has been long and flaky. I will say that I’m still not sure where I stand on the whole thing. But what I can say is that The Fancy Biscuit gave me undeniable proof that there are people in this town proving day in and day out that biscuits belong on the table in the morning. Go there and get yourself a sandwich. And someone tell me how the pimento cheese is. Until next time readers, may your biscuits be pillowy and your fork always have a knife.

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The Backyard Grill

There are few things in this world that I crave. In fact, I can list quite a few of them offhand:

 

  • Constantly being the center of attention.
  • A good book.
  • Soft, sturdy toilet paper.
  • Someone who tells me how good-looking and funny I am.

 

Above all else though, there is one glorious simple beautiful thing in this world that can cause me to experience terrible withdrawal symptoms: a burger.

 

I’m not kidding either. Simple ground meat formed into a disk shape and grilled upon flames is one of, if not the biggest, craving I ever experience. I would love to say there is some heroic reason for this, like a burger once saved me from drowning. As wonderfully delicious as that thought is — pickles do make great floaties — it simply isn’t true. I can say that I have some wonderful moments associated with burgers. Time spent with family as my dad braved the elements to grill for us all. Dinners with the fellas where we housed patties over intense fantasy football talk. Making dinner for the special people in my life where you agonize over every dash of spice you add because you just want to make a great meal. Plus, cooking burgers taught me all about grilling, which is more of an art than people realize. All of this has driven a deep love for burgers that causes cravings that make pregnant women look rational and balanced.

There are plenty of great burger places in Richmond. When a craving hits, I never fear that I won’t be able to satisfy it. Sometimes though, you just want to try something new. As I began to feel the edges of my latest craving creeping into my soul, I knew where I wanted to try. I remember reading an article about a restaurant in the West End called The Backyard Grill quite a while ago. The article would randomly bounce around the empty shell that is my head, randomly plopping itself into my thought process at 11 pm on a Wednesday night, when it wasn’t helpful. So, when it finally decided to flood my focus on a Friday afternoon, I knew it was a sign. I texted Jeremy immediately, secured him as my dinner partner and began the process of mental preparation. Ohhhhh burger, here I come.

The Backyard Grill is located in the strip mall on Ridge Road. Parking in the lot was a bit more creative than I expected it to be. The lot was pretty full by 6:15ish, which is when we got there. Granted, it was a Friday. People had parked in the very dead center of the lot, which was confusing to me. I’m not sure if these were actual spots or if people just felt like they could park there because they were “important.” We found a spot on the far end of the parking lot, but just keep in mind that if you have older folks with you, parking close may be a bit of a challenge. Or, maybe I’m getting old and crotchety at 31.

The inside of the restaurant seems to be divided into two areas. Up a step and to the right is the bar area. This had a few tables and a fairly decent size bar with seating. The main dining area itself was quite nice. There were a fair amount of tables. The room felt big, even with a wooden divider in the middle of the room. I appreciated the dark table tops contrasting against the warm light-colored floor. Our booth was spacious enough to accommodate four people. The lighting was also very pleasant. I know that’s weird to say, but some places are too dark while some are overly bright. This was just right, Goldilocks style.

The Backyard Grill Dining Room   The Backyard Grill

 

Our server brought us menus and went over Happy Hour with us. $4 drafts piqued my interest and I quickly committed after hearing the tap list. The draft list was quite expansive and included several local beers, like Center Of The Universe’s Pocahoptus (which I ordered). Our server went to ring in our drink menus while we looked at the menu. The menu has a wide variety of things on it, if you are looking for meat. It is a very heavy meat-option kinda menu. Yes, there are salads, a few grilled cheese options and a black bean burger. The meat dominates the rest though. Lucky for us, we were in the market for some burgers.

Beers

 

We started out with the smoked pimento cheese appetizer. I was interested in this dish for several reasons; it’s cheese, it’s smoked, it’s smoked cheese and there were chunks of blue cheese in it. I’ve never had pimento cheese with blue cheese in it. When we dug into this dish, there was a lot to like about it. I appreciated that it was served with a small salad that was dressed with balsamic. I think that the balsamic could have been a bit more chilled, but I lived with it. The lettuce and the sharpness of the balsamic paired very nicely with the cheese. The grilled onion roll was amazing to cart the cheese to my mouth. It had great flavor and the inside of the bread was warm and soft. With a subtle smoke flavor and a consistency perfect for spreading or dipping, the actual pimento cheese itself was very, very good. I thought the blue cheese was an interesting addition. I am pretty neutral on its contribution. I enjoyed hitting the lumps of saltiness as I ate, but I didn’t love the actual lumpiness as it interrupted the flow ever so slightly. Outside of that mild distraction, this was a tasty dish that could easily be a go-to appetizer. It also has made a grilled onion roll a must-have cheese accoutrement.

Smoked Pimento

 

I’m going to be honest, the hardest part of any meal for me is actually choosing an entree. When I am presented with five different specialty burger options, how do I choose? What if I make the wrong choice and I end up with burger remorse? That’s a real issue in my life — I know, I know. First world problems. Choosing a burger to satisfy my craving was an intense process, but after careful elimination I decided on the Big Foot which comes with house smoked pulled pork, Swiss cheese and apricot Sriracha. I, as usual, ordered mine as rare as humanly possible.  Jeremy went a slightly different route. He chose the Rebel Yell. This burger comes sweetly topped with sliced brisket (smoked in house), grilled onions, cheddar cheese and BBQ sauce. He also added fresh jalapenos. Both burgers came with a side of fries and the usual burger fixins.

 

Our meal didn’t take very long to arrive from the kitchen. First glance told me I had made a great choice with my meat stack. The burger was plump and nicely covered the bun. The pulled pork on top glistened with its coating of apricot Sriracha. The cheese was generous and melty. After dressing it with lettuce and pickles, I took my first huge bite. The juices from this burger coated my hands in mere seconds. The burger was just as I requested, rare as all hell. Everything worked perfectly together. The smoky pork, the sweet and spicy sauce, the rich cheese and the meaty burger all played a symphony that would cause any meat lover to weep. Outside of stuff I have made at home, it was one of the finest burgers I’ve had in a long time. Messy though. Bring wet naps because you will really need them.

Rebel Yell   Big Foot

 

I was also pleased with the fries. They were ample and crisp. They were the Scottie Pippen to the burger’s Michael Jordan. Yes, one was better than the other but neither would have been magical if the other wasn’t there. Portion size for this whole plate was perfect. I was pleasantly full, but not uncomfortably so. It was all in all an excellent meal. Jeremy fully agreed.
The Backyard Grill is a hidden gem in the world that is Richmond’s West End. It easily slips under the radar of most people which is a crime. The food and the atmosphere are just wonderful. Next time you need a little burger in your diet, take a voyage to The Backyard Grill. Craving satisfied. Until next time, readers, may your pimento be smoked and your Sriracha peachy.

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Black Hand Coffee Company

A giant part of being someone who takes words from their brain and makes them visible to others — I hesitate to say writer because, well, am I? — is that you need to find a place where you can actually be productive. Some people can work unencumbered in their home, producing page after page for hours on end. I am not that person due to the fridge, the TV and the dog (order of distraction varies upon the day). Other people rent a coworking space or an office. Not an option for me as I am, what’s the word…oh yes, “poor.” That leaves a nice public space in which to plop down and type some stuff up. I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to go to breweries, bars and restaurants (mostly my favorite ramen place). The places I find I am most productive are coffee shops. There are plenty to choose from in Richmond, but my favorite is Black Hand Coffee Company in the Museum District.

 

Black Hand Coffee Company moved into their spot back in 2009. Their converted old house sits right on the corner of Belmont & Patterson. There is no dedicated parking, but I have never had trouble finding street parking when I have driven there. Normally I just walk over as I live nearby. Right out front of the building are a bunch of benches that in nice weather are always occupied. Along the side of the building there are picnic tables, which are great if you want to sit outside and do some work or if there are a few of you getting together. The counter is right inside the front door and runs the length of the place to the kitchen in the back. To your right is the seating area. There aren’t many tables so there is always a chance you won’t be able to find room. There is also a window bar plus some stools at the counter.

Black Hand   Register Area   Counter   Kitchen   Seating

 

The inside decor is very warm and inviting. The wooden floor and the exposed brick along the wall give a rustic feeling to the place. The copper ceiling is quite elegant and provides a pleasant place for the eye to rest during moments of intense thought. The tables are quite spacious and accommodating if you are trying to spread out some work or just catching up with a friend. The music that the staff plays is never overpowering or intrusive. I have had many conversations in Black Hand and have never found it hard to hear the other person. I also find that I am able to cover it fully, if I choose, with headphones.

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The staff is very friendly and usually quite willing to chat. They are fairly quick getting drinks out to customers, even when the line is long. I also feel that they take full advantage of every available centimeter of space in their cups. Some places short you when they make your coffee or tea and it is quite frustrating. I paid for 20 ounces, not 17. The staff here has never once shorted a drink that I have gotten. In the one instance where they forgot my drink, they were very apologetic. It was understandable as the place was hit with a sudden rush. When the mistake was realized they made my drink super quickly. Overall, it is a wonderful group of people providing excellent service which is all I can really ask for.

 

Usually if I’m at Black Hand to write, I just get a drink. To be specific: a tall iced mocha because I am a grown man!! I want the energy of espresso with the sweetness of chocolate milk. If there’s a little whipped cream, I ain’t mad at it. Sorry I’m not sorry. I’m a giant fan of the mocha here. It is a toned down version of the milkshake-esque mocha you get at Starbucks. This one is slightly less sweet so you still get a little of the coffee flavor. I prefer a nice whole milk in mine because healthy choices. This lends a nice richness to the drink, too. I’m sure it would be good with an alternate milk as well, like almond milk. I also find their cold brew coffee to be perfect on a hot day. Cold brew is less bitter and smoother than hot brewed coffee because when coffee is heated during brewing, certain heat soluble compounds are extracted from the beans and thus into your coffee. By steeping the fresh ground beans in water overnight in the fridge instead, these compounds remain in the grounds instead of your drink. I make cold brew at home, but I do not have the access to all the different types of beans that Black Hand does. That means each time you come to get a cup, it’s a different flavor, allowing you to figure out which coffees you prefer.

Adult Drink

Prices at Black Hand are incredibly reasonable as well. A 20 oz. iced mocha is $4.90 with tax. That is roughly $.45 cheaper than the same drink at Starbucks. The cold brew is $2.70 for a 20 oz. cup. Again, cheaper than Starbucks. Plus, you have the added bonus of supporting a local small business. That is a win in itself.
Growing up in upstate New York, I was never really exposed to the neighborhood coffee shop. There was Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and one local coffee place called Professor Java’s. I think that helps me to appreciate Black Hand Coffee Company for what they do. Richmond is lucky in the respect that there are coffee shops all over that cater to any taste. I just happen to think Black Hand is one of the best. I know that many more caffeine-fueled posts will be written inside its walls. Until next time, my friends, may your cups be full and your beans fresh roasted.

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Beast From The Yeast

We’ve tackled doughnuts, we’ve tackled tacos and we’ve tackled pumpkin beer. When planning our next culinary conquest, I sought something basic yet amazing. What simple, humble product could we acquire a lot of and devote serious effort into ranking? Right away bread lept off the list and shouted for my attention.

 

Ever since people were able to plant and harvest grains there has been bread. Dough, made of flour and water, is shaped and baked into a simple product that evokes a wonderful feeling for most people. It is almost mystical in its complex simplicity. We love bread so much that we compare things to the advent of mass produced slices. Bread is so deeply ingrained in our lives that a meal without it seems almost insane. Bread is what we break to bring us all together. Bread is the very foundation upon which our individual culinary lives are built. A world without bread is a world of pure chaos.

The Tasting

Instead of bringing bread to this tasting, I opted to load a cooler with various meats, cheeses and spreads for post-tasting pairing. We ended up up with five bread offerings from bakeries in Richmond: Billy Bread, Idle Hands, Lucille’s Bakery, Montana Gold Bread Co. and Sub Rosa. As we laid out our spread, we got a lot of jealous looks and quite a few people stopping by to catch a whiff of fresh baked goodness.

My first use of my selfie stick. Hence, bad photo.

My first use of my selfie stick. Hence, bad photo.

The rules were simple: Everyone would get a piece of the bread in its basic form. Your first taste had to be of this plain, basic bread. After your first taste, you were free to butter or olive oil your piece, but first taste had to be pure. Each person was to give their thoughts on the crust, the texture, the smell and the taste. After all was said and done, it would be ranked most (1) to least favorite (5). I truly wanted to let the bread speak to each person. Without further ado, this is what the bread said.

5th Place: Lucille’s Bakery

Lucille’s Bakery is located on North Meadow. To be fair, Lucille’s didn’t get a fair shake in the testing. At the time of purchase, they had no loaves of bread. So rolls were purchased instead. In my opinion, this entry doesn’t truly count, but we tried it anyway.

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These rolls didn’t really have a crust to them as they were soft sandwich rolls as opposed to a hard roll. The smell and taste leaned towards the sweet side. We engaged in a deep discussion on if the flavor and sturdiness of these rolls leant more towards cold cuts or pulled pork. I think that these have the ability to handle pulled pork, but they would possibly end up soaking up too much liquid. As far as cold cuts go, these rolls would be perfect. At the end of the day, these rolls didn’t fit into our testing but they were still very good.

20160402_134356   20160402_134400

4th Place: Montana Gold Bread Co.

Montana Gold Bread Co. has been pumping out baked goods since 1994. I have yet to determine if this bread coming into the tasting presliced made a difference or not though I lean towards not since it saved me a lot of work. For pure amount of bread, this was one of the bigger loaves of the day. When I pondered how many cold cuts could be piled upon each slice’s vast surface, I felt great joy. Almost every reviewer likened the smell of this bread to sandwich bread of their youth. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The very odor of this bread made us nostalgic for sandwiches of days gone by. The taste was agreed upon all around to be quite sweet. While this bread was very good, it received the title of “sandwich bread” and for that reason, it is in fourth place.

20160402_133819   20160402_133945

3rd Place: Sub Rosa Wood Fired Bakery

Located on N. 25th St. in Church Hill, Sub Rosa bakes all of its products in a huge wood-fired oven. The fire gives this bread a crisp outer crust, which made this the hardest bread to cut. Some felt this dark, sturdy crust was too hard and too cooked, taking away from the inside. Others felt the dark brown tones were perfect, the smell smoky and the texture a nice compliment to the softer inside.

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Overall, everyone felt that the most noticeable smell from the bread was this smoky aroma. I personally wish that was a cologne I could wear, but let’s not get off topic here. The inside of this bread was chewy due to the massive amount of air pockets throughout, not necessarily a negative thing. It wasn’t as if there were giant empty areas inside the crust. It just means the yeast was active in a good way providing an airy bread. The taste on this bread was described as what you would get in a quality sourdough. One reviewer said it was a perfect holiday bread as it would be great for dips and things at a holiday party. “The charred outside and the chewy texture make for a wonderful taste,” said another reviewer. A good bread to be sure, but not the best on this day.

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2nd Place: Billy Bread Bakery

The story of Billy Bread interests me. It started out baking one product: a loaf of bread that it sold to stores and restaurants. 17 years later, that’s still what they do — impressive.

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Our loaf was a beautiful golden brown color. Dusted with a thin layer of flour, this crust elicited mixed reviews. All seemed to agree it was one of the harder crusts of the day, but we couldn’t seem to agree if that was good or not. Some felt that the hard crust meant you needed all your teeth to eat it and it may cut the roof of your mouth. Others felt it was exactly the crust the bread needed. One reviewer said it had a “good crust feel” while another just simply said, “Yes! :)” The smell seemed to please the crowd all around. Several reviewers felt it just had that “like a good bread” smell. One stated it had a good “stank” to it, which he explained to me was a compliment. Upon tasting, the three words that got thrown around the most were soft, chewy and moist. It was summed up by one reviewer as “soft, but substantial.” This bread garnered good feeling from everyone. It received a lot of praise.

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1st Place: Idle Hands Bread Company

All the products that come out of this tiny bakery are naturally leavened. The place is about as big as most people’s living rooms (until they move to their new location in Jackson Ward, of course).

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This loaf just looked pretty sitting on the cutting board. The crust was a nice brown color with just a dusting of flour. Reviewers found the crust to be thin but substantial. It wasn’t hard, but it had a crisp to it. It was stated that, “It’s a thin crust, but you know it’s there.” There wasn’t a single reviewer that put the same thing down for the smell of this bread even after general discussion in the group. Here’s a sampling of the adjectives and descriptions that floated around: “Yummy”, “Fresh”, “Mild”, “Like true ciabatta”, “Light fire smell”, “Tangy”, “Doesn’t smell as strong as the others” and “Very bread-like smell”.

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I can agree with every single one of those statements. Moving from smell to taste, a lot of us got back on the same page. Reviewers found this bread to be soft and chewy with a mildly sour/tangy flavor to it. It was noted that this flavor “would pair well with so many things making it an ideal snacking bread.”

 

Overall, the reviews of this loaf were incredibly positive, with some even claiming it was the best bread of the day. Also heard: This bread is almost perfect” and “I would buy this bread on a regular basis.” Personally, I would bring this bread to a dinner party, serve with an intimate home cooked meal with a special someone  or just use to make a banging sandwich. It was our Beast From The Yeast on this day.

Until Next Time

All the bread we tried was fantastic and any loaf would surely honor Richmond if served anywhere in the world. All of these bakeries should be proud of the product they put out as it is fantastic. Still, we had to find the one we loved the most. This task was not taken lightly and the discussion of pros and cons got intense at times, as we’ve come to expect from our food tastings. Once again, wonderful establishments of Richmond were able to provide us with a great meal with great friends. Isn’t that what breaking bread should be all about? Until next time my friends, may your crust be substantial and your inside airy, soft and tangy.

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Vagabond

Supper Club is a shining date on my calendar each month. It always falls around the 15th and it means a night spent with three smart women, just talking and eating delicious food. This month anticipation was especially high in the group because we were headed to Vagabond. We never made it to The Magpie the month we planned to go was the month they closed so we were looking forward to seeing Chef Owen Lanes’ newly refined offerings in his bigger space.

 

All three ladies agreed almost immediately that the space itself is really very nice. I appreciated the dark natural wood and muted colors that keep the openness of the place from feeling too immense. I know that may sound weird, but it is a thing. Sometimes a space is just too open and you lose the cozy dinner feel and instead move into the “classy cafeteria” feel. Vagabond keeps its coziness while having ample room and free flowing airspace. The exposed brick around the bar is also a wonderful feature that gives a bit of character to the place. Honestly, what caught me most was the logo. The rabbit (mayhaps a hare) with the bindle so gracefully slung across its shoulder espouses my deep love for the American hobo lifestyle of the 1930s. That’s a conversation for a different time, but the logo spoke to me. In short, the inside of the place is great and we hoped the food would match up.

 

We ordered a few drinks while waiting for Megan, who had unfortunately been detained. I found the beer selection to be sufficient without being overwhelming. There was a variety of styles from a selection of different breweries. I went with the Hoptimization from Brothers Craft Brewing out of Harrisonburg, VA. It’s a beautiful IPA with plenty of bite. It was an excellent start to the meal. Sally got the Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar which was MUCH better than I expected it to be. The hazelnut flavor was front and center making for a great flavor. I would order this any time I was in the mood for a brown ale. Sarah Ashley was the only one who got a cocktail. She went with Airmail. She said it was very good. I didn’t try it so I can’t speak to it. But, if she liked it, I trust her.

 

We also took the time to order an appetizer while we waited: the cheddar beer bread to split. I was worried that the serving size wouldn’t be enough for all of us, but then I remembered that this was merely a start to the meal, not the whole meal. The bread came out as two giant thick cut slices, which was plenty for everyone. I was interested to see how the honey butter would go with the cheddar cheese in the bread as in my head those flavors don’t mesh. Of course, I was wrong. The bread was very fresh and herby, which can be explained by the prevalent flavor of the rosemary that had been added to the dough. The sweetness of the butter blended so flawlessly with the herby cheesiness that I couldn’t help but be impressed. The ladies liked it too, as evidenced by how quickly it all disappeared.

 

Meg arrived and it was time to get down to ordering dinner. I was fully set (mind, body and soul) to get the pig head banh mi. It sounded amazing and right in my wheelhouse. Then our waitress crushed my spirit by telling me they were sold out. NOOOOOO!!! Damn it!! Now what? I slumped in my seat, clutching a menu and letting the ladies order. As I mentally reassembled my shredded heart, I looked for my backup. In the still spinning world around me, the ladies ordered with a vengeance. Sarah Ashley got the pulled rabbit flatbread and the braised pork cheeks. Sally went with the scallop casserole and a salad with blue cheese, apples and crostini drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Megan settled on the smoked ribeye. When it finally rolled back around to me, I had made my choice: the house burger. Away the waitress went to request this magic from the kitchen. Let the waiting game begin.

 

Our food came out fairly quickly, which is always appreciated. Each plate looked fantastic as it was placed in front of us. Smells all good kinds wafted across our noses, causing mouths to fill with drool. My burger was served with a generous portion of fries and all of the accouterment on the side. I believe that is how all burgers should be. Meg’s steak looked perfect perched upon its bed of grits. You could see that it was spot-on cooked to medium rare as she had requested it. Sally’s salad was a generous portion that was studded with beautifully grilled pieces of crostini. Her scallop casserole was served piping hot in bowl. The scallops were big and fleshy. Sarah Ashley’s flatbread was big enough to be a meal on its own. The shredded rabbit was not lacking, that’s for sure. Her braised pork cheeks were two sizable hunks of meat topped with two big ol’ churros. Aesthetically, everything passed with flying colors. Now to eat.

 

I dressed my burger simply with greens, house pickles and pickled red onions. When all assembled, it made quite the stack. It was the perfect hand size, really — not over packed so you fear losing it all on the first bite, but not so skinny you thought the bread was simply holding air. It just had a great hand feel to it. I had ordered my doneness to be “as rare as humanly possible” but I was expecting a medium at best. I have lost a lot of faith in the culinary world’s ability to not overcook my burgers after many disappointments. So, with a slight bit of pre-emptive sadness, I took my first bite. Hot damn…that first bite drove every feeling and word out of my head and replaced it with an image of a cheeseburger and a tongue side by side doing a happy dance. First off, this burger was cooked as if I were manning the grill myself. Outside had a nice sear to it that locked in the juices and flavors. The inside was beautifully rare, the cool and red running deep. You could taste the actual flavor of the meat in all of its intended glory. After all that, your tongue is graced with the presence of the charred jalapeno aioli. Like a spicy debutante, it sauntered gracefully into the room a little while after everything else, but was immediately noticed. It wasn’t so much hot as it gave the appearance of heat and spice. Your mouth wasn’t on fire after, but tingled pleasantly. This burger was all around top notch from bun to bun.

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As I said before, the minute Meg’s steak arrived, you could see that it had been done right. I was able to score a small piece along with some of the grits. The grits were creamy as I now think a good grit should be. The meat was nicely seasoned and had a simply marvelous flavor. It was tender and juicy as well. Two thumbs up.

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Sally’s salad was a nice fresh crisp bite in the center of the meal. It had a vibrant dressing that only added to the greens to invoke a feeling of spring. Her scallop casserole was filling in almost a seafood chowder kinda way. The potatoes and parsnips added a starchy depth to the broth. The scallops were supple and flavorful. I didn’t think I would like it as much as I did.

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Sarah Ashley slid a bit of flatbread and pork cheek onto my plate. I started with the flatbread because I was excited to try the rabbit. I love rabbit and I pick it up at the farmers market whenever I can. I have never shredded it so I was interested to see how it was. The meat was very nice. As rabbit is so lean, it is hard to cook without drying it out. Somehow the kitchen was able to retain moisture in this dish. The meat was admirably complemented by the pieces of earthy leek in the dish. It was a wonderfully balanced dish. I had saved the braised cheek for last as I had a deep belief that I would love it. Pork cheeks is not a dish you see often, which is a crime in and of itself. They are usually rich and tender cuts of meat that can stand in the ring with most anything else from the butcher shop. These were no exception. The meat was super flavorful and tender. The coffee reduction added a little acidity to the dish, which was tamed by the sweetness of the grilled pineapple. The churros added a change in texture along with a buttery flavor to the dish. I could have eaten seven orders of this and called it a good meal.

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After all was said and done, there wasn’t much left on the table that was edible. We tried to decide on the best dish of the table, but couldn’t reach a consensus. Everyone had that one dish that just rocked out and refused to be swayed. This meal was stellar from beginning to end. It was agreed that, for most of us, this easily makes the top three restaurants that Supper Club has visited over the past year plus. Knowing some of the hitters we have gone to, that says a ton.
If you find yourself in downtown pondering a meal or maybe looking to hit up something before a show at the National, go to Vagabond. You will find something different from the normal dinner menus around town and it’s all cooked wonderfully. Until next time my friends, may your meat be cooked perfectly to your preferred temp and your bindle be packed to the brim.

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Meatless Meat Tubes- The Vegan Sausage Story

Ok, okay — I’ll admit it. This taste testing came about because I requested it.

 

I was talking to Laura one afternoon during writing club about the vegan cheese tasting. She said she was about to place an order for a bunch of vegan food when I blurted out, “We should do a vegan meat tasting!!” Granted, vegan meat is a weird little oxymoron, but she knew what I meant. “Yes!! We can sausages and hot dogs!!” Hot dogs, as American as it gets. How could I say no? So, Liz was brought on-board and a date with the grill was set. The vegan sausage fest was on.

 

Four contenders met the hot charcoal that day. We went with charcoal because that is just how sausage and hot dogs should be cooked. Open flames and grill marks — It’s just the way I was raised. The four non meat-tubes up for judgement were: Field Roast Frankfurters, Field Roast Italian Sausage, Lightlife Jumbo Smart Dogs and Tofurky Chick’n & Apple Artisan Sausage. I manned the grill and I will say this, aside from a little sticking by a few, these grilled just like any meat-based product would.

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Everyone loaded their plates with pasta salad, vegan pimento cheese and one of each of the contenders. It was prefered that your first bite be au natural to truly get the honest flavor of each one. After that, had at it with the German mustard and that disgustingly unholy condiment, ketchup. I will start with the least appreciated to the most appreciated according to MY scale. Individual results may differ ever so slightly.

 

My least favorite was, ironically, the one I brought to the testing, which was the Tofurky Chick’n & Apple sausages. You get four to a package and they are a fairly meaty serving. These were almost the size of an animal-based Italian or bratwurst sausage you would get from the store. They grilled fine, but you could see where the inside dried slightly at the points of grill contact. Overall, this was a bland sausage. I got no hint of the dried apples nor were these sweet. It was just blah. As Liz stated, “It’s just wheat in a tube.” I think it is evident that Tofurky was the first to really produce vegan meats (starting in 1980) and they got very comfortable “being the market” for a long time. It seemed like they didn’t put the love into this sausage and it was evident with the first bite.

 

The Field Roast Italian Sausage claimed third place for me in this tasting. Let’s start with the pluses, as that is the polite thing to do. The flavor on this was there 100%. It was Italian sausage from end to end. There was a hint of spice to it, but I think the fact that the fennel and garlic were up front waving at you was awesome. In a nice spaghetti sauce, this would be the way to go. Kelsey voted this as his “if I could choose one thing to eat” sausage of the night. Unfortunately for me, the texture and mouthfeel of this sausage got me hung up. They were the hardest to grill as they were slightly more delicate than the other stuff. That translated into bordering unpleasant when you took a bite. It was slightly dry and you could see the land of gritty feeling from here, but you weren’t quite there. Like I said, I think in a pasta sauce, you win me every time. But on a bun…meh.

 

Next up is the Lightlife Jumbo Smart Dogs. From pure appearance, this was a hot dog. It blistered on the grill like a animal-based hot dog does. It took on great grill marks and even had the little heat spots that happen to animal-based hot dogs. I truly loved that. First bite revealed a meat hot dog flavor hidden under that blistery skin. Truly, the taste was right there with a chicken/pork hot dog. Laura correctly stated that it was “the Gwaltney of vegan dogs.” Liz went nostalgic on us. This hot dog was the one for her. “I want to eat this on the 4th of July,” she wistfully stated. I was almost on board with all this except for one thing: that blistery skin. When you bit into this dog, the skin was what reminded you that it was not meat based. There was just too much chew, too much rubberiness to it. Had there been just a slight snap to the skin instead, you could have mixed it in with a bunch of cooked Gwaltney dogs and fooled everyone. Not meant to be, though.

 

Finally, we have the Field Roast Frankfurters. These did not have the blistery skin of a traditional hot dog, but they grilled extremely well. Grill marks were crisp and the dogs held just a hint of the smoke flavor. The first bite brought out a strong hot dog flavor. Not quite overpowering, but a long, long way from subtle. It was there and you didn’t have to guess what you were eating. What I was super surprised with was the actual texture of the hot dog. I have eaten more hot dogs than most people so I know what the texture of a hot dog looks like from uncooked to burnt. This dog had the texture and color of a nicely cooked dog. Next time you bite a hot dog, note the pattern of the meat in the center from where it is pumped into its casing. There are swirls visible sometimes. This had those. When we were discussing our favorites, Laura stated that “it rules everything around me” in a nod to the Wu-Tang Clan oozing from the speakers. I can’t argue with her as this dog ruled all the others.

 

I still don’t plan on giving up meat anytime soon, but I love doing taste tests like this. It’s important to see what other foods are out there. You do a disservice to yourself when you refuse to try something because you think it’s weird. Grab some vegan “meat” next time you are at the store and give it a try. The worst that can happen is you don’t love the taste while getting a ton of protein and fiber. In that situation, cover it with real cheese, chili and condiments. See, easy solutions. Until next time, friends, may your meatless sausages be tube shaped and your ketchup left to burn in the fiery depths of hell — you know, where it belongs.

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Vegan Cheese… It’s a Thing

Two vegans, a vegetarian and a meat eater sit down on a deck top in Manchester — I know there is a joke in there somewhere but I just can’t find an ending that doesn’t end up with someone crying. Most likely the meat eater. Although, if he has bacon in his pocket, it could be the vegans. The vegetarian is too busy pouring honey into milk and laughing manically to be too involved. Huh… this just got a little weird. Ok, let’s start again.

 

I was invited to do a vegan cheese tasting this past weekend with Laura (vegan), her husband Kelsey (vegetarian) and Liz (vegan). For all who don’t know, I am not a vegan. Nor am I vegetarian. In fact, I’m not even in the same sport as those folks. Still, I am always willing to try something new. That being said, I would never turn down a food tasting invite. I figured, what was the worst that could happen? So, I fried up some thinly sliced tofu (you read what I wrote correctly), seasoned it with salt & pepper, sacrificed a piece of bacon to the appropriate food gods and set out on a culinary adventure.

 

Liz was kind enough to host us on her roof top deck in Manchester. The view of the cityscape and the pleasant weather already set a wonderful tone for the afternoon. We set up our spread and began the laborious process of taking photos before anything else. The table was set with not only my tofu, but vegan sausage, pickled veggies, breads, crackers and a wonderful bottle of Oakencroft Farms Seyval Blanc juice. Yes, juice. I, for some weird reason, have chosen to not drink for a month in some attempt to be slightly healthier. So, Laura was kind enough to bring this “adult juice” that is essentially non-alcoholic wine. It had incredible depth of flavor, way beyond a typical juice. Find it and try it because it’s totally worth it. I’m off topic here, back to the tasting.

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There were five different cheeses presented for trial. Four of them were represented in their “fresh out of the package” form while the fifth had been made into a pimento cheese spread. The cheeses were: Daiya Cheddar (this was in the pimento), Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda, Kite Hill Soft Fresh Truffle Dill & Chive, Miyoko’s Sharp Farmhouse No 7. and Treeline Classic. As I was informed, all of these cheeses are based in nut milks like cashew or almond. I mention this because I’m 100% sure there are people out there that think all vegan food is made with soy, tree bark and leaves. It isn’t so my friends. Now, onto how these un-cheese cheeses tasted (in the order I wrote them on my notes page).

 

We shall start with the Miyoko’s Sharp Farmhouse No. 7 cheese. This was the bigger of the three “wheel cheeses” that we had. Based upon look, this did not sit high with me. It is sorta a taupe-ish color. If you pretend that it is possibly the color of the rind, it is a little easier to work with. This cheese was not my favorite in the taste department either. It spread well enough on my bread, as you would expect a semi-hard cheese to do. Its mouthfeel was slightly grainy though, which was not welcome. It also had a very earthy taste, like a very mild mushroom. I love mushrooms, but not as a cheese spread. There was no sharpness to it either. Overall, I didn’t enjoy this cheese. I will say that I have had Miyoko’s Classic Double Cream Chive cheese prior to this day and I truly enjoyed it. The others agreed that this isn’t Miyoko’s best offering.

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Next up we have the Treeline Classic.  This cheese once again had a “pretend it’s a rind” color of ivory. The spread-ability of this cheese was non-existent. It definitely preferred to be enjoyed in chunks or slices. That’s how hard cheese rolls and I’m glad to see this followed suit. This cheese had a decent mouthfeel, neither grainy nor runny. It hit where it seemed meant to hit and nothing more. I respect that. Upon first taste, this cheese is bland with nothing to pull you in. Then, after a bit of time on the tongue, it brings the tangy. Once that first bit of tang opens up for you, it’s there with every subsequent bite. Where it fails in the beginning it succeeds in the end. I didn’t love or hate this cheese. It was a solid middle of the pack.

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The third and final “wheel cheese” that we had was the Kite Hill Truffle Dill & Chive. This soft cheese was a bright white color with flecks of green from the herbs. It was also the easiest to spread upon a chunk of bread. I think when I bit into this cheese, I was expecting a very creamy texture to it. Instead, you were distinctly aware of the curds in the cheese, but not in a bad way. They weren’t great big chunks like you find sprinkled upon a poutine. They were more of a pressed ricotta-esque curd, small and plentiful. The first bite opens into a world of herby goodness. The truffle is there, but muted by the flavor of the dill and chives. As Liz pointed out, truffle can be super in your face which can completely destroy the flavor of its supporting cast. This wasn’t the case here as each player got a chance to stand in the spotlight. This cheese was highly appreciated all around the table.

 

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The only cheese in slices at the table was the Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda. I wasn’t sure that vegan cheese came in anything but a wheel or as shreds, but then this was put on the table. Had you brought this to a barbeque and placed it on the tray of cheeses to be put on burgers, I would not have been any the wiser. This cheese had me fooled all around. The texture, the smell, the slice flexibility and most importantly the taste were all just right. There was a perfect smoky flavor to this cheese which was surprising because I thought it might be overpowering and almost forced. This is a cheese that I would buy and use all the time in the future. Laura assured us that it also melts well, which means it is perfect for a grilled cheese. That’s all I need in my life really… I think it was the best straight up cheese offering on the table.

 

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Finally, we come to the homemade pimento cheese. This dish was crafted by Liz using a standard pimento cheese recipe but subbing in all vegan products. She used Daiya Cheddar Style Shreds and Hampton Creek Just Mayo as her base. This spread was fantastic on both veggies and the bread. It was one of those spreads that you find yourself going back to time and time again with nary a thought about it. If I had a bag of tortilla chips, I think I would have eaten this entire container. Sorry I’m not sorry.

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At the end of this tasting, I found myself pleasantly pleased. Sure, nut milk cheeses are different. They don’t quite have the same texture or richness as animal milk cheese does, but they were good. They give me hope that vegans are slowly starting to move away from river moss and wheat grass into a world that contains some happiness. Again, I don’t really know much about vegans so I’m just spit balling here.

 

Seriously though, I fully recommend you open yourself up to trying these cheeses. Next time you are at the store, give them a glance. Bring one to the brewery or a fancy cheese party. Don’t tell anyone what it is until after they have tried it and see what people think. It’s a brave new world out there friends. Until next time, may your cheese be nut milk based and your soy plentiful.

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Pumpkin Beer Tasting

Fall is a favorite season for many people (well, maybe not kids). For parents, it is the return of school. For seniors, there is leaf peeping – it’s a real thing. For 20 to 30-year-old white girls, it is the season of yoga pants and Pumpkin Spice lattes. To guys, it means chicks in yoga pants. It’s a season for everyone.

 

Fall also means that it is time to roll out the pumpkin. Lattes, Oreos, pies, soup… you name it and they pumpkin it. Most important to some, though, is the beers. Some folks wait all year long for those pumpkin beers to rain down upon the masses. I’m not sure who those people are or what happened in their lives that they like pumpkin beer, but that is beside the point.

 

Not being one to shy away from a tasting, I set up a pumpkin beer blind taste test. It was… not my favorite. Everyone who came brought a different 6-pack of pumpkin beer. There were no limits to brewery size or location, leaving us with a varied group. The five contenders, in alphabetical order, were: Alewerks Pumpkin Ale, Devils Backbone Pumpkin Hunter, Ithaca Country Pumpkin, Leinenkugel Harvest Pumpkin Shandy and Traveler Jack-O Pumpkin Shandy. Here is how they did.

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5th Place: Devils Backbone Pumpkin Hunter

I’m going to just say I wanted this beer to do better on this list. I love what Devils Backbone does on a regular basis, but they just didn’t win the crowd on this one. In the discussion people just couldn’t seem to find traction for this beer. The smell wasn’t there and the taste was lacking. As one reviewer bluntly put it, “This is just a bland lager.” With nothing really positive said, this beer drifted into last place.

 

4th Place: Ithaca Country Pumpkin

This beer came to us from New York on a return trip from a wedding. It was the wildcard in this tasting as no one had ever had an Ithaca beer prior to this. Once again, we find a beer that was late out of the blocks and wasn’t able to make up the lost ground. “This tastes like a butterscotch lollipop,” one reviewer simply stated and there was no turning back from that. As that was all people could taste from there on with this beer, it was pretty much a wrap. Its lack of pumpkin flavor and smell leaves this beer in fourth place.

 

3rd Place: Traveler Jack-O Pumpkin Shandy

Some will argue that a shandy is not truly a beer. That is sorta true. By definition, a shandy is beer mixed with a soft drink. This wheat beer is more “shandy inspired” than actual shandy. It seemed to sit fairly well with the tasters. People were quick to note its spiciness, which included hints of ginger. It really had a nice smell of pumpkin as well, which was noticeable before you got the cup to your nose. “Almost creamy. It reminds me of a root beer Slurpee,” said one taster. I will assume that is a good thing. Still, enough people felt this beer bland enough to strand it in third.

 

2nd Place: Alewerks Pumpkin Ale

We have another craft brewery from Virginia that threw its name into the pumpkin beer race. I truly enjoyed this beer. I thought the smell was pumpkin pie and the taste was a perfect nutty, spicy blend. It wasn’t overpowering so it seems it would be enjoyable in large quantities. Others seemed to feel this way too. Several felt it leaned heavy on hops, like an IPA. I love IPAs so this wasn’t an issue. People also appreciated the deep color of this beer. “Color looks like fall,” uttered more than one taster. The rich color, pleasing smell and pumpkin taste combine well enough in this beer to garner it second place.

 

1st Place: Leinenkugel Harvest Pumpkin Shandy

If you had asked me where I thought this beer would place in this competition before we drank it, I would have voted close to the back of the pack. This beer was the surprise to many folks in this tasting. It hit all over people’s tongues in just the right ways, it seems. People noted hints of nutmeg and vanilla on top of the pumpkin pie taste. One taster called it “liquefied pumpkin pie mix” whereas another noted its “buttery feel.” The best description for the drinkability of this beer, as it was fairly light on the tongue, was, “For warmer weather. Like Atlanta for Thanksgiving.” All of the positives pushed this underdog to the highest pedestal with a gold medal.

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Like I said before, this wasn’t my favorite tasting. Pumpkin beers have never been my thing and this didn’t do much to change that. Still, it was a great experience. I know it primed a few of my fellow drinkers for fall. Until next time, may your beers be spicy and your pie liquid.

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Taco Tasting

Before the Europeans arrived in old world Mexico, the taco was supposedly alive and well. The people of the Valley of Mexico would line corn tortillas with little fish and indulge. Primitive sounding? Mayhaps. Missing the accessories like cheese and sour cream? Almost certainly. Probably still freaking delicious? Most likely. How could they not have been — they were tacos.

In searching for our next food tasting my attention kept being drawn to the modest Mexican morsel. Tacos are just one of those things that are tasty any time of day in any weather. They are fairly easy to share, have endless combinations of ingredients and bring a touch of spice into one’s life. Richmond has several places that rock tacos in all varieties. Food trucks and restaurants alike put their spin on a food with such modest beginnings. We can’t seem to get enough.

The requirements were seemingly very simple: bring five soft shell tacos with a ground beef filling. Any toppings added by the restaurant are 100% acceptable. After acquiring the goods, meet at Ardent Craft Ales so the tasting could begin. Grading of the tacos would be done with a review and a rank. The least favorite got a five and the best got a one. Simple and effective.

I’m sure you don’t want to hear all the nitty gritty details about the actual tasting. We basically divided up the tacos one restaurant at a time and scarfed. What’s most important is how our five restaurants fared. Those restaurants (in alphabetical order) were: Boka TakoEn Su BocaLatino VillageLittle Mexico and Taco Bell. Here is how they fared, from worst to best, and why.

5th Place: Taco Bell

Taco Bell actually scored a second place and a third place vote, but it then received four fifth place votes bringing it in dead last in the competition. Taco Bell tacos are consistent if nothing else. There is a reason they are a major chain. Don’t lie, you’ve eaten plenty of Taco Bell when you were drunk. Still, in the face of lots of wholesome local competition, this taco finished last (a surprise to no one). Almost every reviewer found the taco to be salty. Some found the meat itself to just be overall questionable. The level of cheese on the taco did get positive reviews though. One reviewer summed up the table conversation perfectly when they stated “Will eat again.” You win with fourth meal, you clever bastards. But sit patiently in last here. We got real tacos to get to.

4th Place: Latino Village

Latino Village is a personal favorite of mine, as you can read here, so for it to place in fourth was a bit of a shock. Granted, it was barely edged into fourth, but it finished there none the less. Latino Village, like Taco Bell, received no first place votes. The biggest thing that reviewers noted was how dry these tacos were. They could have used a dash of sour cream or a touch of salsa. Even a sprinkle of cheese would have helped. They just produced no natural moisture. Also, these tacos had steak instead of ground beef. While that counted against in most books, there was no denying the steak was delicious. These tacos were also heavy on the raw onion. For all of these reasons, Latino Village sits at the fourth place table.

3rd Place: Boka Tako

Sliding into third with just one first place vote is Boka Tako. I will venture to guess that Boka is probably the most recognizable name on this list to Richmonders. Their truck has been serving up tacos at almost every event I’ve gone to in town. I will start with the things people didn’t love about these tacos. For starters they were chicken, which breaks the rules of taco tasting. Not only were they chicken, but they were HUGE chunks of chicken. I’m personally still weighing out if that’s a negative or a positive, but they did make actually eating the taco difficult. These tacos were also a touch dry even thought they had sauce on them. I don’t know if it was the chicken or the tortilla that sucked out the moisture, but something did. On the flip side of the coin, these tacos had excellent crunch, which came from the cabbage on top. People also really seemed to like the sauce that was on top. It had great flavor. Unfortunately, the positives were not enough to move it out of the middle of the pack.

2nd Place: En Su Boca

Claiming the silver medal was En Su Boca with two first place votes and zero fifth place votes. I have indulged in many a burrito at En Su Boca (they are filling), but nary a taco. So, having them on this panel was a great way to see what they offered. Mostly all of the reviewers agreed that the sauce used on this taco was flavorful and leaned towards the sweet side. It helped balance out the savory flavor of the meat. There was also quite a bit of cilantro which a lot of the reviewers liked. I am one of those people who tastes cliantro and thinks soap so I could have done without. The beef itself also received several compliments for its tenderness and fresh taste. Still, there were negatives to be had. The watery-ness of the taco was noted by several reviewers. I’m guessing that came from the sauce the beef was cooked in. One reviewer had a great dislike for the actual tortilla itself. They felt it was rubbery and bland. As this was a one-off comment, I wonder if it was just the taco they tasted? Any who, for all these reasons En Su Boca walked away with the silver.

1st Place: Little Mexico

Running the board with nothing but first and second place votes was Little Mexico. It seems that every time we compare foods, there is some sort of surprise — see the vegan doughnut from The First Great Doughnut Tour — and in this case it was Little Mexico. An unassuming little Mexican restaurant stepped up to the plate and smacked the taco out of the park. The reviewers had pretty much nothing but positive things to say about these little handheld meat vessels. We will start out with the rave review of the day: “GOOD AS HELL!!!” I mean, boom, really… That was both love and enthusiasm, which is hard to beat. The toppings went over super well with the crowd here. The guacamole and sour cream added both moisture and zippy flavor to the tacos. They also helped hold the whole thing together. Again, people loved the cilantro (hard pass). There were a few murmurs of dissent though. One reviewer was not fond of the meat texture. They thought it grainy. Another found the taco soggy (probably due to all the amazing toppings). Regardless of these flaws, Little Mexico was able to finish this race strong. They find themselves the proud owners of the first Taco Tasting Trophy. Congrats!!

This was another successful culinary adventure, if I do say so myself. It seems that Richmond has a ton of hidden nuggets and consumable delights that we are more than willing to indulge in. All five places — okay, four places because, well, Taco Bell — put forth an excellent product. Sure, we found a thing or two we didn’t like but that was our job here. I submit that all of us walked away from this tasting happy and full knowing we would visit all of these places in the future. Until next time, may your shells be crunchy and your ground beef well seasoned.

 

 

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Just A Few Thoughts

I will start off by saying that I will call Officer Deriek Crouse a co-worker. To go further and say we were truly anything more verges on a lie. We were colleagues. Granted, that term in the world of emergency services has a deeper and stronger meaning than it does in most fields of employment.  That’s not to take anything away from anyone of course. I’m just saying that the work relationship between people who willingly risk their lives every day and the people who send them out into these situations is a bit more intense than sitting in cubicles on the same floor. I am honored to be have that title. I got to work with an amazing group of people in my time as a police dispatcher for the Virginia Tech police department. Officer Crouse was one of them.

 

Officer Crouse, like most of the police officers I had the privilege to dispatch for, was an excellent officer. He put everything he had into his job. He did so without hesitation or complaint. He watched out for his fellow officers. He respected and took care of his dispatchers, which isn’t always the case. He was never short of a joke, a smile or a laugh. When dealing with the student body, a fickle and unpredictable group of young adults, he always had his best foot forward. He approached situations with sincere care and understanding. He was, like the other police officers at Virginia Tech, a great police officer.

 

I’m sure Officer Crouse did not stand in front of his work locker on the morning of December 8, 2011 and think as he changed into his work uniform “Well, I’ll likely get shot for no reason today. I guess today is as good as any to leave my family, my friends and everything else in my life just because…”  No, I think I can safely say that was not his thought process. What he was actually thinking as he strapped on his bulletproof vest and buckled on his gun belt, I can never begin to guess. But I have a strong feeling it wasn’t that today was the day he would die.

 

That being said, I will say that there is a very weird and honest thought that I have to assume all people in law enforcement have. I assume they have it because I know I did and I have spoken to officers who have expressed a similar thought in their lives. As a dispatcher I had to accept that every day I was at work, I potentially was going to encounter a moment where I would essentially send a co-worker, some of who I consider friends, to their death. On the other side of the radio, the officers must know and accept that every call they go on has the potential to be their last moment on this planet. That is a heavy weight to shoulder. Yet, we shoulder it willingly because there are people out there that need help. Officer Crouse was no exception to this. I can say that because as I stated before, he never hesitated to do his job.

 

I would never fully be able to express the adrenaline-fueled afternoon that followed the shooting of Officer Crouse. Nor would I be able to share the range of emotions that we all felt in the days that followed. There will never be words that can capture what it feels to be smashed so violently in the face with a senseless tragedy. I’m sure there are many in this country right now that will agree with me on that. Yet, days pass and our lives continue to move forward. As time erodes the sharp edges from people’s pain, they are left with good memories and only a dull ache. I know that a lot of people from the police department are like that, 4 years later. I send them my warmest thoughts on today of all days. I hope you let the good memories dominate your thoughts today instead of the loss and pain.

 

It seems every day that there is an article about how horrible the police are. It’s very rare to hear of exemplary officers that preform their duty everyday with respect, honor, dignity and a sense of humanity. I was privileged to work with those people right there. Officer Crouse was no exception. What we don’t do enough in this world is recognize those good officers. Today, thank a police officer. If you are on Virginia Tech’s campus, stop an officer. Shake their hand. Give them a hug. Thank them for being there. If you aren’t at Tech, it still applies. Buy a cup of coffee or some lunch for an officer. Show them that you appreciate them. Because when that moment comes that you need them, they will be there. Sometimes that the last thing they will do one this planet. Show up for you.

 

I miss all of my officers and dispatchers at Virginia Tech. I’m sending you good vibes from Richmond. Keep on fighting the good fight. Know you still have people out there that support you and know of the good you do.

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Slice Vs. Slice: The Battle Of The Pizza

This country has an unwritten, universal list of debate foods. What do I mean by debate foods? Solid question, loyal reader. Basically I mean the foods that cause you and your friends to spend an hour trying to convince each other that your preferred food is better than theirs. From bagels vs. biscuits to shoestring vs. steak fries, I have engaged in many such debates, many times with the same folks. I find them a necessary part of my friendships. After “settling” the doughnut debate I decided it was time to settle another big one — pizza. Pizza is a very divisive subject. The biggest question is will always be NY Style or Chicago Deep Dish. The answer is ALWAYS NY Style… unless you are a communist that not only hates Americans, but also Italians, self-respect, dignity and yourself. Our big question is who serves the best here in Richmond? To the tasting lab!!!

 

As I don’t actually have a tasting lab (yet), I invited everyone to Ardent in Scott’s Addition. Yes, you can bring food. They encourage you to do so. The caveat to coming to this shindig was that you had to bring a small cheese pizza from your favorite Richmond pizza place. I also requested you bring a second pizza, dealers choice on the type. My friend Anne convinced me (and rightfully so) that we needed a constant on which to judge all places fairly. This is, of course, a logical basis for broad spectrum testing. Hence, we went with the basic cheese pizza. Why something so plain? All good restaurants accomplish great things with the basic building blocks. If you cannot master the humble cheese pizza, what makes me think you can thrill me with anything else? Plus, everyone can get behind cheese as pepperoni is too spicy for some people. I also suggested smalls for both the price and because 7 to 14 small pizzas is a lot of pizza for 12 people. Scoring was broken into four categories: size of the small, overall flavor, sauciness of the pizza and cheesiness. All four were ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being low and 10 high on this scale.

 

Damn it man, enough of the small talk!! Get down to the nitty gritty before I slap you with a pizza!! Ok ok. Chill out, friends. First off, let’s start with who was lovingly selected by the attendees to showcase their stuff. The first unknowing provider was Picciotti’s Pizza located at 9039 W. Broad Street. The second was Belmont Pizzeria based out of 602 N. Belmont Street. The third was Tarrant’s Cafe stationed at 1 W. Broad Street. Fourth was 8 1/2 over at 401 Strawberry Street. Our fifth and sixth both came from Mary Angela’s Pizzeria anchored at 3345 W. Cary Street (we got a thin crust and a Sicilian style). Finally, our vegan/vegetarian couple Kelsey and Laura made a wonderful homemade pizza to submit in the running. So now you know what we got and from where it came. The real question: How did it all stack up? Well, the numbers have been crunched and the results are in. Here we go, starting with the lowest average score and moving to the highest.

 

Pizza Data

 

Holding up the pizza rear for our group was 8 1/2. The pizza garnered an average score of 5.28, which set it just a hair above mediocre. It also ranked 7th in votes making it a weak showing all around. The majority of the tasters felt that the biggest hang-up of the pizza was its lack of sauce. It almost danced along the lines of a white pizza more than a cheese pizza. What it lacked in sauce it made up for in cheese and garlic flavor. The strong garlic flavor was noted by many of the tasters and they were on board. It was strong, but not overwhelming as garlic can sometimes be. The crust was also crispy, which helped this pizza. Unfortunately, this pizza just couldn’t pull it all together to find a higher place on the list.

 

In sixth place is Belmont. In votes, Belmont was 1 spot higher in 5th place. Where this pizza lost major points, through no fault of its own, was in the size column. The person who brought this was a giant bonehead and brought a medium instead of a small. FINE.. it was me. In doing so this pizza was disqualified by most voters in the size department bringing its average score WAY down. Sorry, guys. This pizza did pull in the highest flavor score with an 8.38 score. The voters agreed that there was a nice spice to the sauce and a wonderful flavor to the crust. One comment pointed out the nice balance of sauce to cheese, but felt the sauce was a touch sweet. I personally love this pizza. I think that the pizza I get from here each time is delicious. Granted, the votes didn’t agree with me. Nor did one commenter who wrote, “A little boring. Good drunk pizza.” Can’t please everyone I guess.

 

In the last of the lower bracket (5th place) we have Mary Angelas Sicilian pizza. It pulled an average score of 6.75 and a voter ranking of 6, one place worse than it sits. Sauciness was the killer of this pizza. It just didn’t seem to have enough to combat the thickness of the crust. People seemed to feel overwhelmed by the amount of crust which, while tasty, was overabundant. The overall size of this pizza tied for 1st with a score of 7.63. It was a nice size pie that provided hefty slices for all. I disliked this pizza myself. I am not a fan of thick crust for a pizza. I have a hard time looking past that to appreciate the toppings or the sauce. Yes, I felt this pizza was cooked well and an excellent portion size, but it was too much crust for me to support. Still, it garnered enough support to almost make the dead center of the pack. Can’t fault it for that.

 

The pizza in 4th place, precisely the middle of the group, was from Tarrant’s. This pizza garnered an average score 6.97, in part due to a strong sauciness showing. It tied for first in the sauciness category. Their sauce received rave reviews from quite a few voters. One said it was the best sauce of the day. I personally felt it was a touch too tomato tasting. I know that sounds weird, as it is a tomato sauce. Most pizza sauces are tempered with spices, like oregano and garlic, to cut the strong acidic tomato flavor. I felt that this pizza didn’t have that, making the sauce very strongly tomato. Still, I felt the portion of sauce was excellent. It was an excellent sauce to crust ratio. Where people didn’t love this pie, was its size. Outside of the disqualified pizza, this received the lowest score. In the end, people voted this pizza into the same rank it received score-wise, 4th. Pretty decent showing.

 

Now we make our way into the top three. This pizza put up strong marks in all categories and was voted into 2nd place, unfortunately it wasn’t there score-wise. Scores bestowed the bronze medal upon the homemade pizza. Our friend Kelsey, put quite a bit of effort into this pie. It showed in all areas. Everyone else seemed to agree. Most people found the pizza super flavorful. In fact, it was very close to having the highest flavor score of all the pizzas. The homemade dough baked itself into a crispy and delicious crust. The heavy-handedness on the cheese distribution was well received. No one ever complained about too much cheese. To come in against 5 professional pizza places and claim a medal is impressive work. Kudos to the chef.

 

In second place with a score of 7.59 was Mary Angelas thin crust. Vote wise this pizza actually placed 1st. I can see why too. Its 8.25 score made it the best in the cheesiness category. This pizza was loaded with gooey cheese from edge to edge. The high volume of cheese caused the crust to be slightly chewier than a lot of the other pizzas. I am a fan of a slightly chewy crust over a super crispy one so I was happy. People also thought the sauce on this pizza had great flavor. You could taste the herbs, as noted by one voter. This pizza was all around a success and highly commended. It should be quite pleased with its strong finish.

 

For those keeping track at home, that leaves one medal left to hand out and one pizza box to pin it on. The gold medal, with a score of 7.72, goes to Picciotti’s. This pizza went all out in every category. It tied for first in both size and sauciness. It also finished second in cheesiness. You can’t argue with the numbers here folks. What truly surprised me is that via votes, this pizza only finished 3rd. Comments were all over the place, too. One person commended the nice thin crust while another praised its good cheese and sauce flavor. On the other end of the spectrum we had one voter who felt this pizza was slightly salty and another who felt nothing stood out. Yet, in the end the scores told a different story. With that said, this pizza ended up on top this day.

 

The pizza game is strong in Richmond. Every place that had a pie represented did a good job. There weren’t many pieces left at the end of our tasting, which is a great sign. I know there are more pizza places in town that need to be put to the test so don’t think this is the end. There are slices out there that are just begging to be eaten and we are just the people to do it. Until then, faithful reader, may your crust be crispy, your sauce flavorful and your cheese plentiful.

 

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My Shame Today

I could not be more disappointed in myself as a person as I am right now.

 

Yeah, that’s a harsh criticism. I deserve it and even worse. I’ll explain why and I’m sure you’ll agree with me.

 

I’m sitting here in this coffee shop on what is a warm, yet super miserable rainy day. I’m surrounded by a predominately college crowd working on various projects and assignments. Two girls are merely talking with each other. Am I doing anything productive? Not really, unless you count pursuing the Ikea website in preparation for my voyage there next weekend productive. It is fairly obvious that no one sitting here is hurting. The value of the various electronics and wardrobes is a clear indicator of that. Plus, all of us are sitting here drinking overpriced coffee of our own free will.

 

It’s fairly quiet as we all go about our business. Everyone seems involved either in their work or their conversations. A typical trip to the coffee shop for me. As I am engrossed in the world of nightstands, a gentleman walks in with a wheelchair. At first I thought mayhaps he had someone else with him in the wheelchair, as that seems logical. Instead, he has a suitcase in the wheelchair. That’s when I notice the walking boot on his foot. As I quickly scan the man, it isn’t hard to see he is most likely homeless. His face is unshaven and slightly dirty. His clothes are ill fitting and wrinkly, as if he slept in them. His heavy winter coat is very out of place in this 68 degree weather. Life, at the moment, hasn’t been kind to this gentleman.

 

He parks his wheelchair and goes to use the bathroom. I do a quick scan of the room and see that EVERYONE else has also seen this man. He has been inside maybe 45 seconds, tops. Already he has the attention of the entire place (maybe 15 people including staff). It isn’t hard to see that all of them have come to the same conclusion as I have about this fellow. I can even tell that the two girls talking have changed the topic of their conversation to this gentleman as evident by their furtive glances at him (pre-bathroom) and his wheelchair. S0, that’s 15 able-bodied human beings who have seen and registered this man.

 

He comes back out of the bathroom minutes later and goes to his wheelchair. He does a cursory check of the seats contents before making his way towards the counter. He proceeds to look at the menu and the case of food. He is there for 5 or so very long minutes. It is obvious that he would like to buy something, but can’t. You ever have that moment? Where you see something and think, “If only it were payday…”. While he is standing there looking at the goods, I see that the staff are aware of his presence. None of them approach him. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to avoid moving towards the register. Finally, with a look of defeat and frustration on his face, the gentleman shuffles with his wheelchair to the front door. He exits and heads down the street.

 

I sat here the entire time and did NOTHING to help this man. Nothing. I didn’t stand up and speak to him. I didn’t buy him a coffee and a sandwich. I didn’t do a thing. Instead, I sat here and thought about it. “You should help that guy out” ran through my head about 5 times. Yet, here I sat, sipping my mocha. Not doing anything is bad enough. THINKING about helping and still sitting here is beyond terrible. What a shitty way to be.

 

Now, I am not alone in not acting. I have a severe amount of sadness for that. I cannot speak for any of the others here as to why they remained seated. I can’t say they had a good reason for not helping out this fellow, as I know I did not. All I know is that as a micro-community of people, we failed another person severely. We all recognized the situation and completely ignored it with a sense of indifference that was so thick it was practically smothering. Is this where we are as a people right now? Are we so wrapped up in our own “special” little lives that we can’t be bothered with the lives of others? Is it a generational thing? Is my generation (and younger) less sympathetic to the suffering of others? Or, were we just selfish pricks? I wish I could say. Still, I don’t know these people and cannot speak for them. All I can do is take responsibility for my actions. In this case, my failure to act.

 

I’m deeply ashamed of myself today. I had the opportunity to make one person’s load in life a touch lighter and I just sat here. I was nothing more than a spectator to another persons hardship. Am I saying that the cup of coffee and sandwich would have been a turning point in that gentleman’s life? Not even close. For that moment in time though, maybe it would make a small difference. Remind him, me and the people around us that there is still decency in this world. I have no high hopes that I’ll write this post and inspire the world to be better. Instead, I hope that I can write this post about how I failed at being an adequate human being so that I don’t forget that next time.

 

All it takes is one small gesture to remind people there is still good in this world. That is something we need now more than ever.

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The First Great Doughnut Tour

When you toss the word doughnut out in most crowds, drool begins to pool in the corner of people’s mouths. Their eyes light up with a joy usually reserved for weddings, the birth of a child, or the purchase of a house. You can immediately see that involuntary happy dance start to move their body, regardless of how hard they try to hide it. Essentially, the word doughnut cuts deep through all the shit and nonsense this world heaps on us daily, touches that deeply guarded well of unabashed happiness, and draws it forth to flow freely upon us.  That is merely the effect the WORD has on people, not even the actual thing. So, imagine the response when I organized a 5 doughnut shop tour on a Sunday morning for a group of friends. I will now use the word epic here knowing it falls far short.

 

This all began because the phrase “I’ve actually never been to Sugar Shack” was uttered in my presence. Upon further questioning, I discovered this was common among the group. The range of feelings that I experienced in a 3 second period was inhuman. Anger, disgust, shock, disappointment, confusion, sadness and hate are just a sampling of what my addled brain ran through. I knew that a phrase like that could NOT be allowed to continue as reality. I had to take action. Thus I began planning, mapping and creating a Richmond Doughnut Tour. Something that would allow a little taste of everything for those who have experienced nothing. I gathered 7 other folks at my house at 8am on a sunny Sunday morning. I armed them all with pens and a survey. They brought their own appetites and drive. We piled into two cars ready to fill our bellies with pillowy morsels of happiness. Onward to greatness!!

 

I will give you a quick overview of our scoring system, just so we are all on the same page. I created a packet for everyone that listed the 5 doughnut shops. For each, I gave space to review 2 of their doughnuts based on 4 criteria. First, we looked at size, which of course is relative. Second was freshness. Was the doughnut baked within the last hour or had it been sitting there all morning? Third was taste. Did your mouth jump around like House Of Pain was rocking it or did it hate itself as if it just willingly purchased a dual cd set of Creed & Nickleback? Finally, we looked at originality. Was this doughnut a classic or was it that new hotness? Everything was rated on a scale of 1 to 10 (as all things should be), with 1 being a dry, tasteless excuse for confectionary goodness that some would dare call a doughnut and 10 being the greatest deep fried gastronomical delight known to mankind. This was a great way to rate the doughnuts, but it left me with a TON of data to go through. C’est la vie.

 

Before I get deep into this, I need to get one thing out of the way. I need to admonish those of you folks that use the spelling d-o-n-u-t. Stop it. Stop it right now. It’s wrong, plain and simple. The correct spelling is d-o-u-g-h-n-u-t. It was the word first used in 1809 by Washington Irving. It wasn’t until 90 years later that the lazy bastardized word “donut” appeared. Several companies took that spelling and ran with it hoping that by using the simplified spelling they would attract more international clients. Dunkin’ Donuts took the name in 1950, and since then it’s been considered the norm. It’s not!! Around the world the word is spelled d-o-u-g-h-n-u-t. It is only here in America, where we are lazy, that the word “donut” is acceptable. Pull yourselves together folks. Be better. Spell it correctly. Now back to the tour.

 

After a quick stop at Kroger where we bought drinks for the journey, we headed for doughnut stop #1: Duck Donuts. While it’s a relative newcomer to the Richmond doughnut scene, Duck Donuts has been holding their own. This well-loved shop has its roots in the Outer Banks, specifically Duck, NC. Our branch, located in the Shops at Willow Lawn, opened its doors on December 15, 2014. It was instantly a crowd pleaser with their fresh made cake doughnuts and variety of to-order toppings. As our group pulled up, you could sense a feeling of apprehension and nervousness for this first stop that manifested itself as giddy giggles. We were about to undertake a great feat of mankind. I insisted that before we went in we take a photo in front of the shop. As soon as that was done, we burst through the door like dignitaries into a foreign court. I marched right up to the counter and announced that we were on a doughnut tour so we needed their finest vittles. At first the guy behind the counter didn’t believe me. Then I showed him our score sheet and he knew this was on for reals. We all decided to pair up and share doughnuts. I ordered 2 because I was ambitious and it made sense to me at the time (we quickly learned that 2 is, and I hate to say it, too many doughnuts per person per stop). My first choices were a Maple Glaze with bacon pieces and a Vanilla Glaze with chopped peanuts, both solid choices. I split these into halves and shared with Justin, who got a Lemon Glaze with coconut flakes for us to indulge in. Other doughnut choices made in the group were Peanut Butter with peanuts, Orange with coconut flakes and Vanilla with cinnamon & sugar. So, let’s talk about people’s general thoughts on the 2 most reviewed doughnuts; Maple Bacon and Lemon Coconut.

Stop 1: Duck Donuts So full of hope.

Stop 1: Duck Donuts
So full of hope.

 

Overall, Duck Donuts seemed to be a big hit with everyone. The fresh, warm doughnuts went a long way in making Duck Donuts a contender for the “Greatest Doughnut of the Day” belt. It’s hard not to be pleased when the doughnut you eat is still warm from the fryer. The most reviewed doughnut of the group was the Maple Bacon which 6 people chose to grade. Everyone felt (and this applied to all the Duck Donuts) that these doughnuts were on the smaller end of medium in size. One person said they are about the size of a standard Krispy Kreme glazed. To me, that means it would take 2, maybe even 3, of them to satisfy a normal person. It was not a surprise to me to see that Duck Donuts topped every place we went in the freshness department. Like I said before, taken from the fryer to the toppings and into your hand. What else can I say? The Maple Bacon also ranked very high in the taste department. Some of the comments were: “Warm & Gooey. Bacon Chewy. My favorite.” & “Perfect salty/sweet mix. Had those Goldilocks crumbles” & “Great salty/sweet combo. Not too strong either way, but not so subtle to miss the flavors either. Almost like a fluffy waffle with bacon.” People felt that the Maple Bacon was fairly original giving it a 7 in that department. This doughnut fired on all cylinders so it is no surprise it did so well. Let’s move on to the Lemon Coconut. Only 3 people in the group reviewed this doughnut. I will admit I was not one of them. While I enjoy lemon frosting, I have never been a coconut fan. I can certainly tolerate it much better as I’ve gotten older, but I don’t love it. My siblings and I used to call it “skunks” when we were little. My mom baked pies for local restaurants and knew that she never needed to worry about us eating her “toasted skunks” before she was able to decorate her pie. Once again, this doughnut rated high on freshness. Please see above for why. Taste was very middle range for this doughnut though. According to the comments “Lemon was to subtle, although the combo had lots of potential. Coconut wasn’t evenly distributed.” & “Good flavor. Wanted more coconut flavor. Great tasting donut that has potential” & “Lemon flavor was not strong enough.” It seems that this doughnut was poised for greatness with this flavor combo and then just tired early in the race. Happens to the best of us I suppose. The other doughnuts ranked all did well. After indulging, we loaded into the cars and off we went to shop number 2.

Look at that gooeyness

Look at that gooeyness

 

Our second stop on the tour was Dixie Donuts. It upsets me that they don’t have a website, but that’s neither here nor there. Dixie Donuts is located on the very cusp of Carytown by The Byrd Theater. They specialize in cake doughnuts in a variety of flavors. We parked in their spacious parking lot and took our group photo out front (my poor friends…). We stepped inside the old-school shop and were greeted by the pleasant woman behind the case. I, of course, told her what we were doing and she was jazzed about it. She immediately suggested that we take advantage of their deal that day: a dozen doughnuts for $9. With 8 of us eating, that was a great deal. We ordered an assorted dozen and cut them up into pieces for all to sample. I can’t list the dozen flavors we got, but I can tell you the 5 people chose to review: French Toast, Aztec Chocolate, Orange Five Spice, Blueberry Cake and Samoa. On to the top 2 of the day.

Stop 2: Dixie Donuts  Get PUMPED!!

Stop 2: Dixie Donuts
Get PUMPED!!


 

First off, we have the French Toast doughnut. Not a bad choice for a doughnut in my opinion. I thought the flavor of French Toast was there, but the actual doughnut was a little dry for me. It just wasn’t as fresh as I wanted it to be. Still, I didn’t hate this doughnut. The others though, didn’t have a ton of love for it. It garnered an average score of 6.8 from the five people who rated it. A step above average. We all agreed that Dixie Donuts puts out a medium sized doughnut. Bigger than Duck but not a monster. The average bloke could consume 2 and feel satisfied. The doughnuts also ranked just a step above average in freshness. They weren’t fresh out of the oven, but they weren’t out more than an hour I would guess. People seemed to think that the French Toast doughnut was a touch on the sweet side. Comments on it were: “Too sweet for me. Don’t think I would call it french toast in a blind taste test.” & “Too sweet for me. Could not taste the donut.” One commenter disagreed with the others: “Icing was pretty tasty. Cake didn’t taste much like it. Pretty was a 5 out of 10.” Yup, one person ranked how pretty all the doughnuts were. Bless her for it because looks never occurred to me. The second doughnut, also rated by five people, was the Aztec Chocolate doughnut. This doughnut ranked incredibly highly in originality with a 9.4, and I know why. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before. It is a chocolate doughnut with chocolate frosting that has chipotle mixed into it. It’s topped with candied pepitas (Spanish culinary term for the pumpkin seed), cinnamon and sugar. I wish there had been a touch more heat from the chipotle, but I LOVED the textured crunch of the candied pepitas. It brought this doughnut to a different plain of existence that sprinkles can’t seem to reach. The others were back and forth in their thoughts: “Chocolate cake flavor not sweet enough. Lacked spice. I wanted to like this more than I did.” & “Very unique taste. Liked the pepitas which added a nice crunch. The cinnamon sugar added a nice sweetness and a kick.” We polished off stop 2 and packed back into the cars. Bellies were starting to get a bit full, but we knew we had to press on. Put that bad boy in drive and let’s do it.

 

For stop 3 we proceeded to the winner of Style Weekly’s “Best of RVA” in the doughnut category: Sugar Shack. I think that I am fully justified in the following statement, even to the point where I think the other doughnut shops on this list would agree: Sugar Shack, while not the oldest doughnut hop in Richmond, has helped to push not only the doughnut scene, but the Richmond restaurant scene, into the public eye of America. That’s a hefty weight on their flour covered shoulders, but they bare it with grace and frosting. Sugar Shack is a little different from the first 2 places we visited in that they work primarily in yeast doughnuts. Yeast doughnuts use yeast as a leavener which makes them pillowy and airy. Cake doughnuts (my preference) use either baking powder or soda as a leavener. This makes them much denser and they tend to be crumblier. The debate between which is better can be fierce, so tread carefully when speaking of doughnuts in polite company. Sugar Shack sometimes tends to be low on doughnuts, depending on how busy they are. This is because they only hand make small batches. I was hoping, as we approached the front door, that they would be stocked up. Thankfully, we were in luck. A full doughnut case greeted us. I always request the person behind the counter come around front and tell me every doughnut flavor in the case. I’m SOOOO sorry to all the employees there that have had to do this, but I MUST know. I MUST!! This day was no exception. TELL US ALL YOUR FLAVORS DOUGHNUT LADY!!! After she was kind enough to list all the flavors, we agreed that 6 would be more than enough to feed all 8 of us as Sugar Shack makes LARGE doughnuts. Just 1 would fill a normal person, 2 would make them sick and 3 would kill them. The fellas also decided that we were not capable of choosing the 6 so we left it to the ladies to pick out the flavors. They selected Cheesecake w/ caramel, Apple Pie, Key Lime w/ vanilla, Bacon Maple, Tastes Like A Samoa and Red Velvet. We got a knife, sliced them up and then went outside to indulge.

Stop 3: Sugar Shack Still going strong!

Stop 3: Sugar Shack
Still going strong!

 

The top 2 reviewed doughnuts turned out to be very interesting to me and forced me to make a judgement call (there was a threeway tie  for the 2nd doughnut reviewed so I chose the one with the best average score). The most reviewed, with 5, was the Key Lime with vanilla drizzle. This doughnut was, in a word, fabulous. With an average taste score of 9.3, this doughnut was a big hit. The key lime flavor was perfect and not overpowering so as to drown out the flavor of the doughnut. The actual doughnut itself was airy and light with a nice cakey flavor. It only took me one bite to know that this doughnut was sitting pretty at the top of the heap looking to wear the “Doughnut of the Day” crown. That idea seemed to be shared by a lot of the others: “Strong and wonderful. So good. Perfect summertime donut. Very happy.” & “Best so far. Great flavor.” & “Fantastic taste. Just the right amount of flavor. It was an explosion of flavor in my mouth.” Sugar Shack clearly hit on something there to leave the crowd so pleased. Now, here is where I had to make a judgement call. The second most reviewed doughnut was a 3 way tie between Cheesecake with Caramel, Apple Pie and Bacon Maple. I decided to go with the one that had the best average score, so let’s talk Cheesecake with Caramel. This doughnut also had an average taste score of 9.3, which means it was another huge hit with folks. I don’t like caramel, but it didn’t really stop me from enjoying this doughnut. It carried itself well with excellent cheesecake-esque flavor to the frosting. Had they found a way to make the doughnut more graham cracker crust-ish, this doughnut would be unstoppable. What did the others have to say, you ask? They loved it: “AH-MAZZ-ING!!! Pretty is a 5 out of 10.” & “Sweet mother of god! So light and refreshing. Subtle, but perfect. 11 out of 10! Would eat again.” I guess there is a reason that Sugar Shack is the darling of the RVA doughnut scene…

 

By the time we started coasting towards Church Hill for our 4th stop, people were starting to feel a little rough. There was quite a bit of grumbling pointed in my direction, but I urged the group on with positive words and terrible singing. I think everyone felt pretty ready by the time we pulled up to our destination: WPA Bakery. As we stood out front, gathering our thoughts and motivation, a woman passed us by. She stopped to ask us what we were doing. When one of the girls explained she chuckled. She told us how bad we looked and then said “Have a mimosa… You’ll feel better.” She was probably right… Unfortunately, we didn’t have one. So, in we went.

Stop 4: WPA Bakery The struggle is real.

Stop 4: WPA Bakery
The struggle is real.

 

WPA Bakery is not your typical doughnut shop. Actually, they only make doughnuts one day a week, which happens to be on Sundays. The rest of the week they are busy pumping out other delicious delicacies not only for customers but also for Garnetts, The Roosevelt and Ipanema Cafe. I want to say they make cake doughnuts, but that is wrong. Really, it’s like they just make mini bundt cakes about the size of a doughnut and call it a doughnut. Nothing wrong with that, just saying. When we went up to the counter to order, our job was made very easy as they only had four doughnuts for sale by the time we arrived. Thankfully, 4 was all we needed or could handle. Being the man with the plan, I asked the lady to plate up one each of Olive Oil & Pear with vegan frosting, Vanilla/Coffee/Chocolate, plain Vanilla, and Chocolate with hazelnuts. There’s very limited seating inside, so we once again ventured into the sunlight to muscle down these wonderful morsels. Let’s talk about the results, shall we? I’ll be straight up honest about the Olive Oil & Pear with vegan frosting, our first doughnut reviewed. I was concerned about this doughnut. The word vegan doesn’t always inspire warm and cuddly feelings in me. Still, we were in this for the long haul. Much to everyone’s surprise, we actually all very much enjoyed this doughnut. It was fresh and had great flavor. The olive oil helped it retain moisture while the vegan frosting added a delightful creamy texture. It was an excellent doughnut. But don’t just take my word for it. “Fluffy, light, moist with sweet icing. Hint of pear was more refreshing than flavorful. Didn’t want to like it, but did.” & “Surprisingly good. Does not qualify as a doughnut, but really good.” & “Huh… surprising. First I was scared, then confused, and then scared again.” That last comment was actually a compliment… I think. The other popular doughnut at WPA Bakery for the day was the Vanilla/Coffee/Chocolate pulling an average score of 7.6 across all the categories. People were readily able to pick up the coffee flavor in the doughnut. I personally thought it nicely balanced the chocolate flavor and muted the vanilla in a positive way. It gave the flavor purpose instead of allowing it to wander lost across the tongue. The comments were fairly positive: “Yes, that was good. A lot of coffee flavor.” & “Unique flavor. Pretty is 8 out of 10. I <3 coffee.” & “Good, but too sweet.” WPA Bakery was the unknown of the day, but they really put forth a solid effort. Kudos.

 

Our final stop was the one I had been looking forward to all day long: Country Style Donuts.  I made sure we took the drive out to the original location on Williamsburg Road in order for the group to get the full authentic experience. The original location opened its doors in 1968 and is open 24 hours a day (closed Mondays). They craft both cake and yeast doughnuts. By the time we got there on Sunday morning, the crowds had cleared and we had plenty of room to browse. The wall of doughnuts before us was immense and, at this point, incredibly overwhelming for our over doughnutted bodies. Thank god for the wonderful staff. Once we explained what we were doing they took charge. With wishes of happy dining and looks of sympathy they chose the 4 doughnuts they thought best represented a solid cross-section of Country Style’s offerings which were Apple Crumb, Old Fashioned, Strawberry Jelly and Glazed. We chopped the 4 doughnuts into 8 pieces each and muscled the final bites of our tour down our gullets. Onward to the top 2 doughnuts!!! The first up is the Old Fashioned. This, for those who don’t know, is the most basically delicious of cake doughnuts. No frosting. No toppings. No powdered sugar. Just fried doughnut dough that forms a crispy outer shell around a soft center. It is, to me, what a doughnut should be. Its plainness is its greatness. I LOVED this doughnut with an unabashed passion. For the most part, the others agreed with me. Some found the doughnut to be dry, but most liked it. The comments were overly favorable: “For a plain doughnut it was pretty good. It had a little bit of crunch which was an added plus.” & “Really buttery. Tasty. Nice crunchy outer texture.” & “Classic cake. A little dry, but flavor enhanced the more you chewed.” One doughnut down, one to go. Our last reviewed doughnut was the Strawberry Jelly Filled, another classic. I will admit a moment of naivety here. I did not know that filled doughnuts were yeast doughnuts. I guess it makes sense as you would need a light airy doughnut to inject filling into. It was an excellent jelly filling inside a tasty doughnut shell covered in powdered sugar. Like the Old Fashioned, I love this doughnut. It’s another classic. The others didn’t seem quite as sold as I was. While the comments weren’t bad, they certainly lacked enthusiasm. “Typical, but good jelly flavor. Enjoyed, but not blown away.” & “Traditional jelly donut with a twist on flavor. Donut itself was good, but a little heavy on the jelly amount.” & “Your typical strawberry jelly, but the yeast donut really helps it out. Overall very good.” Come on people… get on my level.

Stop 5: Country Style Donuts Delirium has set in.

Stop 5: Country Style Donuts
Delirium has set in.

   

 

Time to talk final results, personal first. I really enjoyed myself. It was a fun tour, but it did do some damage to the old gut. That being said, I think each place put out some excellent offerings. In the end though, my loyalties were not swayed. I remain a Country Style Donuts fan through and through. If I were handing out the belt, that’s where it would go. In the surprise category, I give it to WPA Bakery’s Olive Oil & Pear with Vegan Frosting. I didn’t see that being as good as it was. In the “this over that” category, it goes to Duck Donuts Maple Bacon over Sugar Shacks Bacon Maple. I think the difference maker is the crumbled bacon Duck uses over the chunks that Sugar Shack has. New things learned and new places tried. Good day for me.

 

The group saw things a little differently. Here is how the numbers played out:

Average Freshness: Average Taste: Average Originality: Overall Average:
Duck Donuts 9.0 6.8 7.0 7.6
Dixie Donuts 6.5 7.6 8.0 7.4
Sugar Shack 6.3 8.2 8.3 7.6
WPA Bakery 7.9 8.1 8.5 8.2
Country Style Donuts 7.2 8.0 3.7 6.3

 

Couple of surprises there. What’s no surprise is Duck averaging highest in the freshness category. I was shocked that Sugar Shack came in below Dixie Donuts there. Sugar Shack took the taste category due to having no doughnut average lower than a 7 there (two were rated above a 9). For all that freshness, Duck Donuts did not fare well in the taste world. Finally, we had originality, which is a tough topic (more on this in a second). WPA Bakery was the king of the doughnut stack here. It was that Olive Oil & Pear, I’m telling ya… Here is where I think this is a tough topic. Country Style scored SUPER low which, in the end, hurt it all around in the rankings. But, when we are talking originality, how original is a Strawberry Jelly Filled or an Old Fashioned? You would kind of expect them to score low there compared to a Key Lime or an Aztec Chocolate. I did not factor that in ahead of time so lesson learned.

 

I also asked the group to tell me which doughnuts they thought they could eat every day and which they could do without. I then averaged every doughnut to see if the top 3 and the bottom 3 matched this list. Let’s just say, we were all over the place here. I know that personally, I was much harder when it came to grading as opposed to choosing a doughnut straight up. I could stand all day and say “I loved _____” but when I put it on paper, you better impress me. I can only assume that happened with the others too. Once the dust settled, the winners were who they were. The belt for “People’s Choice” goes to Sugar Shack who fed us the Cheesecake with caramel. In a tie for the “Greatest Doughnut of the Day” we have Duck Donuts Peanut Butter with peanuts and WPA Bakery Olive Oil & Pear with vegan frosting. Congratulations to all three places.

Eat Everyday: I’ll Pass:
Sugar Shack Cheesecake WPA Bakery Vanilla
Country Style Old Fashioned Duck Donuts Lemon w/ Coconut
Duck Donuts Peanut Butter w/ Peanuts Dixie Donuts French Toast
Highest Average: Lowest Average:
Duck Donuts Peanut Butter w/ Peanuts (8.8) Dixie Donuts Orange Five Spice (6.3)
WPA Bakery Olive Oil & Pear w/ Vegan Frosting (8.8) Country Style Strawberry Jelly Filled (5.8)
Duck Donuts Maple Bacon (8.5) Country Style Glazed (5.3)

This was a surprisingly grueling endeavor for the group. We quickly learned that you can easily get overwhelmed by the sweetness. By the time we hit stop 4, we would have killed for something with some salt. Next time I will bring plenty of salty snacks to help beat the sugar-filled slump we hit. All told, we visited 5 doughnut places in just about an hour and a half. That’s including our drive time. Really not bad. We bought and ate 35 doughnuts (4.375 per person) at a total cost of $44.96 including tax. This breaks out to $1.28 per doughnut or $5.62 a person or $8.99 a shop. We all agreed that in the future everyone attending should bring $6 in cash which one person would collect in the beginning so they could pay at each stop. It would just make life way easier for everyone. At the end, I asked the group if they would do this again. Even with full stomachs and sugar overload, they universally agreed they would. We truly had a ton of fun and it was nice to be able to sample so many different doughnuts. The creativity and effort in putting out a great product was not only recognized, but appreciated. I think it says a lot about what is happening in this area of the food scene when the lowest score is for the simple, basic glazed doughnut and all of the others were considered so much more than average. I want to thank all of the doughnut shops and their staff for allowing us to swarm in on them unannounced to devour their offerings like locusts. This tour is something I highly recommend that anyone and everyone try. I can’t wait to plan a second one hitting up some different venues. If you want to join us, drop me a line. If you think we are fools, well… I doughnut give a damn!!

 

 

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Shoryuken Ramen

HOLY SWEET HELL, RAMEN IS ALIVE AND WELL IN RICHMOND!! No, not the stuff you buy from the store for $.15 when you are broke. I mean actual, authentic Japanese-style ramen. Sure, other places in Richmond claim they have it. Reality is they are just making Asian spaghetti (at least that’s what it seems like). Truly, the only place putting authentic bowls of it on the table is Shoryuken Ramen. From its humble beginning at friends’ parties to various pop-up’s to brick & mortar, Shoryuken has been doing it right for well over a year now.

 

Shoryuken Ramen is the brainchild of Will Richardson, who is the head chef and co-owner. I had the pleasure of meeting Will in June 2014 when he sat down with my partner Marcella and I to record our ForkItRVA podcast. Little did I know at the time, but Will was on the cusp of something big for RVA. Will started small, with parties at friends’ houses. Realizing that was small potatoes, he took the next step. He teamed up with Sarah Choi, who took on the hefty job of the non-kitchen duties (like hosting and scheduling), and they began running Shoryuken Ramen as a pop-up restaurant. These pop-ups occurred at great places like The Rouge GentlemenBalliceaux and Nacho Mama’s. Each pop-up was limited in size and did those tickets go QUICK!! Thankfully, I had the foresight to reserve tickets early for each event. With every pop-up, Will was able to refine his ramen a little more. His broth took on new levels of flavor and depth with each fresh attempt. His meat went from hunks to the easier to manage shredded pork. Each pop-up was a learning experience and Will really embraced that. There was always a ramen special offered at each one. I made sure to get that each time as it proved to always be delicious. Eventually Shoryuken Ramen was too big and on such a roll that these pop-ups weren’t enough to contain the goodness. So, the show took up temporary residence at Lunch on Monday & Tuesday nights. I was fortunate enough to go several times. Seating was limited so reservations were smart. Plus they usually sold out super early in the night. Richmond had developed an appetite for ramen apparently. The hunt for a permanent location was on. After quite a bit of searching, Will & Sarah decided to team up with the Bufford’s, of Toast & Hutch fame, to take over the old Dash: Kitchen and Carry space near VCU. Doors opened on April 13, 2015 and there has been no looking back. The Shoryuken Ramen Ninjas (as they call themselves) hit the ground sprinting with no tiring in sight.

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The restaurant is located at 900 E. Franklin St. on the VCU campus. During the school year parking can be tough due to the college students, but it’s not impossible. Just keep an eye out on the street and have hope. Worst comes to worst, just throw it up on the curb. That would be nothing out of the ordinary over there. It’s not a massive restaurant space, but it seats roughly 50 people. There is a “private” dining area to the right when you walk in for those looking to get away from the open seating plan in the front of the restaurant. The bonus to the front is the massive number of windows which makes it bright and cheery during the day. At night the space is nicely lit thanks in part to a lighted wall dividing the front dining area from the bar designed by co-owner Josh Buford himself. The lighting starts roughly halfway up the wall and goes to the ceiling. It is a custom made piece which gives the area a great feel. The bar is spacious and inviting with functional seating. By that I mean you are able to hold a conversation with more than just the person next to you, unlike some bars where you are cramped in. The artwork on the walls gives an authentic Japanese feel to the place. The giant koi fish (made by the folks at Sure Hand Signs) on the wall to your right upon walking in is wonderful. I wouldn’t hate to see them mural around it, but on its own it’s still great looking. All in all, it’s a pretty nice space and quite conducive to enjoying a fresh bowl of ramen.

 

Currently, you can only get your ramen fix at dinner time. Hopefully we will see lunch soon. I personally don’t think ramen twice a day sounds bad. For now, doors open at 5pm and stay open till 11pm Monday to Thursday. They are open till midnight Friday and Saturday and closed Sunday (we all deserve a break). Happy hour is 5 to 7 each night at the bar. Well, drinks are all across the restaurant. Non-menu food specials are at the bar only. The drinks are excellent and were all created by the brilliant Sean Rapoza. They are all references to Street Fighter characters and moves (that’s kinda the theme of things here). I really enjoy the Blanka’s Batida which is made with Cachaca 51 (a distilled spirit made from sugarcane), pressed lime, muddled fruit & sichuan peppercorn syrup. It is not terribly sweet, which you would assume from the fruit and the sugarcane. The peppercorn syrup really helps to reign that in as does the lime juice. It’s an excellent summer drink. I’m also a fan of the Flash Kick which is made of Tito’s handmade vodka, ginger beer, pressed lime & super spicy chili kick. The kick truly provides some heat to this drink so if spice isn’t for you, avoid this. I have yet to make ACTUAL happy hour, so I have not had the pleasure of diving into the food offerings. I did happen to score a plate of the pork meatballs late night recently. These slightly bigger than bite-sized beauties come resting on a wonderful puree of… I have no clue. It was delicious though. Each meatball is topped with a few pieces of pickled jalapeno to add a tiny bit of that oh-so-good hotness that all food requires. The meatballs themselves have a wonderful slightly spicy porky flavor. I could eat about a dozen as a warm up. I look forward to hitting up the other offerings soon.

 

Now, I will admit that this post is long long overdue. I have eaten at Shoryuken Ramen roughly, ummm…. 50 times since April. I have sampled a giant swath of the menu. That being said, I’m going to describe my LAST time there. I was there to pick Sally up from work so when she got off we ordered food. To me it is a great sign when your employees, who deal with this food for hours at a time, are still eager to sit down after work to enjoy it themselves. I’ve worked in restaurants and I will say that is not always the case. Most of the time you are so sick of looking at it and smelling it you just want anything else at the end of your day. We started off with 3 of the appetizers because they are a must; the Ajitama Deviled Eggs (which, due to insane egg prices, are currently not on the menu. Still, I will discuss them in hopes they are back in the future), the Tofu Sliders and the Smothered Tots.

 

First, let’s talk about the Ajitama Deviled Eggs. These are seasoned with soy and topped differently each day. That day they were ginger scallion. The flavor is amazing. The savoryness of the fatty yolk is accented perfectly by the sweet-spiciness of the ginger. The scallions provide texture and a slight hint of earthy onion. I love the deviled eggs and I order them every time I go. Don’t be afraid to use your fingers either. They are not the most chopstick-friendly food.

 

Next up are the Tofu Sliders. You can also get either Chashu (braised pork) or Katsu (Japanese style fried pork cutlet) sliders, which are both good. We decided to with tofu, as both Sally & I are big tofu fans. This is in “slabs”. It’s marinated after it’s been pressed. Then, it is sliced and seasoned. Those slabs are then grilled to absolute perfection, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. They take these perfect slabs and serve them on a Hawaiian roll with house pickles, a touch of tangy sauce & Japanese potato salad. These tiny sandwiches are heaven. Everything about them is just so right. The flavor is there thanks to the marination on the tofu and the sauce on the already stunning Hawaiian roll. I’m not one for potato salad, as you all know. Still, I tried it, like any good customer would. It’s very good. Nothing crazy or weird. I would eat it again and that says a lot.

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Last, but not least, the Smothered Tots. These are the brainchild of Sarah Choi. Give that woman a damn medal, because these things are Olympic winners. Tater tots, Chashu, scallions & spicy Kewpie mayo make up this seemingly simple dish. In reality, it is anything but simple. It starts with humble tater tots, a fan favorite for most people from childhood. Even me, and I strongly dislike potatoes. These tiny pillows of goodness are baked up to perfection and lovingly placed in a basket. Don’t worry, plenty of these little fellas make it in there so they aren’t lonely. The magicians in the back then put perfectly cooked Chashu pork on the top, like a blanket of slightly salty porky goodness. Want to make sure those little fellas stay cozy in that basket. Then they dress them up with a silky smooth Kewpie mayo. Kewpie mayo is made with rice vinegar with gives it a bit more tang. It balances out the pork nicely. Finally they toss on some scallions, just to be healthy. Green things are healthy, right? Each bite of this dish is spectacular.

 

To top off our appetizers, we got a bowl of ramen. Because, well duh! That’s what they do here. Sally told the kitchen to make us something delightful. They were more than happy to oblige. Our bowl was a Shoyu (soy sauce based) tare (broth). It was loaded with the alkali noodles that define ramen. These noodles are made different from other noodles specifically to hold up in broth for long periods of time. We were also given pickled mushrooms (my favorite), sliced bamboo, kimchi corn and pork belly. This bowl had a ton of great flavors going on. Let’s dive in, shall we? The tare has a very mild and salty taste due to it being made with soy sauce. While still a salty base, it is less intense than the shio tare (which is sea salt based and my favorite). Just an FYI to all people who don’t understand science… things made with salt are bound to taste SALTY. Therefore, please don’t be shocked or appalled that the tare is salty. That should be obvious. That being said, the tare is truly the foundation upon which this house is built. Thankfully, due to careful crafting in the kitchen, this foundation is solid to the core. The noodles, as always, were amazing. I love the slight spring they maintain the entire time they exist, which isn’t very long. Will and his grandmother perfected the noodle recipe over 9 long months and then sourced a company in Japan to make them to that specification. They are shipped over here on a continual basis so we may indulge. The vinegary tang of the mushrooms is one of the best parts of the dish, as far as I’m concerned. Even Sally, an AVID hater of mushrooms, likes these. Somehow, even after marinating in their liquid, the mushrooms don’t get slimy. HOW that is possible, I do not know, but I like it. The sliced bamboo is a silent star in this dish. I have always hated water chestnuts. I don’t like the weird crunchy texture. I figured the bamboo would be exactly the same way. The thought made me uncomfortable. After trying it though, I see how wrong I was. The bamboo is firm, not crunchy. It has a pleasing earthy flavor to it. It’s subtle in the ramen, but necessary. The firecracker of this proverbial July 4th party is the kimchi corn. This stuff is crazy. It’s crunchy. It also quite literally pops and fizzles on your tongue. It’s a crazy, yet delightful feeling. Regardless of what you get next time, get a little side cup. Finally that leaves us with the pork belly. That salty, meaty, just-the-right-kinda-fatty, sexy, delicious pork belly. I don’t have to say much more really…

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I know what you’re thinking. “Nick is just shooting off at the mouth here. It can’t be that good.” Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s really not that great. Mayhaps I am just making this out to be better for a variety of potential reasons. Or… I’m not. I direct your attention to the trophy that currently sits on the bar at Shoryuken Ramen. It is the Broad Appétit 2015 Richmond Magazine’s “To Dine For” Main Dish Award. Basically all that means is that Shoryuken Ramen put the best dish (cold noodles with Hiyashi Chuka) on the table out of 75 restaurants. Sooooo… maybe I’m onto something here. If you still don’t believe me you can always go out to all these other places serving ramen and plop down your hard earned cash money for a mediocre imitation bowl of soup. Or you can put on your ninja pants and head out for a real dish of Japanese ramen from Shoryuken Ramen. Choose wisely young grasshopper.

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