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Mama J’s

“Where do we want to go?” The question is a tough one. There are so many factors to consider. What section of town? How much are we looking to spend? Are we concerned with great cocktails or a big beer selection? What subset of food are we trying to nosh on? For such a dense question, it sure seems to just hang in the air. “How about Mama J’s?” one of the ladies offers. Just like that, with one text message, the question has been wrestled into submission. Reservations were made and anticipation built until finally we are all standing outside the doors of our delicious smelling destination.

 

Located on 1st St. in Jackson Ward, this green building is tucked neatly into its block. It’s not a big place, so it amazes me that you aren’t packed in like a sardine once inside. The restaurant perfectly balances maximum seating with maximum comfort. That being said I have one word for you: RESERVATIONS. If you think you are just going to walk in and get yourself a table on a typical night, good luck to you. We had reservations and still waited about 20 minutes. Once we were called, we were lucky enough to have a table right by the big front windows. I like to watch the world pass by while I eat.

     

 

A few minutes after we were seated our server came by to take our drink orders. He was a jovial fellow with a sturdy knowledge of the restaurant’s offerings. As always, I went with a beer but the ladies went with cocktails. Our server was able to make great recommendations, like the Papa’s Punch (a combo of rums and juices) and the Uncle Rowland’s Spiked Limeade (spiked with whiskey). Both were served in mason jars, which I appreciate as that is a big sturdy vessel. Each was flavorful with the Punch being sweet and the Limeade tart. You knew there was alcohol in them but it didn’t steamroll the drink. So, the cocktails were on point. Good start.

   

 

The menu is a simple one page affair, which is amazing. You are here for Southern comfort food and that is what is offered. We got a double order of the catfish nuggets while we made our main course choices. I’m almost at a loss on how to describe them. Golden brown is accurate, yet it feels hollow. It’s almost as if this fish was painted with the rays of an early morning sun, the color was so deep and rich. Whomever was working the fryer was a master. They cooked these nuggets perfectly. The tasty, light breading was able to obtain a satisfying crunch while the fish on the inside was juicy and firm. The tartar sauce served on the side was sown with the flavors of something mixed fresh each day in the kitchen. Its zesty creaminess was spiked with pleasant little pops of crunch from the relish folded into it. When you dipped the fish into the sauce, your bite took itself to a different level. Get your mitts on some as soon as possible.

 

 

Usually, when it comes to our main courses, we all like to get a different dish. This allows for much tasting and trying of each other’s plates. Yet, after careful consideration of the menu, we all pretty much settled on the same thing. Two of us got fried chicken and two of us baked chicken. It was with our sides that we brought a sense of variety. I went with the fried chicken with seafood salad, collard greens and a corn muffin. I love fried chicken, which is something that can be said for a lot of people. This chicken did nothing but reinforce my feelings. The breading was well seasoned, the flecks of black pepper visibly trapped in its flaky goodness. It was a crispy thin covering allowing each bite to be a symphony of crunches. The meat trapped under this protective covering was juicy and savory. The seafood salad was rich and creamy. It was laced with choice chunks of shrimp in what amounted to the perfect noodle to seafood ratio. The dill lent its refreshing herby flavor to the creamy sauce. The collard greens were a vinegar flavor bomb. They were cooked with obvious care. They weren’t some mushy green blah. Instead, they were bright and zesty with good body. The corn muffin was warm, moist and corny — It was what you want out of corn bread. When you sliced it in half, it almost sang to you about how great it would be with butter soaked into its crevices. Each part of this dish was perfectly complimented by its companions. One missing, to me, would have made this meal feel incomplete. When I had finally polished everything off, my stomach had a feeling of zen-like contentment.

     

 

Mama J’s fully deserves the reputation it has as a mecca for Southern comfort food. Each dish we had was artfully crafted and exquisite. The place itself has such a giant feel for a place that is so small. It somehow blends the qualities of a grandma’s kitchen with a sophisticated big city restaurant. I feel lucky knowing a place like this exists in Richmond. If you are looking to soothe your soul with some great food, I suggest a reservation here. Until next time, faithful readers, may your limeade be spiked and your nuggets catfished.

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Walking Tour of Scott’s Addition

Scott’s Addition is officially the booziest neighborhood in Richmond. As of the time of writing this post there exists one distillery, one meadery, one wine dispensary, two cideries and four breweries with a fifth set to open shortly.

 

So, let’s talk numbers.

 

There are approximately 1,140 apartments in the neighborhood. That would mean (factoring in the unopened brewery) that there is one alcoholic establishment for every 114 apartments. VERY roughly guessing that there are 3,500 residents in the neighborhood, we get a “boozery” for every 350 people. Here is the biggest takeaway — of the roughly 30 breweries/cideries/meaderies in the Richmond-metro area, 1/3rd are in Scott’s Addition. If you doubt my numbers, Google “Scott’s Addition” and check out any article you find. We are in the midsts of a booze soaking my friends and I live in the biggest wave pool. Therefore, it only makes sense that I invite a bunch of friends on a “Walking Tour of Scott’s Addition” in order to make sure everyone has at least dipped a toe in the water.

 

Before I get into the tour itself, a quick public service announcement. All of the breweries/cideries in Richmond allow — most actually encourage —  you to bring food. Yes, a lot of them have food trucks that visit for the day and I advocate for you to support them. Still, don’t be scared to pack a meal and bring it. A day of straight drinking with no snacks is bound to be a failure and truly a rookie mistake. That being said, the good old Brewery Wagon (I outfitted an old wagon with coolers and a drybox to make it a picnic basket on wheels) was loaded to the gills with a wide variety of snacks plus a speaker playing summer hits of the 80s. If you are going to do it, do it right.

 

Black Heath Meadery

Everyone met at my house for our 1pm departure on a fairly beautiful Saturday afternoon. Our first stop on the tour was Black Heath, the meadery located at 1313 Altamont Ave. This deep building is used mostly for production with a small front area for tastings. Mead, for those who are unsure, is a drink made from fermented honey. Bill Cavender, the owner and head mead maker, uses honey from beekeepers all across Virginia. He also uses Virginia grown fruits, herbs and spices to flavor his meads. Black Heath doesn’t sell by the glass or the ounce, but they will instead provide you with a tasting of the various meads that they currently offer. We were lucky enough to taste 11 different varieties which included a basic mead, a hot pepper mead, a ginger mead and a blackberry mead to name a few. Black Heath isn’t a place to go for an afternoon of drinking, as I said. Their hope is during the tasting you will find a mead you truly like thus buying a bottle. Our group bought several before we headed on to stop two.

 

Three Notch’d RVA Collab House

Stop two was right up the street at 2930 W. Broad Street. It is the Richmond branch of Three Notch’d known as the RVA Collab House. This is the third location of the Charlottesville brewery. It was created with the premise of being a place that Three Notch’d could collaborate with the Richmond community to create a wide variety of beer styles while still serving some of the flagship beers made in the original brewery. Every Thursday night the Collab House releases a local collaboration selling the pints for $3 until the first keg kicks or 9pm hits. I have attended quite a few and can assure you, it’s a tasty deal. Due to the heat on this day, we by-passed the large outdoor seating area and claimed two of the large indoor tables. The brewery was busy but not overwhelmingly packed. We were all able to walk right up to the bar and get beers without a long wait. I encouraged people who had never visited to get a flight of beers. I actually encouraged splitting flights as we had a long day ahead of us. I myself am a fan of the Jack’s Java Espresso Stout. The blend of locally roasted coffee and chocolate flavors perk up the tastebuds as you savor each sip. I usually get at least one every time I visit. Now, as this was stop one, I only busted out light snacks. Long day ahead of us, folks. After about 45 minutes or so, we wrapped it up to head out for the next stop on the journey.

   

 

The Veil Brewing Company

This was probably the longest walk of the tour as we headed from one side of Scott’s Addition to the other. Stop three is located at 1301 Roseneath Rd, The Veil Brewing Company. Purely eyeballing it, I would guess that The Veil is the biggest of the breweries in the neighborhood. With a massive parking lot, generous indoor seating and extensive brewing area, The Veil takes up some real estate. Named one of the “best new breweries in America” by BeerAdvocate magazine, The Veil is never far from the lips of those in the craft beer know. Drive by on a Tuesday at 3:50pm and look at the line that runs down the sidewalk for the 4pm can release they do and you will understand the popularity of this brewery. The outdoor area has lots of seating and usually holds a local food truck. Inside is decorated with various taxidermy animals and unique light fixtures. Seating was at a premium due to the large crowd so we were concentrated around the end of one table. The Veil specializes in hoppy beers. They work with a lot of barrel-aged and wild yeasts as well. They also offer a nitro coffee on tap which is delicious. As far as the beers, I like the Master Master Shredder Shredder, which is a double American IPA. The hops are the star here producing the fruity flavors that make this not only incredibly enjoyable, but an easy drinker over and over again. Unfortunately, our time here was short due to the crowds, but the odyssey must carry on.

   

 

Blue Bee Cider

For our fourth touch-down I decided to switch up the hit to the palate with our first cidery. Blue Bee Cider originally started in Manchester but decided to expand their production by moving to the old Richmond city stables located at 1320 Summit Ave. Retaining the beautiful stone buildings and courtyard, this may be one of the loveliest outdoor drinking areas in the entire city. Its charm is undeniable. If anyone is looking for a quaint date night idea, pack yourself a picnic and head to Blue Bee Cider. Delicious cider enjoyed with a good meal outdoors in the whimsical setting is a win. Blue Bee is the first urban cidery in Virginia. If you want to know all about them, I suggest you read this article written by a savvy reporter. Blue Bee cider is not for swigging as it generally rocks a high ABV so I encouraged sharing in all cases. Marathon drinking day, not a sprint. I went for my favorite of the ciders here which is also one of the original ciders, the Aragon 1904. Named after the original building it was made in, the Aragon Coffee building in Manchester, this cider is amazing. Refreshing and slightly dry (which means not as sweet) this cider pairs well with a variety of foods because it accents instead of overwhelms. It drinks easy on a hot day, which was convenient as it was quite toasty out. Our sojourn at Blue Bee complete, we continued on.

   

 

Ardent Craft Ales

Stop five of this jaunt took us to 3200 W. Leigh St. which is the home of Ardent Craft Ales. Ardent is one of my favorite breweries so I visit there often. What started as homebrewing in a Church Hill garage expanded into a brewery set in a 1940s Scott’s Addition warehouse. The outdoor beer garden is spacious with ample seating. Inside is open and welcoming. I find the partially finished ceiling to be dashing, but what do I know. We were able to carve out some space at one of the picnic tables in the beer garden. I chose this stop to lay out our spread. Taking a moment to brag, the star of this spread was my smoked chicken salad and my house-made pickles. I’m more than just a pretty face and a stellar writer, y’all. Moving along… Picking my favorite beer here is hard. All of the IPAs are great. The gose Ardent recently made was a flavor explosion. Still, I think I will narrow it down to a beer currently not on tap, the Earl Grey Brown Ale. This beer is so much deeper than its spirited brown color. Its opulent aromas of tea and orange avail the flavor of black tea that encapsulates your tastebuds. If I were to pick the perfect cuddle-up in front of a roaring fire on a cold day beer, this is it. After a brief rain delay we packed it all in and got the caravan moving to stop 6.

 

 

Isley Brewing Company

Our campaign took us to 1715 Summit Ave and the most crowded stop yet, Isley Brewing Company. The original Scott’s Addition brewery is set in a yellow-trimmed brick front along Summit. Once inside you realize the small front deceives you as the brewery is quite spacious. The bar is, smartly, set towards the back of the space leaving copious amounts of seating, which was all full by the time we arrived. With no place to set anything we decided to forego flights in favor of easy held beers. The beers here are numerous and oft changing, meaning you get to try a variety of styles while at Isley. While most people would tell you that the Choosy Mother, a peanut butter porter, is their go-to beer, I go in a slightly different direction. I am a fan of the first beer Isley brewed which is the only flagship beer they have, The Bribe. Beneath the dark, bubbly surface lies the flavors of a well executed oatmeal porter. Chocolate swims alongside a subtle swirl of malt. It isn’t pretentious, nor is it showy. I find comfort in its simplicity. Once beers were done, we stepped out into the light misty curtain of rain to reach the final piece of our quest.

 

Buskey Cider

The old train car loading building at 2910 W. Leigh St is now home to Buskey Cider. Apple trees line the sidewalk in front of this brick building, giving the feel of a small orchard in the city. We entered into the front room/seating area. This is room is smaller than its companion which sits just past the glass windows that serve as Buskey’s menu board. Buskey Cider is the place to go to find both semi-sweet and dryer ciders. I fondly describe the ciders here as “pint ciders.” By that I mean they don’t overwhelm you with sugar or destroy you with high ABVs so you can have several pints in a sitting. By this point the original group had thinned out and those that remained were ready to chill over a nice refreshing pint. Seeing as my absolute favorite, the coffee cider, wasn’t on tap, I went with my second favorite which is the citra hop. Not overly sweet, this cider has the added tang of hops in it. The citra hop has a wonderful tropical fruit aroma that blends impeccably with the soothing odor of apple. The flavor mirrors the smell in the most elegant way. It is truly a refreshing cider.

   

 

Like all good things, this pilgrimage to taste all the beer, cider and mead in Scott’s Addition must come to an end. It took us roughly 8 hours to flit around and sample all the goods. We laughed. We ate. We drank. We conquered. It’s so easy to say “there isn’t anything to do” and just sit home on a weekend. Instead, pack yourself a bag of snacks, slip on a good pair of walking shoes and go explore Scott’s Addition. Until next time my friends, may your drinks be locally made and your wagons full of snacks.

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Moore Street Cafe

Of the seven major meals of the day, my deepest love will always be breakfast. Sure, everyone loves a good afternoon tea or an after dinner supper. Brunch may be over-celebrated, but it still makes you dance with joy — How could you not, right? But breakfast… that is where the greatness lies. From a humble bowl of cereal to the almighty buffet, the options are endless. I am lucky enough to live in a city with restaurants that pay homage to the breaking of my fast in such a spectacular way. One such french toast stick in a tray of toast is Moore Street Cafe.

 

As a Scott’s Addition resident, I am blessed with several great breakfast spots within a three minute walk. Still, I find myself drawn constantly to walk the block to Moore Street Cafe. Set in the bottom floor of a brick building right near the intersection of Moore St. and Boulevard, this is a very unassuming little gem. They are open Monday to Friday from 6 to 2:30 and Saturday from 8 to 2. (It is closed on Sundays. I thought I would get that out of the way right off the bat because it causes me deep pain and flashes of annoyance. I WANT IT ALL WEEKEND!!!) It looks kinda small from the outside, but that is because you don’t realize there is a back room of seating so don’t hesitate to bring a large party. I have a few times. The staff is super accommodating.

 

Someone once asked me how I would describe the feel of Moore Street Cafe. I summed it up like this: When you walk in, you immediately realize that they don’t try really hard to convince you they are this classy pretentious breakfast destination. They are honest and say, “We are a cafe that does what cafes should do. Either you are in or you’re out.” I love that. One thing the north has a lot of is diners. I grew up going to them on weekends or skipping school with friends to hang out in one. Walking into Moore Street Cafe is a wave of nostalgia for me. It’s simple as it should be.

 

The staff is always super friendly. They encourage you to sit where you wish and are prompt to take your drink order/drop off menus. On weekends they have Moore Mosas, which I highly recommend. You can get a 32oz pitcher for yourself for $6. They are the perfect ratio of juice to champagne. Last time I was there, they offered 10 different flavor options. Pineapple was superb.

 

Take time to peruse the menu. It won’t take very long as it is short, like a solid menu should be. Classic breakfast foods dominate the page, like eggs and hash, omelets, or stacks of pancakes. There are two dishes that jump off the page each time I eat there, the first of which is the Squirrel’s Nest Breakfast Bowl. As we are in the shadow of The Diamond, home of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, this bowl is a nice little nod to them. It consists of bacon, eggs, and cheese over top of tater tots covered in homemade sausage gravy. It comes in small or large size. I recommend you get the biscuit with it for sopping up leftover gravy. To say it’s filling is to say the King Kong was merely a gorilla. This bowl delivers on size and flavor. It is savory and delicious. A must try. The second dish that has become my fat-man go-to is The Darcy Jones. This platter of food is a base of hash browns (cooked with onions and peppers) over which a thick layer of house-made corned beef hash is placed and then it is crowned with four fried eggs if you get the full, or two eggs if you do the half. I like to add cheese to the top of mine because duh. I always order the pancakes with it. This sheet pan of happiness is amazing. It is rich and fortifying. The sweetness of the big fluffy cakes helps to balance it all out in your mouth. So damn good.

 

       

I have also been for lunch on several occasions. While the menu is slightly bigger than breakfast, it is no less solid. The burgers are fresh and juicy. They aren’t small either, as they are ⅓ of a pound. I love the tame heat of the Jalapeno Jack Burger. It won’t leave you with a mouth on fire, but it still gives you a tingle. I would say it’s more campfire than housefire. The true lunch gem for me though is the Bologna Burger. Wow… just wow. A thick cut of bologna grilled beautifully so that the outside is gently caramelized while the inside remains warm and flavorful. I added cheese and a fried egg to mine. It is served on a great bun that adds a layer of earthy flavor to it. I would eat one every day if I wasn’t 100% sure it would kill me. The side choices are vast and varied. I was a fan of the housemade macaroni salad, but the coleslaw and the 3-bean salad also had my attention.

 

Moore Street Cafe is the definition of neighborhood joint in all of the best ways — welcoming, friendly, and consistent, all for a fair price. From the early morning workers to the beat cops to the college students to the families, all kinds find a refuge there among the bustle and the good smells, if only for an hour. So, skip the long wait lines at all these “must visit Richmond brunch spots” and come over on a Saturday. Wrap your hands around a cup of coffee while the cooks grill your breakfast. Joke with your server as you sip your mimosa. Enjoy life as it’s meant to be enjoyed, if only for a little. Until next time faithful reader, may your bologna be thick-cut and your Darcy be Jonesed.

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Nota Bene

What I love about my life is that I am fortunate enough to have several pools of friends that I am able to slip in and out of as the world sees fit. I’m aware that is a gift and I do my best not to take it for granted. That being said, one of the pools I love the most is the one that only forms on a rare basis. Way, way back in late January/early February of 2014 I was fortunate enough to become friends with five other amazing folks who were all bloggers (at the time). Dubbing ourselves the Richmond Food Coalition, we quickly formed a bond based upon a passion for food and a deep respect for each other’s talents. With life being super busy it is hard to get together as often as we would like. That’s what makes our dinners together even more amazing. So, when we arranged to go to Nota Bene in August, I cleared my calendar and polished my spoon. It was Food Coalition time!!

Nota Bene is the brick and mortar to long-running food truck Pizza Tonight. From a concept that started as pizza parties in a backyard with homemade sauce and fresh ingredients to a full-fledged Italian eatery is the kind of journey that has helped establish Richmond as a culinary destination. It’s the traditional American dream played out in the world of food.

Nota Bene

 

Nota Bene is located on E. Main just outside of Shockoe Bottom (at least in my opinion). It is a very large space with a warm brick interior and large front windows that provide bountiful natural light. The specials menu is a giant blackboard that hangs on the wall. The bar is invitingly stocked with craft beers, quality booze and wines which I know nothing about. The large brick pizza oven glows merrily and produces wonderful aromas that drift around the room like friendly apparitions of dinner future. In short, it’s a place that inspires happiness on looks alone.

After plantlings were exchanged, hugs given and general excitement at seeing each other stirred up, we sat down at the table next to the large front window. As always, the business of drinks and starters took precedence to general pleasantries. We agreed to split a bottle of wine (all I can tell you is that it was a delicious red) and a few of us also got beers. The draft selection was heavily Virginia based with a wide variety of styles. Something for all those who enjoy an adult beverage.

We ordered several of the special starters. I distinctly recall the sardine fillets and the giant bowl of mussels. The sardines were presented in olive oil, lemon juice and fresh Italian parsley. They were fresh and bright, complemented by the fresh warm bread that I put them on. It always amazes me how quickly people turn down sardines without even trying them. This plate highlighted the beauty that can be found in these tiny little fish. The bowl of mussels was quite bountiful. They were cooked with peppers and leeks in a broth that would have made some soups jealous. The mussels were steamed perfectly, making them tender to the chew. When combined with the light onion flavor from the leeks and the heat of the peppers you couldn’t ask for more, really. Starters alone could have had me leaving happy.

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As Nota Bene started as a wood-fired pizza joint, I went the obvious route with a pizza. It’s a no brainer really. You don’t go to a taco joint for the hot dogs. You aren’t a savage. So, pizza it had to be — sausage pizza, to be exact. With broccolini and ricotta over a red sauce. All the good words on one pizza. I was super stoked. To accompany such a delightful main course I ordered the roasted cauliflower. I love cauliflower not only for its taste, but for its versatility. Mashed, grilled, roasted, stir-fried, steamed… it’s good. Plus, it’s healthy, from what I’m told. Can’t beat that part either. Others at the table ordered pizzas and pastas. We really got a sampling of the menu.

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My cauliflower came out first. This bowl was legit. I think that’s truly the only word for it. Each bite was its own culinary adventure as your mouth traversed the world of flavor. The cauliflower itself had retained a refreshing crunch during its roasting. It wasn’t soggy or limp as veggies can be. There was a light brown roast to it giving a savoury smoky taste. The chilies provided little surprise pockets of mild heat that never burned too hot or overwhelmed the tongue. The capers provided just a hint of vinegar each time one burst in your mouth. That was balanced beautifully by the lemon juice. In fact, those flavors combined to give a fresh spring-time taste to the dish. As my fork went to work I optimistically hoped that each piece speared would regrow as two new pieces on my plate, much the way the heads of the Hydra of Lerna did. Sadly, that was not to be and I appropriately wept inside upon putting the last piece in my mouth.

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My personal food tragedy was to be short lived though as a new hero arrived to bring joy to the multitudes of tastebuds and slay the hunger. My sausage pizza proved to be no dainty personal pan size. This was a hand-stretched, wood-fired thin crust champion of the people. This pizza could have been easily split between two people, but I am a fat kid with heart and determination so it was all for me.

The crust… oh the crust.

First off, you could taste the freshness in the dough. It wasn’t a mass-produced, flash-frozen, thaw-as-you-need ball of dough. This was fresh, made in-house with fresh ingredients by hands that strive to obtain quality. Yes, I tasted all that. Then it was pulled into a thin, yet supportive base for the toppings. Once it was cooked, it crisped beautifully with touches of char along the crust, like dark rouge applied expertly to the cheeks of a gorgeous woman. A nice layer of sauce was applied, neither overly thick or perilously thin. A comforting layer, like a warm tomato blanket draped upon a couch. The sauce was flavorful without being overpowering. The tomato was tamed by the garlic and other Italian seasonings that lived inside the sauce. Still, even though it was reined in and balanced out, the tomato couldn’t help but show off a bit. I applaud its efforts because it was tasteful.

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Finally, there was the toppings. Meaty, flavor-packed sausage. Sweet, crunchy stalks of broccolini roasted ever so slightly. Dollops of creamy, rich ricotta cheese interspersed between it all. Each bite was worth savoring, yet it was impossible to do so as you just wanted the next one in your mouth. Truly a wood-fired masterpiece from the first stage of creation to the last morsel on the plate.

As the night ticked on, the drinks were emptied and the food consumed. Conversation never waned and laughs never ceased to be. At one point I was temporarily transported back in time to dinner with my giant family back in NY, a place where the food was cooked with passion and the people who shared it with me were exemplary examples of humanity. At Nota Bene that night, I was in the presence of a feeling that intense. It was a beautiful combination of great people and excellent food in a building that strived to make you feel comfortable. I highly encourage you to attempt to capture that feeling for yourself one night soon. Get a bottle of wine, split some wood-fired pizzas and laugh around the table with those people in your life you value. We don’t have the chance to do that forever. Until next time readers, may your crust be crispy and your friendships everlasting.

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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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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.

Burger

 

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.

Smoked Steak

 

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.

Salad & Scallops

 

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.

Flatbread & Cheeks

 

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.

Grilled Up   Vegan Sausages

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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