Just A Few Thoughts

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Slice Vs. Slice: The Battle Of The Pizza

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

 

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

 

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

 

Pizza Data

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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My Shame Today

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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The First Great Doughnut Tour

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Stop 1: Duck Donuts So full of hope.

Stop 1: Duck Donuts
So full of hope.

 

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

Look at that gooeyness

Look at that gooeyness

 

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

Stop 2: Dixie Donuts  Get PUMPED!!

Stop 2: Dixie Donuts
Get PUMPED!!


 

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

 

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

Stop 3: Sugar Shack Still going strong!

Stop 3: Sugar Shack
Still going strong!

 

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

 

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

Stop 4: WPA Bakery The struggle is real.

Stop 4: WPA Bakery
The struggle is real.

 

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

 

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

Stop 5: Country Style Donuts Delirium has set in.

Stop 5: Country Style Donuts
Delirium has set in.

   

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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Shoryuken Ramen

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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We Hold These Truths…

I have no doubt that I will get judged for this post. People fully believe that you are supposed to stick to only what you said your blog is about. In this case, I’m supposed to only talk about food and events. That’s all I know, right? I don’t subscribe to that as a writer or as a person. The only thing I know better than food is myself. To put myself aside all the time and not discuss the world I live in does not only an injustice to my readers (granted a small one), but it more importantly does a giant injustice to myself. So dear readers, judge me for jumping out of the food world and into the real world for a post. I don’t give a flying fig today.

 

It seems that over the past year or so the country that we live in has slowly begun to visibly unravel. Now, I fully feel that all countries are in a constant state of unraveling, but sometimes it is very hard to see. Our break from reality and basic common sense has been on full display for quite some time now. That isn’t what really bothers me though. It’s expected that a country suffer its fair share of unbalance. How could it not with so many individuals living alongside each other? What bothers me is how out of touch we, as a collective, have become with the basic principles of decent humanity. Even worse than that, we are shocked when things happen, both good and bad. As if we haven’t the faintest idea of why the events that played out have played out as they did.

 

What we used to learn in school, and I can’t say that’s the case anymore (our failing education system is a different topic. Kudos to the teachers that still try to make a difference with the deck stacked against them), was the basic history of the country. I recall sitting in class in 5th grade and learning all about the Declaration of Independence. As a quick refresher for folks, this was the paper drafted by our founding fathers stating our refusal as a budding nation to be ruled from afar by a government we weren’t allowed to be a part of. I know that a lot of you are thinking “Duh stupid. ‘Merica!!”, which is just fine. I’m glad you remember this little document. I also hope that all of you remember the opening line of the preamble; We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. This one line, above almost all others, is the line that we all recognize and PROMPTLY forget. In my opinion, this line is the basis upon which we as not only a nation, but as individuals need to use as a compass to pull ourselves out of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

 

On June 26th of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in our country. This wonderful decision was a long time coming. It essentially put all people who love another person on level ground across the board. That is a beautiful situation in itself. I was always taught by not just my parents, but my family and friends, that love knows very little. It isn’t a cognizant being. It doesn’t actively pursue people, nor does it selectively match one person to another. It can’t see, therefore color, size, shape, beauty and sex are things it doesn’t recognize. It can’t pontificate for even a second about religious beliefs or political views. It CAN consume, transform, motivate, gladden, sadden or break someone though. Love is one of those untangible things that shapes a person as much as piano dropped on their head would. We are all victim to it with no ability to pick and choose who or what love makes us yearn each day for. The day you find a person who’s heart hasn’t suffered or been enriched by love is the day you are talking to a dead body. Even then, if they could speak… I’ve been there myself. Love has swollen my chest to the point of bursting and alternatively left my soul cold and bare when it’s left. So, when I see people who are against the idea of same-sex marriage, I shake my head in complete confusion. If two men have happened upon each other in this giagantic world and love has bound them together, why can’t they celebrate that? If two women are able to cut through the layers of darkness that life piles upon all of us to find even a small flame of love for each other, why can’t they build that fire to help block out said darkness? What makes a love between a man & a woman any more right then love between two people of the same sex? Remember that part of the Declaration of Independence that I mentioned above which says ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL? Doesn’t that also mean all love is created equal as well?

 

Tragedies in this country happen so often that I, for one, have become numb to them. That, in itself, should cause our society to shed a tear. We are so intent on destroying ourselves that when we are successful in accomplishing that we don’t even feel the lasting sting of the wound. Sure, I see the wound. I feel it happen. I see the aftermath. But, it doesn’t surprise me or even make me sad anymore. Heaven help me for that, but I have personally seen too much shit to let it ruin me each time. On June 17th, a… I struggle for the word here… being walked into a church and gunned down 9 people. Another tragedy where innocent lives are taken with no clear RATIONAL motive. Yet again a situation where an innocent blood stain gives way for intense outpourings of sympathy, pain, opinions and hate. It never seems to fail that with blood comes hate. As if, somehow, the two are expressly linked to each other. What happened to the right of everyone to pursue the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? When did taking someone’s life lead to everyone else’s oppression and their pursuit of hate? That’s what we seem to do so casually in this country here in 2015. If we don’t agree with someone, then they are obviously wrong and stupid. We feel that we are ENTITLED to happiness and that means our way all the time. We seem to forget that we are only entitled to the PURSUIT of happiness. Not everything will make us happy. So when the majority of this country finds that a flag does not stand for heritage, but instead stands for oppression, belittlement, sadness, fear, hate and tragedy why can’t we all try to see eye to eye instead of spewing forth more malice? Screaming “Heritage, Not Hate” holds about as much water as an invisible bucket and is about as effective in swaying public opinion as spray painting “Black Lives Matter” does on a Confederate leaders monument. Trying to force your views doesn’t lead to receptive attitudes. It’s childish hate that leads to more hate. There used to be a time where you could have a discussion with a person and still leave friends. Why have we allowed ourselves to walk so far away from that place?

 

This is America. We live in a country that used to look at the world and say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” We used to be stand as a symbol of greatness in this world. We were the dream people left their homes for. The life people strived for with every breath and ounce of energy. Now we are ‘Merica… We are a land mass of people scared of each other, fueled by hate for our differences. We are intent on eating ourselves from the inside out. A self perpetuating writhing mass of self-righteous over-confident preening nonsense with no clear directon. Our own forefathers would pick-up arms against us now to see the perversion we have wrought upon this glorious nation that they sacrificed themselves for. I only hope it is not too late for us to take a step back from the “‘Merica is the greatest country in the world” self-basting rhetoric we have marinated ourselves in to see that we are burning around the edges a bit.

 

At the end of the day, this post is no more than one more note in a hurricane wind blowing through a room full of windchimes. No one will read this and endure some dramatic metamorphosis of self. I doubt one kinder word or civil conversation will happen because of the thoughts I have word vomited all over your screen here. I accept that fully and I have made my peace with that. All I know is I have spoken what I feel. I am POSITIVE that I will get accused of being un-American. I’m sure people will stop reading my writing. I have no doubt that people will disagree with me. That’s ok because this country affords you the right to feel like that. I love this country. I would volunteer to die in it’s name tomorrow if need be. And I would line up to face that certain death with the hope in my heart that we can find a way to heal these cuts we keep making and return to the nation we once were. I wish you all a very happy 4th of July. Be safe. Watch out for each other. Love one another. Be great today and everyday going forward. Happy Independence Day my friends.

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X-Team Fitness

The thought of working out has, for most of my life, seemed awful and far-fetched. Not to mention sweaty and all around tragic. Plus, I am NOT a gym guy. The thought of running on a treadmill or laying down on a bench where the previous unknown weirdo just sweated their dank nasty weirdo sweat is NOT appealing. As a matter of fact, it gives me the heebie jeebies. So, traditional gyms are off the list. And Crossfit seems a little too intense and a touch too cult-like for me. I’m lazy, so running on my own is out. With nothing left to choose from, I guess that meant staying fat. Or so I thought. One day Sally hinted, like only a woman can, that I was becoming a boxy pile of useless man-blubber, without saying exactly those words. Actually, I think her exact words were “Why don’t you come workout with me. I think you’ll like it and it might help your knee feel better.” So I went as a guest and almost vomited. I signed up a few days later for a 9 week challenge and so it all began.

 

I joined a group called X-Team Fitness. It is an outdoor/indoor boot camp style workout program. I think it is best described as personal training in a group setting. While accurate, that description sometimes still feels too stiff for me. “Boot camp” makes me think of someone yelling in my face about how useless of a human being I am as I climb a rope up a wall. That’s not how this is at all. Well, there are ropes. And walls. But there are no disparaging comments. What X-Team is is a group of people, in all shapes and sizes, who get together for an hour in the morning or an hour at night (some people do both) to better themselves under the patient tutelage of knowledgeable instructors. But, for argument’s sake, let’s just call it the most rewarding hour of the day. We meet at different parks around the city for the outdoor sessions. Our new indoor facility is located in Scotts Addition and allows for a different exercise focus that wasn’t fully possible in the outdoor setting. It also will be handy when it’s 6 degrees out and snowing. That tends to make people complain (I, however, still wear shorts in the snow… like an adult… and a man. Because I am an adult man).

Indoor Facility

Indoor Facility

 

X-Team has several leaders, but the head honcho and founder is Bob Taylor. Bob started X-Team in 2007. To be a bit more exact, the very first workout was on May 24, 2007 at Forest Hill park. I wanted to know what motivated Bob to create X-Team Fitness. His idea originated when he was in high school. He told me, “As a track and football player I had an ‘athletic study hall’ where the athletes would gather at the field house the last period of each day, and the coaches would proceed to beat the crap out of us.” For Bob, that was the turning point in making fitness a lifetime passion. He went on to tell me, “I knew when I left school I wouldn’t have a program like that, so I decided to create it so other adults could have something similar. It’s still not exactly like the original vision, but with the acquisition of the indoor space we’re getting closer.” Years of hard work have seen Bob’s vision of just such a program become a reality. Part of his success is due to his ability to bring on other leaders who are knowledgeable and fun to workout with. They want to sweat just as badly as they are trying to make us sweat so they are not afraid to get right in the mix with everyone else. Part of the reason these workouts are so great is because of the team that leads them. For that, I thank you all.

X-Team Fitness candidates wear orange t-shirts throughout their initial 6-week challenge.

Once candidates make it through their 6-week challenge, they graduate and are rewarded with their black member t-shirts.

 

For the most part, X-Team is an outdoor program. That means you get the opportunity to experience the change of seasons here in Richmond. I started my 6-week challenge in September, so I caught the end of summer/beginning of fall weather. Afternoon sessions were still warm with mornings being a touch chillier. I got in the habit of doing morning sessions because it is just easier in my life. Plus, it is a great way to start the day. Winter was a bit tough. I made a rule that I would only wear pants if it was below 20 degrees. Otherwise, I rocked shorts, gloves and 2 shirts. What can I say, I get hot. Winter brought new challenges to the workouts which I liked. Running through snow is like running on a beach. Except cold and with zero girls in bikinis. Also, I learned that metal pull-up bars will stick to bare hands below 32 degrees. Still, it was worth it. Usually winter is that span of time where people hunker down around heaters and eat pizzas to build up fat stores to get them through the harsh icy temperatures. I dropped weight. And a pant size. Now that we have moved back into warmer weather, workouts have been a bit more pleasant. It has also been fun to watch members resurface as the thermometer climbed. Apparently bears aren’t the only ones who hibernate.

 

Having great leaders and being outside are only part of what makes this program exceptionally effective for me. It’s also the people you work out with that make this a fun experience. There is every personality and attribute represented: serious, goofy, tall, short, dainty, jacked, husky, skinny, long arms, stumpy legs, big mouth, super quiet and everything else you can imagine. Regardless of how they look or act, these folks drag themselves out of bed at 6am every morning, or scurry over after working all day at 6pm, to workout. Not only do they workout, and hard, but they have fun doing it. I’ll be the first to say it, I may have one of the biggest mouths there and it runs like a finely tuned motor for an hour straight. But I’m not alone. These folks are awesome. The amount of support that pours out is insane. If you go 4 minutes without hearing “Good job” or “Keep it going. You got it” then you might actually need to go to the doctor as you have developed sudden deafness. Working out alongside folks that are there for the same right reasons is invaluable to me. I’m grateful every time I have the chance to workout with this group and hope to be here for a long time.

 

So, what is a “typical workout” like you ask? Let me tell you. Well, let me first say there isn’t a “typical workout.” Each day is different. Still, I can tell you how our recent workout at Dogwood Dell went. I did the afternoon session, so the crowd was a little smaller than the morning. We had about 25 people, so not a bad turn out. We began with a nice warm-up run, which was just about a mile. If you were in the front, you may have gone just over a mile. We always run “back to last” in X-Team. That way we make sure we always know where people are. It also allows us the opportunity to encourage each other on. After the run we went right into the amphitheater and worked on our abs. We did flutter kicks, leg levers, crunches, sit-ups and knee pull-ins. Each set of exercises brought us down to the next level of seating. Once you reach the bottom there is only one way to go: up. Step-ups and box jumps brought us back to the top. Once there, we jogged over to the lawn in front of the Carilion. Here we sprinted to the far side of the lawn and back. Then we lined up from fastest sprinter to slowest and broke into teams of 6. Each team grabbed a rope. Team 1 raced Team 2 in a sprint. Then Teams 3 & 4, finishing with 5 & 6. We sprinted just enough times to put me on the cusp of puking. I have never been a sprinter (I won’t say I am one now), but I love the days we do sprints. It’s one of those areas you can really see a change in yourself. I’m faster than I was, with plenty of room to improve. After sprints, we broke up into teams of 5 according to weight. One person laid down and the other 4 grabbed their limbs and carried them to some cones. Then we had to bring their heavy asses back. The 5-man carry is tough and probably one of my least favorite exercises. It kills my wrists, but I do what it takes to get stronger. We ended the workout with a bit of fun, as Bob is known to do. We broke into 2 teams and played tug of war. After all the work we did, it is amazing to me that we still had the strength. People found it (specifically the other team who beat us twice) and we had a great time. To say by the end that I was a little sweaty is to say the James River is a moderate stream.

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Crunches and Flutter Kicks   (Photo Courtesy of X-Team Fitness)

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Knee Pull-ins (Photo Courtesy of X-Team Fitness)

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Bob working us hard (Photo Courtesy of X-Team Fitness)

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Team Rope Sprints

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Tug of War to end the workout

 

 

What about the indoors sessions? I can hear the inquiring minds from here. So, let me share our latest indoor venture. We pretty much ran a circuit of exercises with high weight meant to exhaust your muscles. Mission accomplished. After all 55 or so of us warmed up with a series of simple exercises (arm circles, jumping jacks, windmills and push ups) we partnered up. I have developed a small group of folks that I partner up with. I know them, they push me and I trust them to not let me kill myself. On this day my partner was Russ, a former football player. That means Russ is a lot bigger than my 5’9″/228 lbs frame. This also means any weight we were going to do would not be light… yay. Almost all the weight exercises were 3 sets of 8 reps. We started with overhead triceps extensions laying on the bench. Fully curl the weight down and then fully extend it up over the head with straight arms. We moved onto hammer curls. I will say that curls with 30 lbs weights gets to you fairly quickly. Our next stop was bench press. This is an exercise I seriously want to improve on. I know I can eventually do my body weight, but that’s a little ways away. Right now I had to settle for 135 lbs. Once we did our sets it was on to military press. We should have just hung out here another round because next was ab roll-outs. Talk about an exercise you will feel for days after. We then hit up jump rope, lunges, leg throw downs and partner sit-ups with a medicine ball. We finished up with dumbbell bear crawls. With some time left over, we went back to bench press. It was an excellent session and left me feeling completely wiped.

Push-ups

Squats

Overhead Tricep Extensions

Military Press

Ab Roll-outs

Partner Sit-ups

Partner Sit-ups

Leg Throw Downs

Leg Throw Downs

Dumbbell Bear Crawl

Dumbbell Bear Crawl

 

Bob also offers a Saturday run option and a stretch class. The runs are always good. Getting out there with some other folks to just run for an hour is incredibly therapeutic. You really get a chance to clear your mind. You will usually put away 4 to 6 miles on any given weekend. Starting your Saturday off with a 6 mile run really helps boost the rest of your day. The stretch class is also a huge help. While we do some stretching at the end of workouts, it’s really never enough. I’m guilty of not stretching when I get home either. The hour on Saturdays always leaves me feeling loose. I could use a 2 hour class, but I’ll take what I can get. Or I could just be an adult and stretch after working out…

 

In a moment of brutally serious honesty, I truly was the worst parts of all of us. I ate like garbage. If cheese or rice or pasta was not part of a meal, I felt it wasn’t worth eating. I love beer and drank probably more often than I should. I’d sit home rather than go for a jog. I suffered from terrible knee pain. I constantly complained about it, and used it as an excuse to get out of physical activities sometimes. I struggled with body image for years and years. My family has always been big like most Americans are, but that doesn’t mean people don’t tease. I tried very hard to convince myself that it didn’t bother me. I used self-deprecating humor to hide how uncomfortable I was in my own skin. I bought clothes that were big so that my gut didn’t hang out. I NEVER wore anything that said “fitted” or “slim.” I hated me, but it was worse because I acted like I didn’t.  In a nutshell, I wasn’t ok with who I was and had zero confidence that others could be ok with me.

 

X-Team helped change so much of that for me. I still eat what I want, but I attempt to not stuff my gullet full, and I also try to eat food that is marginally better for me. I have cut back my drinking. I don’t have a beer 5 nights a week. I try to save it for the weekends or big social events. My knee feels the best it has in years. Sure, it still has bad days, and it probably always will. I just have bad days less often now. The biggest thing is I’m not ashamed of who I am so much anymore. Do I still have work to do to get where I want to be? Yeah, but that motivates me to work harder. I’m not embarrassed to do simple things, like take my shirt off at the beach. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I’m 30!! We are talking well over 15 years. This summer, I’m not getting just that farmers tan. Once I really committed to X-Team I not only lost weight, but I lost inches. My belly and my waist dropped. Buying smaller pants is one of those little joys that can make your whole week shine. I put a shirt on that I hadn’t worn in 3 years because I was too big. And I looked good. I honestly have never felt this good inside and outside in… well, ever I guess.

 

I know this whole thing has sounded like a sales pitch. It’s not. I know that group workouts aren’t for everyone. It’s something that works for me. If, by chance, what I have said here does interest you then look into it. Try the 6-week intro course and see how you feel after. I promise you it gets easier, and you will feel better. I can tell you I did, it does and I do. Tell Bob I sent you. On second thought, you may not want to do that. He still regards me as “that woods-vomiting kid” and he has tried to get me to stick my tongue to frozen pull-up bars on several occasions (for the glorious silence that would ensue I assume). You’re better off just joining, working hard and getting jacked without admiting it was because of me.

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The Roosevelt

Restaurant week came again to Richmond. For all who don’t know what this is, it’s when a group of Richmond restaurants prepare a 3 course prix fixe menu for $29. 15 per person. Of that, $4.15 goes to FeedMore which is the parent of both the Central Virginia Food Bank and Meals on Wheels. Basically, by eating out you are supporting a local restaurant and feeding those who can’t always feed themselves. Worthy cause all around. Granted, if we each just donated $29.15 to FeedMore and ate at home for the night… But I digress. Supper Club decided to postpone our April meal until Restaurant Week so the “chore” of picking the best looking menu began. After much analysis, The Roosevelt was decided upon hands down. I called on April 3rd and made our reservation for April 21st at 6:30pm. Make your reservations early folks as spots go quick. Finally the day arrived and off we went.

 

The Roosevelt is located in Church Hill across from Sub Rosa bakery. It’s in a nice maroon brick building. Street parking was actually not tough at all which was very surprising to me. The actual dining space is interesting to me. When you walk in the front door, the host station is immediately on your left. It’s more of a small table, but it works. As soon as you walk in the door, you are in the dining area, which is a big square. I would say it probably has 20 tables, so it’s not huge. One side of the square is the bar, which provides additional seating. I actually liked the layout and how it made the restaurant feel bigger in its openness. Sarah Ashley and I got there a little early so we had to wait for our table. Thankfully we ran into my friends Mary & Nicole at the bar. They allowed us to hover over them and order drinks while we chatted.

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I have been told that the cocktails at The Roosevelt are up there among Richmond cocktails so I decided to indulge in one. Normally I am a straight beer man, but for tonight, why not branch out? After a careful study of the cocktail menu, I went with The Northbound Turn Around. It was comprised of anejo rum, px sherry, amaro zucca and barrel aged bitters. I will be honest, I couldn’t describe half of the ingredients if I was asked. I can tell you it was a dark drink, almost a rust color (I’m color blind so I’m kinda guessing here). All three of the girls tasted my drink before I did, per my request. Let’s be honest, I was nervous to try it. After 3 positive reviews though, I was good to go. The taste was summed up perfectly by Nicole when she said it tasted like summer. It was one of those drinks that just belongs in your hand as you sit out on the deck on a nice warm summer evening. I will have to learn how to mix a decent replica for just such occasions. Sarah Ashley got the Alright Alright which is mezcal, pineapple, yellow chartreuse, lime and cardamom. The big concern was would the smoky sweetness of the cardamom help or hurt. Personally, I think it paired well with the pineapple and both were cut beautifully by the lime. No flavor overpowered the palette. They all danced in harmony to create a surprisingly light and refreshing drink. While we were sipping and chatting, our table freed up. We bid Mary and Nicole goodbye while we headed to sit. Megan walked in the door just as this was happening. Perfect timing.

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As is the usual rule with Supper Club, we all try to order separate dishes so that sharing can occur. With the menu for restaurant week, that became a serious discussion. There were roughly 5 or 6 options for both the appetizer and main course round. Each had to be read, analyzed, discussed and weighed out. Frankly, it was a process that I would never put on anyones shoulders. Eventually we each settled on a mutual agreed upon set of selections. For Sarah Ashley it went as follows: Appetizer of BBQ pork rinds, pimento cheese, smoked fish spread and country ham salad. A main course of sauteed catfish, crawfish cheese grits, spicy red pepper sauce and green tomato chow chow. Dessert of peanut butter pie with whipped cream. Megan chose: An appetizer of steamed mussels, nduja cream and bread. A main course of bistro steak, smoked potato salad, black garlic and pickled red onions. Dessert of peanut butter pie with whipped cream. I settled on: Appetizer of spicy steak tartare, cured egg, pickles and grilled bread. A main course of roasted chicken, gruyere mac ‘n’ cheese, sausage fat bread crumbs, asparagus and surry sausage. Dessert… you guessed it, peanut butter pie with whipped cream. Sure, there were 3 dessert options, but this is the only one that mattered. Now that we had agreed and ordered we were able to sit back and chat. That’s the part I always love most.

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Our appetizers were delivered promptly and to say we were excited is an understatement. I’ll start with Sarah Ashley’s plate. It was nicely arranged with each scoop of ingredients in it’s own distinct spot. The end of the plate was loaded with pork rinds. The rinds had a BBQ dusting on them which was delicious. It was smoky and slightly spicy without being too much. I will say I didn’t enjoy it as the vessel to transport the other amazing stuff into my face hole, but by themselves they worked. As far as ranking the accouterments, I would say the smoked fish spread was last, but it was good. It had excellent flavor. You would think it would be like a weird tuna fish or maybe a super fishy salmon, but it wasn’t. It was low-key and mild. It would be excellent with crackers as an afternoon snack. The country ham salad was a pretty solid contributor on the plate. It wasn’t overly mayonnaised which is not always the easiest thing to master. It was salty without causing you to be in dire need of water. I’m a big fan of ham salad and this just hit on all cylinders for me. Yet, as good as it was, it wasn’t the star. That honor belonged to the pimento cheese. Truly a Southern specialty, I have embraced it with a bear hug of happiness since moving out of NY. The pimento cheese on this plate was everything I could ask for out of what you want pimento cheese to be. I could have eaten a bucket of it spread over so many things or with a shovel. Either way works. All around, this was a pretty good appetizer in both flavor and portion.

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My plate, the steak tartare, is up next. I love raw beef, be it burgers or steak. So this appetizer was a no-brainer for me. I know that for a lot of people, it’s a dish that saw it’s prime in the 80’s and now produces a great amount of nervous caution. I simply can’t subscribe to missing out on an eating experience because there is a .01% you might catch a food-borne illness and die. If I have to go, I might as well go that way. When it first came out I was confused as to where the cured egg is. I guess I was expecting slices of an egg or even a full egg itself. Instead, the cured egg referred to the yolk itself, not the whole egg. The yolks undergo a process that essentially removes all of the moisture making it semi shelf stable for about a month. In this case it was grated over my tartare. I won’t tell you it added great things because truthfully, I don’t know if I noticed it. The tartare itself was wonderful. It was spiced nicely with a variety of things. I won’t begin to guess because the certainty of me being wrong is HUGE. I will say that the spiciness wasn’t directly upfront. At first you actually tasted the meat, cold and animalistic in just the right way. After it has worked it’s way across your palette, you begin to pick up the heat. It is subtle at first working it’s way to a pleasantly mild burn. It was perfect. I began to spread it thinly upon the toasted bread and placed the pickled onions and pickle slices on it (not together of course). The sour, vinager of the pickled foods was good on it’s own and excellent with the tartare. This was a nicely balanced dish and one that I would certainly get again.

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Finally, the winner of the appetizer round, Megan’s plate of steamed mussels. This was a big old plate of awesome. It was a full dozen perfectly steamed mussels in a tasty sauce. The mussels themselves were fresh and flavorful. All were opened perfectly, which is always a great sign. They weren’t gritty either, which is something I have run into in the past. These were flavorful and big. The real star of this plate was the nduja cream sauce that the mussels were served in. Nduja is a type of spreadable pork sausage made with roasted hot red peppers. When it was mixed with heavy cream and reduced down, it made a superbly flavorful sauce for the mussels. The sauce took in the flavor of the mussels without drowning it out. It also wasn’t super heavy, which is a danger when we are talking cream based sauces. This was perfectly balanced in all aspects. The bread was the absolutely essential mop required once all of the shellfish was gone. No drop left behind!! This was, hands down, our collective favorite starter of the day.

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Just as we were polishing off the few remaining mussels and sopping up the last of the sauce, our waitress brought out our entrees. This time, we will start with Megans plate of bistro steak, smoked potato salad, black garlic and pickled red onions. This was an interesting dish and our least favorite main course. The steak was cooked medium-rare, as ordered. I say that only because some places aim for medium-rare and you get medium or medium-well. This steak was cooked nicely. It appears that it was basically seasoned in a good way. The salt was evident as were the scallions. But it didn’t hide the flavor of the steak. I like that because you should taste the actual meat. The steak rested on a bed of smoked potato salad. I will admit I’m not a fan of potato salad. That being said, I gave this one a try. I didn’t really find the smoke flavor. It also struck me weird that it was cold. Yes, I know a lot of potato salads are served cold. But why would you place a warm piece of steak atop a pile of cold potato salad? I would have thought you would have gone with a warm potato salad, especially if it’s smoked. I usually associate smoked with warm food, unless it’s salmon. Maybe that’s just me though. I will say that putting the warm steak on the cold salad did nothing but detract from the dish. I enjoyed the pickled red onions as a boost to both the steak and the potato salad. I have no real opinion on the black garlic, which appeared to be pureed. I can’t even remember eating it, if that says anything. At the end, not my favorite dish of the day…

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In the middle was my dish again. I had the roasted chicken, gruyere mac ‘n’ cheese, sausage fat bread crumbs, asparagus and surry sausage. This dish had it all and it was wonderful. The chicken had an excellent skin on it. It was crispy and flavorful. It also did a great job of retaining the moisture of the chicken; the meat was juicy. I’m a giant fan of asparagus. The pieces here were nicely cooked. They weren’t floppy or sad looking as some tends to be when cooked. Nestled nicely under the chicken was the gruyere mac ‘n’ cheese with the surry sausage. I appreciated the step away from the traditional elbow noodle to something with a touch more substance. The cheese sauce was awesome. The gruyere gave it a nice earthy feel while the surry sausage helped to add to the slightly salty flavor. It also wasn’t heavy so kudos to whomever is making the sauces in the kitchen. Your light touch is appreciated. The susage fat bread crumbs that sprinkled the plate were like tiny crunchy flavor bombs. I am going to have to start making bread crumbs like this at home. If you had put those in a bowl, I would have eaten them like cereal. They were awesome. This dish was all over cohesive and a great take on comfort food.

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We will finish with the star of the main course round, Sarah Ashley’s plate of sauteed catfish, crawfish cheese grits, spicy red pepper sauce and green tomato chow chow. This was an excellent piece of fish. It was cooked perfectly as obvious by it’s flaky texture. The seasoning was refined and understated perfectly allowing the natural flavor of the fish to appear. The crust achieved  during cooking was sublime. This was a piece of catfish that had been treated respectfully. It sat on the bed of crawfish cheese grits. You all know I don’t love grits, but I’m trying. These helped. The chunks of crawfish gave it some solid body while the cheese played a tasty background role. I want to say the grits were cooked well, but I truly don’t know how to judge that. All I know is I ate them and the words “gross” or “hate” didn’t enter my brain. I didn’t get a big taste of the spicy red pepper sauce, but what I had I liked. It was hot, but not numbingly so. It actually lent flavor to the dish instead of straight heat. I was a fan of the chow chow. I can’t say I knowingly had it before, but I liked it. It’s a great take on a pickled relish and it was big enough to compete with the fish. Like I said, all three of us loved this dish. I am looking forward to going back and getting the roasted version off the regular menu.

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All three of us got the peanut butter pie for dessert. Yes, there were 2 other choices, but peanut butter wins every time. This pie is made locally at WPA Bakery, which I’m completely ok with. This pie is decadent, which is a word I feel funny saying. I have had a lot of peanut butter pie in my day. This was certainly one of the best. I was going to try to describe it, but I don’t really know if I can. Just look at the picture below and let that speak to you. I will say this, somehow they made this cold pie taste warm. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. My tongue and mouth knew this pie was physically cold. Yet every bite ended with a feeling of warmth in my mouth. I would like to meet the wizard or witch that cast that magical spell.

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Restaurant week was a great success for us at Supper Club. We got to try a wide range of selections from an excellent restaurant. The Roosevelt put together a killer menu that highlighted so much of what has made them a popular place. I want to go back and try their actual menu one night. If you have never experienced Restaurant Week, get on it. Start thinking about it for the Fall. It supports a great cause.

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Humpback Rock

My buddy Eric has a list of things he wants to accomplish during his tenure here in Richmond. I can’t fault him for that. In fact, I envy his planning a bit. I, from personal experience, know that my time in one place is certainly not set in stone. I have picked up and moved to a different state with little or no planning several times in my life. So, why not try to get a whole bunch of experiences while I can. That all being said, he planned for us all to go on a little climb in the wilderness. He found info on Humpback Rock and it wasn’t a hard sell to convince most people to go. So, we packed into 2 cars and headed towards the Blue Ridge Parkway on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

 

It took us just about an hour and a half to get to the parking lot from Richmond. The drive is fairly easy. Hop on I-64 W until you get to the US-250 E exit. Jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway right there (the entrance looks like a parking lot, FYI). Drive 6.4 miles to the parking lot on your left. Now, you will reach the Humpback Rock Welcome Center first on your right. You can certainly park there and hike. We chose to drive 1 more min up the road and park in the lot. Parking is tight, but we found spots for both cars.

 

This hike isn’t very long, maybe a mile to the top. That being said, it’s a very uphill mile. Wear either hiking boots or sneakers with grip. You will walk through mud and possible water, depending on the run-off. We hit both, but neither was a tragic amount. You will sweat, so a functional top and good shorts are key. Spray with bug spray if you have it as the gnats at the top are vicious sons of bitches. I also recommend sunscreen as there is no cover at the top. Some of us left our water in the car, but thankfully Eric & Jeremy brought some. You will certainly want some at the top. Cameras and phones are highly encouraged as the view at the top is certainly worth a photo. If you are thinking about bringing your dog, go for it. While this climb is a climb, it shouldn’t be anything a dog can’t handle. There were plenty of them on our trip from little to big and none of them appeared to be dead from the ascent. Just make sure they are on a leash. I think that about covers the basics…

 

The entire trail is nicely maintained. The beginning half of the trail is wide and gravely. It is easy walking, aside from the up part. I will say there is no flat part to this trail. It’s almost 98% up with a small downhill part near the top. I appreciated the work put into the beginning of the trail. Make sure you watch in front of you as there are step-ups at several points. Nothing high, but missing it would cause an ouchy. Eventually the trail narrows a little. The gravel gives way to natural rock and dirt. You will climb up a set of stairs that were slightly muddy and not extremely wide. The top of these stairs is where the real rugged part of the trail begins. The water and mud were much more prominent up here making things a little slick. If you keep you focus, you will do fine. Just don’t try to get fancy. Remember “I think like the Mountain Goat, therefore I am!” Take breaks as you head up this part because you will be hot and sweaty. This is also where you will start to encounter the swarms of bugs. Hate them, then spray them with bug spray so they die! The indication that your death march up the hill is almost complete is when you reach the slight downhill that leads to the sign. The sign tells you which way to the Humpback Rock (psst… it’s left) and which way the picnic area is (2.7 miles the wrong way). Head to your left and you’ll be at the top.

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After all of the sweating and climbing, I’m sure you are hoping the view is worth it. I promise you, it is. When you finally scale the rocks at the top you will find yourself in awe. Take a moment and soak in the vista that lays before you. Creeping out from the base of the mountain is forest. It climbs hills and covers valleys. It is dotted with open bits of farm land or civilization, but for the most part all you see is lush green. It made me pause for a moment in thanks that I am able to escape the cement & steel that is such a part of everyday life to spend even just one small moment in time basking in such a bewilderingly beautiful panorama. You can certainly get lost in thought up in a place like this, almost at the top of the world. And yes, while it certainly is a wonderful photo opportunity that I recommend you take advantage of, don’t forget to actually live in the moment. Enjoy the view. Appreciate those you get to share it with. Laugh. Smile. Think. Be here, in the now. Let the social media we have become such servants to rest, if even for 2 whole minutes. Because in 10 years, you won’t remember the Instagram that has the dumbass hashtag #blessed you took that day so much as you will remember being small in a great big world with people you care about at your side. That, my friends, is what the view at the top is all about.

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The descent down isn’t terribly bad. Just keep your eyes open and be aware of your footing. Part of the loop that we were hoping to hike on the way down was closed, so we went the way we came. It took us about 20 minutes to get down the mountain, but we were also moving at a good clip. The prospect of dinner had invaded our minds and stomachs. We should have thought ahead and brought some towels to wipe the mud off our legs upon reaching the car. That and to towel the sweat off our heads. I also should have brought a spare shirt (I’m husky so I sweat), but that somehow escaped the planning stage of the day. My last recommendation is you consider your post-Humpback Rock refreshments. You can head back into Charlottesville if you wish, but that’s a long way. I would recommend Devils Backbone Brewing Company, which is a mere 14 miles away. Take a left out of the parking lot onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Follow that 8 miles where you will take a left onto Beech Grove Rd/Rt. 644. This takes you down the side of the mountain, past the entrance to Wintergreen, for a total of roughly a little less than 6 miles. You will see the brewery on the right. Stop in and have a beer. Choose any of them, they are all good. Here is my review of the time I was there way back in 2013: Devils Backbone Post.

 

At the end of all of this nonsense folks, I only have one thing to say about this hike: Go!

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Suck It Winter: The Finale

We have arrived at the final part of this trilogy. Congratulations to you all for making it through the last 2 posts. You are truly a champion. I hope you took advantage of some of the things I’ve posted. To wrap this up, lets go with some fun things to do that might cost you a little dough. Not bank breaking, but not free either. Stop whining, it’s going to be fun.

 

Do you remember how awesome it was to go to the drive-in movies when you were younger? I loved piling into the car with my family as my dad packed in chairs and blankets. We would drive in, pay our $5 FOR THE ENTIRE CAR and park. We would get all set-up and watch a glorious double feature under the night stars. As a kid, that was the coolest movie experience ever. I can’t say I feel any less about it now that I’m an “adult”. So, knowing that the Goochland Drive-In Theater is with-in a 20 minute drive from here gets me super pumped. Goochland Drive-In is as classic as it comes. Giant screen with a ton of car spots and the classic concession stand for all your food needs. Prices have changed all over since I was little. You no longer pay per car. Instead you pay per person ($8.50 for anyone over 12 and $4 for kids). Paying $8.50 to see a double feature is still about $200 cheaper than going to the theaters so I’ll live with it. You can’t bring food or drinks into the drive-in, instead they have that concession stand. Prices are cheap and it’s really how they make their money. For those 2 reasons alone I will recommend you buy your stuff there. Supporting an institution like this helps to ensure it will be around for years to come. Preserve the nostalgia people!! Next time you find yourself looking to go to a movie on a Friday night, check out the Goochland Drive-In Theater and take a trip back to when the movies actually used to be fun.

 

If the drive-in isn’t your style, maybe you’re into having a close encounter with members of the animal kingdom. If that’s the case then you need to make your way to Chesterfield for a trip to the Metro Richmond Zoo. This privately owned zoo sits on roughly 70 acres of land and houses roughly 2000 animals from around the world. Admission for the day is $16.75 for anyone over the age of 12 and $10.75 for those under. I will be the first to tell you I had some doubts before I walked into this zoo. How great can a zoo in Richmond be? It’s no Bronx Zoo after all. Well, I’m glad you asked, granted in a slightly rude way. This place is impressive from entrance to exit. No, it’s not the Bronx zoo (which is 3 times the size of the Metro Richmond Zoo), but nothing much is. This zoo is a clean, family friendly spot with plenty to see and do. As you walk around, you will find some new animal around every corner. They all looked alert, healthy and as happy as they could be in a zoo. There are plenty of places to take great photos, so bring your camera. I think one of the coolest spots is the giraffe interaction area where you can feed about 9 giraffes. They certainly aren’t shy and will lick the food right out of your hand. If you didn’t know, which I didn’t, giraffes have long blueish-black tongues. It’s cool, yet kinda creepy. Make sure you wander the whole zoo. Take the safari ride if you have time. That allows you to “encounter” more animals then just walking around. All in all, it’s a wonderful way to spend some time in nature with nature. If you find yourself with a nice day on your hands, go to the zoo.

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What would one of these posts be like if I didn’t include a drinking idea? Silly, that’s what. So, let’s talk booze. What’s that? You say you would like a slightly classy and somewhat cultured booze experience? I think I have just the place for you: the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Quick overview of the museum itself: opened in 1936, owned by the Commonwealth of VA, it’s mostly free and it’s special exhibits are usually pretty awesome. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk Friday night happy hour. Every Friday night from 5 to 8:30, the museum holds it’s Friday Art & Wine. They offer free half-hour gallery tours at 7 and 7:30. They also have half-price drinks in the cafe. Beers are $2.50 a bottle. Wine is $4 a glass or $15 for a bottle. Granted, you cannot drink in the actual galleries, but if you show up early, you can tour the museum before getting some drinks. Seating gets tough as the night progresses, so try to claim your table early. On nice nights you can stand out on the deck that overlooks the goldfish pond. From there you can see various sculptures in the sculpture garden and a giant blown glass display called Red Reeds by Dale Chihuly. It’s a very pretty place to enjoy drinks. A lot of people dress up to come out as it’s the perfect launching spot for a fun filled Friday evening. We usually start with drinks before wandering into the Fan or Carytown for dinner. I would recommend if you haven’t had a chance to experience a VMFA happy hour you jump on it soon.

 

My friends, we have reached the conclusion of this series. I hope that by now winter is a distant, yet still bitter, memory. I hope that you have not only soaked up the amazing sunshine, but have also stepped out into the refreshing spring rains. We have a beautiful 7 or 8 months ahead of us, but they will go quickly. Try to experience as much as you can. Store the memories of fun times in the sun so when that frigid bastard we call winter once again comes slinking like the lowly worm it is to your doorstep you have the ammo needed to keep him at bay. Get out and enjoy Richmond my friends. You never know what tomorrow will bring so enjoy today.

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Richmond Runs 3.2 For 32

April 16th, 2015 was the 8th anniversary of the tragedy on the Virginia Tech campus. I feel it isn’t necessary for me to rehash the details of that day. Alot of young lives were cut short and that is truly all one needs to know. Every year since, Virginia Tech has held a 3.2 mile memorial run. It always has a great turn out, like the 10,000 people that signed up and ran this year. For some of us, it isn’t easy to just pack up for the weekend and shelp the 3 or so hours down to Blacksburg to run, as much as we wish we could. That being said, we still want to show our support for the Hokie Nation. So some of us here in Richmond ran our own 3.2 for 32 Memorial Run. We went to Bryan Park and started at 9am, the same time as our Hokie family in Blacksburg. The course was beautiful and the weather just perfect. For the first year, we had a nice little turn out and I’m personally grateful to everyone who showed up to support not only our fallen Hokies, but those who were left behind with pain in their hearts. We were there with you in spirit Blacksburg.

 

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Suck It Winter 2: The Hate Is Real

Welcome back everyone. I hope you all enjoyed the first post in my crusade to banish winter. Apologies for the lack of photos. I thought I had more then I did. I will update part 1 with photos as soon as possible. But enough about that and on to this post. The weather is continuing to work its way out of winter depression, but it’s moving slow. That doesn’t mean that the outdoor activities should be put on hold. Pretty soon is opening day of America’s game. Spring means fresh produce too. Of course, the warm weather means BBQ, booze and outdoor sports as well. Onward to the next list of things!!!

 

Apparently disc golf (or frisbee golf) is the next big thing. I guess that’s not really fair to say as it’s been a steadily growing sport since the late 1960’s with it’s most significant growth happening over the past decade. Currently there are just over 4000 courses in the US and Richmond has one at Bryan Park. Bryan Park is a 260 acre plot of land located in the Northside. It is a beautiful park with 2 ponds, hiking trails, soccer fields, an azalea garden and the disc golf course. The course was established in 2007 and it seems to play out over a large section of the park. There are 18 holes, some of which play over or next to the ponds and creeks. Everyone says this is a nice open course, perfect for beginners. I will admit that I haven’t yet played on the course myself, but all reviews from Disc Golf Course Review and Professional Disc Golf Association all seem to state that this is a great course. You can buy a beginner set of discs off Amazon for about $24 and the course itself is free. Once you get the hang of it, you can then venture to other courses in the area, like the one on University of Richmond’s campus. I’m personally looking forward to trying to hit up a course every week or so. I hope you buy a set of discs and join me.

 

With Spring in full swing, it also means the growing season has begun. While we all might curse the rain because it keeps us indoors, we need it to get all of those wonderful fruits and vegetables going. One great place to find all the freshest stuff is the South of the James Farmers Market. This farmers market is a producer-only market meaning everything being sold there comes from the people selling it. That makes it super easy to ask questions about where your food comes from or what processes were used to craft something. The market starts at 9am through April and then starts at 8am starting in May. It’s located in Forest Hill Park. Parking gets progressively more difficult as the day gets later and what I mean by that is you will end up parking further away. It also isn’t a terrible idea to bring a reusable bag and straight cash. MOST places take cards, but not all. The thing that impresses me each time that I go to the South of the James is how many vendors there are. You can find anything you want for a meal. From stupid hot peppers to seafood to tomatoes to rabbit to eggs to the damn flowers for the center piece. It’s all there, spread out before you. And do not fret my friends… if you happen to get a little peckish while shopping the stalls there is plenty to fill your tummy. My personal favorite is Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen for their hot fresh sourdough doughnuts. If eating a dozen wouldn’t be seen as gluttony and just really gross, I would be all over it. But, I digress. Before you rush to the grocery store for some limp produce and lack luster meats, try heading over to the South of the James Farmers Market. I will almost certainly see you there.

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So, now that you’ve got a back seat full of fresh goods from the farmers market, what to do now. How about a tailgate/block party/BBQ? Yeah, I’m aware that’s a weird combination, but hear me out. I don’t know if you have heard of this nifty little road we have in Richmond called Monument Avenue, but it’s a pretty solid little place. Aside from the monuments that can be found all along the road, Monument Ave boasts quite the nice grassy median. During the nice weather, this is the place to hang out when you want to step up your basic BBQ. Bring a grill, some chairs or blankets, a corn hole set and maybe some adult libations (just be careful about parading around brews). We have tailgated Monument several times. We brought the dogs out on short leads so they could be with us. It was a ton of fun. and you are never alone. There are plenty of people out sunbathing or playing games. I know it sounds like a strange way to spend an afternoon, but just give it a try one nice summer day. You may be pleasantly surprised.

 

Well you’ve thrown a game of Disc Golf, shopped your butt off at the South of the James and partied in the middle of Monument Ave. You’re probably pretty tired and understandably so. How possibly could you wrap up such a day in a relaxing, yet fun way? Hmmm…. oh I know!! Go to a Richmond Flying Squirrels game!! For those who don’t know, the Richmond Flying Squirrels are the Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants here in our fair city. Tickets for Squirrels games are very affordable and are usually available at the gate. On any night they range from $8 for general admission to $12 for a spot behind home plate. Plus, there are plenty of promotion nights through out the season. There are appearances by “celebrities” like Dave Coulier (Uncle Joey from Full House) and Diamond Dallas Page (former professional wrestler) on certain nights. There are plenty of firework shows and giveaways. My favorite promotion is the “Bark In The Park” night. If you purchase tickets in certain sections, you can bring your dog with you. I love to bring Kamea with me and she loves that she always gets a hot dog. It’s a nice way to bond with your dog. Food and beers at the game are also reasonably priced. On opening night our group got 5 hot dogs and a regular order of Squirrely fries for $13 bucks. And don’t let them trick you with the bottled beers for $6 each. Walk down to the beer “bars” by the main entrance. There you can get a 32 oz local craft beer or hard cider for $10 (or a domestic for $8).  The games are always pretty lively with lots of contests between innings and the people watching is great. Bring your glove and keep your eyes open because foul balls into the stands happen frequently. It’s hard to think of a better way to end a warm night than sitting down with a hot dog and a beer to watch America’s past time. Once you go once, you’ll find you go again and again. I won’t hold it against you.

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There you have it folks, 4 more ways to enjoy the outdoors here in RVA. We are lucky to be in a city that offers so much. Now go take advantage of it!!

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Suck It Winter… Part 1

Rejoice Richmond, the warm weather is upon us again. I know for many of you Southerners, with your thin blood, this winter has been awful. It started out with such promise of being gentle and kind to us. The kind of winter you wouldn’t invite inside for dinner, but would share a drink with on your porch. Suddenly, without warning, this seemingly passive winter gets really drunk and starts destroying your porch furniture. Smashing chairs, throwing end tables and peeing all over the couch. Just hateful… Even I had a few days where I was displeased. I had to wear pants to work out outside at 6am instead of shorts. Granted it only happened 6 or 7 days, but that is too much. Hey, no one said I was smart or made the best choices… Still, I know we all watched the 10 day forecast like a fat guy watches the last piece of pizza. Finally we were all rewarded for our patience with that warm, greasy, cheesy goodness. It’s been so long since you could walk outside without losing a toe to frostbite that you might have forgotten all the great cheap and free stuff there is to do in Richmond when it’s warm. Thankfully for you, I’m here for you RVA. Here is the first of my 3 part series that I’m titling “Suck It Winter!!”

 

Let’s start with some free stuff. Free is always fun. And massively inexpensive, which is even better. There are plenty of wonderful things to do around Richmond that won’t even touch your wallet for admission. What you spend after is on you. Be an adult… I can’t plan your budget for you. Some people… Any who, lets start with a Richmond favorite: Belle Isle.

 

Belle Isle is located, in all places, in the middle of the James River (I did well in school). It is accessible from several points, the most popular being the giant footbridge that hangs under the Lee Bridge. You can use Tredegar St. to get to the bridge. There is a parking lot on the corner of 2nd St. Connector and Tredegar that you can park in and walk or bike over. Belle Isle was, in it’s very first iterations, a fishery, nail factory and a small village. During the Civil War it was transformed into a prison for Union soldiers, roughly 30,000 of them. When you walk around there, think about that island filled shore to shore with people. Crazy, right? Dominion built a power plant on there in the early 1900’s. Finally in the 1970’s the City of Richmond bought it and made it a city park. Flash forward to today. Belle Isle is a wonderful oasis within the concrete forest of Richmond. It allows anyone the privilege of stepping over a bridge into a quiet respite of trees and wildlife. Just a walk around the many paths can help hush the loudest mind, if only briefly. There are hundreds, if not thousands of places all around the island to plop down on a rock and watch the James as it rushes away to the bay. Ducks, geese, hawks and herons abound upon the water, seemingly just there for the watching. If you feel the need to run the trails, they are wide and accommodating. Same with the maze of bike paths that criss-cross the island. Want to prove how agile you are? Hop across the rocks on the Southern shore. There is something for everyone here. If you haven’t found a reason to make it here yet, stop making excuses. This gift is sitting on your doorstep. I suggest you use it.

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Photo Credit: Mark O’Brien Instagram: mark_obrien

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Photo Credit: Mark O’Brien Instagram: mark_obrien

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Up next we have an oddly romantic diamond in the rough, the Pipeline. The Richmond Pipeline, also known as Trestle Trail, is an odd little spot in Richmond. Who would ever think a weird water pipe situated under a busy CSX train track could be considered romantic? Well it is and it’s stunningly beautiful.  Like the woman that always manages to steal our heart, this place is a complex enigma. At first glance, it’s pretty but almost in a subtle understated plain way. It’s not flashy or obnoxiously in your face. In fact, it takes some work to approach. You have to look for that concealed entrance way. You don’t get to just barge in, a whirlwind of self-confidence and douchebaggery. You work for it, as every good girl deserves. Once you find your way in it’s no cake walk. There are ladders to climb and paths to follow. Be respectful of your hand placement and watch your step. Our girl is gritty and real. She has a backbone of steel, strong enough to hold up against you when you need her. But she’s not cold and unforgiving. She may seem a bit that way, but once you stroll a little deeper into her life, you see that’s not true. What you find is a place of pure unforgiving elegance and allure. When you truly step into the depths of her soul, you find everything you have ever sought in a woman. Her laugh rushes all around you and fills your ears, just as this section of the James. Her intelligence stands tall, proud and ever graceful like the herons that roost here, stalking the waterways. Her heavenly scent fills your nose like the breeze that plays along the flowers that dot the islands. Her very smile warms you much like the last rays of the days sun before it sinks down over the river. This very spot, so often overlooked by so many people because it’s not flashy, is the very essence of all you crave in this world. If you are lucky enough to sit out here, even for a moment, I hope that you get to do so with the very girl this picturesque spot so embodies.

 

I hope you all survived that shallow dive into artsy word play. I know, it was a bit much. Apologies my friends. Occasionally I need to pretend to be a writer of substance and not just of pretend. Moving along, we take a trip to the deep South, so I hope you have your passports; Pocahontas State Park. Originally laid out by the sadly gone Civilian Conservation Corps, this was at one point Virginia’s largest state park at just shy of 8000 acres. This park has a lot to offer. It is loaded with mountain biking trails for those of you who enjoy that sorta thing. They vary in degree of difficulty, but I cannot speak on them personally as I’ve never ridden a bike there. There are also miles of hiking trials and fire roads for those of us who prefer to keep our feet flat on the ground. Take the dog or, if you wish, even the horse. Horse trails also weave their way amongst the acreage. I have been to Pocahontas State Park for concerts, which get held quite frequently during the summer. I attended Carbon Leaf’s Ragtime Carnival there last year and it was awesome. The park is perfectly situated for a relaxing day listening to music from multiple stages. Another great concert series there is Pocahontas Live. And, if you get a little too sauced at the concerts or just don’t want to drive the seeming 400 miles back to Richmond, spend the night camping. Pocahontas State Park offers camping!! Yay for the outdoors!! I know it’s a bit of a drive, but this park has a little bit of something for everyone. If you find yourself in the deep Southside this year you should stop in.

 

On the south side of the river in the Forest Hill area is a spot that has been recognized as “The Best Urban Trail” by Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. I can attest from the many times I’ve run it with my fitness team that it is indeed good. I’m, of course, talking about The Buttermilk Trail. This 4 mile strip is used by runners, walkers, hikers and bikers in great numbers. The terrain of this trail provides something for everyone. Whether you want a flat walk along the river or a hilly run in the woods, Buttermilk Trail provides. Just make sure that if you are walking or running, especially with a dog, to watch out for bikers. All of them that I have come across have been pleasant and share the trail, but there are some spots where the sight-line isn’t always clear. One of the coolest parts of Buttermilk Trail is it’s name. I had to do a little digging to figure out where it originated, but I finally found the answer. Way back in the day when Richmond wasn’t the giant sprawling city it is today getting things to market wasn’t an everyday occurrence. People had to build up a supply of goods to deliver on market day. With no refrigeration available to keep milk from spoiling, local farmers would store it in cans in the spring. The cold flowing water kept everything nice and cool. Hence, Buttermilk Trail got it’s name. Since those days the spring has been reduced to a mere trickle thanks to urban development, but that’s a different topic. For the outdoor workout enthusiast, it’s a must do. So do it.

 

Let’s end with a Richmond classic, Maymont. Maymont is a former (I guess still kinda is technically) estate that was owned by James & Sallie May Dooley. They were a childless couple who put great effort into turning the 100 acres of fields and pastures they purchased into the picture of Gilded Age magnificence. Upon their deaths in the early 1920’s the plot and it’s mansion were bequeathed to the city. Within 6 months it became a fully preserved park and museum. It’s care was taken over by The Maymont Foundation in the 1970’s and they have done a great job ever since maintaining this important slice of history. Now on to the why to visit part. The place is simply beautiful, first and foremost. Rolling lawns interspersed with massive old trees. Charming old Victorian buildings. A stately Italian garden. A zen-filled Japanese garden. Oh, and there are bears. That’s right, bears. Part of grounds at Maymont are used as wildlife exhibits for native Virginia wildlife. The animals are all animals that were rescued and unable to be released back into the wild. I didn’t see the bears last time I was there, but the bison were impressive and very hard to miss. Back to the gardens though. The Italian garden is a classic example of beauty found in order. Geometric shapes and wonderful statues are prevalent throughout the garden. Being one that appreciates an orderly garden, this place is simple perfect. The Japanese garden is like stepping into a different world. Set around a pond on the lower side of the property, this place oozes calm. The sunlight is dappled down here making it cooler then the rest of the park. It’s also funny how quiet it is. It’s almost as if people have entered a church when they walk through the gates. In essence, they have. This garden is a gateway to introspection and a death knell to the concept of time. As you sit on the benches watching the breeze dancing gracefully through the red leaves of the Japanese Maples, you could sit there for minutes or hours without knowing it. At the end of the day, don’t just take my word for it. Go see it for yourself.

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Warmth is back Richmond. Here are the first 5 places where you can chase the sunshine and allow those warm Spring breezes to blow the filth of Winter off you. So get up and get out. I’ll have more for you to do shortly!!

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The Luncheonette

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not go to work everyday doing something I’m passionate about. So, when we are closed for a holiday, it is time for celebration. Ok, well maybe not celebration exactly, but at least a good lunch adventure. My buddy Jeremy lives down in Shockoe Bottom, a place that I don’t venture very often. He suggested meeting for lunch at a newly opened spot by him, The Luncheonette. I had heard nothing but great things about this place even before it opened its doors for the first time. When I first read about it, I knew I had to go. Having an eating partner to venture with sealed the deal. Monday Lunch Adventure Squad GOOOOO!!

 

The Luncheonette is located at 104 N. 18th St. in Shockoe Bottom. It’s housed in a mint green (Again, colorblind) building with a ton of windows. It has a classic old-timey basic sign and plenty of neon lighting up it’s windows. It’s as if someone took an old diner from NY, brushed it off a little, smooshed it down and dropped it in RVA. I knew from the outside that I was going to like this place. When you step inside you realize how small it really is. There are maybe 8 or 10 tables and a tiny strip of counter. The kitchen is big and open on your left when you walk in with seating on your right. With all the windows, it is really very bright inside. The decor is old school in an awesome way. It’s classic retro luncheonette counter all the way. I loved it.

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Jeremy and I sat at the counter as all of the tables were taken. The stools were fairly comfortable which is huge for me. I have this issue where I don’t have sufficient padding on my butt. It’s something I inherited from my father. My stunning 5’9″ height I get from my grandmothers, but that’s a different conversation… So, the stools were good. They allowed me to sit comfortably and enjoy my meal. Kudos there. We weren’t in our stools a full minute before the waitress gave us our menus. She wasn’t overly talkative, but seemed friendly enough. She also seemed a little stressed out as she was the only server there. She gave us our drinks and then went about her business, leaving us to look at the menu.

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The menu is pretty much what you would expect from a luncheonette. Their selection of breakfast food was delightful looking. Pancakes with crushed Oreos in them? How have I never thought of that before? I disappoint myself sometimes… And all of the egg dishes, OH!!! I love me some eggs. But I must look away, for it is lunch. So, to the burgers and sandwiches I go. Almost immediately my eye is drawn to the Ruben. I hadn’t had one in a hot minute and it will always be a classic go-to. Add in a side of coleslaw and we have quite the meal choice. Jeremy went down a slightly different path. He went with a burger. I think he got the Bistro Burger, which is topped with bacon, as every burger should be. We also went with a starter appetizer of fried pickles. Just a little something to start off with that would wet our appetites. We put our order in with much anticipation and high hopes.

 

Our fried pickles came out quickly. I guess I was expecting dill pickles slices that had been breaded and fried. What we got was giant dill pickle spears that had been breaded and fried. The breading was crunchy, but not too thick. I like that because thick breading just gets soggy. These pickles were a great way to start our meal. When my Ruben arrived, it was a sight to behold. Stacks upon layers of corned beef covered in sauerkraut and creamy thousand island dressing. All this wonderfulness wedged in-between 2 beautifully toasted slices of marble rye bread, a personal favorite. As I picked up the first half the wonderful smell of such a greatly constructed sandwich wafted into my nostrils. At that moment in time, I could not have asked for anything better. My first bite was excellent, as was my second and third. The meat was warm and savory. The sauerkraut was tangy and helped cut the salty flavor of the brined meat. Add in the beautifully melted Swiss cheese and the flavorful thousand island dressing… that is a sandwich. I was wonderfully pleased, which was evident by my lack of conversation as I stuffed my face. Jeremy was pleased with his burger. It was cooked just like he had requested. The bacon to sandwich ratio was fantastic. Excellent proportions all around. Kudos on that. I didn’t really get too much into questioning Jeremy about his deepest thoughts and feelings on his sandwich because, well… we are men. And that’s weird. He said it was good and that he liked it, case closed.

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Our meal was spot on in the way you expect lunch at an old-school diner-esque restaurant should be. The Luncheonette follows through on everything it promises to be. I know that since Jeremy and I went, he has been back several times. That speaks volumes in itself. Being good is one thing, but making sure that you bring people back  is a different story. I loved The Luncheonette and I can’t wait to go back. Breakfast is on the radar next time. I’m not even sorry about it.

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Heritage

I have an official list of restaurants in Richmond that I have yet to visit, but I really need to. It’s long. It’s diverse. It’s a depressing reminder of how bad I am at this blogging thing. Thankfully I have a list of friends that are willing, nay eager, to help me eat my way to completion. Enter Megan, Sally and Sarah Ashley who along with myself is collectively known as Supper Club. This group of ladies and I were all, in some degree, housemates in Blacksburg and we are all now in Richmond. Some actually lived in the house while others just spent A LOT of time there. Anywho, we try to get together at least once a month to catch-up and eat. This trip we crossed a name off my list and that name is Heritage.

 

Heritage (Heritage) is located at 1627 West Main St. in a quaint brick building. I parked on the street and headed inside. I was the first of the group to arrive, so I checked in with the hostess and sat at the bar to wait. The bartender was attending a group further down so I took the free time to look around. Heritage is and yet isn’t a big place. It seats a fair amount of folks, but it does so tightly. There isn’t a ton of room between tables. It’s impressive to watch the staff navigate their way in-between. It’s some of the finest dancing I’ve seen in a bit. The exposed brick that is the outside wall is warm and inviting. It provides a classic look that I constantly find endearing in an eatery. Especially as it blends off with and plays off of the wooden floors. I also appreciated the massive front wall of windows that allow the outside world to filter in, yet still be closed out by the glass. In all, I found the place to be elegant and welcoming.

 

When I settled into the business of the beer/cocktail menu, I was appreciative of my choices. Both the beer menu and the cocktail menu offered a variety of choices that spoke to whatever mood struck you at the time. I considered trying a cocktail, as I have heard great things about the drinks made behind the Heritage bar. But I am a beer man through and through. So I stuck with the Hardywood Hazlenut Stout that was on tap. As I waited for the girls to arrive, I sipped my delightful brew and pondered the world.


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We never thought to make a reservation because, at 30, I haven’t quite grasped that part of responsible adulthood yet. Thankfully the hostess seemed to sense that, as only an intuitive woman can. She came up to me at the bar requesting to basically know my game plan. I explained that we were a party of 4 who would HOPEFULLY be arriving within 30 minutes. She checked her book, made a few marks and boom, we were set to go. I appreciate that kind of efficiency, especially when I have fallen down on the job. Yay to good staff!!

 

The girls arrived and we got seated. We were given a very nice window booth which allowed me to indulge my occasional need to people watch. We were given our menus and left in the hands of our server. Before I go any further, let me talk about our server. I have eaten many places and have been served by a myriad of individuals. They have ranged from deplorable to wonderful, skill-less to total server. Some have made a dining experience miserable while others have managed to save the day. But never have I ever encountered a server in Richmond like the woman who took care of us at Heritage. She was the epitome of what a great server should be. She was friendly, outgoing, pleasant, knowledgeable, funny and precise. She took a task, like explaining the specials, that so many people turn into a chore and somehow made it inviting. There was no condescension in her voice when we asked about the fish. No irritation flashed across her face, regardless of how briefly or well masked, when I drained my water glass for the 70th time. At no point were we talked down to, verbally steered towards, directed, agitating, or anything less then someone on her level of humanity. I regret not getting her name because I would like to thank her. Instead I shall just gush about her here.

 

As we sat with our menus, we began the all important discussion of what dishes needed to be ordered. When the four of us go out, it’s all about sharing. Everybody orders something different and we pass around tastes. It’s a great way to sample the menu. We first decided on a few appetizers as we were all a touch hungry. We went with Pimento Croquettes and Pork “Fries”. The croquettes were wonderfully cheese-filled and beautifully fried. The breadcrumbs surrounding the cheese were crunchy and it didn’t get greasy. The pimento cheese had wonderful flavor and gained just the right amount of meltyness during cooking. It didn’t flow like water out of the center, but gently oozed. The smoked tomato aioli served on the side added a deep rich flavor to the dish. The pork fries were a surprising treat. The waitress explained that they were pulled pork that had been formed into the shape of large cut fries, cooled and then breaded. They were then deep fried. We got 2 orders as it only comes 2 to a plate. When I first saw them I would have compared them more to fish sticks or french toast sticks in size. They didn’t really resemble fries to me. The first bite I took was sans the house made BBQ sauce. I wanted the flavor of the pork. It was deliciously salty and smokey. It wasn’t the best pulled pork I have ever had, but it held it’s own. I could have eaten a handful of these “fries”. The BBQ sauce was good, but I preferred my bites sauce free. I know it’s weird, but I’m not huge into BBQ sauce. In all our appetizers took the edge off our hunger in a very tasty & satisfying way.

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When it came down to the business of dinner, there seemed to be a little something different that jumped off the page at each of us. Megan was all about the smoked duck and soft poached egg. It was served in a dashi broth with bok choy, Carolina gold rice and lion’s mane mushrooms. Sarah Ashley went with the roasted Amish half chicken. It was served with greens and Byrd Mill cheddar grits. Sally picked the pumpkin gemelli pasta with chunks of butternut squash, ricotta, kale and pecans in a maple brown butter. I saw pork belly bolognese and that was that. As we waited for our entrees we were able to catch up on each others lives. It’s nice to sit down with friends and talk. It makes any meal worthwhile and these girls excel at being great conversationalists. Discussion was lively and made our dinner wait seem short. Once all the plates arrived, we got right down to the business of sharing and tasting. We all got a piece of each dish to get an impression of what we were missing. I loved the smoked duck and the egg. Duck is hands down my favorite feathered creature to eat and this was a perfect reason why. It was rich with the ever so slight grease a duck provides. The egg was silky and played nicely in the salty broth. All the flavors were on point. The Amish chicken was well cooked. It wasn’t the least bit dry which can tend to happen in a busy kitchen. The skin was crispy with amazing seasoning. I had a bit of the grits, but they aren’t my thing. I’m trying really hard to like them, but I’m just not there yet. My pork belly bolognese was everything I had envisioned it to be. The sauce was tangy in the way a tomato sauce should be. The pork belly pieces were salty, fatty and delicious. The pasta was fresh and cooked beautifully. It was a complete dish. The pumpkin pasta was the dish at the table I thought I would like the least. I love pumpkin, but it makes me very nervous to order outside of a dessert. I was shocked that this was the dish I could have tossed all the others away for. The pumpkin flavor was, for a lack of a better description, comforting and homey. Paired with the roasted butternut squash and that sexy maple brown butter it was Fall in a forkful. I have never truly felt that a dish can evoke the senses & feelings of entire season. It just seems an impossible thing to accomplish. Yet, when I ate that pasta dish, I was transported back to that fleeting season of warm short days, apple & pumpkin picking and dead leaves drifting along on the last breaths of summers wind. It was simply incredible.

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As we finished our meals and boxed up our few remains we all agreed that Heritage came through on all the hype it has received. Our whole meal was executed exquisitely. We sat at our table for a long time after we were done (I know that drives waitstaff nuts, but no one ws waiting for our table) munching on Christmas cookies that Sally and her mom made. I appreciate our waitress letting us camp out. She was kind to do so. Heritage was a wonderful choice for our first group dinner. They accommodated us from the time we entered the door to the time we left. They filled our bellies with amazing food. I hope everyone at some point gets to experience Heritage as we did that night. I will be back.

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