Life’s patterns seem almost geometrical at times. When I was a kid my family went, for special occasions, to a Japanese restaurant on a quiet stretch of Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C., just blocks from the working entrance of the Japanese Embassy.
The Mikado was a typical Japanese restaurant of its time, impossibly formal with a corny Americanized name. There was no table cooking, no sushi bar, the staff were all Japanese, the women dressed in kimono. My favorite dish (still a smell and flavor I crave) was a version of sukiyaki the chef called sukinabe. I’ve never seen it named that way again. It was a clay pot set in a wooden holder that held layers of cabbage, onion, sweet potato, yam noodle, egg, and tender beef in a magic, slightly sweet amber broth. I can close my eyes and smell it, feel the precise texture of a piece of cabbage soaked in it.
Across the street was Sichuan Delight, the Chinese restaurant that furnished the family take-away meals when my parents worked late, which was often. And next to that was the Steak ‘n Egg kitchen, a late night diner that slung flat top fare, which I discovered as a high school rover, and where I ordered corned beef hash with eggs over easy and tried to act older.
Back to geometry: For this week’s feature, I got to write about a Japanese restaurant, a Chinese market, and a diner. It got me thinking about how much has changed since I grew up. The diner was still fairly strong then, the Asian community small and nearly invisible. The reverse is true now: The country diner has succumbed to suburbanization and the rise of the chains, while the Asian community has grown dramatically, transitioning gradually to cooking for its own population. Couples like Gen and Mary Lee, Masashi and Yasuko Kawasaki, Xioanan Wang and Hui Quiao helped bring East Asian culture (and food!) to Charlottesville two decades ago. They came for different reasons, but one way or another because of UVA and our proximity to NoVA. Today, our city is 6.5 percent Asian, and we could eat Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Nepali every day of the week.
Charlottesville is quite a food town. A new generation of chefs has traded their spots in big city kitchens for the chance to run their own shops on a smaller scale. Megan Headley, a foodie and chef herself, has spent the last year interviewing our local food celebs, asking them about ingredients, revealing their personalities, chronicling their achievements. Top kitchens are fiercely competitive and brutally hierarchical. So are New York investment banks. Charlottesville’s food culture shows us you don’t have to be cold-blooded to be ambitious. Oh, and don’t forget to tip the bartenders and wait staff.