Foodie Town: Eating Well in Charlottesville

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Foodie Town: Eating Well in Charlottesville

By Ken Wilson –

Nearly 50,000 people live in Charlottesville, and the fun starts when they get hungry. There is no “bored mouth” syndrome here in “C-ville”—not with taquerias and smokehouses, bistros and sushi bars, inns and noodle counters, high-end pizza and burger joints to choose from. Not with Chinese, French, Italian, Indian, Irish, Japanese, Korean, Mediterranean, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. . .have we left any out? No doubt. From organic markets to diners, from food trucks to pop-up restaurants, Charlottesville is an exciting city for environmentally responsible, health conscious and adventurous eaters, and the creative and conscientious professionals that make it so.

“Charlottesville is on a very short list of best places to live if you want to make food an important part of your life,” says Matt Rohdie, whose company, whimsically named Carpe Donut, has been delighting kids and adults for ten years now. “It’s one of the hubs of the country for exploring the idea of artisanal ingredients, exploring the components of organic and local sourcing. It’s striking—not just the sheer number, but the range of foods that are available.”

Charlottesville City Market
On Saturday mornings from April through December, the Charlottesville City Market is Foodie Central. The brothers George, Jack and Bill Cason established the Market in 1973 on Vinegar Hill, selling peaches and apples. Nowadays, on Water Street, over 100 vendors offer fruit, produce, cheese, honey, coffee, meats, jams and relishes—pretty much every food item that can be lovingly hand grown or handmade, including organic coffee and bagels,  Mexican tacos, and Filipino, Hawaiian and Caribbean cuisine. Other vendors sell soap, candles, jewelry, and other arts and crafts.

A University of Virginia study estimated that over 5,500 people (not including babes in arms) come browse, buy and socialize each week. “The Market is an amazing community event,” says city Business Division Manager William Bassett. “How great is it to be able to talk to the actual person who planted the seeds and grew the plants until finally the plants produced the crop?” WTJU radio comes to the Market every fourth Saturday of the month, and local musicians play sometimes as well. From May through September many local farmers also offer their produce on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the Farmers in the Park market on the corner of Chesapeake Street and Meade Avenue.

Timbercreek Market
Another market putting food on local tables is Zach and Sara Miller’s Timbercreek Market, in the historic 1939 Coca-Cola building on Preston Avenue. Talk about local: all the meat the Millers sell—pastured pork, chicken, and duck, and grass-fed beef and lamb—comes directly from their own farm, only seven miles away, or farms they lease. All their produce is locally grown in the Albemarle County area. 

“Timbercreek Farm was based on taking a family farm and putting it back to use,” Sara Miller says. “Zach and I have been so fortunate to have been given access to a large plot of land close to town, so we really thought long and hard about how we could use it to better our community. The farm had been in his family since the 70s and it was his grandmother’s biggest love, so really it’s in honor of her as well.”

While the Millers adhere to humane and sustainable farming methods, they keep their prices down and their standards up by controlling as much of their operation as they can. “Of course we’re not going to be able to be competitive with the Food Lion or conventional products,” Miller says, “because we don’t raise our animals in conventional ways. But direct marketing ended up being very important to us, as well as continuing to vertically integrate our system: having full control of our products, as many steps of the process as possible. In a lot of cases we spend years raising the products—the beef sometimes 24 to 30 months, and to get the exact steaks out of it that you want can take looking at the carcass as a whole and figuring out what is the best use of every piece of that meat. For us it’s really about a nose to tail, whole animal butcher shop.” It’s a concept that’s found wide appeal. “I’m very proud to say that at any given time you could walk into my shop and you could find a woman in her 60s, a college kid, and a person from our neighborhood.”

Some of those customers come for the pot pies, shepherd’s pies, cottage pies and lasagnas, all made in house and sold frozen. But only ten percent of Timbercreek’s business is direct sales to consumers; the other ninety percent is wholesale marketing to restaurants, including such local favorites as Citizen Burger, The Whiskey Jar, and Revolutionary Soup on the Mall, Brasserie Saisson on East Main Street, and Michael’s Bistro on the Corner.

The Spice Diva
While Timbercreek has local roots, Phyllis Hunter came to Charlottesville six years ago by way of West Texas, New York and Virginia Beach. “I wanted to do something with food when we moved here,” Hunter says. “I had decided that.” It was on a visit to her son in California that she decided exactly what. “He took us to the city market in Napa and there was a spice shop there,” Hunter remembers, “and we bought several things and the next day we went back and bought several more. And I said, ‘That’s what I’m doing when I move to Charlottesville.’”

Today Hunter owns The Spice Diva in Main Street Market on West Main, where herbs and spices sit on the shelves next to chilies, curries, rubs, salts, extracts, teas, and dried fruits and flowers. After a recent expansion, the shop stocks oils and vinegar, beans and rice, chocolates and gelato as well. So what does a spice diva sell the most of? Well what’s the perennially top-selling ice cream? (Vanilla, not rum raisin or salted caramel.) “Definitely black peppercorn,” Hunter says. “We have several kinds of those.” Shoppers come for the pepper, and the Saigon cinnamon and Honey Rub, Hunter’s other top seller, but the names—French Grey Sea Salt, Asian Smoked Tea Rub—colors and aromas of the hundreds of other items are hard to resist.

The Spice Diva offers cooking classes once or twice a week, September through December and January through May, usually by one of the area’s talented young chefs. Tomas Rahal of Mas, Melissa Close-Hart of Palladio at Barboursville Vineyards, Adam Spaar of Orzo have all taught there.

La Flor Michoacana
Sometimes you want something exquisite and exotic, and sometimes you just want a popsicle, but in this town you can have both at once. Jimmy Polania hails from Colombia, but his culinary contribution to Charlottesville, at La Flor Michoacana on Cherry Avenue, is a Mexican dessert specialty called the paleta. Polania grew up eating paletas—popsicles with fresh fruit and milk or water—“but not this type,” he says, only “the classic ones: vanilla, chocolate, with some fruits like passion fruit.” You can find passion fruit on Cherry Avenue, but you can also find pumpkin, papaya, cashew, soursop, tamarind, guava milk  and a couple of dozen more, many with intriguing names like mamey and Jamaican Flower. Avocado, lime, cheesecake, and blackberry are some of the most popular flavors, along with chamoy mango—fresh cut mango with a tangy, chili-based sauce.

“Paleterias in Mexico are like McDonald’s here,” Polania says. “You can find one on every corner. This artisanal type with the fruit is from Michoacán, Mexico, it’s number one in Mexico.”

Polania moved to Charlottesville almost 20 years ago, but didn’t open La Flor Michoacana till July of 2014. In the summer he sells a thousand paletas a week. “I’m working to let people know this is the place you can find tropical fruits from Central and South America,” he says. “Eighty percent are natural; we don’t use artificial flavors, everything is homemade.”

Little Manila
Fernando Dizon was born in Pangasinan, a Philippine province “about five hours bus ride from Manila,” but it was after his family moved to Charlottesville at age 12 that he started cooking. “I learned by watching my parents and my uncle,” he remembers. Dizon lives on a dead-end street in the Fry Springs neighborhood renamed Manila Street, because, he says, “every single person that lives in the street is my relative.”  Seven years ago he began manning a booth at the Charlottesville City Market, selling what is still the only Filipino food in the area. Since 2013 he’s also been bringing his Little Manila food truck around town three or four days a week.

Dizon sells Filipino barbeque—chicken, pork, and pork belly marinated for at least 24 hours, then grilled and served with rice, and pancit (noodles). But egg rolls are his most popular offering. “We go through a thousand of them every week,” he says. Lumpia, they’re called, and they’re about the size of a finger, and filled with ground pork and vegetables—mostly ground pork. It’s that higher meat to veggie ratio that distinguishes Filipino from Chinese egg rolls, he explains.

“I worked in banking for seven years,” Dizon says, “but I would never go back to any other job. It’s ten times the work the bank is, but it’s definitely worth it. Working at the City Market is  like a family thing; everyone knows everyone. You give them food, barter. It’s a lot of fun. I wake up at four o’clock in the morning to work at the market, and it doesn’t bother me because it’s so enjoyable.”

Lucky Us
Ambitious farmers, sleep-deprived but contented purveyors of unusual treats—the folks who make Charlottesville such a fun place to eat, Hunter avers, are also among its most outstanding citizens. “These very impressive and talented people are also big-hearted and generous and have a real community,” she says. “It’s not just a bunch of carny-like people who travel around; these are people who have a stake in the community and they are here for the long run.” When a young chef recently suffered a terrible accident, Hunter marvels, “this community raised in excess of $200,000 for that couple in about six weeks.”

But though Charlottesville’s a cornucopia for the, shall we say, lay eater, how about for these seasoned professional chefs? “Oh my gosh, definitely, yes,” Dizon says. “Restaurant after restaurant is popping up here. if you’re a foodie, it’s definitely a place to go and check out.” Culinary standards here “are very high,” Hunter agrees, and the scene is constantly changing. “There is always some new and exciting concept coming in. I have really seen that the people who don’t have great food don’t last very long.”

With so much happening so quickly, what might we expect next? “The next trend I see is about zero food waste,” Miller says, citing the WastED (waste education) movement championed by New York chef Dan Barber. “I think a lot of the chefs who are very focused on high quality food are also very focused on food waste and how to utilize every part of everything that they get, whether it’s every piece of the vegetable or every piece of a chicken. People in bigger cities are interested in it and I think that is quickly coming to Charlottesville.” And if it is, then lucky us.

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