If you’re throwing in with the (unofficial) Townies Taking Back The Corner movement for the next few weeks, remember that a hearty breakfast is an important part of any revolution. And the best place to get this one started, without question, is The Pigeon Hole, right in the heart of the contested zone.
The Pigeon Hole inconspicuously showed up on Elliewood Avenue in January 2011, and it’s been a twinkling star in the neighborhood ever since. I say inconspicuous because, “we have never advertised,” said owner Naomi Annable. “Ever.”
Not even one tiny little ad somewhere?
“Nothing,” she insisted.
“I was raised by hippies,” she told me as we lounged on the homey front porch of her restaurant. “I’ve been cooking on a gas stove since I was 5 years old.”
By age 10 and a part of a collective, Annable, along with her brother, was cooking for anywhere from 10 to 25 people one night per week. “I started by learning to cook for 20,” she said. “I still don’t know how to cook for two people.”
On her own since age 16, she has worked, at one time or another over the last 24 years, at every position in a restaurant, from front of house to every station in the kitchen. She worked in the kitchens at Southern Culture, Jarman’s Gap in Crozet, where she also did pastries, and at Dr. Ho’s in North Garden, among many other places.
But the Pigeon Hole has little in common with those Albemarle favorites. “I’m an anarchist,” said Annable. “We’re a very punk rock restaurant. Everything we have was already here or came from the thrift store.” Her restaurant is a direct reflection of her upbringing—an atmosphere free of pretension or formality, no defined hierarchy. Employees all have equal say; they pool tips and sometimes even divide a small contribution pulled from the till.
Annable often alludes to her punk rock ethos, but the prevailing patois at The Pigeon Hole is decidedly hip-hop. The weekend menu has several versions of Eggs Benedict. One special, consisting of baby spinach and artichoke hearts on biscuits with two poached eggs slathered in hollandaise sauce, under the menu heading “Saturday and Sunday only, Yo,” is referred to by staff as “the Beastie,” an homage to late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch. Likewise, an Annable recipe might include the instruction, “then mix that s$&# up.” Or, a taste test of potential menu special might prompt the question, “How are we gonna f#$% that up? We gotta f#$% it up good.”
“Don’t leave it tasting like something anyone could make,” is what she’s trying to say.
Annable is always looking for the next notch up the flavor scale, trying to find that one ingredient for every simple dish that puts the taste over the top. “I like to say, ‘What’s the crack? What’s the thing you put in there that the person is like, ‘Hmm, what is that?’ and can’t stop eating it?” she said.
The Hole’s huevos rancheros was inspired by Annable’s first ever rancheros encounter on a road trip in New Mexico. “It’s the one thing on our menu that I eat most myself,” she said. “I still look forward to the huevos every time.”
She started by ladling huge portions of black beans and rancheros sauce into separate frying pans over medium flames. Her beans are a stripped-down affair. She adds lightly sautéed onions, black beans, and chili powder, with a light salting going on throughout the process. “When I travelled in Mexico,” she said, “the women would bring me into the kitchen. All they had was a huge thing of salt. That’s all they used. I couldn’t understand how they could get those flavors with just salt, but they would add just a little bit at a time, over time.”
The rancheros sauce is sautéed onions, garlic, adobo peppers, sriracha, crushed tomatoes, oregano, all done in olive oil, salted, then cooked down.
The two eggs she had broken onto the griddle weren’t there long before getting flipped over. The beans got plated, then the eggs went on the beans, the rancheros over that, then some cheddar was spread. It all got pushed under the broiler to melt down. When it came out, she sprinkled on fresh, chopped green onions and it was ready to go.
While the huevos rancheros is a heaping helping and very satisfying, it has a refreshing lightness to its step. Maybe it’s that the sauce is not overly spicy. Maybe it’s the fluffy stone-ground white grits on the side, rather than corn tortillas, that all leaves you feeling like you can get up and get going rather than needing to find a place to lay down and recover.
“It’s Americana comfort food,” said Annable. “Everything here is made from scratch, except for the biscuits.”
The Pigeon Hole serves about 1,000 biscuits in a busy week in several biscuit dishes, from red-eye gravy (made with heavy cream, sautéed onions, diced ham, and a blend of Shenandoah Joe coffee grounds, special to the PH) to biscuit baskets with butter and jams to egg and meat sandwiches on biscuits and biscuit-bottomed Benedict platters. “It would be cruel and unusual to make anyone make that many biscuits.”
Another weekend-only Benedict classic you’ll want to try is the Crabby Florentine— wilted spinach on biscuits, with poached eggs topped with crabmeat and hollandaise. The first time Annable tried the dish, she said, “I took one bite and was like, ‘Oh my God, this might be the best thing I have ever eaten.’”