This started out as a nachos survey, with me sampling some platters from a few establishments around the village perimeter, plus one on the Downtown Mall, just to establish a baseline. But I knew all along where it was going, where I would end up directing my sunshiny prose. I wanted to be in a spot with an ambrosial margarita, where the nachos, although a proper stand-in for supper fare, are abused as an excuse to order one more to wash it all down.
But this isn’t a drinking story. Not yet anyway.
Continental Divide is usually mad busy, which is why I have never made it past the point of giving my name to the hostess and then “waiting” at the bar with only appetizers and cocktails to keep me company until I’m full. I always end up figuring I’ll try back later. Finally, that later date came.
The menu and the daily specials at this UVA haunt on West Main are flush with southwestern delectables: Santa Fe enchiladas, catfish tacos, and salmon quesadillas with asparagus, tomato, and goat cheese. I zeroed in on the tuna tostada, a menu regular, and pestered chef Amber Cohen, who agreed to tell me how it’s made.
Cohen is a Lexington, Virginia native, and the daughter of a professional caterer. One of her first real gigs was at The Blue Heron, a vegetarian restaurant in Lexington, where the spice jars in the kitchen were left unlabeled. “You had to learn them just by the smell of them,” she said. She then apprenticed at several Charlottesville standards, including Bizou, Escafe, and Hamiltons’.
I followed her into the Continental’s impossibly tight kitchen and she took a sushi-grade yellowfin tuna steak, an inch and a half thick, and tossed it on the grill. She got some flour tostada crisps, which had been deep fried, and plated them. The tuna popped and sizzled over the flame. Cohen turned it once. She ladled black bean puree onto the lightly browned, puffy-crisp tortillas and spread a thin layer of roasted red pepper coulis over top.
“We do our beans from dry here,” she said. “Flavored lightly, with pretty much just cumin and onion.” She sprinkled crumbled goat cheese over the beans. After it had been grilling for only a few minutes, she took the seared tuna, sliced it in two, exposing the lovely pink, thick middle and laid it on the beans. Then came the kicker.
“It’s all about the glaze,” Cohen said. “You’re heating up rice wine vinegar, one of my favorite vinegars. Very versatile. It doesn’t have a heavy flavor and it’s a little bit sweet. It’s good to use in a similar fashion that you would use citrus, because it’s got that tart, sweet thing. So you heat the vinegar, you add sugar to it, dissolve the sugar, then you let it cool down and you add in your peppers, diced raw peppers, and you let it sit for a couple hours. And that’s what makes it special, gives it the awesome flavor.”
Cohen delicately spread the glaze over the stack of fish, beans, cheese, and flour crisps. And she was right: awesome. The tuna tostada is a crazy assemblage of textures and flavors. The bean puree and crisps have a little melding party. Within the tuna itself, the contrast of the seared outer skin against the pink pure middle is just right, and deserves to be enjoyed without distraction. But anyone can grill sushi grade tuna at home. The glaze is what makes people crave this thing, dream of it during the week. It gives the whole thing an Asian tinge, a complex sweet and sour essence.
When she one day has her own place, Cohen reckons, she may lay off the meat.
“I’m not vegetarian but I love cooking vegetarian food. I think being a meat eater in the long run makes me a better vegetarian chef because when you get used to the way things taste, you just dull your palate a little bit,” she told me. “I feel like I’m tasting what’s missing and a lot of times vegetarian food is too often flat and depends too much on cheese. Not that cheese isn’t delicious, it is. But often, things aren’t spiced properly or are missing certain elements for making a whole flavor. So, that’s really what I would want to do is vegetarian comfort food.”
I’ll be there when it opens.
By the way, I happened to stop back by the bar on my way out to inquire about the mysteries behind the Divide’s signature margaritas. They have a page-long list of tequila options, plus you can customize your drink by choosing Cointreau or Grand Marnier over the rail triple sec. Actually, bartender Matt McCaskill says you can just ask for yours “smoky or crisp, or citrusy or smooth.” And he will try to comply. I asked for mine to taste like tequila, more sour than sweet. He started with a dash of Cointreau over a full glass of ice. Then came a heaping helping of Jose Cuervo Platino. He added a splash of the housemade sour mix, which, McCaskill said, he couldn’t tell me anything about. Fresh lime juice came next. He cupped the glass with a stainless steel shaker, gave it a couple hearty jolts, popped the rim of my glass into a pile of chunky salt, poured the concoction back into the glass and garnished it with a lime wedge. If there’s a better margarita in town than this one, I definitely don’t need to know about it.