Can there be too much of a good thing? We sure hope not, given that this town of 400-plus restaurants churns out abundant platefuls of tasty chow on the regular—and we’re always game for more. This year’s Food & Drink Issue explores 26 ways, from A(maro) to Z(est), our local food scene is giving us hunger pangs right now, including unexpected delectables and secret ingredients that really stick in our maw (and on our minds). Too much of a good thing? That’s just capital-G Great.
A IS FOR AMARO
“Amaro” is Italian for “bitter,” but for Ivar Aass of Spirit Lab Distilling, there’s something very sweet about this herbal liqueur.
Aass moved to Charlottesville in 2012 with a still-small-enough-to-fit-in-his-New-York-City-apartment oven and a dream of having his own distillery. For the past few years, he’s been making small batches of single-malt whiskey and, recently, he decided to make an amaro, inspired by Charlottesville’s late summer pawpaw bounty.
Centuries ago, amari were typically consumed for medicinal purposes, and not just in Italy, but in Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany and France, too. These liqueurs have long been made by mashing some combination of herbs, roots, flowers, citrus peel or even bark in alcohol, mixing them with a sugar syrup and allowing to age in a cask or bottle.
Spirit Lab’s Forage Amaro is made with local pawpaws foraged by Aass and his wife, Sarah, plus autumn olive blossoms, green Mohawk pecans and 14 other botanicals. It’s all the rage to use amari as a cocktail component nowadays, but Aass prefers to sip it neat, or poured over a ball of ice, with a splash of vermouth and a twist of orange peel.
B IS FOR BRISKET
Eat more meat
While Red Hub Food Co.’s signature dish, the BBQ Sundae, was featured on a recent episode of the Food Channel’s “Cheap Eats,” the North Carolina-style barbecue shack is also known among locals for its brisket.
“Brisket is found pretty much all over the place now, but the meat was originally perfected in Texas,” says owner Ryan Hubbard. “I call it an artisan meat because, although it only has four main ingredients, and sounds simple enough, it’s extremely hard to perfect, and easy to mess up.”
Those four ingredients? Meat. Rub. Smoke. And time.
Hubbard starts by applying a secret 10-spice rub to a farm-raised cut of beef, then slow-cooks it in the smoker at 220 degrees for 14 to 16 hours to infuse the meat with a smoky flavor and make it fork-tender. “After that,” says Hubbard, “we wrap it in foil, let it set up and then slice it or chop it.”
The result? In Hubbard’s own words: “What would have been a tough cut of meat becomes a delicacy.”
C IS FOR CAKE
Layer by layer
Around here, most people know Anita Gupta as a wedding cake queen, having created beautiful tiers for romantic, modern and traditional couples for more than 10 years. But, earlier this year, the baker added a new kind of treat to her offerings: She calls them “pop cakes,” youthful, bright confections that feature a drip and an edible item sticking out of them, generously decorated with lots of sprinkles and confetti.
The idea started on a snowy day of baking with her kids—one who loves Pop-Tarts, one who loves cake (“and one who loves ice cream, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet!” Gupta says). They put the Pop-Tarts on sticks and popped them out of the small cake. From there, it evolved into other items popping out of the cake, too.
She’ll make the pop cakes for birthdays, graduations or even retirements, but Gupta can’t resist returning to her roots: “Would love to do a four-tier one for a wedding for a fun couple!” she says.
D IS FOR DIY
Not surprising: Alley Light bar manager Micah LeMon, who once penned The Accidental Bartender blog and has written pieces in these very pages, can pull off such a sharp, useful tome on at-home bartending. Also not surprising: The Imbible, which was released in early September, is nothing short of a thoughtful collection of tips from one of the area’s top tipplers. But that we’d been missing so many opportunities to innovate a classic cocktail on our own? Astonishing.
E IS FOR EGG ROLL
In the world of Chinese food, the egg roll is almost as ubiquitous as the fortune cookie, but you won’t find Rapture’s version alongside your General Tso’s takeout. The Downtown Mall spot’s so-called Hillbilly Egg Roll is where Asian-American meets southern Virginia cuisine—and the only crunchy egg wrapper in town where you’ll find a coexistence of piping hot pulled pork, gooey goat cheese, crushed peanuts, slaw and Virginia barbeque sauce. We recommend putting down the chopsticks and grabbing a fork at the Downtown Mall eatery to try this collision of cultures.
F IS FOR FOOD TRUCK
Roll with it
Just because the weather is turning colder doesn’t mean you can ignore your gut instincts to indulge in a classic Charlottesville food tradition. Here are three recent faves.
Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie
Earlier this year the North Garden pizza spot did something radical: It launched a food truck without its beloved staple (the owners are tossing around the idea of adding a pizza trailer next year). At this mobile eatery that stops at festivals, wineries and breweries in the area, you’ll find bestsellers like sesame-crusted tuna bahn mi with pickled vegetables and veggie quesadillas made with Caromont Farm goat cheese.
Wood Ridge Farm Brewery
The brewery in Lovingston known for growing its own barley, rye and other beer ingredients on-site also grows vegetables and sources local to carry its farm-to-table theme over to its stationary food truck. The 28-foot-long kitchen-on-wheels serves up black Angus beef sliders, jalapeno poppers, fried pickles and other offerings perfect for soaking up suds.
Look for this bright blue truck on UVA Grounds: It has a regular gig in front of the amphitheater from 3-10pm weekdays and 11am-10pm on the weekends. The fast-casual restaurant originated in New York City and brought its food truck version—featuring variations of the classic Hawaiian dish of raw fish on a bed of sushi rice with toppings—to Charlottesville earlier this year. Pick a base of rice or greens, then dig into one of five signature bowls: Classic Tuna, Rainbow Salmon, Fifty50, Comfort Chicken or Tofu.
G IS FOR GLITTER
Puttin’ on the Glitz
Bang!’s Diva martini is a dark purple drink made with Absolut Citron vodka, Pama pomegranate-flavored liqueur, pomegranate juice and white grape juice topped with Cava and a dusting of glitter stars. Occasionally glitter hearts sub in, but Bang! bartenders say that doesn’t sit well with some of the drink’s fans who, in true diva fashion, complain when their treat is topped with something other than sparkling stars.
H IS FOR HUNGER
At a recent fundraiser for Meals on Wheels, hundreds of locals gathered to support food delivery for the ill, aging and convalescing residents of the Charlottesville-Albemarle area who cannot prepare meals for themselves.
Fashionably dressed partygoers grazed at tables of fussy finger foods while sipping some of the area’s prime libations, enjoying the gourmet creativity and asking questions about ingredients, some wary of carb levels and afraid of smelling garlicky, while waify types avoided the sampling altogether, preferring to load up on silent auction bids instead.
This is not to say that attendees were insensitive or ungenerous, but the ability to be so discerning is a luxury, and funds raised will be directed to serve food that, while nutritious, is in stark contrast.
According to Map the Meal Gap, in 2016, there were 143,490 Virginians who fell into the measure of food insecurity. Albemarle County residents make up 9,920 of those, and a combined tally of more than $5 million is the annual food budget shortfall that they experience.
Meals on Wheels distributes an average of 230 meals per day and is one of many local nonprofit organizations working to confront hunger. There are a variety of ways to support their work.
How to help?
Make a monetary donation
Blue Ridge Area Food Bank brafb.org/give-now
Emergency Food Network emergencyfoodnetwork.org
Food Not Bombs cvillefnb.org
Loaves and Fishes cvilleloavesandfishes.org
Meals on Wheels cvillemeals.org
The Haven thehaven.org
Lead a food drive
Collect food at work or an organization you belong to. The need is ongoing.
Hunger organizations need outreach coordinators, drivers, pick up and drop off, kitchen staff, food packing, writers, photographers and parking lot attendants.
Take a drink
Nellysford’s Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery donates a portion of the proceeds from every bottle of Madison Peach Sangria to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.
Get a shot
Through the month of April, Kroger will donate one meal to Feeding America for each flu shot given.
The Haven offers a $10, four-course fundraising lunch menu every Wednesday.
Many nonprofits get a boost from AmazonSmile. Go to smile.amazon.com and start your shopping. You’ll be prompted to choose the organization you want to receive donations from eligible purchases.
Explore policy and contact your local elected officials to remind them about community hunger needs.
Attend a fundraising event
Most organizations have an annual party that anchors their funding. It’s a great way to enjoy yourself, give support and get educated about a cause.
I IS FOR INSTAGRAM
Intellectually, we know that looking at food isn’t nearly as good as eating it. But we could be convinced otherwise, thanks two these two Insta feeds (and one about dogs, because cute) from food-obsessed locals.
It’s obvious how these two UVA students feel about smoothie bowls (fanatical), but they’re also into devouring other corners of the local food scene, from sushi to slices of pie.
The highlight of this one? Puns: “UDON even know how delicious this dinner was”; “Oh my COD this was good”; “I’m GRILLty of eating this whole burger.”
A running log of the downtown restaurant’s canine visitors: “Jackson and Chloe have fun on the patio, but Chloe gets embarrassed when Jackson makes faces as strangers. 20/20. Would definitely pet again.”
J IS FOR JUST KIDDING!
Baby, come back
For Mediterranean food-lovers who were up in arms when Parallel 38 abruptly announced its closing in January, owner Justin Ross has another bomb to drop: The mezze mecca reopened on West Main Street last week.
“Expect to see a lot of fan favorites from the old location,” he told us in an interview before the re-opening, as we crossed our fingers for a return of the blistered shishitos and goat cheese crème brûlée. “But we are always changing and adapting our menu, and our new location will allow us to be more adventurous, so expect some pretty cool additions.”
At 817 West Main, unlike at its former location at the Shops at Stonefield, look out for multiple intimate dining rooms with décor that Ross says will remind diners of the old, the new and the “journey” he and his customers have taken together.
“We are just so incredibly happy to once again call ourselves part of the great Charlottesville restaurant community,” Ross says. And we can confirm that the htipiti, labneh and tzatziki have been welcomed back with open arms.
K IS FOR KUNG FU TEA
Suck it up
Call us old-fashioned, but we’re used to sipping only liquid when taking a drink of tea. Anything goes at Kung Fu Tea on West Main Street, though, where the “bubbles” offered as drink toppings aren’t bubbles at all. They’re called boba, or tapioca balls, and they add a surprisingly sweet taste and fun texture to your beverage as you suck them through an extra wide straw. Not a bubble drinker? Try mix-ins of crushed Oreos, mango jelly or red bean instead.
L IS FOR LAHMACUN
By the slice
Known around the world as Turkish pizza, lahmacun is a traditional eastern Turkish dish that has been served for more than 1,000 years.
“It’s basically a very soft homemade flatbread that we top with a mixture of ground lamb, onion, tomato, red peppers, red pepper paste and some spices, then cook in the pizza oven,” says Sultan Kebab co-owner Deniz Dikmen. “It’s an interesting dish, because it is both traditional and also very popular. Visit Turkey and you’ll find many restaurants that make only lahmacun.”
As one of Dikmen’s personal favorites, the restaurateur says the dish is great for sharing as an appetizer. “We serve it with greens, so sprinkle some of those on it, give it a squeeze of lemon and roll it to eat,” he says.
M IS FOR MAYONNAISE
An ode to Duke’s
Believe it or not, this simple condiment is the subject of a contentious debate among chefs: to use a store-bought brand? Or make your own?
“We make our own aiolis but, for general applications, we use Duke’s,” says Keevil & Keevil Grocery and Kitchen co-owner Harrison Keevil. “This is because it has the best flavor and body for sandwiches, holds up really well to heat and is made in Richmond.”
While you might think it would be a no-brainer for a top-notch chef to whip up his own mayo, there’s more to the issue than meets the eye.
“Mayonnaise is really simple to make—it’s basically just egg yolks, mustard, salt, pepper and a 50-50 blend of olive oil and veggie oil to round out the flavor,” says Keevil. “The problem, however, is try to incorporate it in a hot dish and it breaks down.”
Take, for example, a casserole. “A homemade mayo will break and give you an oil slick on top of the dish,” says Keevil. “But Duke’s won’t do that.”
While Keevil says Duke’s is the only mayo he would consider selling in his store, there’s one person he’s not telling: His mom. “She grew up in New York, so she prefers Hellmann’s,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t think it has the viscosity, body or taste of Duke’s, but I won’t hold that against her.”
N IS FOR NAAN
On a cold evening, there are few things more satisfying than sopping up a flavorful curry sauce with a folded-up slice of warm, pillowy naan.
The leavened flatbread has long been a staple in many Central and Southern Asian cuisines, but here in the U.S. it’s perhaps most commonly consumed with Indian food. Made with wheat flour, yeast, water and either milk or yogurt and baked in a tandoor (cylindrical and very hot) oven, naan is usually served steaming hot and brushed with ghee or clarified butter. Sometimes it’s stuffed with garlic, with vegetables and cheese or, in the case of keema naan, with spiced mincemeat. It’s not all savory, though—you’ll find raisins, coconut and cashews nestled between the soft, bubbly layers of peshawari naan.
Charlottesville has no shortage of Indian restaurants, which means naan aplenty. Milan, Royal Indian and Himalayan Fusion all have a few different variations on their menus, but both Maharaja on Zan Road in Seminole Square and Taste of India on the Downtown Mall offer eight—yes, eight—kinds of naan. Ever since fall arrived, it’s been just what we’ve kneaded.
O IS FOR OLD-SCHOOL
While Charlottesville native Mason Hereford is down in New Orleans frying up a fancy bologna sandwich and topping it with potato chips at his Bon Appétit award-winning restaurant, Turkey and the Wolf, we’re up here in the ’ville like, “Why mess with Oscar Mayer?” At Tip Top Restaurant, you can get a slice of the lunch meat with one or two fried eggs on it and, heck, that’s good enough for us any day (all day, actually, since that’s how long the Pantops spot serves brekkie).
P IS FOR PLAYTIME
Fun with food
Oh, would that we were kids again. Sure, now that we can use knives responsibly, we get to play around with the real stuff. But there’s just something about felted linguine, like the noodles in this faux food set from Alakazam, that gets us excited about cooking in a way that Giada De Laurentiis never will. (Bonus: It may do the same for your budding Bourdain!)
Q IS FOR QUEEN BEE
We have no lack of creative baristas in town, but sometimes a concoction invents itself, as with Lone Light’s new honey latte. The combination of espresso, honey from Golden Angels Apiary and hot milk became such a popular special order, it’s been added to the menu and gives us reason to double down on a morning buzz.
R IS FOR RAPHAEL STRUMLAUF
You can tell an old-timer in Crozet if he refers to the grocery as the IGA, which it was until 1998. What’s now Great Valu is such an institution that when Market Street Market owner Raphael Strumlauf bought it late last year, there was some trepidation in the increasingly gentrified community that he would fancify the “hometown grocery since 1947.”
“The first few months, people were very skeptical about what we were going to do,” says Strumlauf. “They thought we were going to turn it into a Fresh Market and raise the prices.”
Instead, Strumlauf replaced the shelving and added 3,000 more products. He says he’s lowered prices, and he was thrilled when a customer recently said the store has gotten cheaper.
“We want to be a local store and be competitive with big stores,” he says. “You shouldn’t expect people to shop here just because it’s locally owned.”
Over the past year, customers have seen a larger produce section with more local and organic items, says Strumlauf. Fresh seafood comes in every Friday morning, and weekends often feature beer and wine tastings.
And more is in store. Strumlauf and his partners, Crozet Shopping Center owners Mark Green and Kurt Wassenaar, are expanding next door. The additional 1,400 square feet or so will house a deli and offer more prepared foods made from scratch, depending on what people say they want, according to Strumlauf.
Customer requests have guided what products Great Valu carries, and upon taking over the store, a suggestion box solicited input from shoppers.
As for the more down-home specialty items one doesn’t find everywhere,
like, for instance, twee pigs feet, they’re still there. “I’ve tried to consciously keep the products that were already in the store,” says Strumlauf. And that’s good news for the next time you need hog jowls.
S IS FOR SAUVIGNON BLANC
Likely born in France’s Loire Valley at least four and a half centuries ago, this grape variety has become extremely popular, in particular in bottlings from Sancerre. Sauvignon Blanc has gone on to create ethereal Bordeaux blanc wines, such as Carbonneau blanc and Pavillon blanc, world-famous Sauternes dessert wines and, more recently in the late 1900s, Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc and the highly aromatic wines of Marlborough, New Zealand.
Though famous the world over in its own right, Sauvignon Blanc crossed with Cabernet Franc in the 1600s to create Cabernet Sauvignon. As its parent, Sauvignon Blanc is in the family of some of the world’s most influential international grape varieties. It grows in just about every wine region of the world, including Virginia, where you can find a tasty bottling from Stinson Vineyards in Crozet. Other local producers include Veritas Vineyard & Winery, Barboursville Vineyards and Linden Vineyards.
T IS FOR TACO
Don’t ask questions, just order it and dive into the tender taco de cabeza from Tacos Gomez food truck at the intersection of Long and East High streets. The delicate rich meat has perfect texture and needs nothing more than its cloak of pressed-to-order tortilla, cilantro and onion to be one of the most popular grabs on the way to work for local restaurant staffers.
Tavola bar manager Steve Yang makes a stop for the steamed beef head taco nearly three times a week. He recommends adding “a little squeeze of lime” and your choice of sauce for a perfect bite.
U IS FOR URBAN BOWL
Rice bowls, tofu balls, pho. There are plenty of delicious, comforting food options at Urban Bowl, the Vietnamese- and Thai-inspired eatery located in York Place on the Downtown Mall. But as you reach for the tall lunch menu and giggle over the “Thanks pho your tips” sign on the jar near the counter, consider casting an eye toward the small menu of chef’s specials, and then seek out one dish in particular: the green tea noodles.
Made from buckwheat and wheat flours and fresh green tea, the green tea noodles are similar to Japanese soba noodles, says chef Kitty Ashi, but the green tea gives them an unusual, almost leafy flavor. Ashi adds marinated minced chicken, shrimp, carrots, bell peppers and basil to the noodles before stir-frying the whole shebang in a spicy chili garlic basil sauce that stings the lips just a bit.
V IS FOR VIPA
Although Hardywood’s Pilot Brewery & Taproom on West Main is the place where the Richmond-born brewery can play with new ideas, the Virgindia Pale Ale remains one of its bestsellers. One of three flagship brews (also look for Singel and Pils at the brewery and in stores), this easy-drinking IPA clocks in at 5.2 percent ABV, and citrusy Virginia-grown hops and heirloom Virginia barley balance each other out to provide a tropical aroma, delicate body and juicy finish. A pint pairs nicely with most food, but grilled pork, fish or a citrus salad really does the trick.
W IS FOR WOLFBERRY
Way to goji
Also known as goji berry, this superfood is best consumed in smoothie form, like the Superman from The Juice Laundry, where the bright red fruit adds a tart note to dates, banana, dragon fruit, blueberries and house almond milk.
X IS FOR XINOMAVRO
This classic red grape variety from Greece is a popular one thanks to unique characteristics like powerful tannins, intensely colored skins and high acid. In fact, its name translates to “acid black” or “sour black,” in direct reference to its bright acidity and deep-purple skins. Though unrelated to either, it tastes and ages similar to the tannin-laden Nebbiolo, but with the fruit center and bright acidity of Pinot Noir.
As a blending grape, Xinomavro contributes to the delicious wines from Rapsani, a wine region on Greece’s Mount Olympus. Xinomavro juice can also be drained from the dark skins and made into a pink sparkling wine. Find Xinomavro on local wine lists at Basil Mediterranean Bistro & Wine Bar, Public Fish & Oyster and Fleurie.
Oh, and pro tip: Pronounce it by saying “taxi NO mavro,” but leave off the “ta” in taxi.
Y IS FOR YAM BEAN
Spicing things up
Though jicama—or it’s alias, the Mexican yam bean—was first grown in South and Central America, the sweet and crunchy root vegetable has made its way onto several menus in Charlottesville. That said, we have our sights (and tastes) set on Barbie’s Burrito Barn in Belmont, where owner Barbie Brannock features an über-spicy shaved jicama slaw peppered with radish and cilantro alongside her California Mexican cuisine. Eat it as a side, scoop it with a tortilla strip or pile it on a tostada, for all we care. This sassy slaw is one you won’t want to miss.
Z IS FOR ZEST
“We use so much zest. We might use zest more than anyone I know,” says Oakhart Social chef Tristan Wraight, who adds that on any given day, about two-thirds of the fresh citrus in the Oakhart Social fridge will have no zest. From lemons and limes to oranges, grapefruits, clementines, pomelos and tangerines, they’re zesting at the bar and in the kitchen.
Citrus zest, imbued with flavorful oils, can be used to finish off a dish as you would use sea salt or olive oil, Wraight explains; it adds bright and light flavor to delicate dishes (like fish and salads) without weighing them down. It can be used in cream concoctions, too, because, unlike highly-acidic citrus juices, zest can add citrus flavor without curdling a dairy base—it’s why Wraight uses burnt orange citrus peel in the whipped cream topping on Oakhart’s chocolate pot de crème. Zest “imparts the citrus flavor without acidity or liquid and, if you do it right, without any bitterness,” Wraight says.
Here’s how to do it right: Get yourself a good microplane (nothing beats the Microplane brand microplane, says Wraight) and some fragrant citrus and use the tool to scrape away just the color layer of the rind. Avoid digging into the white part (the pith), which is better used to make bitters.