By Ken Wilson –
A person could spend all day poring over online menus, but a friend’s testimony that “I’m never eating anywhere else” is worth any number of five star reviews on Yelp.
When the elated friend (“I could taste the butter!”) has just eaten a “Feuillete chicken”—tarragon chicken baked in puff pastry—at Patisserie Torres on 3rd St. NE, she’s been sampling the cooking of La Fleurie chef Brian Helleberg, and at considerably lower cost than one would pay at his white-tablecloth restaurant across the street. So off I go the very next day to try it. Or do I?
Choices, we have a few. If classy local food is what you’re up for, by all means try that feuillete (I did, I will again), but you can also just walk around Belmont and sniff the air, wander into a restaurant and order. Or head to the Downtown Mall, or the Jefferson School, or the old Spudnuts building where former Mas Tapas chef Tomas Rahal offers ever-changing breakfast and lunch options at Quality Pie.
You might even find exciting, sophisticated cooking . . . near a bowling alley on Route 29?
Here in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area we have organic farmers, check, we have imaginative chefs, check, and it’s for sure we have the palates to appreciate them. As a result, we have a food scene that would be the envy of many a larger locale.
Sweetened and simplified Chinese food was the first Asian cuisine to become popular in America—Chop Suey or Egg Foo Yung, anyone?—with help from a wave of Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush. But perhaps it was sushi, in the 1970s, that really launched the American love affair with Asian ingredients and Asian cooking.
Here in Charlottesville Tokyo Rose began serving sushi on Ivy Road almost 30 years ago, and its neighboring grocery store, Foods of All Nations, the place to find foreign ingredients before “foodie” was a word, opened in the late 1960s.
Asian in all its ever-proliferating varieties hits all of today’s popular spots—healthy, spicy, beautiful and vegan-on-demand, with a wide array of mix-and-match ingredients. Take pho (“fuh”), for example, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup with the impossibly rich beef stock, typically served with bean sprouts, lime, basil or cilantro, and jalapeno on the side. At Pho 3 Pho—a play-on-words reference to the local area code based on the way most Americans mispronounce “pho” as “fo”—chef and owner John Dinh serves the kind of soup he grew up eating—in Virginia.
Born in Vietnam, Dinh came to Charlottesville at age 7. Now age 28, he didn’t start cooking until he moved out of his parents’ home at 21—“you can’t eat ramen all the time” he jokes. Dinh grew up eating pho at home and in Richmond after church on Sundays (one of his friends now owns a restaurant where his family would eat).
Dinh trained in Michigan and opened his own place in Rivanna Plaza in June. Pho 3 Pho offers three other main courses, including Com Ga Nuong, grilled chicken with lemongrass over rice, and six kinds of soup including five pho. Pho Thai with thinly sliced eye round and Pho Nam with brisket are his bestsellers.
Julie Whitaker of VU Noodles at the Jefferson School never planned to sell cool fusion food. “It just happened,” she says, but given her family history it happened naturally. As a kid in Vietnam her mother made sweet rice and sold it at the market and Whitaker helped. “I did the stuff that she didn’t want to do,” she remembers, “like making the sauces.”
When her family left Vietnam and settled in the Shenandoah Valley, her mother sold homemade food at a convenience store, typical American workingman’s favorites like hoagies and egg rolls—and spaghetti. With fish sauce in it. “People loved it,” she says of that first family fusion dish.
As an adult Whitaker went into social work and stayed with it for over 20 years, but when “it was time to do something else” she chose another helping profession, one nourishing body and soul—both hers and her customer’s.
“I’ve always loved feeding people,” she says. “Watching you eat makes me happy that you’re happy.” Being “chef, marketer, and social media person” is a lot of work for a mother of two, but “I love the creativity of making something,” she says, “like cutting the pepper slant because I think it’s beautiful. It’s very enjoyable for me.”
What got Whitaker going was the scarcity of grab-and-go ethnic food even at high-end grocery stores, and the poor quality of what there was. “Every time I bought pho I was disappointed,” she says. “They had to compromise a lot to get it to that price point, and I just didn’t want to do that. It’s very much quality I focus on.”
She began by wholesaling her own food out of her house. Eventually she sold it to 13 different stores, and at the Spot on 2nd Street NW before opening VU Noodles (named for her maiden name and her favorite carb) in April 2017.
Whitaker’s not vegan, but the Vietnamese and Thai food she sells at the Jefferson School Cafe and the Spot are. Even the pho. “I wasn’t going to have pho because I’ve always seen it with beef broth and I felt like making it with a vegan broth would be difficult—how would I make it taste really good? So I did a lot of practicing.”
What she came up with is fruit and vegetables based, with umami and lots of mushrooms. She also makes a killer banh mi. “You won’t find this banh mi in Vietnam, you won’t find carmelized onions, you won’t find the ginger. Pretty much everything I make, you can only get it at VU Noodles.”
Over at 5th Street Station Jay Pun and chef Nui Thamkankeaw make their intentions plain with the name of their new restaurant: Chimm—Thai & South East Asian Street Food. Street vendors in Thailand proffer their food from wheeled carts, Pun explains, with each vendor usually selling one or two specialties—until they run out.
“The supply, therefore, is limited,” Pun says. As it is over here. “There are literally hundreds of dishes that are not represented in the usual Thai restaurant in the States.”
That is changing now, lucky us. “Our plan for Chimm is to start with staple menu items that are familiar and easily recognized by the general public and gradually add less familiar items that are favorites for Thai people,” Pun says. “Some of what we currently serve are grilled pork skewers, Khao Soi ( egg noodle in a coconut curry bowl), Boat Noodle Soup (similar to pho, but even richer in taste and texture), and Tod Mon (fried Thai style fish cakes).”
What else do Thais enjoy that we might hope for here? Jay reels off a tantalizing list, with “many varieties of papaya salad, Hoy Tod (crisp fried mussel pancake made with egg [and] bean sprout in a batter of two flours), and Stir Fried Thai Morning Glory (fermented soybean), either eaten alone as a vegetarian dish, or served with rice, and often done in flambé style.”
Ancient and Soon to be Trendy
Many a handsome Central Virginia establishment houses a brewery and tasting room, full-service kitchen, and rustic restaurant seating inside and out. Not too many feature Asian-inspired cuisine. None in the state and few in the country brew what’s brewing now in Charlottesville’s IX Art Park—sake, the national drink of Japan, or what Andrew Centofante and Jeremy Goldstein, co-founders of North American Sake Brewery (NAS), call “the oldest party drink known to humankind.”
NAS opened on Saturday, August 25. Centofante and Goldstein—both Certified Sake Professionals—hope to interest their fellow craft brewers in the stuff they fell in love with at first sip. To that end they’re already offering six different varieties, most served chilled, and most infused with fruits, herbs, peppers, and more.
“Japanese brewers made sake an incredible art form and American brewers are reviving the drink with original interpretations,” Centofante says. “NAS aims to honor the tradition of sake and engage in experimentation. We want to push sake’s boundaries to create something fresh, vital, and different.”
“Ultimately our hope at NAS is to inspire people from all over the world to enjoy the drink we love and open them to the world of sake. Not just ours, but rich offerings from Japan and elsewhere,” says Goldstein. “Sake is no different than any of your favorite adult beverages. It can be enjoyed at any time, and we like it best when we drink it with our friends.”
Cocoa & Spice
An enthusiastic friend is a good salesman, which is why Jennifer Mowad’s peanut butter cups might be her bestseller at one concert and her brownies or caramels might go faster at another, depending on which friend (or her mother, a pistachio toffee lover) is helping her out.
“People ask, ‘What’s your favorite?’” Mowad says, and as the salesperson’s taste goes, so go the sales. And what does Mowad herself like best? “You’re asking me to pick my favorite child,” she jokes, before not exactly answering the question but talking up the coconut curry clusters—a blend of dark chocolate, Caribbean curry and cayenne with toasted unsweetened coconut. “They’re really fun and unique.”
Mowad grew up in northern New Jersey loving chocolate like any kid, and selling it at school fundraisers, even earning a bike one year after moving 20 boxes. She and her mother developed a tradition of going out and buying some for themselves the day after Valentine’s Day.
In high school she watched cooking shows and started experimenting in the kitchen, dreaming of opening her own business. She came to Charlottesville ten years ago to work for Semester at Sea, and began selling homemade creations at the City Market in 2016. Last April she opened Cocoa & Spice on Stewart Street, where surprised walk-ins find handcrafted chocolates, confections, and drinking chocolate. “It’s just a way for me to share products that I really enjoy making,” she says. “I came up with the name Cocoa & Spice because I love drinking hot chocolate.”
Mowad’s version starts with semi-sweet dark chocolate and unsweetened cocoa powder; these she blends with water, whole milk, soy milk, or whatever non-dairy-free alternative a customer prefers. Add chipotle chili and cinnamon, or orange cloves, or lavender and sea salt, and the old-fashioned standby you grew up with is an up-to-date comfort drink.
“We’re super diverse and I like how local it is,” Mowad says of the food scene here. “And it’s a very supportive community. All the chefs and restaurant people just kind of brag about each other’s products.”
Of course they do—the rest of us brag too, between bites. If it’s local, it’s darn good eating.