Some call it Dr. Ho’s Challenge: Try to make it out of Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie without entering a food coma.
The menu at the popular North Garden restaurant is so loaded with greatness that it’s almost impossible not to over-order. Even if you get past the best pizza in the area, the wings will get you. If not them, the catfish fingers will do it. Or, the strombolis. Or maybe it will be the best nachos in town, smothered in braised chili-rubbed chuck, cheddar, pickled jalapenos, roasted corn salsa, and poblano lime cream.
If you somehow survive all of that, the most evil of all is the “cheese bread,” which, posing as an appetizer, calls itself the Fat and Sassy, as if to mock your inability to resist. Basically a pizza without sauce, it’s topped with mozzarella, cheddar, and whole cloves of roasted garlic, served with sides of marinara and house-made ranch dressing. And, it’s extraordinary. Add toppings as you wish.
The genius behind it all is chef-owner Michael McCarthy, who took over the restaurant in 2007 from Dr. Ho himself, Horace Gerald Danner. In addition to Dr. Ho’s in 1998, Danner also founded several other area restaurants over the years, including Blue Moon Diner, and, most recently, Dr. Ho’s Holy Cow, a tiny takeout spot off the Downtown Mall.
After years at Charlottesville’s renowned Ivy Inn and top fine dining restaurants around the country, new owner McCarthy longed to return to a simpler style of cuisine—food that nurtures, rather than dazzles. Danner’s dive nine miles south of town happened to be for sale, and it struck McCarthy as the perfect venue. After all, at Dr. Ho’s, it was all about the food.
When McCarthy took over, he had the good sense to leave unchanged what was working well, like the pizza crust. Still, he gradually made small tweaks and additions here and there, slowly expanding the offerings. With each new item, McCarthy tried to make sure he had it down to perfection before making it a permanent fixture on the menu. Perhaps the most beloved addition has been the Bellissima pizza, with Turner Country Ham, arugula in a lemony vinaigrette, and shaved parmigiano-reggiano.
In September, Dr. Ho’s Challenge became even tougher. Demand had exceeded supply for so long at the restaurant’s original 37-seat location that McCarthy finally expanded into a newly constructed space next door, nearly tripling the restaurant’s capacity overnight.
“We were surpassing what that place could handle,” said McCarthy of the former location. There’s also more room in the kitchen now, allowing McCarthy to let loose with even more temptations.
Undaunted, on a recent Saturday afternoon, the wife and I set out to take yet another shot at Dr. Ho’s Challenge. I even had a plan. We would share a stromboli and one of the amazing salads, which would surely be more than enough food for two human beings. In fact, there are so many great, locally-sourced salads at Dr. Ho’s that anyone with a modicum of discipline should be able to eat a normal-sized, healthy, delicious meal there.
Not us, though. Sure, we had a salad—a special of arugula with raisins soaked in sherry vinegar, dates stuffed with boursin cheese, and focaccia croutons, all tossed in a lemon vinaigrette. But, before we knew it, we had also ordered a pizza and a “ho’agie” of cornmeal crusted catfish.
The ho’agies are among the recent additions to the menu, as McCarthy’s new kitchen allows him to bake his own rolls, which he uses to create some seriously good sandwiches. Our catfish ho’agie rivaled any po’ boy in memory, with perfectly fried fingers of catfish, topped with lettuce, tomato, house-pickled jalapenos, and Creole tartar sauce. Another ho’agie, the Phat Phillie, is now McCarthy’s favorite thing on the menu. McCarthy takes a whole rib-eye, shaves it raw, and sears it on the flat-top, before adding caramelized onions, mushrooms, peppers, mozzarella and provolone.
The expansion has had other benefits as well. Whereas crowds and lines were once the norm, there is now room for everyone. The spacious, airy interior, which McCarthy helped design, creates a comfortable, minimalist setting that keeps the focus where it belongs: on the food. There is also space for one of the few things Dr. Ho’s once lacked: draught beer, with five tap lines.
Add a few of those to all of that food, and our fate was sealed. Foiled again.