Top Take-Out Fan Favorite

I've picked my three favorite take-out spots, but of all the places I've been, you've decided that your favorite is...

...a tie between Christian's Pizza and Beer Run. Personally, I was hoping we'd end up with a clear winner, but each of these places is deserving, so I guess it's not so bad.

Congratulations to all the 2009 winners, and stay tuned for more reviews in 2010.

Happy New Year's Eve, everyone.


Top Take-Out Winner #3

And my final 2009 Top Take-Out Trophy goes to...

This was hands down some of my favorite take-out of the year. Fresh, authentic, and exceptionally flavorful, La Michoacana is the real-deal taquería we've all been waiting for, and I hope to see much more of them in 2010.

Don't forget to vote for your favorite take-out spot. Someone needs to break the tie between Christian's and Beer Run in the next 6 days so I can award the Fan Favorite Trophy.

Happy Holidays everyone!


Top Take-Out Winner #2

And the second winner of a 2009 Top Take-Out Trophy is...

I didn't review the take-out from A Taste of China (Peter Chang's current project), so I can't compare it to Café 88's, but I can say that Ms. NLaC88 makes some wonderful food of her own and is more than deserving of an accolade or two. I don't go there as often as I should, but whenever I've want authentic Chinese take-out, Café 88 has never disappointed.

Come back next week for the third Top Take-Out Award! And don't forget to vote for your favorite take-out spot of the year!


Top Take-Out Winner #1

And the first Top Take-Out Trophy of 2009 goes to...

Not bad for place that didn't exist four months ago. Since my initial review back in September, I've been a pretty regular customer of the Market, and I have yet to eat anything bad there. Kudos especially for their corn-on-the-cob...it's still the best I've ever had.

Come back next week to see who wins the second Top Take-Out Trophy, and don't forget to vote for the Top Take-Out Fan Favorite!


cville to go's 2009 Top Take-Out Awards

Besides bringing colder weather, the holidays, and the end of the college football season, December is also the month of "Best Of" lists, so I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and add my own.

Since I've only visited about 25 different places this year, I'll be awarding three Top Take-Out Trophies over the next few weeks to my favorite take-out spots so far, and then one more for Fan Favorite. The poll for Fan Favorite is just to the right, so please vote! The poll will close at midnight on December 30 (one minute after 11:59pm December 29).

Thanks to everyone for following this blog. I really do appreciate it. Stay tuned for the first Top Take-Out Trophy!


Cobb's New York Pizza & Grill...again

subject: Cobb's New York Pizza & Grill
take-out vehicle: pizza box

cost: $2.73

So I made it back for a slice of pepperoni pizza. I have to say it wasn't quite worth the drive across town, but was certainly good enough to eat if I were in the neighborhood and needed a pizza fix. Though I try not to drink much of it if I can help it, I could also see this pizza pairing well with a light beer.

The crust of very droopy and the cheesy was stringy and dense. The pepperoni could've been a little more plentiful, but its flavor came through. As I'm used to the prices downtown, I thought the price I paid for the slice I received (1/6th of an 16" pie) was fair, but it turned out my pie was cut incorrectly and normally the pies are cut into eighths. Lucky me, I guess, but I'd be hesitant to pay $2.50 for such a slice in the future. If I eat pizza here again, I'm getting a whole and more reasonably-priced pie...and a pitcher.


Vita Nova

subject: Vita Nova
take-out vehicle: pizza box
cost: $7.25

I've noticed that a lot of people are pretty polarized when it comes to liking either Christian's or Vita Nova. I'll admit that I've been no exception (I'm on team Christian's), so today I decided to make a good-faith effort to become one.

I haven't been to Vita Nova in a long time, so I was surprised by how similar the two places were, at least in person. Vita Nova's pizza menu, according to their website, is much more extensive. Notable pizzas offered only at Vita Nova included the Thai chicken pizza and several seafood pizzas (I did not see any of these during my visit, however).

Though tempted by a slice of Thai chicken, I opted instead for a slice of grilled vegetable and a slice of pepperoni. The grilled vegetable slice was flavorful and piled high with chopped fresh spinach, grilled zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and olive oil. Though hard to eat at times (the vegetables frequently slid off the crust, even with the cheese I requested), I enjoyed it very much. The grilled flavor didn't really come through at all, and the olive oil may have been a touch overused, but the flavor of each vegetable was fairly distinct and they blended well.

The pepperoni slice was also pretty good, but not my favorite. The crust was thicker than it needed to be and made the overall slice much more filling than I would have liked. Granted, they're big slices, but I felt like the heft of the crust distracted from the sauce, cheese, and pepperoni. The pepperoni was spicy, which I appreciated, but I wish it had been a little more cooked. Some may disagree, but I think pepperoni grease is one of pizza's great pleasures, and it was sorely lacking here.

Overall, I don't think I tasted anything that will pull me away from Christian's permanently, but I remain intrigued by their greater selection. I'll have to return to try the Thai chicken slice, and if I ever get the craving, the pasta as well.


Cazon Tropical

subject: Cazon Tropical
take-out vehicle: styrofoam boxes
cost: $10.33

I've known about Cazon Tropical for a long time, but it had been almost impossible to remember to go there...until yesterday afternoon. Finally reminded, I was soon faced with another challenge: deciding what to get.

After staring at the menu for much longer than I should have, unable to choose one main dish, I decided to order three items from the appetizer list: the pupusas (one pork and cheese, one zucchini and cheese, and one bean and cheese), a pastelitos de carne, and the empanada de plantano.

(It's worth mentioning that it took an incredible amount of willpower to not eat this food on my way home from the restaurant. Its aroma was absolutely incredible. It's probably fortunate that all food doesn't smell that good...if it did, we'd have all died from obesity long, long ago.)

Through a happy stroke of luck, I ate the pupusas in order from least tasty to most. The bean pupusa, which I ate first, seemed to lack any bean flavor, and the combination of the mushy beans and cheese made the pupusa heavier than I would have preferred. The zucchini pupusa, while having no zucchini that I discern, seemed lighter and somehow fresher. Perhaps the zucchini was peeled and grated? If so, its color would have almost matched the cheese's and would explain why I didn't notice it. The last pupusa I ate was the pork pupusa, and it was very good. The pork provided a nice bit of texture against the cheese and the slight doughy-ness of the pupusa, and its meaty flavor came through well.

The pupusas were served with curtido and the house red sauce. The curtido was pretty mild but interesting, and though vastly dissimilar to the Mexican variety at La Michoacana, it definitely provided some much needed contrast to the grease of the pupusas. The red sauce didn't do a whole lot for me, however. It was pretty thin and consisted (I think) of tomatoes, a touch of vinegar, onion, salt, and some other spices, but overall its flavor was pretty weak. I appreciated it the most with the bean pupusa and the pastelitos de carne.

Unlike with the bean pupusa, where it simply added flavor, the red sauce was a nice complement to the pastelito, which was very meaty. Filled with beef and peppers and ever-so-slightly crisp on the outside, it resembled a cross between a beef taco and a donut. I was a fan.

Lastly, I came to the empanada. It was a lot softer than I expected, but it tasted better than I had hoped. Imagine a warm Twinkie made from a deep-fried plantain instead of chemically-tasting cake. The exterior coated with course sugar, and the center filled with a thick milk-based cream, I suspect it was the origin of the wonderful aroma that filled my car on the way home, and it tasted every bit as good.

So how come I kept forgetting about this place? Well, probably because it's buried in Woodbrook Shopping Center, has no illuminated sign, doesn't advertise itself very well (if at all), and no one I know has ever gone there. I'm sure I would have continued to forget if not for one of my favorite local food-finding sites, so I have to say thanks to it.

According to its rating there, Cazon Tropical is one of the top-rated places in Charlottesville. I don't think can agree with that just yet, but considering I only ordered appetizers, it certainly deserves another visit or two. The cazuela cazon looks like an adventure, and I am compelled to try the tacos. Either way, I'll be getting another order of the empanadas de plantanos. Dems sum reel good eatin'.


The Southern

subject: The Southern
take-out vehicle: plastic boxes

cost: $5*

The café at The Southern hasn't even been open a week, so I know a critical review wouldn't be fair to give. I mean, they haven't even decorated the walls yet. But today I saw an open door and a person behind the bar, so my curiosity got the better of me.

The brunch/lunch menu was kinda different than what I was expecting. I still don't actually know what I was expecting, but I never thought I'd find black-eyed pea cakes, fried chicken biscuits, or open-faced meatloaf sandwiches there. Not that I'm complaining. Black-eyed peas, fried chicken biscuits, and meatloaf are a wonderful, often underappreciated Southern delights, so I was thrilled to see them get some love at The Southern. I was torn, though, between the meatloaf and the (not quite as) Southern Chicken Salad—oven-fried chicken, bacon, avocado, cucumber, tomato, sliced brie, chopped romaine, and creamy pesto dressing—so I asked the girl behind the bar for her favorite of the two.

I ended up with the salad, and my body no doubt appreciated it. My diet this past week has been rather lacking in fresh vegetables, and this salad provided a good amount. I won't lie, though; given the weather outside, the meatloaf sandwich (served warm with caramelized onions and a mushroom gravy) would have been nice. There's always next time, I guess.

As for my salad, the oven-fried chicken was chunky and tender but not quite as crispy as it could've been. The real texture came from the fresh veggies, and they balanced well with the saltiness of the bacon. The brie was also a nice touch. It was creamy and rich but sliced thinly enough to be manageable with just a fork.

I was confused by the dressing, however. The menu advertised a creamy pesto dressing, but the dressing I got was purple and tasted...not like pesto (buttermilk and blueberries, maybe?). It wasn't bad, and I suspect I was just given the wrong thing by accident, but it still made me kinda regret not getting the meatloaf.

If I could make one suggestion, it would be to serve the salad with a biscuit or some of the "ABC" bread that accompanies some of the appetizer dishes. The chips were fine, but some real bread would have been much more appreciated.

Chips aside, it was definitely a healthy lunch, and all together a pretty satisfying one. I look forward to watching The Southern grow and flesh itself out over the coming weeks, and I'm curious to see if the menu will continue to be refined as well. From what I saw, they're definitely putting a big effort into the café side of The Southern, so I hope it prospers.

If anyone is interested in going in the next few days, the kitchen is fully up and running from 11:00am to 3:00pm, and they do offer a full bar, wine, and a decent selection of bottled beers at all shows, including the entire line of commercially available Starr Hills. Soon a late night menu will be available, so I'm especially interested to experience that scene once (if?) it gets established. Maybe I'll have to don my cVillain reviewer hat and wander over there some evening.

A point of interest: the bar and tables in the café were hand-crafted specifically for The Southern by the 74-year-old father of one of the owners (and they're very handsome).

ps—If anyone has the meatloaf before I get back there, let me know how it is.

* My salad normally would have costed $8.50, but the bartendress thought I was super sexy**...and they didn't have enough lettuce to make a whole salad, so she discounted it for me.

** At least, I assume she did.


Cobb's New York Pizza & Grill

subject: Cobb's New York Pizza & Grill
take-out vehicle: paper bag

cost: $8.67

It's been a long while since I've wandered up Hydraulic in search of food, and as I waited inside Cobb's for my New York steak and cheese sandwich and fries, I started to wonder why. Previously Mario's, and before that Vinny's (I think), Cobb's kinda reminded me of the pizza parlor on "Everybody Loves Raymond": a friendly, unpretentious, neighborhood place for pizza, burgers, and maybe a beer. Who doesn't like a place like that?

Well, considering its near-complete lack of customers, apparently everybody. Curious as to why, I started looking around. The menu was filled with comforting dishes with mass appeal (pizzas, calzones, burgers, hot sandwiches, etc.), and, from my limited view from the small lobby, the dining room seemed cozy enough. The staff I spoke with seemed nice and eager to please. The sliced pizzas in the front display case looked a couple of hours old, but wasn't necessarily indicative of everything else.

So what's the problem? Whatever it is, I don't think it's the New York steak and cheese.

Had I ordered my steak and cheese sandwich straight from the menu, it would have come with chopped steak, mozzerella, peppers and onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayo, but I didn't; I got everything but the mayo. I can't stand mayonnaise. Luckily for me, the sandwich was just fine without it. The steak was juicy enough to not require the extra moisture, and the cheese gave the sandwich just the right amount of fat to hold everything together.

My favorite part, however, may have been the bread. According to the guy I spoke with behind the counter (Cobb?), the bread comes in thrice weekly from a place called Carter's Bread Company, which is apparently local (though I've never heard of it before). Wherever it is, Carter's sandwich roll had a super soft white interior and an ever-so-flaky exterior that lent itself very well to its steak-cradling task, and it had a really nice, light, bready flavor to boot.

The fries, on the other hand, were disappointing. They obviously came from the freezer and were not that high in quality. More disappointing was the fact that they were underseasoned. Skimping on cheap frozen fries is one thing, but not ponying up the extra $.002 it would take to properly salt an order of said fries is totally another. I guess it's a good thing that the sandwiches normally come with chips instead (the fries were $1 extra).

I was also disappointed by the fact that I had to wait almost 30 minutes for my food after walking in and placing my order. Had the dining room been full, I would have understood, but the only other people I saw were the four or five staff and the grumpy-looking older guy who was in the same boat as me. I'll just have to remember to call in next time. (To be fair, I was given several apologies when I was finally given my order, so I assumed the delay was abnormal.)

All in all, I'm not going to say that Cobb's has the best food around, or the most efficient staff, but it was certainly good enough to warrant a few more patrons than I saw, and the problems weren't anything a few beers couldn't fix.

Now I just have to try the pizza.


Chaps Ice Cream

subject: Chaps Ice Cream
take-out vehicle: paper bag

cost: $3

It turns out my tour of local donuts wasn't as done as I thought it was. After running into Tony, the owner of Chaps, at a Halloween party this past weekend, it occurred to me that a) he's been making his own donuts for quite some time now, and b) he didn't really dress up for the party, he just threw on his old black and white prison outfit.*

Anyway, for breakfast this morning I had three donuts: one chocolate, one banana, and one pumpkin. Each had the same cakey, moist, and slightly oily texture, but as can be seen in the picture, the pumpkin was by far the biggest. The exterior of the pumpkin donut also had the most bite to it; it may have been fried before the others or in another batch of slightly hotter oil.

Of the three, my favorite flavors were the pumpkin and chocolate. The pumpkin was sweet and seasonal, and the chocolate was rich and also sweet, but pleasingly less so than the pumpkin. I could see it going very well with a cup of coffee from The Java Hut, which sits right outside his door. (Come to think of it, that could be why he started making donuts in the first place.) The banana flavor, on the other hand, wasn't very apparent in the banana donut. It tasted more like a regular cake donut with just an itsy bitsy bit of something banana-esque.

While certainly good for those of us on the mall in the mornings, these donuts probably won't lure many who aren't in the vicinity, but then again, Tony isn't really in the donut business. Tony is an ice cream/diner man, and he's a darn good one. I'll have to go back soon for scoop or two, and maybe a cheeseburger beforehand.

* Of course I'm joking. I know Tony and it was just a costume...at least I'm pretty sure.


Café 88

subject: Café 88
take-out vehicle: bento box
cost: $8.58

I love places like Café 88. Quiet, kinda off the beaten path, and really good. For those who haven't been, Café 88 is the newest restaurant of the former owner of Ming Dynasty. As many times as I've seen her, both at Ming and Café 88, I'm ashamed to say I don't know her name, but she's probably one of the nicest people in town. And now, freed from her standard Americanized-Chinese food shackles (and the pressures of a larger restaurant—Café 88 has only 24 seats), she's also one of the better Chinese food cooks in town.

By "standard Americanized-Chinese," I'm referring to all the types of dishes that most Americans think of when Chinese food is mentioned: Kung Pao this, Hunan that, and of course General Tso's whatever. There's none of that at Café 88. Instead, Ms. Nice Lady at Café 88 (NLaC88) prepares just two kinds of food: dim sum and bento.

I can't comment on the dim sum because I haven't yet tried any yet. Why not? Because the bento rocks.

Despite being a Japanese idea, Ms. NLaC88 fills her bento boxes with very traditional Chinese fare, most of which revolves around chicken, pork, or tofu. On this visit, I opted for the Amazing Chicken (yes, that's what it's actually called). While "amazing" might be a tad strong, the Amazing Chicken certainly didn't disappoint. Ms. NLaC88 described it to me as marinated, pan-seared dark meat chicken with a slightly spicy sauce (she compared it to the Wonderful Chicken, which was deep fried white meat chicken and not spicy at all).

Perhaps due to the marinade, or perhaps the nature of dark meat chicken, the two pieces of Amazing Chicken I received were very tender. The sauce had only a hint of chili but good flavor nonetheless, but most of it soaked into the bottom of the sticky rice next to the chicken (though that gave me a good excuse to eat more of the rice, which also boasted a bright yellow slice of mildly-pickled daikon).

With the chicken came two vegetable sides: one serving of stir-fried bok choy, carrots, and mushrooms, and one serving of fried Asian eggplant (it had a thin, light purple skin, but even after a little research, I couldn't tell if it was a Chinese, Japanese, or Taiwanese varietal).

The stir-fry was simply prepared. The cabbage was by far the dominant flavor, but it was light, crunchy, and a pleasing contrast to its aubergine neighbor. The eggplant was soft and sweet except for the occasional bite of its crisp skin. It was sauced with a soy-based brown sauce and accented with chopped red bell peppers. I couldn't decide whether I liked it more than the chicken...but as I write, I'm leaning towards "it was better."

As I left with my dinner, I asked Ms. NLaC88 why she named her restaurant "Café 88." She explained that 8 was a lucky number in Chinese culture and wanted to be "double lucky," and smiling, she motioned to the menu behind her: just about everything was priced $x.88.

I guess it never hurts to have some luck, but with Chinese food like hers, I doubt she'll need it anytime soon.


El Pollo Loco

subject: El Pollo Loco
take-out vehicle: lots of styrofoam

cost: $10.02

Josè: "So are you going?"
John: "Yeah, I'm going there right now."
Josè: "Awesome. What are you going to get?"
John: "Isn't the rotisserie chicken supposed to be really good?"
Josè: "That's what I hear, I mean it's in their name, right?"
John: "So you haven't had it?"
Josè: "Haha, no. Everything I go in there, I end up ordering something else."
John: "Then I'll definitely get the rotisserie chicken."
Josè: "Great. You'll have to let me know how it is."

Well, Josè...the tacos were pretty good.

I'll be honest, I didn't see a rotisserie. I did see some chicken quarters in the display behind the counter, but when I asked the guy who took my order what his favorite thing on the menu was, his answer was tacos.

So I listened to the guy who took my order.

Unlike my trip to La Michoacana earlier this month, here I ordered three different tacos: one carne asada, one pollo, and one al pastor. My three tacos also came with a serving of Mexican rice, pinto beans, and two salsas. Feeling gluttonous, I also ordered a serving of fried plantains.

I was puzzled when I first opened the styrofoam take-out box. There were my three tacos, but I also saw three balls of aluminum foil. However, after opening the first to find sections of lime, I knew the contents of the other two: chopped onion and cilantro, all the toppings of a traditional taco.

I don't know how exactly its meat was cooked, but of the three, I found the taco al pastor to be the best in terms of flavor and texture. The pork was juicy, tender, and mildly spicy, and the lime, cilantro, onion, and tomato salsa complimented it well.

The taco carne asada was my second favorite. The beef paired well with the salsa verde and had a nice meaty flavor of its own, and it too was fairly tender. The chicken in the taco pollo, on the other hand, was a little bland and over-cooked. I tasted it, but I tasted the salsa verde and the tortillas a whole lot more.

The tortillas themselves were good, though a bit thinner than I was expecting, and I suspect it was for that reason two tortillas were used for each taco. The extra tortillas turned out to be a good thing, though, since one of the two from each taco ripped during my meal.

I found the rice to be decent but unremarkable, though the beans were very good. The guy who took my order told me they were slow cooked with sausage, bacon, and onions, whereas the also-offered black beans were cooked with jalapenos. I didn't try the black beans, but I have a feeling a chose correctly. The pintos were savory and satisfying, and the bacon gave it a subtle smokey flavor.

The plantains were also very tasty. As far as I could tell, they weren't spiced or seasoned after being fried, but they were every bit as good, if not better, than the ones I ate at Just Curry.

La Michoacana is closer to my home and office, so I doubt that I'll travel across town just to get these tacos, but I'll certainly keep this place in mind when I'm looking for lunch on Emmet St. After all, there's still the matter of the rotisserie chicken (somebody's got to try it). And where else in town can you watch music videos like this?

Note: If you're thinking of stopping by in the next few days, you may want to wait a week or so: I was told that new management is taking over soon, and though the existing menu is being retained, expect to see new items from El Salvador and Central America, including pupusas. The guy who took my order seemed pretty excited about it.


Carpe Donut

subject: Carpe Donut
take-out vehicle: paper bag
cost: $4

This was the last stop (I think) on my tour of local donuts, and it's tough to say whether or not I saved the best for last. On the one hand, Carpe Donuts is one of only two places I know of (the other being The Baker's Palette's mobile donut machine) where you can get donuts cooked to order. On the other hand, a Carpe Donut is not your typical donut.

Though coated in cinnamon and sugar and initially sweet, I found these donuts to be almost savory by the end of each bite. I tasted a few different flavors, most of which are commonly used with sugar, but that here stood out by themselves: cinnamon, cloves, maybe some nutmeg, and naturally some apple (they are apple cider donuts, after all). Come to think of it, they tasted very much like apple cider in cake form—which, I imagine, was the entire point.

My only other local experience with apple cider donuts came from Carter's Mountain Orchard, and from what I can recall of their product, Carpe Donut's donuts have a larger, softer interior, more cinnamon-sugar coating, and a greater depth of flavor. Granted, my memory may be hazy since it's been two years since I've had a fresh donut from Carter's Mountain (I'm looking at you, person-who-didn't-put-up-a-sign-telling-me-that-the-fresh-donuts-had-moved!), but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Though I did not get any, Carpe Donut also offers hot apple cider and freshly brewed Greenberry's coffee. Matt, one of the owners, told me that Carpe Donut offers its own special blend: a 50/50 mix of Greenberry's Sumatra and Costa Rican. Naturally enough, he calls it the Carpe Donut blend.

While waiting for my donuts to cook (he was just finishing the dough when I arrived), Matt also told me about his hot chocolate: "There's so much cocoa in it...it's to hot chocolate like espresso is to coffee." I'll have to make a point to return for that.

So, were these the best of the local donuts? Honestly, I still don't know. There's still something wonderful about a light, sugary, cavity-threatening ring of dough, but I will say this: If you're looking for tasty donut, Carpe Donut won't disappoint.


Beer Run

subject: Beer Run
take-out vehicle: *
cost: $15.10

* Okay, I admit it: I ate at Beer Run. Sue me. It was always my intent to get my food to go, but I saw a friend on Saturday while I was there watching the UVA game, and he was all, "Hey, so what are you up to?", and I was all, "I write a food blog!", and he was all, "No way! You should write about this place!", and I was all, "I'm coming back on Monday!," and he was all, "I'll be here then!", and I was all, "Awesome! Let's have dinner!"

So that's basically what happened. In my defense, I did ask the one of the owners if everything on the menu was available for take-out, and he said yes—except for the on-tap beer, unless it's in a growler.

My wife and I have been going to Beer Run pretty much since it opened in late 2007. Not only is it one of the better places for beer near us, but I think it's one of the better places for beer in the county. Sure, there are places with more taps, but I'll trade 58 kegs of Coors Light, Bud Light, Michelob Light, Miller Lite, and Whatever-The-Hell-Else Light that you're likely to find in those places for any of Beer Run's constantly rotating selection of craft beers, microbrews, and custom blends.** But enough on the beer.

Seated in my favorite spot at the bar, a Headless Horseman pint in hand (see **), I decided to order one of my favorite sandwiches: a Turkey Trot. Consisting of smoked turkey, havarti, cranberry-walnut tapenade, lettuce, and brown sugar and black pepper bacon, it's served on house-made bread. Though I'm quite fond of the bread, which is very much like a foccacia, I know some who aren't. I did learn that it's made fresh daily with whatever wheat beer is on tap—recently, more often than not, it's been Starr Hill's Love. I chose this sandwich specifically because I thought its flavors would play nicely with the spiced pumpkin, chocolate, and bourbon flavors of my beer, and I'm satisfied to say that I was so very right (except for the single leaf of lettuce which, contrasting color aside, was pretty much useless).

The potato salad that came with the sandwich was fine but rather ordinary. I think the addition of a little bacon, fresh herbs, and/or green onion would improve it quite a bit. I had the option of pasta salad or cole slaw instead; maybe next time I'll get one of those.

I got the pictured chips just because. I wasn't really hungry for them, but such is the nature of bars, I guess. It's tough to sit at one without snacking on something.

As I reread this, it does sound kinda like a puff piece, but I think that was pretty much inevitable. I can honestly say though that I've yet to have a bad meal there. Some of the dishes—which do change frequently—are more successful than others, but none that I've tried have been failures. I recall the Tennessee barbecue, in particular, being very good. Still, it's tough to be completely objective about a place you've visited so many times, and where—at least most of the time—somebody knows my name.

p.s.- We miss you, Marc.

** John's first tip of the day: Don't buy low-end garbage disposals. Had I bought a decent one last year when I replaced the one that came with my house, I wouldn't have had to get a new one this weekend. And, had I not blown $350 on one this weekend, I would now have a brand new growler full of The Headless Horseman—a custom Beer Run 50/50 blend of Southern Tier Pumking Imperial and Bluegrass Brewing's Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon-Barreled Stout.

John's second tip of the day: Go try The Headless Horseman. It's a combination of everything that's good about beer and everything that's good about autumn in a pint glass for $5.25. Seriously. And bring a second pair of pants.


Rise PizzaWorks

subject: Rise PizzaWorks
take-out vehicle: pizza box
cost: $13.35

Though a lifelong fan of pizza, I was never really a fan of Casella's Pizza (Barrack's Road's former Italian/pizza eatery), so when I heard about Rise PizzaWorks coming earlier this year, I was pretty excited. Not only would Barrack's Road have another (hopefully fantastic) pizza place, but said pizza place would also have an element of novelty: custom pizza by the slice.

As it turned out, the whole "custom pizza by the slice" thing is kind of a misnomer. There are three sizes of "slice" that one can order: a quarter-pie (2 slices), a half-pie (4 slices), and a whole pie (8 slices). It was never made clear, but after seeing them, I would guess that whole pies are approximately 14 inches wide, and that the quarter- and half-pie crusts are cut therefrom.

Feeling adventurous, I decided to set aside my unabashed love for gluten and try a quarter-pie with a gluten-free crust. I topped it with pesto, chopped fresh tomato, fresh basil, prosciutto, and low-fat mozzarella. My wife chose the regular (i.e., gluten-included) wheat crust with tomato sauce, broccoli, carrots, red peppers, and regular-fat mozzarella.

As I expected, the gluten-free crust was thin, but it served its purpose well. It was reasonably chewy, and not once did it break, tear, rip, or otherwise compromise the structure of the slice. It was, however, lacking in cooked flavor (the underside of the crust sported a little too much extra flour for my taste), and, most unfortunately for me, smaller than the regular quarter-crust.

The toppings themselves were decent. Dominant on mine was the saltiness of the prosciutto, followed by the pesto, which I thought could've used a hint more garlic. The tomato provided a cool freshness to each bite (the short ride through the oven was apparently not long enough to heat them through), but their flavor was not overt, and the basil blended into the pesto. The cheese was mostly tasteless, but it too served its purpose by adhering the toppings together.

Save for the hard-to-mess-up fresh veggies, the gluten-included wheat crust slices reminded me very much of the pizza I got while eating at JMU's central dining hall earlier this year. While not a horrible comparison, I was expecting much better. The crust itself smacked of Boboli®* (pretty low on flavor, fairly airy, and in that middle ground between good and "whatever, i'm hungry"), and the amount of cheese was a bit much.

Speaking of a bit much, Rise's interior is pretty crazy. It's kinda like being inside a giant Hot Wheels® car. The walls are stainless steel, but the ceiling and front-facing wall are huge solid blocks of bright yellow and orange. If Rise has succeeded in one thing, it's making people forget about the über-traditional jewelry store that preceded it.

Besides pizza, Rise also makes custom salads, and their impressive selection of toppings can be applied to both. I probably won't make it a point to go back soon, but when I do, I'm going to find a way to use dried cranberries on a pizza. Ooh, what about a regular wheat crust with a ricotta-basil base with fresh spinach, pine nuts, dried cranberries, and bleu cheese crumbles? (If anyone tries that, let me know.)

Final score:
Pizza I could make at home for less money: 0
Novelty: 1

* Similar to Boboli, Rise's crusts are par-baked. When we ordered, sections of nearly done crust were taken out, topped, then run through a short pizza oven for about 3 minutes to finish.


Belmont Bar-B-Que

subject: Belmont Bar-B-Que
take-out vehicle: wax paper, paper bag

cost: $8.47

Located in oft-changing "downtown" Belmont, Belmont Bar-B-Que is run by Oklahoma-native Wes Wright, who I finally got to meet on this visit. He was quite chatty, and in the few minutes we spent talking, I learned quite a bit. First, there is no weekly poker game of local barbecuers. Random, yes, but I just always assumed there was a little community amongst those who smoked meat in town. In reality though, according to Wes, it seems some of the hickory smoke wafting around town may be laced with a little animosity. This isn't a gossip column, so I'll leave it at that, but it was interesting to hear his perspective on things.

Second, the rib sandwich (pictured), had I ordered it in the midwest, would very likely have included actual rib bones. This came up after I asked Wes, baffled, "So, how exactly do you eat ribs on a sandwich?"

Wes explained that in Oklahoma, and in every other state where he learned to barbecue (he mentioned Texas and Kansas by name), many people ate around the edges of the sandwich, then would open the sandwich up and eat the ribs as one would expect, using the by-then-sauce-soaked bread as an accompaniment.

As a homage to his roots, and to suit our local eaters, Wes said his rib sandwich is offered bone-free, and he told me it was the best thing he makes. Of course, hearing that, I had no choice but to order one.

Having had the pulled pork and beef brisket, I'm glad I ordered the rib sandwich for no other reason than to complete my sampling of the different types of meat offered at Belmont Bar-B-Que. That said, and despite Wes' claim, this wasn't quite my favorite, but I think it's a matter of personal taste. The pulled pork, which is my favorite, was more tender and succulent than the de-boned ribs, though I will say that ribs were very good and did trump the pork in smokey flavor.

No doubt due to their greater surface-to-mass ratio, the ribs absorbed much more smoke and lost more moisture than the pork shoulders (which is traditionally where pulled pork comes from), and thus had a slightly drier, tougher texture. I guess the best analogy I can think of is the difference between roasted salmon (representing the pulled pork) and smoked salmon (representing the ribs). While both are good, I prefer the more succulent and tender options.

Of course, I say this because I like sauce. Smokey meat flavor is great, necessary even, but I love big hunks of juicy pulled meat that can soak up a nice thick sauce. Unfortunately, Belmont Bar-B-Que's sauces are horrible. I hate to be so blunt, but I just can't stand them. To me, they all taste like overly sweet ketchup with varying amounts of hot sauce added in. The flavor of the ribs was enough to carry the sandwich alone, but rather than eat it dry, I pulled out a sauce from Texas that my brother-in-law brought back for me recently.

Had I not been in a hurry, though, I would have cooked up a batch of my own Memphis-esque sauce. It does have some kecthup in it, but the resulting sauce is tangy, a little spicy, and just pleasantly sweet—wholly different than that stuff at Belmont Bar-B-Que. I've put the recipe below, so let me know what you think.

Besides the sandwich, the onion rings were quite good. They had a good crunch and a nice, comforting, greasy fried onion flavor, but unless someone can prove me wrong, I'll stick by my suspicion that they came from the freezer (or if someone can prove they are frozen, I'll take the name of the company that makes them...I wouldn't mind buying some for myself).

All in all, Belmont Bar-B-Que is a great place to get some 'cue, but remember to order it un-sauced. If you can't find a sauce you like, the pulled pork also makes for a great taco (try it with grilled tortillas, a spicy salsa verde, and some creamy queso blanco)—just follow wafts of Wes' smoker.

John's BBQ sauce
serves 6

1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1-2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
6 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
4 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
2 teaspoons mustard (yellow is fine)
1-2 teaspoons ancho chili powder
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
1 tablespoon paprika (smoked paprika is best)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Mix all ingredients into a medium sauce pan. Simmer over low heat 30-40 minutes. Serve as-is or keep tightly covered in the fridge. Best with pork and chicken.


La Michoacana

subject: La Michoacana
take-out vehicle: styrofoam box

cost: $6.80

I went to Tucson a few years ago to visit some friends, and while I was there, we all had dinner at a small, authentic taqueria. The tacos I got there, without a doubt, were the best I had ever tasted. Besides being hands-down fantastic, that meal really illustrated to me the shocking difference between Mexican food on the West cost and on the East coast. Why, I asked back then, couldn't we have any decent tacos in Charlottesville?

Well, they arrived about a year and half ago under the banner of La Michoacana. I can't say they make the best tacos in town (there are still a few I haven't tried), but I'd be willing to wager a cookie or two that they do. For those who haven't been, La Michoacana won't impress you with its decor or its ambiance, and it certainly won't draw you in with a fancy exterior (it shares a small building with Merry Maids on E. High Street). What it will do, however, is showcase how tacos are supposed to be made.

I'm not sure how many times I've been to La Michoacana, but I've been enough to watch them grow as a business. They recently doubled their seating capacity by rearranging the now-open kitchen, and the line is a little bit longer every time I go. This visit was remarkable because, for the first time, Caucasian people outnumbered the Mexican-American staff. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that they're doing well, but I used to get the feeling, when I would visit and be one of but two Caucasian people in there, that I was in on some little secret. Now, not so much. But at least they're not in danger of closing.

On this visit, I ordered three taco locos mexicanos: tacos made with a mixture of shredded chicken (pollo), shredded pork (carnitas), and crumbled chorizo (chorizo) topped with cilantro and fresh diced onion. As sides, I chose a pickled jalapeno, avocado sauce, the mild salsa, and the fresh onion, carrot, and habanero salsa cruda.*

The tacos, as always, were made with fresh corn tortillas, which I've grown to very much appreciate. I never really liked them when I was younger because they were more porous (thus increasingly mushy) and rarely stayed intact while I ate them. Like the tortillas I had in Tucson, however, these tortillas were soft and malleable, yet firm and cohesive. It also helped that the meat, through which the chorizo's flavor carried entirely, was not overly greasy. Even the sauces I added did little to harm the tortillas.

Unfortunately, I did notice that there were a few chunks of potato in my meat. Not many, but definitely a few per taco. While not a unforgivable sin in these economic times, I was not at all happy to see such obvious filler. I'd never noticed them before, so perhaps they were only visiting and had firm plans to go back to where they came from. My fingers remain crossed.

The salsa and avocado sauce (called such because it seemed to be only pureed avocado with lime juice and water, not true guacamole) were very good. There were two salsas from which to choose: the milder tomato-based salsa and a spicier salsa verde. The salsa I chose was fairly mild but had an appreciable taste of dried, smoked chiles (if I had to guess, I'd say ancho and/or pasilla). The avocado sauce, on its own, was largely tasteless save for a hint of lime, yet on the taco it brought all the flavors of the meat, onion, cilantro, and salsa together quite nicely.

The curtido was another thing altogether. I remember the first time I tried it thinking it was only onions and carrots in vinegar. Silly me, I failed to notice the huge chunks of orange habanero hiding amongst the carrots. I remember being very glad that I'd gotten the large bottle of water with my order.

Now that I knew better than to dump it on willy-nilly, the curtido added a very pleasant amount of freshness and heat to the taco, which otherwise would have been defined by the spices of the meat and the salsa. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that I shied away from eating the almost fully intact habanero I had inadvertently picked up.)

I could have ordered the tacos with more familiar toppings, including lettuce, tomato, and sour cream, but, as I learned in Tucson, the main ingredient(s) of a taco shouldn't be covered up by unnecessary stuff, especially stuff that only dilutes the flavor of everything around it (I'm looking at you, lettuce and sour cream). To me, the taco should simply be about celebrating, and enriching, the flavor(s) of the main ingredient(s).

I'm glad to know that La Michoacana shares my view, but even more than that, I'm glad I don't have to buy a plane ticket to get real taco.

* Traditionally, Mexican salsas are supposed to be cooked, thin, and sauce-like. Salsa crudas, on the other hand, are more similar to "Americanized" salsas: fresh, thick, chunky, and great on a chip. In my opinion, this particular salsa cruda could also be classified as a salad due to the large size of its ingredients.


Market Street Market

subject: Market Street Market
take-out vehicle: plastic boxes

cost: $8.39

Like many of my fellow downtown-most-of-the-timers, I've been anxiously awaiting the opening of the Market Street Market for some time now. Actually, to be completely honest, I've sort of been stalking the place. Not in a super creepy way (I hope), but definitely often enough to closely follow its progress. It took a couple of weeks longer than I wanted it to, but finally, as of Saturday, the mall had a proper market.

I knew I was getting dinner there later that evening, but I was so excited that I went in for a preview during my lunch break on Monday, and I have to say, it made a very good first impression. Yes, the fresh fruits and veggies were nice, the layout was good, and the selection was impressive, but there was one thing that really made my day: the six-pack of Festie in the cooler.

I love that stuff. Local or not, it's my favorite seasonal brew. As soon as I saw it, I knew my dinner was going to be that much better. Fate, however, apparently owed me a punch to the gut—by the time I returned, the six-pack was gone.

Despite that blow,* I remained steadfast. I was there, after all, for the food, and so I chose three things: a mint lamb kabob with curry yogurt sauce, tabouli salad, and grilled Mexican corn with parmigiano-reggiano.

You know something's good when you take your first bite, chew once, stop, then say out loud, "Whoa." You know that same item is really good when the only person you have to tell is your cat, but you can't help but do it anyway.

That's what happened when I bit into the corn. My cat didn't really seem to care, but had my wife been there and not at a meeting, she would have flipped out. She loves corn on the cob, and this was some of the best I've ever had. I have no idea what it was coated in, but it was thick and buttery and sweet, and it made me think I was eating creamed corn the cob. The smoky grilled flavor came through in each bite, and the cheese added just a hint of richness and salt. If this corn were a cookie, it'd be a double-stuf oreo...and that's a strong statement coming from me.

The tabouli salad was also very good. The predominant flavor was lemon, but it was mellowed nicely by the other ingredients, especially the mint and cracked wheat. I could have eaten much more than I bought (I always buy too little when I purchase things by weight).

The lamb, though satisfying, was my least favorite item of the three. Being impatient, I ate it cold (actually, I ate everything cold), so perhaps this would have been better warm. Still, the meat was tender, though I would have preferred it slightly less cooked. The sauce could have been curry-er, but possessed enough flavor to accent the lamb. These nitpicks, however, were relatively minor, and I did enjoy the dish.

Needless to say, I reaffirmed my membership in the "Clean Plate Club," save for the mangled cob, and food aside, I was pretty pleased with myself. I just can't imagine that I'd get this same quality food in a sit-down restaurant for less than $9, and if there's one thing I love about eating, it's finding really good food for really pretty cheap.

Based on this dinner, the Market Street Market was definitely worth the wait.

* Up yours, Fate. I went to Beer Run and got my Festie there, plus some yummy pumpkin ales. So ha! I win!


Calvino Cafe

subject: Calvino Cafe
take-out vehicle: paper bag

cost: $7.09

Located in one of my favorites places in all of Charlottesville, and owned by its neighbor Orzo, my hopes for Calvino Cafe were pretty high. In all the times I've passed it by, I'd never peeked inside before; in fact, I really knew of it nothing besides what was printed on their exterior sign: "Espresso. Smoothies. Good food."

What I found inside reminded me greatly of Greenberry's, except much cozier. A giant black menu hung from the ceiling above the open kitchen. Coffee machines and related paraphernalia filled the right side of the entrance; nice wooden tables and a standing drink cooler were to the left.

After perusing past the more vegetable-y items on the menu, my eyes found what the damp, rainy afternoon demanded: the Moroccan-spiced braised pork, Tuscan bean spread, roasted plum tomato, and goat cheese flatbread wrap. Just reading the words made me a little warmer inside.

Though generally tasty, the wrap itself was not without its flaws. Firstly, it was a tad smaller than I had hoped, but had I ordered a smoothie, I'm sure it would have been plenty. Secondly, the pork, while very tender, did not taste as described. Common Moroccan spices include cumin, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, coriander, and cloves, plus a few others, but I trouble tasting anything but the meat. It was good, and I'd probably get it again, but the cook could stand to be a bit more liberal with his spices.

Luckily, the roasted tomatoes and goat cheese provided an abundance of flavor. The plum tomatoes, of which I got three, were slow-roasted whole, and as I bit into each, the juices they had retained mixed with the goat cheese and created a rich and truly excellent accompaniment. Even without the tomatoes, the salt, tang, and creaminess of the cheese made me forget, momentarily, that the spices were lacking in the meat.

The bread was warm, soft, and fresh, which I appreciated, since one of the worst sandwich sins—of which I've been victim several times—is a stiff and/or stale flatbread wrap. (How people with any sense can serve stale flatbread wraps is beyond me. Personally, I think it should be illegal.) Unfortunately, I couldn't find any evidence of there being a Tuscan bean spread, but I admit, I didn't exactly break out my pipe and magnifying glass in my attempt to look.

Tuscan bean salad or no, the wrap was a tasty one. Next time though, I would definitely get a smoothie. As this article was written, I ate eight Keebler fudge stripe cookies. Something tells me that blended fruit, honey, and yogurt would've been the better way to go.


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Carter's Mountain Orchard

subject: Carter's Mountain Orchard
take-out vehicle: plastic box
cost: $4.79

What a roller-coaster of a day. Well, that's not really accurate. Roller-coasters go up and down; my day, at least my day with donuts, just went down. Way, way, way way way down from the heights of awesome to the depths of disappointment.

If only I had known. If only someone had told me, "Hey John, they moved the fresh donuts to the other barn." But no. No one told me. So I stood in line, naïvely confident that the pre-made, plastic-boxed apple cider donuts would be just as good as the fresh ones to which I was accustomed. Ha! What a young fool i was.

But, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger, I suppose. And in this case, it also taught me a valuable lesson: look around before you go the same spot you've gone to for years to get the wonderfully fresh donuts that you're used to getting from the same spot every year. You never know, some idiot might have moved the fresh donuts and forgotten to put up a sign pointing to the fresh donut's new location.

But I'm not bitter. No, for my $4.79, I got six decent, room-temperature, previously-made apple cider donuts and one warm, sweet, satisfying nugget of wisdom. I guess, in many respects, that's a bargain. The next time I go, however, I hope it'll be the other way around.

The Baker's Palette...again

subject: The Baker's Palette
take-out vehicle: paper bag

cost: $2.00

It's a popular fixture at the weekly city market, but why "The Palette's" little donut machine isn't front and center in their bakery is beyond me. That thing is magical, and I even heard a rumor it runs on fairy dust.

From under its square, city market tent, the donut machine creates but one kind of donut: awesome donuts. These awesome donuts are then sold as either glazed or cinnamon-sugared. My preference was the glazed. It was cakey, super moist, and then even more moist from the healthy drizzle of white glaze that soaked into it. The non-glazed surface, by contrast, was just crisp enough to keep the whole thing together.

It's a pity the city market is in its final weeks. Hopefully the donut machine will keep on cranking through the winter inside the bakery proper. If not, something drastic may have to happen.

Come on! Who's with me? Vive la donut machine!


The Balkan Bakery Cafe

subject: The Balkan Bakery Cafe
take-out vehicle: styrofoam box, paper bag

cost: $10.08

Despite what you make think of my interest in take-out food, I'm no slouch in the kitchen. I cook dinner for my wife almost everyday when I get home from work, and I very much enjoy doing so. It's relaxing. It's fun. And now that our deck has been built, I look forward to hosting and cooking for others even more. Simply put, the act and the art of preparing food are two of my favorite things.

That being said, there are some things that I will probably never want to make for myself, and phyllo dough is one of them. Having worked with the freezer variety just days ago, I cannot imagine the patience it must take to create something so fragile. As awesome as I'm sure it would taste, I just don't have the desire to do it.

So, as you might imagine, I was most impressed when The Balkan Bakery Cafe lady told me she makes theirs from scratch. In fact, that statement alone gave me all the information I needed to decide on my order.

After a brief menu item show-and-tell (she was obviously very proud of her work, but I think she picked up on the fact that I was mentally drooling over the idea of fresh phyllo because she quickly brought out examples of her made-that-morning stuffed-phyllo pies), I chose the meat pie, which she told me was her favorite. It was not a small item, yet as she boxed it up, I stared at the trays of desserts scattered around me and winced as they twisted my willpower's arm. Defeated again (damn you, willpower!), I ordered two powdered sugar-covered, cakey-looking desserts which she described as honey, walnut, and cinnamon cookies.

Let me tell you, that meat pie (which consisted of ground beef, potato, onion, and plenty of black pepper rolled in phyllo, which was then shaped into an oblong coil) was scrumfattylicious. The phyllo wasn't as thin as the stuff I bought at the grocery store, and I'm glad it wasn't. To its advantage, it was thick enough, and had enough butter in it, to create and absorb a silky, creamy, beefy, but barely-there sauce inside the pie. Besides tasting great, it kept the inner dough soft and a little chewy, which contrasted very nicely with the flakier outer dough. Mm-mm-mm.

The potatoes and the onions also added quite a bit to the moist interior, as they were both shredded and incorporated into the meatballs. The liberal use of black pepper pretty much covered up their taste, but being a pepper fan, I didn't mind a bit. If I had one suggestion, though, it would be to add a hint of a strong, whole-grain mustard. I think that would've cut the richness a little better than the pepper.

After finishing the pie, I questioned (again) whether or not I should have a cookie for dessert, but their aroma (again) overpowered my good sense. I'll be honest, I smelled them for a good minute or two before even wanting to take to bite. The scent was a divine blend of toasted walnuts, cinnamon, honey, and baked goodiness. Then I took a bite, and literally, it disintegrated in my mouth. It felt like I had a mouthful of chunky dust. The taste was just fine—pleasantly sweet, nutty, cinnamony—but the texture was...unpleasant. Still, I might buy one again, if only for smelling.

As for the meat pie, I'll certainly buy another one, just as soon as I've recovered from the marathon it'll take to rid my body of this one.

update: I brought home the second cookie and gave it to my wife, who quite liked it. She favorably compared it to traditional Greek cookies. Apparently I just don't like Balkan ones.

update 2: I was also reminded by my wife that she was born of a Greek mother, and is therefore, by default, an authority on Greek cookies. So when she said they were good, I guess she knew what she was talking about.


Ming Dynasty

subject: Ming Dynasty
take-out vehicle: "Chinese" box
cost: $18.42

I have to admit that I haven't been to many Chinese restaurants, and I've been to far fewer with the intent to get take-out. In fact, I've only gotten Chinese take-out from one place: Ming Dynasty. Why only Ming Dynasty? Well, because my wife wouldn't hear of going anywhere else. "Ming" has been a longtime favorite of hers, and over the almost ten years of our courtship and marriage (that's crazy!), it's become a favorite of mine as well.

Despite changing owners a few years ago, the food at Ming Dynasty has remained pretty much the same, thanks in large part to the fact that the original owner's recipes were sold with the restaurant. A couple of items on the menu, however, seemed to suffer from the regime change, including my wife's former "go-to" dish, the vegetarian sesame chicken. We've ordered it several times since the original owner left, but we still can't put our finger on what's different. It's just...not as good.

Two dishes that have remained basically the same, however, are the hunan chicken (pictured) and the kung pao chicken. Though the carrots were missing from my hunan chicken, the dish was as I've always had it—which was unfortunate, because I ordered mine extra spicy. Still, I enjoyed it.

My favorite part, by far, was the broccoli. I have no idea how they prepared it, but the florets were very soft and had soaked up all kinds of flavor from the sauce, yet the stalks were crunchy and fresh. The chicken was not over-cooked, and the sauce, while not my now-preferred extra spicy, was rich and peppery enough to satisfy me.

My wife's kung pao (which was a little more spicy than usual...hmmm), was, in my opinion, not as good, but then again I'm not a fan of nuts in my entrees, be they peanuts, cashews, water chestnuts, or otherwise. Sans the nuts, I thought the kung pao was largely texture-less, except for the slight chew I got from the chicken. I wasn't a fan, but my wife loved it.

The spring rolls we ordered were warm, slightly greasy, and full of cabbage. There may have been a shred of carrot in there, perhaps two. Of course I would have preferred a proper spring roll (fresh julienned vegetables, chopped herbs, a sprinkle of rice vinegar, a dash of sugar, maybe some seafood, all steamed in rice paper and served with a spicy dipping sauce), but despite its having been fried and filled almost entirely with cabbage, it was actually pretty good. Even so, my fingers remain crossed in the hope that, by the next time I order one, they'll have changed the recipe to something a little bit more lively.

I have no doubt that I'll eat again at Ming Dynasty. I'm sure it's not the best Chinese food around, but it's tasty, it's familiar, and it's comforting, and sometimes that's all take-out food should be.


What Up Dog

subject: What Up Dog
take-out vehicle: paper plates

cost: $4.25

Newly relocated to the intersection of 3rd and East Main on the Downtown Mall, What Up Dog is a recent addition to the downtown food cart scene. Run by Tom Jakubowski, What Up Dog—as it's name suggests—specializes in all things hot dog. In fact, according to his interview with The Hook, Tom graduated from Hot Dog University, so it's a good bet he knows his hot dogs.

Today, however, I was not interested in a hot dog. I wanted barbecue. Luckily for me, What Up Dog had both.

Advertised by a small "Tennessee BBQ" sign on the side of the cart, the barbecue (like the hot dogs) came packaged in a fresh, Chandler's-made bun; but the meat (unlike the hot dogs) was not from Boar's Head. It came, Tom explained to me, from an actual barbecue producer in Tennessee.

Not knowing what expect beforehand, I have to say I thought the barbecue was pretty good. The sauce wasn't quite as tangy as I prefer, but it was flavorful. If I had to guess, I'd say it contained ketchup, ground black pepper, brown sugar, Texas Pete, cider vinegar, and maybe a touch of yellow mustard. I could be way off, but I picked up on those flavors. (Of course, I also mistook a piece of peanut butter pie for key lime pie back in college—pleasurefromthethorns got a good laugh from that one, as I recall—so the sauce could've been grape jelly for all I know).

The pulled pork was tender, chunky, and well cooked, but the real star of the sandwich—at least for me—was the bun. I may not like all of Chandler's sweeter items, but they can bake some frickin' bread. The exterior was flaky and slighty crunchy, and the inside was soft and airy, like a little edible pillow. Well-developed gluten truly is a wonderful thing.

Along with the 'cue, I got a side of slaw and two pickle slices, as well as some Pringles. The slaw was fine, and pickles came from a jar, and the chips were...Pringlesy. They were worth the 75 cents I paid, but not much more.

When I return eventually, it'll be tough to decide whether to try a hot dog with several of his 25 offered toppings, or stick with something I know I like.

The Baker's Palette

subject: The Baker's Palette
take-out vehicle: brown paper bag

cost: $2.25

I kinda feel bad for The Baker's Palette. Even before construction began on "The Gleason" downtown, it had a less-than-noticeable location on the far western edge of Garrett Street. Now, unless you know it's there, it's all but hidden.

Fortunately for them, they make "pop tarts," and, from I could see and smell, some rather enjoyable breakfast sandwiches. "Pop tarts," for those unaware, are the vastly superior, real butter-having hybrid of Pop-Tarts® and Toaster Strudels®—and this is coming from someone who ate his weight in Pop-Tarts in college and who still buys frozen Toaster Strudels.

Walking into the bakery, I had no idea what I wanted for breakfast (in all honesty, I was pretty disappointed that Carpe Donut, who just yesterday was in the Wachovia parking lot on Market Street, wasn't there today, as it was my first choice), but my attention was immediately captured by the plate of cinnamon buns in the display case. This came as no surprise as I, like probably everyone else, love cinnamon buns...but I was hesitant to order one. At first (and second) glance, they looked a little light on cinnamon and a little heavy on bun. On the other hand, I had yet to eat a bad cinnamon bun.

Then I saw the "pop tarts" plate. My head went back and forth. It was way too early for such a major decision. Luckily for me, the might-as-well-have-been-telepathic bakerista (that's a word, right?) was there to help me out.

"My favorite is the 'pop tart'," she said as she leaned on the opposite side of the case.

"Done!" Yay for having my breakfast decisions made by strangers!

After eating the "pop tart," I sat for a minute, reflecting. I thought back on all the chemical-laden Pop-Tarts I'd eaten at JMU. I remembered all the maddeningly-tear-resistant Toaster Strudel icing packets at which I'd screamed unrepeatable profanities. Never again, I decided. Never again.

When next I want a goo-filled breakfast pastry that could conceivably come out of a toaster, I shall get only this.

The crust of the "pop tart" made me think of a cross between a shortbread cookie and puff pastry. I could taste the butter and the sugar, just like shortbread, but the texture was simultaneously dense and flaky. A broken-off corner made for quite a tasty morsel.

According to the bakerista, the filling was made from a mix of cream cheese and seedless raspberry jelly. I could barely taste the cream cheese, but the flavor of the raspberries came through nicely and balanced well with the richness of the crust. A drizzle of confectioner's sugar glaze decorated the top.

It wasn't quite a Carpe donut, but The Baker's Palette "pop tart" was by no means a disappointing start to the day.


Doctor Ho's Humble Pie

subject: Doctor Ho's Humble Pie
take-out vehicle: pizza box
cost: $21.75

I hate mediocre food. I mean, at least awful food provides a certain amount of inspiration, but food that's just okay gives me as much motivation to write as I have hope for this UVA football season (and that would be very little, for those of you who weren't aware that UVA, instead of practicing actual plays, apparently spent the summer inventing new ways to turn the football over to the other team). but I digress...

I have to say that I was really excited on my trip down 29 South. For years, I'd heard that Dr. Ho's was the gold at the end of Charlottesville's pizza rainbow. In fact, I was so confident in its goodness that I made up new names for the restaurant, on the off-chance they asked me to rename it.* My top two were "Dr. Ho-ly Crap This is Frickin' Good!" and "Dr. Ho-ld Me Because This Pizza is So Good That I Just Messed My Pants and My Knees Are Weak." I was kinda partial to the second one.

The place itself was pretty cool. Located in the big white crossroads store in North Garden, Dr. Ho's was not at all what I imagined. Based on their website, iI was expecting a larger space with a stage in one corner and booths all around; instead, I entered a very well-worn, very intimate space. Every wall, and even the ceiling, was decorated with seemingly random bits from thirty years worth of college dorm rooms. Among them: an old, framed, and slightly crooked picture of Bob Marley; a rubber chicken; a hanging wooden fish; and a racing-esque sticker on the Coke dispenser that read "chronic thc - super kind." To say that it had character would be an understatement.

I arrived earlier than I had planned, so after about fifteen minutes of looking around and politely turning down offered drinks, the very nice waitress (who seemed to know everyone else there except for me) finally handed me my pie and wished me a good day. Even more excited than before, I strapped myself back in my car, cranked up my iPod, and shot back up 29.

Okay, first of all, pizza and cheddar do not mix. They just don't. I'm cool with lots of different cheeses (ricotta, feta, chevre, parmesan, pecorino, even the occasional gouda), but I draw the line at cheddar. It's just not right.

Of course, someone could say, "Well, wait a minute, John. Half your pizza was 'fajitaza' and had chicken, peppers, onions, and salsa on it. How does cheddar not go with that? And it's not like salsa is supposed to be on a real pizza either."

To which I might reply, "Well, someone, you might have a valid point there, but you can shut right up. Number one: cheddar is for sandwiches. Number two: the 'fajitaza' was a lot better in concept than in execution so I won't be getting that again. And number three: UVA embarrassed themselves this weekend so I'm a tad bit irritable at the moment."

Someone would then probably feel bad and say, "Hey, sorry man. I didn't mean to cause trouble."

And I would likely respond by saying, "I apologize, someone. I was rude. Ooh, I know! Let's go to Mellow Mushroom and I'll buy you some pizza without any salsa or cheddar on it."

Tex-Mex influences aside, the "fajitaza" was pretty disappointing. The crust was soggy from the salsa, and, on its own, the chicken was rather bland. Unfortunately, the dominant flavor—and texture—was the cheddar. There was just too much.

The other half of my pizza was called "humble pie": green peppers, onions, mushrooms, italian sausage, pepperoni, mozzarella, and more cheddar. Finally! Real pizza!

It didn't make me think of new names for the restaurant, but this half of the pizza certainly redeemed the other...except for the cheddar. Still, I could taste the spices in the crumbled sausage, the earthiness of the mushrooms, the grease of the pepperoni slices. There was still too much cheese, but I could stand it here; its taste was manageable.

The crust, in all honesty, wasn't that special to me. It was certainly better than many other crusts I've tasted, but for this style pizza (hand-tossed, droopy slices), the edges could've been a little airier and a tad more chewy. To each his own, though.

After some reflection, If I were to eat Dr. Ho's pizza again (and I'm not saying I would), I would do two things: 1) specifically ask—nay demand—that they hold the cheddar, and 2) go there and eat it at the restaurant. Personally, I don't think it's worth the drive, but if the cheddar disappeared, and the ambiance was there, I might be able to more fully appreciate Dr. Ho's humble pies.

* In case you're curious, I was not asked to rename the restaurant. It's probably for the best.


field trip: Harrisonburg

subjects: The Smokin' Pig & Klines
take-out vehicle: box and cup, respectively
cost: $5.21

My wife and I graduated from James Madison University way way back in 2002, and this past weekend we trekked back over the mountains to visit an old friend and wallow in a bit of nostalgia.

First stop: Bridgeforth Stadium—home of the JMU football team—where we met our friend (of ten years now...that's crazy) and watched the latter half of a football scrimmage. Yay football!

Second stop: D-Hall (or whatever it is they're calling it these days). I will say that it was fun to wander around and fill my plate with pizza and tater tots like I did 10 years ago, but then I sat down and looked around. I felt frickin' old. Now I know that I'm not that old—I'm still on the good side of 30—but seeing the hundreds of kids around me, I couldn't help but feel like I didn't quite belong there anymore. C'est la vie, I suppose.

Third stop: The Smokin' Pig. I am ashamed to admit it, but I never went to The Smokin' Pig until earlier this year. I'm even more ashamed to admit that I still haven't had their barbecue, but I can tell you this: their fried pickles are fantastic. Coated in a thick, salty, crunchy, dill-speckled batter, these pickle spears made me feel warm and happy inside. Why I didn't try these sooner, I'll never know, but they are truly wonderful things. Whenever I get around to trying it, their barbecue has quite the standard to meet.

Fourth stop: Kline's. Attached to The Smokin' Pig is the original Kline's Dairy Bar, probably the only place in Harrisonburg at which students and locals willingly commingle. Their frozen custard (not ice cream, there's a difference) is so good, I remember waiting at the back of a the long line, at night, in late November, shivering and being excited about it.

On this visit, I had something I'd never tried before: a banana/cake batter milkshake. My one criticism of the milkshake—which was good, don't get me wrong—was that, by the end, the cake batter flavor far outweighed the banana, and I like banana. Other than that, it was exactly what I remembered: smooth, creamy, fresh, and with just the right amount of sugar.

All in all, it was a good day in Harrisonburg. I still prefer living in Charlottesville, but there's a charm in the valley that isn't easily replicated. And, it turns out, the mix of fried pickles and nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing.

Maybe I'll be back to visit sooner rather than later.


Ariana's Grill Kabob House

subject: Ariana's Grill Kabob House
take-out vehicle: too many to name
cost: $25.68 (for 2)

I've passed this restaurant several times in the past few weeks, and each time I've said to my wife, "We should check that place out soon. You know how restaurant turnover is in this town."

"Mm-hmm," was always her reply, and soon, at her prompting, we were talking about something else entirely.

My memory is not the best, but when it comes to food, it's all but photographic. So, when thinking of a place to feature in this week's review, Ariana's instantly came to mind. I emailed my wife about my desire to eat there, and her reply made it clear what "mm-hmm" had meant: "I'm not sure why you are so excited about this place. It looks pretty gross to me."

"Because it's new and different!" i said. "It'll be fun!"

She didn't email back, but I could hear her next "mm-hmm" from across town.

(For those unfamiliar, Ariana's Grill Kabob House is a small, relatively new restaurant on West Main Street across from the Hampton Inn. Self-described as the only restaurant in the university area to serve authentic Afghan foods, I was eager to try it, as my experiences with Afghan food had been pretty limited. I knew I liked kabobs, but other than that, I really didn't know what to expect.)

A notoriously finicky ethnic food eater, my wife sat down to dinner with the same sense of gusto as would a toddler after being told that dinner was made only of peas. I, of course, couldn't wait.

first course

For twenty-five bucks, we got a good deal of food (and good deal of packaging). Along with the complimentary (though rather generic) salads, I ordered one appetizer for us to split, bolanee kadoo, which was described as "fried turnovers filled with pumpkin, seasoned with herbs and spices, and served with yogurt sauce." In fact, it was one turnover. Large, triangular, and thin, the kadoo sort of resembled a large paper football. The pumpkin filling was meager but tasty; the dominant tastes were pumpkin, onions, coriander, and fried dough. We forgot to try the kadoo with the yogurt sauce, which, for my wife anyway, turned out to be for the best.

second course

My wife, as it turned out, wasn't a fan of the yogurt sauce. Said through her distorted, "oh god, it's awful!" face, her less-than-lady-like comments made me laugh, but they also got me a bit curious. Nothing can taste that bad, I said to myself. It's just yogurt, right?

I had no problem with it. Certainly, it wasn't the best thing I'd ever tasted (mildly sour greek yogurt with some unidentifiable spice and maybe some mint), but when slathered on the shoe leather-esque bread we were given, it really wasn't bad.

For our main courses, I ordered the "Combo #1": one skewer of chicken kabob, one of kofta kabob, a side of cooked spinach, and rice. She ordered the chicken kabob only, which came with rice and a cooked chick pea salad.

Overall, mine was pretty good. the brightly-colored* chicken was a tad overcooked (which I'll gladly attribute to the take-out process) and a tad underseasoned (it needed a little salt), but good. The kofta—essentially long sausages made from ground sirloin, onion, and spices—were much better, however. There was a greater flavor to the meat, and the texture was good in a "hey, this ain't jimmy dean" kinda way. The spinach, too, was good, though the Popeye in me wanted a little more. I didn't eat much of the rice, not because it was bad, but because it's just filler, and dessert was yet to come.

Surprisingly, my wife had little to say about her kabob and chick pea salad (which she compared to baked beans). In fact, she almost seemed to like them. of course, again, dessert was yet to come.

third course

After finishing our kabobs and clearing the table, I went to the refrigerator and came back with a small, clear plastic tub and set it on the table between us.

My wife peered at it, suspicious. "What is it?"

"It's called firnee," I said excitedly. "It's pudding."

Judging by her face, she was apparently having flashbacks. "It's gonna taste like the yogurt!"

"No it's not," I chuckled. "See, look," I said as I opened the tub and took a spoonful.

It was actually very good. Unlike most American puddings, this wasn't overtly sweet or flavorful. It was cool and refreshing, and the aftertaste—cardamom and rose water—spread and intensified with each bite. I smiled to reassure her. "Seriously, it's good. Try some."

She approached the pudding slowly with her spoon, then stopped. "Wait," she said, "What's that?"

"What's what?"

"That green stuff."

"Oh," I said, looking again at the pudding. Then I remembered the menu's description. "That's just ground pistachios." I took another bite, this time with the green stuff. It added no flavor I could detect. "It's good."

I'm not sure if she trusted me at that point or not (it occurred to me that perhaps I was Lucy to her Afghan food-eating Charlie Brown), but she took a bite, and for an instant, all was well. Then "the face" came back.

"Ugh! It's like eating perfume!"

Though our feelings about the dinner were mixed, I can say that, at least for me, it was indeed new and different and fun, though (unfortunately for Ariana's) most of my fun came from watching—and listening to—my wife.

Thank you baby for trying something new. I love you.

*I have little doubt that the chicken kabob was colored with powdered tumeric, which, I just read, has a fascinating range of applications, including sunscreens, ant deterrents, and radiator stop-leak sealant mixtures. Who knew?