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?


Cappellino's Crazy Cakes

subject: Cappellino's Crazy Cakes
take-out vehicle: wax paper bags
cost: $3.15

If I had to guess, I would say that, in response to the question "What does the letter 'c' stand for?", the proprietors of Cappellino's Crazy Cakes would probably respond with "cupcakes." That is, after all, for what they're largely known. They would, however, be wrong.

The letter "c," for those who didn't learn in their childhood, is for "cookie," and they are for what Cappellino's Crazy Cakes should be known. Why? Because they're damn frickin' tasty.

Today, I had three cookies: a peach cobbler cookie, a snickerdoodle, and a chocolate chip cookie.

I got the peach cobbler cookie because I had never before heard of such a thing. Made with dried peaches, walnuts and cinnamon, it was kinda like a chunky oatmeal cookie, except with dried peaches instead of oatmeal. And, at about .75 inches high and 3 inches across, It wasn't insubstantial either. It was dense, chewy, sweet but not overly so, and almost tasted like a bad peach cobbler. This is not an insult. It was a good cookie; the peach flavor stood out especially. It just didn't taste like peach cobbler, which is fine, because it wasn't.

The snickerdoodle was one of the best I've ever had. Like a cinnamon-sugary cloud of wonderfulness. It was light, airy, chewy...it was, in every way, what a no-chocolate-having cookie should be.

Which brings me to the chocolate chip cookie. Holy crap. That's all i can say. Just go, right now, and eat one. Or four. It's worth it.

No seriously, right now.

Just Curry (now closed)

subject: Just Curry
take-out vehicle: plastic bowls

cost: $7.50

10/01/09 update: Just Curry has closed.

I've had mixed experiences with Just Curry. The first time I went, perhaps two years ago, I ordered a decidedly mediocre butter chicken curry. But, since I appreciated the venue and concept, I tried it again several months later with my wife. On that visit, feeling whimsical, I ordered the goat curry. Though the meat and curry were good, I was disturbed to find some tiny (and some not-so-tiny) bones throughout the dish. I resolved then to leave Just Curry's curries alone.

Until today. Stuck downtown, I had no idea what I wanted even as I walked out the door to get it. I zig-zagged aimlessly from Main Street to Market to Water, finally ending up at the Pavilion and Just Curry's lone remaining outpost in the Transit Center. And so, not wanting to search any longer, I said to myself, "Self! Screw it, I'm hungry."

Alex George, the chef and owner, was working alone behind the small steel counter. After exchanging pleasantries, I scanned the menu to the left, then asked, "Is the vegetable curry vegan-friendly?"

(editor's note: yes, I'm still scoping out vegan food for my soon-to-be-visiting friend, and yes, I am that awesome of a person.)

"That depends," Alex said, fluffing some rice absent-mindedly. "How vegan are you?"

"What? I'm not vegan. Hell no. Meat meat yum yum."

Alex nodded. "Then you'll be fine."

Whew! "But," I continued, "What if i was? Could i eat it?"

"There is," said Alex after a quick thought, "a smidgen of butter. Less than a tablespoon per serving. Actually, I make 20-quart batches of this stuff, and each batch has about 4 ounces of butter, so whatever that is."

"Awesome," I said. "I won't tell the vegans if you don't. Oh, and I'll try it, with a side of plantains please."

The vegetable curry, served over basmati rice and accompanied by a fried plantain and a "pepper sauce," was flavorful and moderately spicy. The vegetables (which included carrots, peas, garbanzo beans, and onion) and squares of tofu were lacking a little in texture, but were otherwise well integrated into the dish. The plantains (fried in vegetable oil and dusted with cinnamon), while similar in texture, were a very nice counter-taste. They were also good just by themselves.

I regret not asking how the pepper sauce was made, because it was excellent (so good, in fact, that the half I didn't use on my food I drank straight up). Equally fruity and hot, on its own it wasn't enough to make me need a drink, but it did make my lips tingle—and that's exactly what hot sauce should do. Granted, my capsaicin tolerance (and desire) is higher than average, but still: it was a definite addition to the dish.

Make no bones about it, this was pretty good food. (Ha! Get it? I said "no bones about it" because there were...nevermind.)

Well, I guess one good visit out of three isn't that bad.



subject: Hamdingers
take-out vehicle: aluminum foil
cost: $7

Located near Wachovia Bank on the downtown mall, Hamdingers is one of the better run food carts I've seen in Charlottesville. Run by Patrick Critzer, Hamdingers mobile food cart provides much more than usual mobile cart fare. He has a beef hotdog on the menu, but from the 6-deep line in which I waited for lunch, I saw only one person order it. The rest of the orders were spread amongst the remaining menu—grilled tofu (of which I saw multiple orders), roasted chicken, grilled sausage, roasted vegetables, rice, and bacon dates. Only the salmon cake sandwich remained unordered.

Almost everyone in front of me was a regular, and Patrick seemed to start in the middle of a past conversation with each of them. I was impressed by that.

Despite my bad luck at Nicola's Veggies (see post below), I was still determined to discover some vegan-friendly options, so I ordered the roasted vegetable sandwich with avocado and srirachi sauce. He offered cheddar as an option, and though tempted, I declined in favor of something better on the side: the bacon-wrapped dates.

I noticed that Patrick wore no gloves when he assembled orders, yet he never once touched the food. With a sheet of foil on his left hand and tongs in his right, he was surprisingly nimble; my sandwich took about 10 seconds to create. Another second or two to wrap and crimp the foil, and I was on my way.

My vegan friend keeps telling me that he eats great food and has been nothing but satisfied with his diet. Usually just talking to him about it makes me want to gnaw on a block of cheese, but I have to admit: this sandwich was good. I couldn't swear up and down it was technically vegan—and I was too enthalled by patrick's speed-blurred tongs to ask—but considering he serves tofu and seems to make an effort to provide healthy vegetarian food, I'll take it on faith that, sans the offered cheddar, I ate a vegan sandwich.

The vegetables were great. Though advertised as grilled, these clearly-roasted vegetables had just the right amount of crunch and flavor, yet remained easy to bite inside of the bun. The avocado and srirachi, which don't come standard but are free if you want them, added some great complimentary flavors. In all, the sandwich included: roasted red bell peppers, yellow squash, mushrooms, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, the avocado sauce, and the srirachi. A definite thumbs up.

The bacon-wrapped dates, while placating my inner carnivore, weren't quite as good as I had hoped. Of course, I'm forced to compare them with the bacon-wrapped dates from Mas, which, if you haven't yet had, I pity you. These dates were good, don't get me wrong—salty, sweet, and satisfyingly bacony—but they pale in comparison. Still, it's a cool thing to get from a food cart.

All-in-all, i very much enjoyed my mostly-vegan lunch. I won't be turning in my meat-eaters badge anytime soon, but I'm glad to know that, indeed, vegans can eat some tasty food.

Speaking of tasty food, here's another treat from Hamdingers:

Hamdingers' coconut potato curry with ginger spinach
(courtesy of c-ville weekly)

1 Tbs. olive oil (or your favorite fat, says patrick)
1/2 cup minced mix of ginger, garlic, jalapeño
1 cup chopped onion
meat of choice (optional)
1/2 cup mix of fresh ground cardamom, coriander and mustard seeds
3 lbs. potatoes, diced
1 lb. spinach
2 cans coconut milk
3 cups stock (meat or vegetable)
green peas or cooked lentils (optional)
salt and pepper

Saute ginger, garlic and jalapeño in a little of your favorite fat, remove and reserve. Then saute the onion, and if you want to add meat, do it now. Cook until lightly browned; add cardamom, coriander and mustard seeds. Let it get sticky, then add potatoes and spinach. Put the earlier mixture back into the pan. Stir in coconut milk and stock and cook until potatoes are tender, add salt and pepper to taste and some green peas or lentils if you like.


subject: Spudnuts Donut shop
take-out vehicle: paper bag
price: $3.14

(editor's note: 8:23am—mmm, ate 3.5 donuts)

I'm sure there's a restaurant in Charlottesville that's been around longer than spudnuts, but
I couldn't tell you what it is, and I bet you $5 I don't like it as much. Spudnuts has been around since Richard Wingfield (who sadly passed away in 2005) opened it in 1969, and I've been eating his tatery confections for as long as I can remember.

I was growing up, on some lucky Saturday mornings, my dad—always unannounced—would go out and pick-up a dozen-count box of glazed spudnuts. Those were the best saturday mornings ever (well, until those bastards as Fox cancelled my favorite Spider-Man cartoon. A-holes!).

(editor's note: 8:48am—whee! sugar!)

Anyway, I grew up in a household of four, which was nice because it was easy to divvy up a dozen of anything. Three per person. Easy. Done. So we would all gather for breakfast,
I would take my three donuts all at once and inhale them, because that's how healthy growing boys (and men, it turns out) consume donuts. Then, my blood sugar nice and high, I would jitter my way to the TV to watch cartoons.

Inevitably, I would end up back in the kitchen later in the morning. Why it took me so long to recognize this pattern of events, I don't know, but it turned out that while my routine was to eat donuts whole then run to the television, the rest of my family actually sat at the table and talked to each other—and in so doing, forgot to eat their third donuts! So everytime I would start looking...

(editor's note: 9:14am—holy crap. no more whee. need caffeine.)

...for a snack , i would come upon three, whole, untouched spudnuts. Those fools! How could anyone not eat their entire allotment of spudnuts!? Was something wrong? Was this some kind of trick? Devious plot or no, I got three more spudnuts, and I was very happy.

Today, thanks to a slightly more tame sense of exuberance, I got only four donuts: one glazed, one glazed then coconut-sprinkled, one glazed then chocolate-iced, and one blueberry.

Of the three varieties of glazed, my favorite, by far, was the plain glazed. The coconut itself seemed a little on the dry side to me, and the chocolate icing tasted less like actual chocolate and more like a not-so-good mix of powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and water. Call me a purist, but if I'm getting chocolate on my donut, I want the real thing, or at least a close facsimile. I did not finish this donut.

The blueberry donut was the runt of the litter. Smaller and denser, the blueberry is one of spudnut's cake donuts.
It was actually quite light compared to other cake donuts I've had in the past, and remarkably moist. The blueberry taste wasn't overpowering, definitely more donut than blueberry, but it tasted...right.

I've long argued with myself over which is better: the plain glazed or the blueberry, the apple or the orange. One is light and airy, the other less so and not so much. But both are reasons to get up early in the morning, and both are worth the near-obligatory mid-morning nap. It's an argument that I hope to keep having for some time to come.

Thank you Richard Wingfield.

(editor's note: 9:35am—found a reese's peanut butter cup. that should help, right?)


Nicola's Veggies

Well, I went to Nicola's Veggies looking for some vegan food (only for a friend, I swear), but...it's closed? I knocked on the door, but no one answered. Does anyone know anything about this?



subject: Christian's Pizza
take-out vehicle: 12"x12" box
cost: $6

Having not worked farther than 3 blocks away from there since 2002, I've had my fair share of Christian's pizza. In fact, Christian has been feeding me since he first opened under the "Sylvia's" banner back in '95 (I think). In all, it's probably best not to guess how much I've had, but I think it's safe to say that my share has been a wee more than just fair. Though his pizza (SPOILER ALERT!) continues to be good, I have to say that I miss the man himself.

For years, there was a certain excitement to ordering from Christian. The long single-file line usually obscured the oft-changing selection of pies, and over the surrounding chit-chat there was the very regular, and often quite loud, call for "Next!" (I wouldn't be the first to liken him to Seinfeld's soup nazi). Customers had but seconds to decide before being singled out and subjected to the stressed-out stares those around them. It was fun.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen christian shout "Next!" in quite some time. Though the faces are friendly and familiar, the experience just isn't the same.

Anyway, on this visit, I opted for two slices: one pepperoni and one with spinach, feta, tomato, and mushrooms.

The pepperoni slice was great. It was greasy, cheesy, droopy, foldable, and the pepperoni had a wonderful, spiced flavor. (Sigh) If only there were more. Still, the grease distributed the pepperoni's flavor across the slice well, and the tastes of the ingredients (crust, sauce, cheese, meat) were perfectly balanced.

Ihe other slice, while still good, was definitely the lesser of the two. With no grease to speak of, the texture came mostly from the crunch of the crust and the creaminess of the melted feta. The tomatoes added a slight bit of much-needed acidity, but the mushrooms, I was sad to realize, seemed to have come from a can. They were wet, off-puttingly smooth and shiny, and just incongruous with the other fresh ingredients beside them. And the spinach, though colorful, seemed perfunctory. Decent food, to be sure, but with wasted potential. Were it up to me, I would ditch the mushrooms all together, add a haphazard drizzle of aged balsamic, and perhaps some roasted carrot slices.

Will I go back? Of course, though I'll be hesitant to order the spinach/feta slice. It's just not worth it when compared to other, much tastier options.

I guess that's it for my inaugural post...next!