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.