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.