Last Call Dogs

subject: Last Call Dogs
take-out vehicle: paper sleeve
cost: $3

Once a to-go blogger, always a to-go blogger, I suppose. I spotted the bright yellow Last Call Dogs truck at the Levon Helm concert on Saturday and, despite my new appreciation for local and organic foods, I just couldn't restrain myself. I mean, I can't deny myself all the joys of life just because I'm trying to eat and live a little healthier.

But, while I stand by a fledgling locavore's right to order a processed hot dog here and there, my actual decision about what to order still confuses me. So, for lack of a better reason, I'll blame this guy. See, he and I go way back, and prior to his visit several months ago, I scoped out some vegan-friendly fare downtown, lest he be forced to starve. I actually found some good stuff, and ever since I've been bizarrely fascinated with vegan food.

Until Saturday, that is. It turns out that—unlike some other mobile eateries—Last Call Dogs is not the place to indulge in one's bizarre gastronomic fascinations. I won't say it was the worst thing I ever ate, but that's only because I don't mind the taste of white bread, mustard, relish, and onions. Oh yes, there was a vegan dog in there somewhere, but it was only detectable through its mass. While that's great if you're hungry, it's kinda crappy if you actually like hot dogs.

In case you're as curious as I was, the friendly Last Call Doggers told me that the vegan dog I paid $3 for was a Smart Dog®. Had I ordered a regular, non-vegan Last Call Dog, I would've gotten a Nathan's® brand dog, which are really good. So, despite my best efforts, I guess I really did deny myself one of the joys of life.

Oh well.


Introducing Cville To Grow

You may have noticed my post frequency has dropping a bit as of late. Well, I hate to say I'm losing my enthusiasm for take-out food, but...I think I'm losing my enthusiasm for take-out food. I still like blogging, however, so I'd like to introduce my new project: Cville To Grow.

If you're interested in following along on my journey through Charlottesville's local and organic food options, or if you'd like to learn new ways and reasons to integrate such foods into your diet, I'd appreciate your continued readership.

If you're a big fan of take-out food, though, take heart. I don't plan on abandoning this blog completely. I mean, it may not be as healthy, but everybody's got to get some take-out once in a while.


End Zone Pizza

subject: End Zone Pizza
take-out vehicle: cardboard pizza box


Normally when I'm brainstorming ideas for a new post, I'm inspired by something. Usually it's the food itself, sometimes it's the method of delivery, and other times it's just something funny that happened while eating. This time, however, I'm having trouble.

I'll say right off the bat that I liked End Zone's pizza and would order it again without much arm-twisting. The outer crust was crisp yet chewy, the slices wide and foldable, the pepperoni sufficiently greasy. The sauce was a tad sweet, but it was balanced out by everything else. I really had no complaints. As I reached for my second slice, however, I remember commenting to my wife, "This kinda reminds me of that Cobb's place." A bite and a considered moment later: "And maybe Anna's too."

As I continued to think about it, End Zone's pie reminded me of lots of places, and not just those here in Cville: there's that restaurant in New Jersey where I got pizza when visiting my wife's aunt and uncle, the small pizzeria in Nags Head I frequent while vacationing...and, you know, that other place I went that one time. Perhaps now I know why my mental engine isn't humming. There's just not that much new stuff to say about a place to which, in spirit at least, we've all been many times before.

But as I said, End Zone Pizza makes good stuff—standard, maybe (unless you include "The Beast," End Zone's 28-inch pie and self-proclaimed biggest in the region), but good. Of course, I don't think End Zone is trying to be anything other than what it is: a simple, classic, if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it neighborhood pizzeria.

And for certain, End Zone Pizza ain't broke.


Marco & Luca

subject: Marco & Luca
take-out vehicle: styrofoam boxes
cost: $9

Until this past week, I considered fried Chinese dumplings to be more of a snack item, maybe part of a lunch at best. Sure they're tasty, but I've just never seen them as being dinner food. But there I was on a warm Sunday afternoon, coming up with dinner ideas for the week, trying to pair something with the Asian cucumber salad for which I had a hankering. I needed something savory, maybe a little salty, maybe a little greasy...and then it hit me: Seafood @ West Main sells bags of frozen pork dumplings!

"Ew, gross, no. Why don't you get Marco & Luca's?" replied my wife upon hearing my idea.

John's brain: 'Cause I get more in the frozen bag. Duh.
John's mouth: "I don't know."

"I love Marco & Luca's! Can you get those? Please please?"

John's brain: But they cost more and they're practically the same thing!
John's mouth: "Okay, fine."

Though afraid that they'd be soggy by the time my wife got home, I was pleasantly surprised when they emerged good as new (if not two shades better) after a few minutes in a 400 degree oven. I will certainly admit that they were better than I remember the frozen dumplings being. In fact, they were downright addicting. I was puzzled, though, as to why.

I must confess that I didn't savor them long enough to identify any other flavors than "good," but I suspect it has something to with the sauce. From what I could tell by watching at the restaurant, it's a 50/50 split of some kind of mild chili sauce and hoisin sauce. Whatever it is, it's yummy.

Together with my cucumber salad, it took an order and half of dumplings to satisfy my man-dinner-sized hunger, but I'm pleased to say they paired splendidly well. I may have just found a new dinner to work into my ever-growing rotation.

For those interested, here's my recipe for the cucumber salad:

John's Asian cucumber salad

1/3 cup rice vinegar
2 large tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon course ground black pepper
1-2 teaspoons sriracha sauce
1 large hothouse cucumber, peeled and sliced very thin
1/2 red onion, sliced very thin
1/4 red bell pepper, sliced very thin
1/2 carrot, peeled and sliced very thin

In a small pan, combine sugar and water; cook over medium heat, stirring, until liquid boils and sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature. Add the rice vinegar, srirachi, pepper, and salt. Place the sliced cucumbers, onions, pepper in a bowl, stir marinade and pour over; stir everything to blend. Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 hours.


Blue Ridge Country Store

subject: Blue Ridge Country Store
take-out vehicle: aluminum and plastic containers
cost: $7.33

Located on the east end of the Downtown Mall, the Blue Ridge Country Store has long been one of my go-to places for a healthy lunch. They have an excellent salad bar, daily-made wraps and sandwiches, and a wide selection of prepared sides and desserts in their wall of refrigerators. It wasn't until today, however, that I tried one of their warm lunches.

Of the dozen or so soups, chowders, and stews basking beneath the heat lamps, my eyes settled on a small stack of ready-to-go containers labeled "Roasted tilapia w/ mango chutney and basmati rice." Granted, it was a dreary, soup-eating kind of day, but the tilapia was in my hand before I could argue with myself. From the fridges then came the black bean and corn salad, and before I knew it, I was eating lunch.

The tilapia, though pleasing to my eye and visibly seasoned, failed to impress, and unfortunately the mango chutney did little to help. The fish itself was flaky though a tad over done, likely caused by its time spent under the heat lamp; together with chutney, however, I felt it more than tasted it. It just didn't have much flavor of its own.

The chutney was thick, warm, softly chunky, and mildly sweet. I picked up on echoes of whispers of spices underneath the fruit, but overall it was a fairly straightforward chutney.

The black bean salad, I was not totally surprised to discover, didn't really jibe with the (minimal) flavors of the main dish. In fact, had I not eaten them separately (I finished the fish before starting the salad), I doubt I would have tasted the tilapia at all. I guess my only compliant was that I didn't buy any tortilla chips, because it looked, felt, tasted nothing like a salad and exactly like a good black bean salsa. Lucky for me its plastic container is resealable.

It wasn't a bad lunch, but given the weather outside, perhaps it really was a soup-eating day after all.


L's Burrito and Juice Company (now closed)

subject: L's Burrito and Juice Company
take-out vehicle: aluminum foil and a paper bag

cost: $8.50

6/8/10 update: L's has closed.

I'll be honest: I wasn't looking forward to reviewing L's. In fact, I'd been putting it off for months. See, I went there twice last year. I was so excited the first time. I remember ordering two pork tacos...then disappointment punched me like I was Charlie Murphy in Studio 54.* Everything about them was bland, from the meat to the hot sauce. I was just totally underwhelmed.

The second time I went hoping the first was just a fluke. Still wary of the pork, however, I ordered a beef taco and a chicken taco. To my continued disappointment, they ended up tasting just like the pork ones. So, I resigned myself to that fact that, whatever I chose, I just didn't like L's food.

Then, after months of gestating, it hit me. It was so simple—foolproof, even. If this didn't work, then nothing would. When it was finally time to order, L greeted me as I suspected he would: "Hey, friend. What would you like?"

Then shrewdly, brilliantly, I put my plan into motion. "Yeah, uhh...what would you get?"

"Me?" he said. "Well, the pork burritos are good."

Success! "I'll have one of those, please."

Once made and laden with all the optional toppings (except for sour cream...blech), I made it back to my desk. Extracting it from it's bag, I was immediately impressed by one thing: the burrito was so big, so stuffed with pork, pintos, rice, veggies, and guac, that the aluminum foil wrapping was too small to fit around it. At least I was getting my money's worth. But it was time to eat.

Sadly, while certainly better than the tacos of last year, L's pork burrito didn't quite do it for me. First though, my compliments. The beans were great. They were rich and well seasoned, and there were just enough to appreciate but not overpower. The chopped green chiles were a nice touch, too. They were mild, to be sure, but I liked them. In combination with the hot sauce, I had a pleasant lingering heat well after my meal.

Unfortunately, I found the pork to still be underwhelming. Perhaps it's great by itself (it was too difficult to extricate for a separate tasting), but with all the competing elements, its flavor got lost. I also had an issue with the fresh chopped white onions. It's a personal thing, but I'm not big fan of the bitter tang of raw white onions. The texture was good, but I think a red, yellow, or vidalia onion would have been better.

My biggest gripe, however, was due to the guacamole. I paid a dollar extra for it, and I got a good amount, but it was completely lumped into one end of the burrito. It made me very upset.

To combat my upsetedness, I knew of only one solution. I marched back to L's cart, fist clenched.

"Hey man, what's up?" he said.

I threw out my upturned fist and opened it, exposing the six quarters inside. "I'd like a cookie, please."

Little known to me before I ordered my burrito, L also offers homemade chocolate chip cookies which he bakes daily. It cost a bit more than I would have liked, but it was closer than Cappellino's, and needed my fix.

It certainly did the trick, but after finishing it, I couldn't help but feel like I'd just eaten 3 eggs and a stick of butter. Better than nothing, don't get me wrong, but it was heavy, and walking a few more blocks to Cappellino's would have been well worth it.

I've yet to taste L's limeade (which is supposed to be great), but I think I've now had enough of his food to make a fair judgment. Letting L choose my meal was an excellent idea, but the burrito just wasn't good enough for me to pass up all the other temptations the Downtown Mall has to offer.

* I know it's not the most sound analogy, but I love the video. It's NSFW, btw.


Wayside Takeout (Ol' Virginia Fried Chicken)

subject: Wayside Takeout (Ol' Virginia Fried Chicken)
take-out vehicle: lots of styrofoam
cost: $15.64

When I was growing up, I had a friend who everyone knew was going to be a scientist. His dad was a scientist, his mom was a scientist, he played the cello; we just knew. That was fifteen years ago. Now, to absolutely no one's surprise, he's a scientist. Luckily for me, however, he's not one of those theortical electro-quantum-nuclear-chemical physicists who only hypothesize about things that don't matter to me. No, my friend Stephan studies important things, like why I can go nuts at Wayside and not worry about having a heart attack five minutes later.*

And it's a good thing, too. In addition to the goodness pictured to the right (which, in case you're curious, includes five pieces of chicken, two orders of hush puppies, and single-person portions of green beans, mac'n'cheese, and cole slaw), my wife and I also ordered baked beans and banana pudding. Wee!

I'll be honest, I'm not really sure how to critique Wayside. You either love it or you don't...and frankly I've never met anyone that doesn't. The chicken was crispy, greasy, succulent, meaty...basically everything that fried chicken should be. Both the green beans and the baked beans tasted mightily of pork—ham hock and smoky bacon, respectively. And the hush puppies? Magical.

I guess the only real stumbling block for me was the cole slaw. It wasn't really bad, but it was just really ordinary. And kinda soupy. Okay I take it back...it was bad. It didn't really have any flavor other than diluted mayonnaise, and the ingredients were all but unrecognizable. Given everything else on my plate, though, I wasn't really that put out. For the record, I also picked up three completely unnecessary condiments that weren't particularly good (honey mustard, BBQ sauce, and hot sauce), but really, all these sides were merely hangers-on; it was the chicken that brought me to Wayside, and it's the chicken that'll keep me coming back.

* I'm sure this is a criminal over-simplification of the biological science involved, but whatever. It helps me not feel guilty. Yay for scientists!**

** Seriously, though: run some laps, people. Eating fatty fried fat is awesome, and maybe it won't solidify all your arteries, but have some sense. Fruit's good, too.



subject: Feast!
take-out vehicle: paper bag
cost: $7.63

In all honesty, the Main Street Market is one of my favorite places in Charlottesville. I have no idea how many times I've been there, whether it be for fish, flowers, picnic eats, or kitchen supplies, but I had no idea that Feast! was such a happening weekday lunch spot. It was kinda crazy. I was especially surprised by the fact that most of the customers were cute sorority-type girls. (Not that I'm into sorority girls necessarily, but you know, I can appreciate them. Anyway...)

Though tempted by the rows of pre-made and handsomely wrapped sandwiches, my patience paid off in the form of a panini-pressed grilled cheese with roasted tomatoes and roasted turkey. As a whole, it was rich and flavorful. As components, the bread was slightly oiled and crispy, and the cheese, turkey, and tomatoes were dense and satisfying. I wouldn't want it during the summer months, but it sure hit the spot today.

The white bean salad I chose as a side turned out to be an excellent counterpoint. It offered a light vinaigrette dressing, briny capers, crunchy carrots and celery, and of course plenty of white beans.

All in all, I really have no complaints, though if I were in a hurry I'd probably have to opt for the pre-made selections. My wait turned out to be kinda fun, however, since it gave me a chance to browse all the other goodies around the store. There were fancy wines, salts from every sea, sweet meyer lemons, a ridiculously cute blonde, all kinds of artisan cheeses...(sigh).

I love that place.


Stoney's Grocery

subject: Stoney's Grocery
take-out vehicle: varied

cost: $6.51

Hiding in plain sight on Avon Street in the Belmont neighborhood, Stoney's Grocery may never be a popular Restaurant Week venue, but in how many "fancy" places in town can see a woman stare longingly at a window of food and say: "...Yeah, I'm gonna needa getta side a' wing dings, too."

It was her sweet back country drawl that really made it, though. Looking back, even though I hadn't yet ordered, I think it was then that I began to realize what Stoney's Grocery was all about—but I'll get back to that in a minute.

Stoney's, if you've never been, is primarily a small grocery store, but at lunch they have a regular crowd of take-out patrons who visit the small kitchen on the right side of the store. Since I had never ordered food there before, it took me a minute to figure out the system, but finally I found a menu and stood in the correct line.

When it was my turn to order, I chose the Stoney Burger with fries. Sure, there was a delicious-looking container of baked mac'n'cheese and piles of fried chicken, and yeah, there were five different crock pots with simmering soups, beans, and chilies, but I decided if this burger was good enough to named after the store, then it had to be something special.

Topped with a white cheese sauce (which the cook had me fetch from the microwave) and grilled onions (with optional lettuce), my burger turned out to be not quite so special. It was slightly overcooked, but I enjoyed it, though the thick cheese sauce was a bit too thick. Luckily I was at home when I ate it and the spicy brown mustard was only a refrigerator door away.

The fries, to my surprise, were actually pretty good. I'm usually not a fan of skinless, pre-cut, frozen fries from a bag, but with the seasoning salt they added, these were as good as they could have been: crisp yet tender inside, and just oily enough to retain the right amount of seasoning.

So what made me finally realize what Stoney's is all about? A few minutes after the woman left happily with her lunch and side of wing dings, I found myself standing almost exactly where she had been, staring into that glass window at all the food I didn't order. It all looked so good, but I knew I didn't need anything else. I mean, I had just ordered a huge burger with microwaved cheese sauce and french fries. It was brief inner struggle, though, and a few seconds later I heard myself say, "Uh, yeah, can I also get a side of rice pudding?"

It may not be a four-star lunch spot, but Stoney's is good for an entirely different reason: It's soul food, and it's not trying to pretend to be anything else. The closest thing you'll get to a salad is the lettuce and tomato on your burger, and closest thing you'll get to fruit is the homemade cherry pie. It's meat, cheese, potatoes, and deep fry dredging—and some days, that's exactly you need.

Speaking of which: Next time I'm there, I'm definitely trying the wing dings.


Anna's Pizza #5

subject: Anna's Pizza #5
take-out vehicle: flimsy pizza box
cost: $17.17

As one of the few (perhaps only) pizza places in Charlottesville older than myself, I had been eager to finally try Anna's for some time. My only excuse for not having previously done so was inconvenience, but this past Friday I finally made up my mind to take the plunge. I called ahead on my way out of the office, picked up two bottles of chianti (it was Friday, after all), and made my way across town.

Anna's opened in 1976, and at the time it was probably a really cool place for locals and/or students hang out. Unfortunately (though I'd never been in there before and so I can't say for certain), it seemed as though nothing had changed in the 30-odd years since. The furniture, the lights, the lonely old jukebox in the corner—they all seemed ripped from the set of Happy Days. Likewise, the pizza itself seemed dated. It wasn't awful, don't get me wrong, and perhaps I didn't get to experience it at its zenith, but the pizza I picked up just seemed...tired.

I ordered a 16-inch traditional pizza with half pepperoni and green pepper (my favorite since childhood) and half broccoli (one of my wife's new favorite toppings). As I tried them separately, however, I found each pizza component to be somehow lacking. The pepperoni was thin and didn't have a great deal of spice, the cheese was stringy and had an odd melted-plastic-like quality, and the sauce was mediocre. The crust was probably my favorite part. It was golden brown yet foldable and chewy, very similar to other "Yankee-style" pizzas I've eaten before. I think my biggest disappointment, however, was the previously frozen broccoli. It was just unappetizing.

All that said, the whole turned out to be somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, it was uninspired and I've certainly had much better, but in a way it was also comforting, like an old cozy blanket. My wife, who grew up on Anna's but who hadn't eaten from there in probably 15 years, said it tasted exactly like she remembered. "It's a taste," she said, "that you just can't forget." And despite my never having eaten it before, I understood what she meant.

I admit, I was hoping for a better pie, but combined with the two bottles of wine, a few good CDs, and three hours of overdue conversation, our meal turned out to be pretty darned fantastic.


Cinema Taco

subject: Cinema Taco
take-out vehicle: paper bag
cost: $6

1.20.10 update: Alex George has decided on a name—Cinema Taco.

Despite its opening several weeks ago, the little restaurant inside The Jefferson downtown still has no official name. Kinda unusual, yes, but honestly I don't care what it's called, just so long as they keep serving me pork empanadas.

Made daily by Alex George, formerly of Just Curry, they may not be as filling as some other foods you can buy for $2.50, but I daresay none are as satisfying. The crust was rich, buttery, and flaky, and inside there was perfectly cooked, juicy pulled pork; little al dente cubes of potato; and a wee bit of chili. Seriously, I don't know a better way to spend $2.50.

Besides empanadas (of which they have several daily flavors), Cinema Taco also serves handmade soft tacos and burritos. Today I had a fish taco (which I think is a relatively new option) with grilled cod, chipotle salsa, guacamole, red onion, cilantro and lettuce. While not quite as flavorful as the empanada, the taco was very fresh. Cradled in two yellow corn tortillas, the ingredients came together well in each bite, but I could still taste each of them individually. I'm especially thankful that the cod wasn't fried. Not only did it blend with its neighboring ingredients (whereas fried fish would overpower), it tasted really healthy.

But healthy shmealthy. Pork and butter make me happy, so as long as those empanadas are available, I'll definitely be a regular.

Oh, one more thing: When ordering an empanada, don't be tempted by the complementary papaya habanero hot sauce. It's great with the tacos, but the empanadas are perfect by themselves.

(Here's a secret from Alex George: When he first started making the empanada dough, he used lard instead of butter. I didn't find out why he decided to switch to butter, but I've got a hunch: self-preservation. Lard is just too irresitable. I bet he was afraid of something like this.)