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.)