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.