Two new lunch options opened up close to 52L headquarters recently. The first for us to visit was Potbelly Sandwich Shop. I frequented a corporate-owned location in Rockville Maryland a decade ago, but the Chicago-based chain is new to the Richmond area and (according to one person we talked to) new to the franchise business. This was Adam’s first visit, and my first Potbelly meal since probably 2005. It hasn’t changed much, although I did wonder if they’d have a loft with live music on weekend evenings.
52L visited this day with friend and co-worker Mike. As you’d expect from a successful chain, the branding and decor were strong, and the Richmond franchise has invested in it’s pre-open training. The food ordering flow was clear, the line moved fast, and everyone was very friendly.
Unburdened by society’s expectations of “when one eats dessert”, Adam opened with a Dream Bar, one of several dessert options available. The Dream Bar is a creation of the original CEO’s wife, a sweet & salty cookie bar made by secret recipe that probably includes oats, chocolate, brown sugar, and coconut. Adam loved the variety of texture and said it was the best part of the meal.
That out of the way, Adam was tempted by the healthier salad options but ended up with the Wreck, the only trademarked sandwich on the menu (Salami, Roast Beef,Turkey, Ham & Swiss Cheese) and added bacon. The bread was fine… a little dry without being too dry. More flaky than dry. But the meat was good, it was served hot, and there was a lot of it. Sandwich was good. Adam also added chips which were fine. Chips are chips.
Wanting to try something different, I ordered the Roast Beef and had a similar experience. The bread was fine certainly better than you’d find at a Subway, a different take from the big pillows of carbs you get from a Jimmy Johns. Which we will have to review one of these days. Chips were chips. I was excited to try an Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookie, but it was just okay. I’ll have to have a Dream Bar next time. There will be next times. There have already been next times, which is a bit of a spoiler for the end of this review.
Asked what he ordered and how it was, Mike replied, “It was a sandwich.”
Potbelly offers a lot of comfort food. Sandwiches and salads, yes. Soups, sure. The variety of baked goods and the signature milkshakes that we didn’t even try. The day we visited, the line was to the door but it moved quickly. Potbelly has a niche and it’s sure to become a staple for a quick lunch or dinner.
Hondos has been a staple of the Innsbrook business lunch crowd for years. How we’ve driven past it and failed to review it for going on four years now is a bit of a mystery. For me at least, it has always felt a bit too formal for a casual lunch with coworkers. There is a place for formal though and the perception that formal comes at high prices turns out to not be the case for Hondos.
What we got last week was a pleasant and upscale experience. Our server greeted us with his name on a tiny easel. Our bread came to the table with whipped butter that was piped into a decorative shape. Definitely not the fast casual scene that dominates the West End lunch hour.We surveyed the menu and ended up with picks from the lunch specials. All were at reasonable prices, but you’re welcome to get in deep on an expense and probably tasty cut of steak too.
Ethan had the Prime Rib Sandwich with Fries. The prime was cut a little thick, but made for a great vehicle to deliver the sandwiches fixins. The horseradish cheddar and au jus made for a fantastic flavor combination. The only downside being the inconsistency in the sandwiches parts made it a fork affair. Slightly betraying the sandwiches prime directive. The fries, usually not worth mentioning at most establishments because they underwhelm, were actually the opposite here. The fries seasoning, too much salt and herbs, was a overpowering to be point of being aggressive.
I went with the Shrimp and Grits. A dish I love, but don’t find too often at lunch. Hondos version was a perfect of example of how to do it right. The portion was small, but the flavors were bold and everything was cooked just right. The grits were creamy, but not too smooth and the shrimp were springy and tender on the tooth. I’d order this dish in a heartbeat upon return.
Formal has a purpose. Unfortunately for me formals time is usually not lunch. I like a place with a little more vibrancy and noise for my noon time break. I’d return to Hondos on my own accord, more than likely for dinner. Ethan on the other hand appreciated the change of pace for lunch. He’d actually prefer lunch over dinner. In either case we both gave it a thumbs up. Our food was good to great and the service was thoughtful and surprisingly quick.
Sushi King is a new (wait for it) sushi restaurant located in the spot where we had previously reviewed Da Lat. We enjoy sushi, and were surprised to find upon arrival that it is all-you-can-eat. Interesting.
Eating sushi is a social experience. Typically, everyone orders two rolls and (allergies notwithstanding) everyone shares, enabling you to try many tastes in succession. Since all portions conveniently arrive in 6-8 bite-sized sections, sharing becomes the point, and if you luck into a good sushi place, it’s a great experience.
Unfortunately, the compromises necessary to make this business model work undermined that experience. Dishes must be ordered off a menu. You can only order one roll at a time. And good sushi takes time, meaning once you order, you have to wait for it to be made. That’s great: we’d rather this than prepared sushi sitting in a fridge waiting for customers. But when you have to endure that order-to-eat delay more than once, it kills the experience.
We have a typical ordering pattern for sushi, and it worked against us. We shared edamame, as an appetizer which needed salt, but that was rectified at the table. I started with an Avocado Salad which was small, but the avocado was ripe. Adam ordered the Cucumber Salad which was cold and refreshing, the perfect mix of sweet and vinegar, might have been the favorite part of this meal. We also shared Gyoza Dumplings which were unimpressive and came with too little of the sauce that gave it flavor.
The White Dragon Roll (Spicy salmon crunchy with white tuna and green tobiko on top) was misrepresented… there was nothing spicy about the salmon. There was plenty of crunch, but it lacked on flavor and was only saved by its sauce. We accompanied these with spicy salmon and spicy tuna rolls which were uninspiring, but that is their purpose: to be the filler around the special roll. We always order two “regular rolls” to go with two Special Rolls, but this was an economic choice that wasn’t the best move for an fixed price meal. We should have each ordered two more special rolls instead.
In the end, the all-you-can-eat operation threw off the entire value proposition and the food wasn’t impressive enough to save the experience. Service was very slow, slower than it should have been even with made-to-order sushi. We were there for well over an hour and barely had time to get through the “apps + four rolls” we would have ordered off a la carte at the start. And the piecemeal delivery hampered the fun. We could look past the service deficiency if the food were better, but as it stands we can’t see going back.
Lunch topics: Titanfall, the LA Clippers & free speech when you’re responsible to a higher party, Lego Hobbit, kids learning to read, relearning analytics, work, Swamp Thing, Dragonlance, 11/22/63, In Pictopia
Reorganizing our restaurant categories to properly slot the places we were visiting wasn’t something we did until our 52nd week. It wasn’t glamorous, but when we decided to go well past our original plan it was necessary to better navigate the reviews. Making additions to the list is rare; they aren’t exactly adding new cultures and cuisines to the globe these days. 150 restaurants and weeks later though, and we have a new one to add. Sweet and savory pie shop. That friends is Proper Pie Co. to a T. Maybe we’ll go with “bakery”?
In celebration of 150 we drove across our fair city to Church Hill. We met Meg outside of Proper’s welcoming glass exterior and then ventured inside. We were immediately greeted by the aromatic smells of baking confections and the hurried sights of a kitchen in full swing. The seating was minimal and orders were placed at a counter set back enough from the door to accommodate a hefty line. Thankfully we arrived early enough to wait in no line and grab three seats at the bar.
Since there were both sweet and savory options, we all picked one of each from the menu. Meg went with the Mince & Cheese for her savory, Raspberry Buttermilk for sweet and paired the pair with a Nehi Peach. On both fronts she was disappointed with the crust. She had expected light and flaky and what she got was kind of dry. Thankfully the contents the crust delivered were a different story. The M&C had a blend of spices that leaned Italian and the balance of its ingredients left no one flavor overpowering the others. The buttermilk had a rich and creamy custard, almost cheesecake like in texture. There could have been more raspberries, but the buttermilk filling on it’s own was already a treat. Finally the Nehi Peach was a bust. Too unsubtle for the pie flavors.
Next Ethan went with the Sausage Roll, Pecan Pie and a Turbo Coke. The roll arrived in a bag, as did all the savory pies. Perfect for the to-go nature Proper seems to promote with the lack of seating, but a plate would have helped to contain some crumbs for the eat in customer. Outside of dishware commentary, Ethan took his pecan pie a la mode, so he had it first and was very happy with the choice. The texture was wonderfully inconsistent, with a mushy layer at the bottom and topped with a candy-like pecan sugar layer above. He noted that pecan pie is his favorite pie and this pecan pie was one of the best he’d ever had. The sausage roll was a thin pastry layer, sprinkled with poppy seeds, stuffed with tender and tasty sausage. Big thumbs up.
Lastly I had the Pork and Apple (savory), Maple and Black Walnut (sweet) and a Turbo Coke. Mine was with iced cream as well so I gobbled down the maple and black walnut pie first. It was a blend of rich, dense flavors, but not overly sweet. It had a delightfully craggy texture that played well with the silky smooth ice cream. The pork and apple pie was way more roasted pork than it was apple. I wanted more apple, but the pork was extremely tasty and tender. Its juices were soaked up by the crust, which made it even better.
Turbo Coke. No I didn’t forget it, but Ethan and I both where drawn to it and then disappointed by it. A turbo coke is a Mexican Coke with a shot of espresso. A wonderful idea, right? We both love Coca Cola de México and café. Put the two together though and you get a lot of fizz (Ethan’s bubbled over) and an unwelcome bitterness mixed in with the very sweet coke. Great in theory, not so much in practice. Next time we’d both just go with one or the other to compliment our pies.
In summary Proper Pie is super great! The atmosphere is less bakery, more to-go dinner and the staff were all incredibly friendly. We’d all make more conservative drink choices our time through, but our pies were all good to great. That said we’d all go back and try something new. Their menu is always changing and there are loads of great options to explore. The price for a full lunch (sweet, savory and drink) was steeper than our average, but worth it for a special occasion. All in all it was a great place to celebrate 150 and catch up with a good friend.
Extreme Pizza has been a staple of the VCU area in downtown Richmond and even near us in the West End for a few years now, but we hadn’t had the occasion to visit until now. It is marketed as fresh ingredients plus “extreme” combinations of flavors. We’re big fans of pizza… I tell my children that pizza has all four food groups: Bread Group, Cheese Group, Meat Group, and Sauce Group. Over the years, 52L has tried traditional pizzerias, eclectic stops, and many the Italian restaurant that also serves pizza. Extreme Pizza felt like a mix-and-match of styles. The storefront was indistinguishable from your standard neighborhood pizza joint, complete with bar seating in the front window. But the menu was anything but.
While you can create your own pie, I wanted to try one of their “Signature” pizzas. Faced with many “extreme” options, I retreated to the traditional by ordering the Railroad Grade (Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, red onions, with a red sauce). I was justly rewarded for my cowardice. The crust was greasy, which is not an effect I enjoy, but the topings were thick and it was a satisfying meal. I didn’t love my pizza, but I probably didn’t give Extreme Pizza a chance with my safe choice.
Adam got into the spirit though and ordered the Hanoi Fever (shredded pork marinated in a hoisin style sauce, peanuts, green onions, jalapeños, carrots and cilantro) The flavors were almost entirely new to Adam (on a pizza, anyway) and it worked. Lots of good flavorful spice, and the peanuts added a welcome mix to the texture. Adam writes, “Tasted more Thai than Vietnamese, not a point of complaint, just a better way to describe it. Thai food on a pizza. It was great.”
The location isn’t noteworthy, just another storefront in Short Pump. It looked like a hole in the wall downtown pizzeria rather than what the boutique-style menu might suggest. But Adam really liked his pizza and I see enough promise to return and be more adventurous.
Lunch topics: Titanfall, Videogame development, Urbanspoon vs Yelp, Colbert on the Late Show, the demographics of late night TV, Tasker, Facebook’s purchase of Oculus, Minecraft selling 21m copies of Minecraft PE, coffee
We’ve seen most of what the West End has to offer for lunch. Or at the very least are aware of it and have plans to go there. So it is a treat to be clued into a place that has had praise heaped upon it and that has escaped gaze for this long. Last week a Style Weekly article made me aware of La Cabana and this week we went there. Simple as that.
La Cabana sits at the back of the Staples Mill Shopping Center and sports a very unassuming facade. The interior does no better at revealing the secrets kept within. What secrets you might ask? Great tacos! Loads of options on the protein front and way too many menu items to try in one trip. Ordering was done at counter and was quick and friendly. We each picked out three tacos and paired them with a Mexicoke.
Ethan had the Lengua, Carnitas and a Pork rinds + Cactus leaves combo. The carnitas were the clear favorite. Offering moist and finely shredded pork that took tons of flavor from its slow roasting. The lengua was very similar to the tacos we’ve had at Habanero. Well cooked and salty, with the just tender enough texture that only tongue seems to offer. The pork rinds were a bit redundant against the previous two picks. Slightly fattier and with less flavor than the pair.
I picked up the Lengua , Cabeza and Chorizo. The lengua really hit the spot and re-re-re-enforced why I just order three of them every time I go to Habanero. The chorizo was good as well, offering a spicy and slightly sweet flavor, but with a bit too fine a grind. Finally the cabeza was more interesting in theory. I’d never had it before. Than it was in practice. It was extremely fatty and didn’t make up for that imbalance in texture with it’s flavor.
MOSAIC (no, I’m not yelling, it’s branded that way) has been on our list for a while. Sitting at the crossroads of River Road and Huguenot, we’ve both been past it many times, by car and also by bike. It’s a bit of a haul from work, though, and its shopping center neighbors are targeted to demographics other than us. But we could only ignore the solid Urbanspoon reviews and word-of-mouth for so long.
So often, we walk into places at lunch to be greeted by an empty room and an eager server. Not so today. The interior was lively and pleasantly appointed, and we were greeted by a staff already managing a full restaurant. This is a good sign. We were seated quickly and had just enough time to enjoy the décor before being presented with a a menu with too many good choices for two stomachs. In the end, I couldn’t resist the “Critic’s Choice 2013″ Mac and Cheese which comes with smoked gouda sauce, crunchy parmesan, and bacon. It was delicious and very filling. Cream sauce covered the pasta but was not at all heavy. The bacon and parmesan & panko dusting made for a great combination. When it arrived, I frowned at the portion size, but it turned out to be plenty, especially with such strong flavors. In the future I might add side chicken or salad, but these were nontrivial add-ons to a dish that was already pricier than what we’re used to closer to work. Adam ordered the Fit Curry–Quinoa & Shrimp. Again, a small portion went a long way. Adam said it’s probably his favorite use of quinoa in a dish (admittedly a low bar). “It had the consistency and flavor profile of shrimp and grits, but the coconut milk and curry really set it off.”
Neither of us loved the limeaid. Way too much sugar, not enough tart. We finished it quickly but didn’t order seconds. It felt like a thing you order because you don’t want to be the guy that orders water while your companions are all having wine. I could be projecting.
Given its location at a shopping center in the “1% Mansions” region of Richmond, we were expecting to be surrounded by daytime lady shoppers. (This has happened before). We wouldn’t call it a melting pot of diversity, but we didn’t feel out of place as working professionals, and the service was top-notch. Very attentive & friendly, without being aggressive, which is a sign of good training and management. We regretted not choosing the patio, but will next time. And there will probably be a next time for each of us. We had a great experience.
Lunch topics: MOBAs, NYT’s spooky accurate Dialect Quiz, Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp, Cost-per-user calculations (also this), Titanfall, Hearthstone, Diablo III, 10k/Half-marathon training, Destination Imagination, iPad Mini vs good Android tables vs not-so-good Android tablets, work
Just barely west of Short Pump, nestled deep into a poorly planned shopping center, are a handful of small restaurants making a go of it. We really enjoyed Emilio’s, but it closed. Kabab Grille was good too, but it suffered the same fate. Seriously, this shopping center is a black hole. Last week we went back and Pho 1 Grill, undaunted by those that came before it, was ready and waiting for us.
While Pho 1 has a slightly modern feel, their menu is full of the Vietnamese staples you’d expect. Pregame with rolls and then jump into various broken rices, pho protein options and all the hot pepper clip art you could want. As a point of comparison, we ordered some of our regulars to compare them to the best in class Vietnamese we’ve had. Ethan started with a Fried Pork Spring roll that ended up being serviceable, but not recommendable. It was hot and flaky, but short on distinctive flavor. It’s defining characteristic was that it was hot and had a sauce that added nothing to the mix.
Thankfully the Pho Sate that he followed up with was great. The broth was packed with distinct flavors and wasn’t just a salt bath for the contents within. The rice noodles were fine and the eye round beef was tender and well seasoned. I picked the Shrimp and Chicken Broken Rice and pretty underwhelmed. The portion was smaller than expected and the “fresh” veggies were limp and disappointing. The chicken was pounded flat and lacked any flavor beyond it’s grilling. The shrimp was the one bright spot in the meal. It was not overcooked and had big flavors on offer. Sadly the three of them on my plate could not save this meal.
Pho 1 Grill gets mixed marks from us. The service was fine, but our meals were good at best (the pho) and disappointing (broken rice) to mediocre (roll) otherwise. Already saddled with a poor location, Pho 1 needed to stand above the deep list Vietnamese restaurants in Richmond. On the day we went, it unfortunately failed to do so.
Lunch topics: GDC, Giant Bombcast, game development, PS3 launch woes, known shippable bugs, Titanfall, FiveThirtyEight, B.S. Report, Work, Stouts, Sip and Spin 2014, R, Rattle, developing analytic skills, interviewing candidates for fit as well as competence
We’ve never had a lunch quite as American as the one we had at Mission BBQ last week. Our friend Stephen tipped us to this new BBQ place at Broad & Glenside. We visited on Thursday, just three days after their opening. We frequently try places right after opening, and found no opening week jitters or lack of traffic. The staff was on point and Mission BBQ was bustling.
And so American! This was the most aggressively branded restaurant we have visited to date. A converted military truck with a smoker was in the parking lot, flags everywhere, a plaque to 9/11 victims on the front door, veteran medals and memorabilia throughout, and four college football jerseys on display on the wall (all military academies, naturally). Adam and I are both proud Americans, so none of this is a problem. And we’d say their branding is working… in the full dining hall, we spied off duty police officers and firemen. The whole thing felt authentic, if not very subtle. About the only un-American trait was the lack of one menu item (more on that later).The line wound past a well-placed cooler of glass-bottle sodas. I spied root beer, Nehi, Coke, and throwback Pepsi, and more. All glass bottles and all on ice. Skipping these, we both ordered Two Meat Combos. I ordered Brisket and Classic #41 Sausage with a side of cashier-recommended Maggie’s Mac & Cheese. Adam ordered the other sausage available, Jalapeño & Cheese Sausage and Smoked Turkey with a side of Green Beans and Bacon. My brisket was dry, but it’s supposed to be and there are five sauces to choose from at every table. I liked it. And the sausage is standard fare, but well executed. And the recommended Mac & Cheese was very good; gooey and cheesy with breadcrumbs on top, just the way I like it. Adam’s turkey was surprisingly bland… surprising because we had both been offered a sample while in line and liked it immensely. We speculate that the samples are moist edge pieces chosen to disguise pedestrian center. [Ed. note: this next sentence went through many rewrites]. We traded sausage bites and agreed that the Jalapeño & Cheese tasted more interesting, but might be too aggressive a flavor for a whole plate of it. We’d recommend ordering half Jalapeño and half Classic #41 if they’ll let you. We both were highly disappointed with the cornbread and Adam also didn’t care for his beans, saying they were bland and boring and needed salt or pepper, neither of which were at our table.
The only thing stopping this from being a home run for America (baseball metaphor!) was the lack of beer. We very rarely partake at lunchtime, because we like our jobs and we like to be productive in the afternoons. But when we visit a new BBQ place, we always scout out the beer selection. Mission BBQ doesn’t serve beer. It’s not a requirement for a BBQ joint, but it’s more than a nice-to-have. Adam wasn’t blown away by Mission, saying that he was unlikely to return as it’s too close to other (beer-serving) BBQ joints that he prefers. I can see returning for a family meal… I very much enjoyed my meal and the atmosphere was fun and far from boring. But if it’s dinner time, I’ll miss pairing delicious meats with a brew.
Lunch topics: Titanfall, Skyrim & Fallout 4, slow adoption of nextgen gaming consoles by our target demo (dads with jobs and friends that already have 360s), the stratosphere of game developers that do the scutwork for big developers and fold shop when things go south, sous vide cooking, Last of Us on PS4, Giant Bombcast, making online friends (or not) in 2014, the evolution of online gaming in the mainstream, work
Go west, go real west, like past Short Pump west and surprise! There are still places to eat. Some really great ones as it turns out. Last week we went west and arrived at a grocery store strip mall to visit Enzo’s Italian Chophouse. You’d probably miss it if you were blazing down Broad looking for eats. We happened to find it on a referral from Friend of 52L Meg, and it has a favorable score on Urbanspoon.
Enzo’s was quiet and nearly empty the day we arrived for an early lunch. We were seated right away by a friendly server and were treated to a menu of great variety and possibility. Sticks in the mud that we are, we both ordered salad. It is worth mentioning, because they have sandwiches and pastas galore. We ordered salad.
Ethan picked out the Blackened Mahi over Caesar Salad. He replaced the standard Caesar dressing with a vinaigrette, but ultimately it was still a standard salad. I won’t regale you with tales of crispy lettuce, but what truly did stand out was the fish. The mahi-mahi was perfectly cooked, still moist and fell apart in the mouth. It really elevated what would otherwise be a boring meal. I jumped in with the Grilled Chicken over House Salad and what I got did not elevate, levitate or otherwise rise above sea level. The chicken was tender and moist, but lacked any flavors of note. Not a bad salad, but nothing I’d drive an extra ten miles for.
Overall Enzo’s was a good experience. The prices were affordable, the service was prompt/friendly and the food was mostly good. The 80′s classic rock on rotation was not unwelcome and also typical for the area. Those kind things said, it is not the type of place you’d drive past other restaurants to get to. Not for the salads anyway. If you ever give a pasta dinner a fair shake out at Enzo’s though, let us know how it goes.