It’s easy to get distracted by trendy sushi places, the latest soup & salad franchise, and the abundance of great Vietnamese that Richmond has to offer. But every once in a while you notice that great diner that’s been around forever. Or maybe you don’t notice it at all, because its nondescript and timeless exterior renders it nearly invisible. We’ve been to one or two places like this and come away delighted. We’re not sure how we heard about Maclean Restaurant… it was probably its favorable Urbanspoon rating. Armed with GPS and address, we only drove by it once. That’s how unassuming it is. Seek it out and step inside, though. You’re in for a great home-style meal.
Maclean sports the requisite lunch counter and when you walk in you’ll swear it and its inhabitants have always been there. Service was as friendly as can be. Is the Open-Faced Meat Loaf Sandwich I ordered really the best thing on the menu? I wouldn’t be surprised, but maybe our server telling us so was just part of the charm. But maybe it really is. Served with mashed potatoes and gravy, it was exactly what I wanted from a southern-style diner. Warm and satisfying and gone way too fast.
Adam had the Open-faced Roast Beef. At the time he remarked that the portions seemed small, but when I checked in with him later he felt full and quite nappy. The roast beef came covered with gravy (as you can see in the picture) which was easy to mix with the mashed potatoes. Adam ordered potato salad on the side, and while it was good, he admitted that he probably didn’t need it.
Maclean was a great meal that tasted and felt like your mom made it for you. As southern-style diners go, you can’t go wrong here.
Six months ago we were dinning and writing up the now closed Bocca Toscana. A few months later we heard the owners of Toast were taking over the spot. We like Toast, it made our Hall of Fame. Estilo is what they opened and just a stones throw from their first location. Like its sister eatery, Estilo endeavors to take traditional dishes and turn them on their head. In its case upscale Latin American cuisine.
The bones of Bocca are still in place, but Estilo has a more vibrant feel. The modern, but warm aesthetic that we liked at Toast is present here as well. The wait staff was pleasant and the food came quick for a new spot. We started by splitting guacamole that came with the tortilla chips we expected and a surprising spread of pork rinds. They were still warm, not too oily and had a great crunch. The guac was more in line with our expectations, but that didn’t make it any less smooth or tasty.
Ethan’s lunch consisted of two tacos paired with a beer I forget now (a shame as they had a good selection). The Oaxacan Beef was his preferred pick. A great combination of poblano sauce and cilantro a top tender beef. Unfortunately the sauce wrecked the tortilla that delivered it. Carnitas was his other pick and was not bad, but a bit forgettable. Its tortilla suffered the same fate. I picked up two tacos as well with Hardywood’s Hoperation Pink. My Camarones was the real winner of the two. A shrimp taco with a citrus jalapeno slaw that packed a punch of flavor and textures that played marvelously well. Sadly with high highs come low lows. The Venera taco was a real let down. Seared scallops, candied pancetta and cashews that were all bland. Top that with textures that had too much crunch for the soft tortilla.
Our trip to Estilo was very hit and miss. From one taco to the next we delighted in new flavors and were disappointed by others. At $4 a piece we expect a bit more consistency. In addition, it is hard to ignore extremely short walk down to Toast. Given the choice we might pick the elder sibling. If tacos are on your brain however, you’d be better served with the offerings at Habanero, Rocoto or Boka Kantina. Those are a fair amount of cards stacked against Estilo’s favor, but there’s an upshot. Their craft beer list is deep, you could take a date there and they are experimenting with new flavors you might not get anywhere else. If we do go back, we’d probably skip the tacos and try the fork food.
As you might expect, Zoup is a soup-and-salad place, new to the West End of Richmond last week. We found a restaurant with some early open jitters, a flow that takes getting used to, but a soup offering and gimmick that will keep at least one of us coming back.
We each took the “Take Two” option of a side soup and half-sandwich, standard fare. Zoup’s claim to fame is its variety of soups. They boast over a hundred soup recipes, but they only offer twelve each day and rotate through them. Offering twelve daily soups allows for variety beyond the standard “chicken noodle soup and French onion” that they’d have to offer daily with a static menu. Each soup was clearly labeled as appropriate for vegetarian, gluten-free, spicy, healthy, etc. They’re quick to offer samples if you’re having trouble choosing.
I was intrigued by the Chicken Pot Pie soup but settled on the Zesty 3 Pepper Chicken soup and Southwest Turkey sandwich on ciabatta. The bread was well toasted, but a bit greasier than it should have been. Although the menu didn’t label the sandwich as spicy, I expected a sandwich with Chipotle mayo and pepper jack cheese to have some kick. It had none. Still, good bread well-toasted usually means “good sandwich” and that was my impression here.
The spiciness of the sandwich might have been overpowered by the soup, which I’d rate as a solid Medium (or a Supermarket Salsa “Hot!”). This tomato-base soup had a great consistency and kick and it was gone before I knew it. I finished my entire portion of soup before getting to the halfway point on the sandwich, which is not normal. The only low point for me was the bread that came with the soup which was clearly thawed from frozen, dry and bland. And also the wrong bread: I got Adam’s “sourdough” and he got my “French” and we didn’t notice because they were equally inconsequential. And I airquoted those on purpose, the sourdough was merely suggestive of that style.
Adam ordered the Lemon Lentil soup and a Turkey Club sandwich. He described the soup as good and healthy and acknowledged that a less healthy soup might have been better, but it was tasty all the same. Good texture to the lentils (they weren’t mush) and the lemon and pepper worked well together. He was severely disappointed in his sandwich. The club was a flavorless mess between merely “ok” toasted bread.
In the end, 52L could not reach consensus, a rarity for us. Adam said he’d never return, clearly preferring Panera, which is the obvious comparable for this place. Adam rarely gets a soup at Panera, sticking to sandwiches and salads (we did not try a Zalad). I agree that Zoup’s sandwiches do not merit a switch, but I love a good soup and this was a great soup, better than any I have had at Panera. I am also intrigued by Zoup’s soup menu gimmick. I can see myself returning to Zoup, but perhaps not with Adam.
Lunch topics: Call of Duty: Ghosts… ” an accountant’s sequel“,
GTA V, dedicated servers explained, the crappiness of PSN, why we’ll never have cross-platform online play, Planet money on payday loans and Amazon vine, Amazon pricing checking and algorithm, designing visualizations around data and vice versa
Mellow Mushroom is franchise. You couldn’t tell that from the outside or in though. It is located in the old Plan 9 space and fits the Carytown vibe perfectly. The interior design feels unique. A fantastic wall mural of vinyl records and audio equipment pays homage to the tenant before them. The beer selection is deep and many local breweries are represented on the draft. Their attention to detail meshed with strong branding is what makes it work. It isn’t just another store front on their map.
The food is on par with the look thankfully. On the Friday we met up with Allison and all partook in the fermented beverages mentioned above. Ethan paired a Apocalypse Sixth Seal Stout with a Bubba’s Bacon Bonanza pizza. A pie piled high with crispy bacon, pulled pork and ham. The only unwelcome topping was BBQ sauce, but that is usually a preference thing and Ethan did not prefer it.
Allison ordered the Kosmic Karma with a Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar. A veggie pizza swirled with pesto sauce that made for a good flavor combination. I picked the Red Skin Potato Pie and what I think is now my favorite pale ale, Stone IPA. My pizza was nearly perfect. It was topped with roasted potatoes, bacon, caramelized onions and a swirl of spicy ranch. The texture was in perfect balance with flavors. Tart and savory. Salty and sweet. All three of our pies came of the same seasoned crust, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It was crunchy and warm, you could serve dirt on it and see smiling satisfied faces.
Overall we had a great time at Mellow Mushroom. The atmosphere was welcoming and the beer selection was varied, local and of a high quality. The pies mostly err towards the boutique, but they do have more traditional pizza on offer. The only caution I would lend was the price. With beers in the mix and personal pies that all danced around $12 a piece it was not a cheap meal. Do with that as you will, but we will be going back.
Lunch topics: Rice allotments, bribery and mail service in the Philippines, Flat Stanley, water activated security tags, owning and boarding horses, Oculus Rift, This is Only a Test, Octoberkast, Child’s Play, Jeff Green, ladies in the food industry, The fall of Arby’s, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Big Science Data, Bacterial Vaginal Microbiomes, IT contractors
Leonardo’s has been in presence in both of our lives. A million years ago*, Adam worked there as an after-school job. And given its proximity and consistent quality, it’s a frequent choice for catering in where we work, for lunch meetings and training days. And we both drive by it to work literally every day. Not sure why it took so long for us to try it, official-like. This day we were joined by our friend and colleague Nick.
Adam ordered his favorite, Steak Sandwich and fries. He estimated he’s eaten 100 of them and prepared even more and this one did not disappoint. The bread (the key to a great sandwich) was toasted on the outside and soft inside, just the right vehicle for the steak, cheese, and caramelized onions. Adam skipped the lettuce & tomatoes to keep the meal crunchy. Fries were fries, unexceptional, but the sandwich reinforced Adam’s opinion that it’s the best meal at Leonardo’s.
I love a good cheesesteak, but have a habit of making a sausage roll my reference menu item for family-style Italian places, so I ordered their DaVinci with sausage, green peppers, and onions. The dish was good, but not great. I had hoped for thicker crust and the onions were raw, only slightly cooked from the baking. I would have preferred grilled or caramelized. Both the dough thickness & onion state are probably nods to the lunch crowd. I sizable baked item such as a sausage roll or calzone can take a while to cook, and lunch diners are on the clock. In the end the dish was good, but I’d try something else next time. Nick also ordered the DaVinci, his with pepperoni, salmi, and mushrooms. His impressions echoed mine, that is was good, not great, and was neither wowed nor disappointed.
Throughout the meal we were treated with exceptional service. The staff was exceedingly friendly and contributed to a pleasureable meal. None of us ordered pizza, probably because we’ve had it so many times at work. We know from experience that’s it’s good, and would steer diners towards it or that Steak Sandwich. Add all of this to very reasonable prices, and we’re happy to recommend Leonardo’s for eat-in, take-out, or delivery.
* Date is approximate
Lunch topics: Binge TV watching, Breaking Bad, Lost, The Blacklist, the NFL concussion “controversy”, League of Denial, gamification of fantasy football, work, Editorial, BS Report, commissioner talk, the NFL’s worst defenses
Most menus offer very little in the way of guidance to the customer. The worst offenders are so obscure that they mask what the server will eventually bring you. Crab, shrimp & corn. Is that a soup? The vast majority do a fine job of offering up the variety of items on offer with brief descriptions. Occasionally a picture. We like pictures. At Pho 79 you are presented a choose your own adventure style menu. A guided tour of the world of pho.
It starts with a paragraph about what pho is and then offers selections for the beginner. Steak, brisket and meatballs. Real pedestrian stuff. If you are feeling adventurous they offer more advanced paths. Bible tripe and soft tendon. The novelty of the menu and the tale it tells are worth the first trip alone. It was not what we expected from this stand alone shop right off Staples Mill.
Novelty doesn’t fill our bellies with delicious soup though. Thankfully Pho 79 has the chops to back up all of their menu fueled potential. Ethan had the Pho Tai Nam. A giant bowl of broth, noodles, fresh veggies, round steak and well done brisket. He picked from the advanced menu which meant and I quote “These beef cuts have a slight covering”. Neither of us could figure out exactly what that meant. I had the Pho Tai, Chin Nac which had the same exact ingredients sans a “slight covering”. More fat left on the meat? Maybe? In any case we both loved our pho. The beef was tender and well seasoned. The broth was a meal on it’s own.
We also had a Fried Pork Egg Roll (Ethan) and a Shrimp Spring Roll (Adam) to start our meals. Neither of us had much to say about them. Pretty standard and serviceable for the most part. Go for the pho and skip the rolls for a larger bowl.
Pho 79 is a great place to introduce a novice to the world of Vietnamese food. The menu is friendly and offers enough variety for even a seasoned eater. Their main offering, it’s in the name, is on point. The prices were reasonable (sub $10 per) and the service was friendly. Make time for it.
Lunch topics: work, Google Now, Agents of SHIELD, Moto X, transition to Android, Back to Work, Omnifocus is $20, Overcast, GTA V vs. SR4, cellular data caps, Republic Wireless, keg shopping, Tasker, iOS 7 control center, PC tinkering and gaming
We have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to Chinese. One of the more popular ethnic cuisines in Richmond (trailing only Italian), it is not one we regularly seek out. And American Chinese restaurants fill an important lunchtime niche. They’re an easy sell to friends & coworkers and everyone knows what to expect… they probably have a favorite dish that is certainly on the menu. Best of all, while you can find great ones, it’s hard to find a truly bad one (Achievement Unlocked!). And before you get the wrong idea, Little Szechuan on Staples Mill is a good one. This day we chose Little Szechuan based on a strong Urbanspoon rating and visited with two work friends, Mike and Stephen (with a “ph”).
Adam had the Spicy Szechuan Beef with brown rice and hot and sour soup to start. The soup had a very good broth base that was the not too hot and had plenty of flavor. The sauce of the beef was not too heavy which our main problem with most American Chinese food. It was tasty, but what he really liked was how fresh the veggies were. Still had some crunch to them and their own distinct taste when most places cook them to mush.
I ordered the lunch special Twice-Cooked Pork, which according to the menu was a “two pepper” dish but I found it to be barely spicy. Similarly, Stephen ordered the Kung Pao Shrimp, which was also good but also not spicy enough. Desired food heat is a personal preference and a restaurant has to be careful to meet the lowest common denominator in this respect. The best restaurants will engage you in a conversation to match the food to your expectations, but that didn’t happen here. Too bad, because it would have improved the meal. The vegetables were fresh and crispy and cooked perfectly, neither over- nor underdone. And our standard barometer for Asian food, hot and sour soup, was excellent. I wanted to love my main dish more than I did, and I feel it was correctable with better communication. A tip for future visitors.
Mike ordered the Shredded Chicken in Garlic Sauce with fried rice and hot & sour soup. He found the chicken and soup to be very good. He also remarked that while the fried rice was typical, it wasn’t overly greasy as it can be at other places. Mike was also impressed with the vegetables and could clearly taste the celery and peppers in the chicken and they were crunchy but not raw.
The visit was only marred by an awkward checkout process. The check was delivered to us on a tray and we waited a long time for someone to return and take our cards, when we were supposed to go to the front of the restaurant. A minor disconnect in expectation that we will be prepared for next time (as will you, Dear Reader). Little Szechuan was a cut above the crowd and a worthy destination for a group of stomachs looking for a crowd-pleaser.
Lunch topics: work, Desert Bus, focus groups and survey design, Napster & Kazaa, file sharing in college and at LAN parties, gaming AdWords freebies to supersize your Dropbox account, tutoring as a business, favorite places we have lived, Applying for medical school residencies, iOS 7, Android
Driving down to the Fan on a work day is a haul from the West End. When we make the time it is nice to be rewarded with a stellar meal. Dinamo is just that. At 821 Cary it resides in the space formally occupied by 821 (which is at 825 now). Dinamo came with lofty expectations lumped on it by being the third restaurant opened in the Mamma Zu and Edo’s Squid family. The latter being a place I have had many a fantastic meal at, but don’t really associate with lunch.
Dinamo has a different vibe. Lighter, brighter and reminiscent of a diner or delicatessen. Our server was friendly and prompt, with frequent stops for water refills and bread before the meal. For the meal we went in different directions, but had equal success.
Ethan went with the Bufala Mozzarella and Prosciutto Sandwich and loved it. The mozzarella was crumbly and soft. It was loaded with a mix of basil and garlic that went wonderfully with a tangy prosciutto. All packed into a fresh baguette-style roll. Is there a name for an Italian baguette? I picked the Spicy Italian Sausage w/ Polenta and Beans. A large bowl of white beans and onions seasoned with the right amount of spice and not cooked to mush. Acting as a bed for a wedge of polenta and spicy hand made sausage. The broth of the beans made the entire dish come together, as I could not help, but blend the delicious flavors.
Post meal we ordered espressos and continued to chat and soak up the atmosphere of Dinamo. It’s a great spot with killer food. If your close by go enjoy it, if not make a special trip, you’re worth it.
52L continues its occasional tour of the Libbie area this week with a visit to Palani Drive. Every time we were in the area, the place looked popular with a frequently populated covered patio. This day we ordered our food and immediately retreated to that patio, which was perfect on this pleasant day. Would have been perfecter with a selection from their excellent craft beer selection but you know. Work lunch.
A specials board item caught my eye: Smoked Turkey, Brie, Apple & Spinach Wrap. That’s pretty much a SEO-constructed menu item because it hits several high-value keywords for me, especially “brie”. And it was delicious. I have no opinion on the turkey, which often feels like Generic Protein Sandwich Filler. Not Palani Drive’s fault, it’s just turkey. The rest was great, though. Beautiful fresh spinach and lots of it, and the right amount of brie, which can overpower a sandwich if you’re not careful. Great sandwich.
Adam had the Sante Fe Salad: black bean and corn salsa over lettuce, with Monterey jack and Ranch dressing. The lettuce was not exceptional, but the salsa and black beans made up for it. As a $7 menu item, Adam didn’t mind paying for a bacon add-on, which it needed. The result was a great salad and half a lunch entrée. With a hunger borne out of half-marathon training, Adam supplemented with a Hawaiian Breeze Smoothie: pineapple, strawberry, lime juice, mango juice. This was very tasty and fresh and just the right portion size. The smoothie & salad combination made for a very happy Adam.
Despite me ordering a special (which is often a stealth upsell) and Adam ordering two menu items, the bill was quite reasonable, $23 with tip. Given what we’ve experienced both in the Far West End and the upscale shopping of Libbie, the bill was a pleasant surprise, and so was Palani Drive. Recommended.
Lunch topics: Work, Saints Row IV, iFanboy ceasing day-to-day operations, Escape: The Curse of the Temple, Resistance Avalon, Wool, American Gods, Bring Up the Bodies, Ocean at the End of the Lane, Nyphron Rising, Tested podcast, Google Play Services, LED Downlight retrofits, Back to Work podcast, Half Marathon Training, Highland County Fair Demolition Derby, Sheepdog Trials, Plague Inc, Acquisitions, Inc.
If you prefer your eating experience without a side of adventure, traveling to Bodega Latina Market is probably not for you. For those up for a little challenge. He (or she) who is willing to take on risk for some sweet sweet reward. Bodega is totally worth it.
Bodega sits in the corner pocket of a shopping center that host a Pizza Hut and sports card store (it was like seeing a Dodo). Inside it is more convenience store than restaurant. We walked past canned goods and cleaning products to get to the small lunch counter in the rear. We must have stood out like sore thumbs because the lady behind that counter came around it to give us assistance. Which was much appreciated, because by my squinty-eyed guess the menu was in Portuguese.
We’ve muddled our way through Spanish menus before to great success, but I’ve got nothing when it comes to Portuguese. In our state of confusion our host offered up…
“Si, tacos” - Sure we like tacos. Who doesn’t?
“Yes nine tacos” - There were three of us, so yeah, 3 each was a good number.
She motioned us to a table and walked away. No, “What kind of tacos would you like?”. Just tacos and nine of them. Not the worst problem in the world to have. We seated ourselves at one of two small tables and chatted while waiting for our meals. Realizing we had not ordered drinks we poked our heads up and she directed us to the front of the store. Ethan came back with three Coca Cola de México (yum) and we sipped them while giggling a bit about how out of place we were. That’s not to say that we weren’t welcome. Every interaction we had was warm and friendly.
A short while later and three plates of made to order Carne Asada Tacos came to our table. Juicy steak topped with cilantro and onions. All resting in doubled up corn tortillas and with a side of salsa verde that was the right blend of spice and flavor. We gave up the authority and choice a customer normally brings to a restaurant interaction and were rewarded with delicious tacos. I don’t know that we could do any better than that on a repeat trip, but I’d take nine more tacos in a heartbeat.
Lunch topics: Home buying, learner’s permits, beer fridges, drinking to excess, breaking into your own home, Xbox One feature retraction