Friday, December 14, 2007

My Fight with Piccola's Owner

After years of eating Piccola’s pizza, tonight, the owner told me not to order from him any more. It all started at 6:08pm when I ordered my usual eggplant parmesan pizza. For a medium, the price was $15.27 before tip. The guy on the phone said it would be 25 minutes. Of course, I should know better. (if this piece seems too long, hang in there for the action-packed epilogue)

Piccola’s is notoriously slow. You can go in and ask for a slice of cheese pizza and wait 10-15 minutes after paying. During that time, you'll pace back and forth, thinking of people to call on your cell phone and you’ll probably wonder why they don’t shove your simple single slice into the oven before assembling the other guy’s six topping extra large pie. No, silly. Instead, they’ll just put the ticket for your order in line behind all the others. And eventually, your blood will probably boil at a temperature rivaling that oven behind the counter that still doesn’t have your slice of pizza in it.

Now, I know that I’m a fussy customer. It’s me who is obsessive about knit-picky details that other’s pay little mind about. And I often don’t know when to let well enough alone. Nonetheless, there are some standard practices and common decency that I hope will endure at the places I like to eat. Although I really prefer to write foodie raves, tonight’s experience amounts to a complaint that must be heard by someone, because, well, I've already gone through the proper channels.

When my pizza hadn’t come by 7pm, I started waiting on the porch. Eventually, I went inside and picked up the phone to see if it was coming at all. The phone said I had called Piccola’s at 6:08 and it was 7:08 when I called them to check on my order. The young lady who answered didn’t know about the status of the pizza and put me on hold. Eventually, a brusk sounding deep voice appeared on the line. He checked my address against the order and said the pizza was on its way. Then, before hanging up, he said, “It’s been 50 minutes.” Excuse me? “You said it’s been over an hour, but it’s only been 50 minutes.” Um... Okay. After hanging up I went back to the porch and wondered if there was any way that he could be right and me wrong or if it mattered either way. I concluded that it didn’t matter. That pizza just better not be cold.

About 5 minutes later, a delivery guy in a VCU sweatshirt brought the pizza and I tipped $2, figuring that there’s no sense in punishing the messenger. Carrying the box into the kitchen, I could feel that the bottom was not the temperature that usually indicates a piping hot pie awaits inside. Regardless, my wife and I were feeling ravenous, so I plated a couple slices and asked Karen if she wanted me to heat hers up. We both took bites. Yup. Too cold.

I put half the pie in the oven and wondered if I should complain. I played it all out briefly in my mind and then convinced myself that I would be doing Piccola’s a disservice if I didn’t bring the cold pizza to their attention (seriously though, silence is complicity) . Stifling any hint of attitude or self-righteousness, I informed the young lady who picked up the phone at Piccola's that my pizza arrived cold. She apologized and said they’re breaking in a new delivery guy.

“Well, I tipped him anyways. That brought the bill to $17.27 for a medium pizza and it's cold.”

“Sorry.” She clearly hadn't been given any pointers in customer service .

“That’s it? No coupons or refunds or anything?”

“I can’t do anything. Do you want to speak to the owner?”

“He was kinda rude last time. You don't have a process for correcting mistakes?”

“I dunno and I can’t tell him that because he’s my boss.”

“Okay, I’ll talk to him.”

While I’m on hold I pictured the boxed pizzas and bagged subs that Piccola’s piles up on top of their oven while they put other aspects of their service ahead of bringing you your food. I’ve stood at their counter countless times watching my slice of cheese pizza languishing in a brown paper bag on top of that oven – the staff too busy taking orders and making pizzas to hand it to me. Like today, I would contemplate asking if my pizza was ready (knowing it was) or just waiting for someone to decide it was time to call out my number. Tonight, I'm willing to bet that my pizza sat in that pile until the delivery guy had four orders ready to be delivered. Then, he brought mine last. Just an educated guess.

The owner picked up.

“Hey, I called to check on my pizza a few minutes ago.”

“Yeah, eggplant parmesan pizza. You said it was over an hour, but it was only 50 minutes.”

“Well, the pizza was cold when it got here and I thought that I should tell somebody.”

“If you want a refund, then I'll come to your house and take the pizza back. Is that what you want?”

“No, I just wanted someone there to know that there was a problem with my order because I got a cold pizza and it took an hour.”

“That’s not possible. We deliver them in a bag that keeps them hot.” He's clearly getting louder and angrier.

“I know. But it was cold and now I’m putting it into the…”

“It’s not possible that the pizza is cold.”

“Are you serious? I think I know a cold pizza when… look it’s right here in front of me.”

“The pizza is not cold. You are wrong.”

Uhhhhh… what happened to the customer is always right?”

“The customer is not always right, because I know how to run my business.”

“Well, your business brought me a cold pizza. Now, you had no problem taking my money and now you should be able to accept some feedback.”

“I don’t have to listen to you and I would appreciate it if you didn’t order from us any more.”

I sigh and shake my head. “Naw. Fuck you, man.” And I hung up - instantly regretting the F-bomb.

Deep breath.

That’s the story - warts and all. I didn’t hide anything from you (probably should've), nor am I proud of every moment that transpired. I’m sure some of you will take issue with my approach to this situation, while others will wonder how Piccola’s stays in business (answer: best pizza in town). You might see two bulls in a field, squaring off over a little thing they both claim for their own: an arrogant ownership of food rights and wrongs. I just see a story that should be told. NY style pizza with NY style 'tude. Stop the presses. Good pizza, bad service. Not exactly breaking news.

Karen comes in the kitchen and gives me a big hug (being careful of her protruding 5 month baby bump. “That sucks, Jase. You were right though.” Thanks, babe.

An hour later, Karen and I have eaten half of the pizza (although the bad taste in my mouth from dealing with the owner really ruined it along with the effects of reheating) and we’re on the couch watching a movie. There’s a light knock at the door. Is it the owner, coming to pay me back for my four letter word? Oh shit, I’m in my socks. You can’t fight in socks. I'll slip. It’s gotta be either bare feet or shoes. Should I put on shoes? Should I take off my socks? Oh wait! I’m a pacifist. I’ve never fought anyone in my life. Besides, he won’t try anything on my property. I can do anything to him I want, if he’s in my house. Where's my baseball bat? Hey, pacifist! Chill out!

I open the door. It’s the delivery guy. The owner sent him back to my house to pick up the pizza in exchange for a refund. This guy clearly felt awkward returning an hour later and asking me for a pizza. He quickly clarified that he was just the messenger in this dispute. I told him that we didn’t have a whole pizza left, only half of it and that we had heated it up in the oven. "Do you want that?" He didn’t. I told him I was sorry that I had caused him to come back to my house for no reason. Then I explained, “Look, I called and tried to tell the owner that the pizza was cold and he was a total jerk about it. I hope he treats his employees better than he does his customers.” The guy just shrugged and said that this was his first day as a pizza delivery guy and went back to his car. (lesson #1: deliver hot pizzas.)

Before restarting the movie, Karen expressed her disbelief. “What, do they think we’re just gonna stare at the pizza for an hour?” I dunno, babe. Then I asked her, “Umm, who’s ego is fueling this dispute right now?”

“Well, he seems to want to have the last word.”

“Yeah. So do I, babe.”

So do I.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cajun Bangkok's Heaven and Hell

Last week, I convinced my wife that she deserved a treat for carrying our first child for the past five months. On the way home from errands, we stopped in Carytown and ventured into Cajun Bangkok, which replaced the Thai Curry House, which replaced Chopstix. I told Karen, "you and the little boy in your belly should order whatever you like" (big talk from a cheap-skate like me). The subtitle of the restaurant is "spicy cuisine," and that's one of our favorite flavors, despite the queasiness associated with pregnancy. (it's a boy, by the way)

With the unveiling of Cajun Bangkok, Carytown has gone from four Thai places down to three and a half – a babystep toward moderation. The menu seemed to show appetizers and entrees that pulled from both Thailand and the Mississippi river delta region, but the food that we ordered showed the two inspirations represented on each plate, a la fusion cuisine. Considering that there is another branch of this restaurant in Alexandria (where Thai has been plentiful for years), the concept must be successful enough to franchise.

We started with the calamari, which was described as being "southern fried" or something that conjured up a cajun influence. However, what we received were perfectly lightly breaded ringlets (not unlike Mom Siam down the street). The squid was tender and the citrusy Thai chili sauce was finger lickin’ good to say the least. We sopped the stuff up too fast and were fighting over the last drops of dip before the calamari was all gone. Home run.

Next came Karen's bowl of she-crab soup, which was also described with some yee-haw down home verbiage. The soup, however, was stark white opaque and refined. My wife's spoon brought up loads of crab meat and an enormous smile spread across my wife's face. The soup was seasoned with a touch of red curry and plenty of sweet coconut milk. Holy sh*t, was this stuff good! Again, more fighting over the last drops. Folks, go to Cajun Bangkok and order this soup.

Across the room, a couple tables had ordered an exotic looking coconut appetizer that was the day's special. There were 8-10 ingredients spread out on a platter and you had to wrap them all up in a collard green leaf and eat it like a mini-wrap. They seemed happy and I felt pretty jealous as I got acquainted with my entree, which didn't measure up to the previous two items.

My order was a blackened tuna steak, topped with crawfish ettoufee, and served over rice. What came was a big chewy piece of overcooked fish. There were specks of cajun seasoning, but it wasn't blackened or even seared - broiled maybe. All of the pink was gone from the center and most of the juice as well. It gets worse. I think they overcooked the fish because it wasn't fresh. It tasted fishier than any tuna I'd ever eaten before. "Are you sure you want to finish that?" asked Karen after trying a tiny bite. I resolved to take my chances and see what happened. The rice was buttery and delicious and the ettoufee wasn’t bad either, but I felt pretty deflated. Going from ecstasy to revulsion so quickly made my head spin.

Meanwhile, Karen sat in front of a boring iceberg lettuce salad whose pecan vinegrette added only the flavor of sour burnt nuts - a half-hearted attempt to keep in line with the theme of the restaurant. It needed sweetness and spice – maybe they should have gone for a Thai curry prailene vinegrette or something like that. To her credit, Karen knew she wasn’t very hungry (one of the reasons that I said, “order anything”) and so she hadn’t placed much stock in the salad. Instead, both of us were happy to have discovered the two dishes we’d already gone ga ga over.

At the time of this writing, I’m not too excited to be writing another mixed review. Is it realistic to fall for the idea behind a restaurant (or the image I project on it) and expect it to change over time to suit me? Viva Mexico is still garnering negative blog entries on top of the bad RTD piece. They don’t seem to have changed their bland ways. For every homerun she-crab curry soup, there are dishes that fall short – both prepared by the same chef. For every plate of light and flakey squid ringlets, there will be smelly fishy shoe leather. Signature dishes and cutting corners is the name of the game in the restaurant biz. I don’t think that it makes sense to go Gordon Ramsey and verbally abuse and physically shake sense into the chefs and owners of wayward eateries. Personally, I’m just a foodie who wants to spread the word about the best stuff and warn people about the pitfalls.

Don’t let me forget that, yall.

Ps: I did not get sick from the fish. In fact, we went to Ben and Jerry’s where Karen’s appetite picked up again. She got a Hot Float (ice cream in steamed milk) that was served up by a confused teenager who hadn’t quite figured out how to sell or prepare his store’s latest featured item. But, I got to be the gracious big spender, which is sometimes worth more than tasty vittles.

update: I went back and things went much smoother. Check it out.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sunday Brunch at Cirrus Taken Too Seriously

I should have written about Cirrus at Allen and Main before having brunch there. I would have talked of the chic interior, homemade biscuits and vegetarian white gravy, and moderate entrée prices. These points still make up the bulk of my story and will probably bring me back to eat there again. But, after my Sunday brunch at experience, my Cirrus sales pitch comes with some disclaimers, and now I’ve got my fingers crossed that Cirrus’ potential and obvious good ideas will turn into a great eatery.

First off, I want to fess up that I’m somewhat biased in favor of any restaurant at Allen and Main. My first Richmond apartment was right across the street ten years ago, and my wife and I celebrated our engagement at Dogwood Grille (RIP), the space’s previous occupant. Also, it’s within walking distance of my house in Byrd Park. Lastly, and for the record, the good folks at Cirrus have enabled me to write about one of my favorite foods of all time: biscuits and "sausage" gravy. And for that, they'll always have a place in my heart.

For these reasons, I was excited when I saw the brunch menu in the window at Cirrus. Seeing the vegetarian biscuits and gravy on the menu put a trip to Cirrus at the top of my priority list. (Well, that and the allure of reasonably priced entrees, with an modern black/white backdrop.) Surely, this place was going to be a hipster brunch destination. That said, I want to acknowledge that you really can’t judge a restaurant by it’s brunch service. The head chef is rarely on duty weekend mornings and the dishes don’t usually receive the attention that you’ll find on the dinner menu (aside from Millies, of course). So, please take this review for what it is: a story of brunch, over scrutinized.

Considering that Style Weekly had just posted dueling reviews (both relatively positive), I was sure that Cirrus would be crammed with people enjoying a holiday weekend indulgence by going out to brunch. We walked up to the place at 11:20am, but were the first customers of the day. Inside, we sat in the two-tone dining room feeling kind of awkward and receiving loads of friendly attention from our server. My wife loved the interior design, but I would describe it as severe and cold (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I kept wondering if I had anything in my wardrobe that would disguise my crunchy granola look and help me fit in with the austere environment. Nonetheless, the shimmering pendant lights and matte silver and white sconces are touches that deserve to be seen by everyone, regardless of your attire. Hopefully, they’ll complete their design by painting or replacing the wood grain entrance, which sticks out like a sore thumb.

At first, I was worried about the brunch menu because there was no mention of sides. Would a plate of quiche, or eggs and bacon come unaccompanied, like at Can Can? Paying extra for must-have elements is a major pet peeve for me. Luckily, everything comes with homefries (except for the breakfast pizza, which sounded so decadent that you wouldn’t want anything more).

My wife ordered eggs benedict (we'll address my dish in a minute). When our respective plates arrived, I was alarmed at the whiteness of the home fries, so I rushed to put one in my mouth before the server left. Yup. Raw potatoes. Some feint skillet marks could be seen on a few of he diced spuds, but most of them actually crunched like apples. For the rest of the meal, we were showered with apologies. We laughed it off. "Hey, at least we know they’re fresh, right?” was all I could muster. Potatoes take time, so one would think that an 11am brunch opening would have given them time to prep the side dish that accompanies every breakfast item on the menu.

The potato mistake turned out to be a good thing, actually, because they quickly brought out some potatoes wedges and thin cut sweet potato fries. Both were seasoned heavily and put smiles on our faces. This was ironic, because the uncooked potatoes had next to no flavor, making me wonder if they would have been worth eating regardless. At any rate, they quickly brought Grey Poupon when I requested it for my sweet potato fries. This is a perfect combination, as I learned from years of eating at Ipanema Café. They should just bring a bottle of the stuff out with each sweet potato fry order to ensure that every diner experiences that revelatory flavor combination. The eggs benedict wasn't bad, with it’s perfectly poached egg and rich hollandaise. The only fault was the piled-on rough-cut ham, which, according to my wife, made the dish too salty. She just removed some of it and moved on.

Like clockwork, I ordered the vegetarian biscuits and (fake) sausage gravy. At this point, I should probably stop and explain my fixation with this dish. My parents have been ordering the real sausage stuff at diners and Denny’s since I was a kid. When I got serious about vegan cooking, I quickly learned that it is ridiculously easy to make tasty white gravy at home and then spike it with store bought fake meat (that link is the best recipe). When this gloppy goodness is served on top of fluffy biscuits, it’s the ultimate comfort food. My wife, who eats meat, loves my vegan version and frequently urges me to make it for her. For me, to have this brought to my table at an eatery just blocks from my home was a dream come true.

Well, almost. The version served at Cirrus featured some great homemade biscuits, but the gravy lacked the copious amounts of black pepper that gives white gravy it’s punch (and the charming black speckles in white sauce would fit the aesthetic of the Cirrus decor). Hopefully, they’ll refine their recipe in time, because I know that there is a constituency in Richmond that will beat a path to their door for good vegetarian biscuits and peppery (fake) sausage gravy. Okay, while I’m being a know-it-all critic, I’ll say that the barely flavored TVP that was added to the gravy needs to be replaced with commercially produced soy sausage (from Twin Oaks, Gimmelean, Morningstar Farms, etc.). Homemade “soysage” rarely packs the punch that puts this dish over the savory edge. Store-bought may be expensive, but it saves prep-time, and a little goes a long way in white gravy. Did I mention that constructive criticism is an act of love? I really feel like a heel for airing all of my pet peeves and smug suggestions. And in the end, flawed vegan biscuits and gravy is better than no vegan biscuits and gravy.

All in all, I’m excited about Cirrus, despite my complaints. All the indicators point to the probability that the details that I focused on were exceptions to the standard practice at Cirrus. Next time around, I’m going to try their dinner service where I've noticed more veggie options and I'll find something fashion forward to wear for the occasion.


After reading this post, my wife informed me that a) Cirrus has brown and white interior and not black and white (more evidence that I'm going color blind) and b) that I went overboard with my dissection of the biscuits and gravy. Ya know what? She's right. The food at Cirrus all smacks of homemade goodness and care - undeserving of my anal-retentive vegan-nazi fundamentalism. Shit, I'm not even vegan anymore. My point is that the inspiration for my diatribe wasn't Cirrus' food, it was my adoration of the perfect batch of biscuits and gravy that exists in my mind. Sunday brunch was simply a convenient excuse to prattle on about one of my favorite foods.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Food was meant to be enjoyed, but...

A recent comment on my blog "gently" blasted my critical approach to
dining out. Although Ibelieve that most of my posts heap praise on
tasty dishes, I do consider it my obligation to share my questions and
concerns with other consumers. For me, part of the satisfaction of a
good eating experience is not only the flavor, ambiance, service and
company (hi Karen!), but also the monetary value of the meal, the ethic behind the operation, and the educational opportunity of a new experience. Therefore, when an meal is puzzling or troubling, then I feel compelled to share my thoughts. For instance:

I love to eat fish and, for me, Carytown Seafood is the most convenient place to buy it. I'm also an admitted cheapskate. I'd rather pay $6.99 a pound for mahi or wahoo and heap on the marinades and rubs, than pay $11.99 for grouper that sings with a squeeze of lemon. Of course, I waffle back and forth depending on the occasion or if I need to impress my wife. Either way, the folks at Carytown Seafood usually don't steer me wrong. However...

One day while at Carytown Seafood, I saw the most beautiful looking fillets for only $5.99/lb. They looked like Chilean Sea Bass, only smaller (and hopefully not nearing extinction). The sign read: Escolar. The firm cuts would be perfect for grilling. I went with a simple salt/pepper rubdown, figuring that its mackerel-like oiliness would offer a flavor to be savored.

Let's fast forward. The meal was great and my wife and I were happy with the
bargain fish. But, as the night went on, we both independently sequestered ourselves in separate bathrooms. Why? Let's ask Wikipedia about Escolar.

Like its relative the oilfish (Ruvettus pretiosus), it cannot metabolise the wax esters (Gempylotoxin) naturally found in their diet, which accumulates to give an oil content in the muscle meat of 18–21%. These wax esters may rapidly cause gastrointestinal symptoms following consumption; however, these effects are usually short lived. The gastrointestinal symptoms, called "keriorrhoea", caused by these wax esters may include oily orange diarrhea, discharge, or leakage from the rectum that may smell of mineral oil. The discharge can stain clothing and occur without warning 30 minutes to 36 hours after consuming the fish. The oil may pool in the rectum and cause frequent urges for bowel movements due to its lubricant qualities and may be accidentally discharged by the passing of gas.

If you dare read further in the Wikipedia entry, you will find out about the legislation against commercial use of the fish, or the ban on escolar in certain countries, or the list of fish that you buy regularly, but might actually take home escolar. At any rate, I don't think Carytown Seafood should sell the stuff, and I told them as much. Their response amounted to a shrug and I don't blame them. Being a bargain hunter, I'm still almost tempted to buy it every time I see it in the case. Well, almost.

Another food that seems almost too good to be true is the sunchoke,
or Jerusalem Artichoke. The other night, Karen and I had them sauteed
with garlic as well as a razor-thin-sliced raw preparation drizzled with
olive oil. Both were awesome - possibly the best tubers I'd ever had.
The next day, my wife wound up conferencing about the effects, a
pattern that is becoming all too familiar for us. That night, when
Karen went to bed early, I went down to my basement office and didn't
consider my bubbling combustion to be abnormal or offensive, since I was by myself. However, in retrospect, I probably could have levitated on a pillow of air that night. It was my polite and dainty wife's experience at work the next day after having leftover sunchokes for lunch that inspired this post (and probably a few gripes from her co-workers).

Again, let's consult Wikipedia about Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes):

The inulin is not well digested by some people, leading to the misconception that sunchokes are not edible or an assumption that they cause flatulence and gastric pain. Gerard's Herbal, printed in 1621, quotes the English planter John Goodyer on Jerusalem artichokes:

"which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men." [4]

This account was not typical of most peoples' experience eating the tubers and they were cultivated in the gardens of Native America and the Pilgrims. They continue to be planted and consumed.

Yeah, right. I'd like to know if others have had this experience to these squash tasting parsnip-like root veggies. And how about a little warning next time, huh? While at work, coping with her intestinal distress, my wife found a blog post from a sympathetic foodie who uses a Rolling Stones song to summarize thesunchoke experience. I also turned up a fart-free
preparation tip that might inspire me to try these root veggies again one day.

Culinary misadventures aren't only suffered at home. Often times they begin while dining out and we are rewarded for patronizing a restaurant with stabbing pains in the gutz and hours sweating it out on the commode. I hear it's a common risk, but what is a consumer to do for recourse? Can you imagine going back the next day and complaining that you got the runs? Do people do that? And who wants a free meal in return? I'd like to name names and rattle off some restaurants that I can't bring myself to visit ever again, but it could be construed as slander and it's just plain embarrassing all around. Of course, not every customer gets struck by a bacterial chain reaction. So, as much as I'd like to break the apparent silence, I don't really know if it's right to mention offending restaurants by name. And who knows, maybe it's me (no matter how infrequently it happens or the fact that everyone around the table is usually victim of the same symptoms). Do any of you have any suggestions? Do you want names? Is it safe to say?

I will say that I used to live near El Rio Grande Cafe on Cary Street in the Fan. Since it's closed now, I can say that no matter how many times I went and ordered different (always vegetarian options) I had the worst digestive response. I started calling the place ElDiarrheo Grande. And then there's OBurrito , also thankfully defunct. Really painful problems thanks to a bunch of teens shoveling who knows what into enormous tortillas. This is usually my favorite recipe, by the way. But my problem isn't just withtex-mex, the unnamed establishments are mostly asian , but I don't think it matters. If you readers respond with your tales, I'm sure that every type of cuisine would be charged with allegedly poor practices in terms of hygiene.

As you can see, I like to point out the potholes in the roads that cut through an otherwise splendid neighborhood. For me, it's worth navigating a minefield to have those few transcendent experiences where I wind up talking endlessly about a restaurant (see Taqueria del Sol) and becoming a regular customer. But, as a guy who likes to write and share, it's the questions that really compel me, even to the point that I'm willing to paint myself in the most unflattering scenes and admit my own guilt as a frugal freak. But I'll make no apologies, because it's my curiousness that keeps me going. One day, you'll probably read my obituary: RVA Foodie, died of botulism from eating food from dented cans purchased at his favorite grocery store, Salvage Barn. My dying word, "It was 75% off the retail price. I couldn't help it."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Build Schools Now! Take Education OFF the Back Burner in RVA

Hey BLOGGERS! YOU ARE INVITED. In lieu of local MSM coverage of this grassroots mobiliation, your attention is sorely needed. COVER THIS CAMPAIGN KICKOFF aimed at breaking up the power-struggle in City Hall and demanding that Richmond's elected officials start prioritizing public education. Please read the following press release for specifics. Big things are on the horizon for the Build Schools Now! coalition and YOU ARE INVITED to spread the word and participate in this community mandate.


News Release

NOVEMBER 5, 2007 - CITY HALL - 5:15PM
Contact: Art Burton (804)467-6408

Richmond City Council of PTA outlined the BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative prior to the regularly scheduled School Board meeting today.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative was born in response to the letter written by the business community calling for the elimination of the elected school board and is the people’s cry to leadership to end fighting and finger pointing and make a capital investment in public education.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative is the creation of a coalition to begin a public movement on behalf of the children in Richmond City Public Schools that calls for the groundbreaking and development of new schools as the first phase towards enhancing the public school system. On November 5, 2007, at 5:15pm you are invited to come and meet the organizational and community leaders of this coalition. At this press conference we will share details of our plans to end political in-fighting and advance educational opportunities for our children and move this city towards a new vision for public education.

We are calling on the leadership of this city to make good on its promises. These promises began as early as 2001 with the Facility Study conducted by the RPS system, in addition to the City of the Future plan developed in 2006, by the Mayor and City Administration. To date all promises have gone unfulfilled. Phase One of BUILD SCHOOLS NOW provides for new and improved facilities beginning with the following:

A. New Fulton Elementary School - the 2001 Facility Study showed over 300 students attending elementary schools live in the Fulton areas, and if an elementary school were built in that community, many of these students would attend that community school.

B. New Huguenot High School - addresses the issues of the lack of high quality middle and high schools to reverse the negative trend of losing middle class families from public schools after elementary school.

C. New Summerhill and Broad Rock Elementary Schools - addresses the issue of out-dated school buildings and shifting population south of the river.
D. Richmond Technical Center - addresses the business community need to have high school graduates who are prepared to enter the workforce.

These locations were largely selected as a result of the Facility Study recommendations; however, being aware of the recent draft Facility Study provided to the School Board which gives consideration to other schools and considering necessary funding, the BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative includes necessary flexibility to address the most important needs for all students and what should be the most reasonable course of action.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative also has two other critical components that should be introduced in the beginning phase. These two components are:

1. Local School Councils - individuals should be selected from local unit PTAs, parents, community leaders, business leaders, school board, school administrators and teachers, and city officials to provide a voice for all stakeholders during the creation and implementation of projects relating to new school facilities, including; but not limited to, the building design and identification of curriculums and programs.
2. Fiduciary Control Board - individuals selected from the same groups as identified in item 1 to have the responsibility of financial accountability to allow for a third-party check and balance system.

The BUILD SCHOOLS NOW initiative opens the door for collaboration between all stakeholders committed to ensuring a 21st Century public education system that allows equal access and success for all children in the city of Richmond. To do any good for the public education system we must have a clear and specific discussion of the only things that really matter - children and classrooms. No plan to improve the schools can succeed without input from the parents - and parents must be included from the beginning.

# # #


Friday, October 26, 2007

Crunch Time Recommendation for Entertainment Coupon Book Owners

If you own an Entertainment Coupon Book, you've only got til the end of the month to make use of your discounts. Where to go? What to do? The clock is ticking and in this case, time is definitely money because there are bargains to be had.

Okay, maybe that's a little too emphatic. But that's what the voice inside my compulsively frugal head keeps telling me. Another year and another Entertainment Book that has largely gone to waste. Often, my wife and I will drive around thumbing through the book hoping to find somewhere to eat and use a coupon to get one of the entrees for free. I always think it's going to be fun, but as our stomaches growl louder with each moment of indecision, closed down restaurant, and "under new management" excuse, sometimes the Entertainment book can be more trouble than it's worth.

Lucky for you, I've got an indulgent suggestion. Read my recent write-up of Bistro R review and consider that destination as your last Entertainment book hurrah of the 2006-07 cycle. You have until Wednesday of next week. The review was an unfortunately neglected post wherein I reclaimed this space for food writing over my frequent distration with politics. Plus, the owner of Bistro-R has chimed in with a courteous response that you may find informative.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

WE MAKE CHANGE, Sun. 9/30 at 4pm

Need some inspiration to renew your hope and optimism about civic life? Does the political system shut you out of the process? This book and this group could help you change your relationship to power in Richmond and statewide. As a Board member of the Virginia Organizing Project (VOP), I am proud to announce this weekend's reading from our organization's book on community organizing (one of the first of it's kind). I hope you'll attend and/or spread the word. Below is the announcement being forwarded by VOP organizers.
-RVA Foodie

With two major presidential candidates - Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - offering their experience with community organizing as evidence of their ability to lead the country, many Americans are beginning to wonder just what a community organizer is.

We Make Change: Community Organizers Talk About What They Do - and Why, a timely book by writer/editor KristinLayng Szakos and Virginia Organizing Project Executive Director Joe Szakos, helps to demystify this little-known profession and offer a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who make changing the world their life's work. The book has just been published by Vanderbilt University Press.

A FREE public event will be held:

September 30 at 4:00 p.m.
at the L. Douglas Wilder library,
Virginia Union University in Richmond.

Joe Szakos will be on hand to give a reading from the book and to autograph copies. We Make Change will be available for sale. All royalties from the book will go into a special fund for recruiting and training interns and apprentice organizers.


We Make Change is a lively, readable collection of stories and observations by organizers across the United States. The reader will come away with an insight into this fascinating profession and the people who have chosen it.

Community organizers are the people who work, often behind the scenes, to help come together to effect meaningful change in their communities by building effective community organizations. They are there with the neighborhood group working to bring bank loans to low-income homeowners. They are there with immigrant women organizing to get medical insurance for their families, with small-town environmentalists keeping a toxic waste plant out of their community, with parents trying to get schools to respond to the needs of children with dyslexia, with gay and lesbian students striving to create a safe space in their schools, with groups working to reduce the ravages of racism in their towns and institutions. Wherever there is a well-organized group agitating for progressive social change, chances are there is a community organizer nearby.

We Make Change explores the world of community organizing through the voices of real people working in the field - organizers in small towns and big city neighborhoods, women and men, some in their 20s, others in their 60s, of different races and economic backgrounds. In addition to 14 individual profiles, all 81 interviewees are given voice in chapters like "What is Community Organizing?," How I Started Organizing," "Why Organize?," "Achievements and Victories," "Disappointments Are Inevitable," and "Advice to Aspiring Organizers."

Join us on Sunday, September 30 at 4:00 p.m. in the L. Douglas Wilder Library, located on the campus of Virginia Union University, 1500 North Lombardy Street, Richmond, VA 23220. Parking is located adjacent to the library.

For more information: Cathy Woodson, (804) 261-7497,

Bistro-R: the most BANG for your Entertainment coupon buck

What the heck is a "bistro" anyway? Guess that question shows how little I know (or care) about fine dining. Nonetheless, after five minutes of sitting with my wife in this little high-end Glen Allen strip-mall restaurant, I knew I was in a bistro. Expensive food, relaxed service, and an unassuming setting. Okay, they got the price thing wrong, but what do you expect in the far West End?

Let's cut to the chase. The Entertainment coupon book expires at the end of October, so it's time to get to work using up the coupons that will get us outta the house, into some new experiences, and shave a little off the bill at the same time. Of all of the nicer restaurants in the section that has you bust our the Entertainment "gold card" Bistro R is the one that we were most intrigued about. My early blog posts demonstrate that some of the others eateries that section (like Cabo's - Richmond another "bistro") are merely traps where crap is served up as refined cuisine to people who don't care to know the difference and are happy to part with their money. Would Bistro-R be worth it? Would the coupon equal a bargain feast?

My wife is 12-weeks pregnant, and we wanted to celebrate the latest problem-free ultrasound (let this little aside serve as my public announcement, because I've been warned against turning this into a baby blog). We both hoped that this night's dining experience wouldn't wind up costing us more in anguish than the $16-off coupon would save us. Since we weren't drinking, this would be a great opportunity to have a minimalist meal that ends with a minimalist bill.

First off, the offer says (like all Entertainment book offers) "buy one entree and get one entree of equal or lesser value for free." In this case, the coupon is worth up to $16. However, there were no entrees for $16 or less. They range from $17-29, with about 6-7 pastas and the same number of meat/fish dishes. Whatever. I'm not allowed to talk about the prices on the menu while in a restaurant, because I tend to project my indignation around the room in the hopes of starting a movement for economic justice among the other dinners. Not exactly date-appropriate behavior.

Karen decided on a cup of crab bisque, which was super rich and flavorful and she let me eat half of it so she wouldn't spoil her appetite. I started with the salad of the day, consisting of arugula, yellow grape tomatoes, smoked trout and pieces of provolone. This salad rocked, although small. The greens were peppery, fresh, and pretty. And the fish was indeed smoky and not dried out like some other smoked fishes I've had. My only complaint was the choice of cheese - too soft and mellow to rival the other ingredients. Parmigiano Reggiano would have been a better choice (for almost any occasion according to prevalent food tv/mags that I look at).

For our entrees, we both decided to order what we wanted from the middle price range of the menu instead of the cheapest dishes (which would have maximized our coupon value). What the heck, you only have your first baby once. Time to chow down!

Karen got a chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto and marscapone cheese, served with some fancy mashed potatoes and sage butter sauce. She raved about it, at first. Tender, saucy, and savory. But with each bite, she grew less fond of it - calling it quits a third of the way through (not uncommon considering her current finickiness). The flavors were really strong. A little sage, my friends, goes a long way. In retrospect, the same level-pushing was at play with the slightly over-salted soup. And she didn't find the mascarpone in that chicken, because it had liquefied and run into the sauce.

Exhibit B: The cajun creme seafood penne pasta was enormous and vibrantly red. There were large and perfectly cooked scallops and shrimp (three apiece) and crab meat was distributed throughout the sauce. The cajun seasoning was delicious, but completely overpowering - as if a gigantic chunk of New Orleans "essence" had tumbled into the pot when a couple teaspoons were probably called for. A professional fire-breather , however, would probably have taken the cajun calamity in stride. Nonetheless, the heavy cream and saltiness was hard to take issue with. Sure, I was full after six bites, but I got to have it for lunch and dinner today, so I'm not really complaining.

Overall, I suppose I would recommend Bistro-R for its quality ingredients and friendly service (which I didn't go into here). If you like bold flavors, then this place is doubly for you. The food looks and tastes expensive, but you might not actually get your money's worth until you've eaten your entrees as leftovers in the following days.


Sometimes I wonder if the restaurants who advertise in the Entertainment book actually want you to show up with coupon in hand. I'm assuming that they paid in order to be featured in there to begin with. Then they have to give a dish away for free. Are there kick-backs for each coupon used? How does it work?

When I was at Bistro R, nearly everyone was using their Entertainment cards. I heard the server punching holes in the plastic repeatedly. It's not a stretch to think that maybe they build the free dish into the price of their entrees. In fact, the prices seemed to reflect that. But then again, I'm a cheapskate and I tend to be suspicious of everybody's financial motives. Part of me really believes that the eateries that advertise in Entertainment by offering buy-one get-one FREE deals are running some kind of game on me. Am I paranoid and/or are they really after me?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Illegal Eviction by Landlord Wilder?

The Richmond City School Board was evicted from City Hall by Mayor Wilder tonight in a "bloodless coup" that represents the further dismantlling of our local democracy. My feeling, in a word, embarrassment.

When the 11 o'clock news broadcast the after-hours abuse of power by our autocratic despot, my first reaction was to feel outraged by the arrogance and audacity of this misguided and possibly illegal action. This maneuver, however repugnant, falls in line with Wilder's other recent power-plays: A witch-hunt via Big Brother style snooping into City computer usage, parlaying the corporate well-fare program that is the CenterStage performing arts center into a corporate vote of no confidence for the elected School Board. These unfortunate distractions are only an escalation of Wilder's steady stream of ego-centric bullying of our local political process since he was elected. Which brings me to my second reaction to tonight's events: The chickens have simply come home to roost. This is what 80% of Richmond's voters asked for when they abdicated their power to an all-powerful Mayor whose charge was to serve as a check on the management of our city. Or was it?

Nonetheless, cynicism aside, Richmond citizens still have the right to vote and they/we should demand that we retain every opportunity to exercise our oversight of City government. When our elected Mayor misconstrues his job as that of a landlord who can arbitrarily evict elected official tenants from City Hall, we need to put him (and Council) in check. Regardless of how you voted in the at-large mayor referendum, I don't believe that this nonsense has anything to do with the job that Wilder was hired to do.

After watching the news coverage and noting Mark Holmberg's open indignation at being kicked out of City Hall, I decided to hop on my bike and pedal down to 9th and Broad and see the spectacle for myself. In Richmond's sleepy downtown, I found roped off streets around City Hall and no one but scads of police standling idle around the building and bunch of busy movers. Among the officers, I spotted Chief of Staff, Major Bukavich, whom I'd met years ago while negotiating a permit for a rally. After some cordial remarks, I told that man that I felt that I was witnessing my democracy being dismantled under cover of darkness, and I asked the him if he thought that perhaps this action was illegal. He shrugged and said that was a matter for the courts to decide. As he walked away, I added, "Well, I guess you just gotta do what the Mayor tells you, huh?" No comment, but he did roll his eyes a bit.

Riding around City Hall a couple more times for posterity, it occurred to me that our police department should know better than to carry out orders that are contrary to the public interest. They should know that they are supposed to "protect and serve" and that they were wasting many tax-payer sponsored man-hours evicting elected officials when there are so many more pressing duties for them to carry out around the city.

So, I'd like to lay some of the blame for this act of political aggression on the armed men and women who carried it out on Wilder's whim. The political power of our elected officials is dependent on the cooperation of other public servants, and that cooperation is NOT mandatory. It is obviously out of fear that so many continually lay down for Wilder (because it's not our Mayor's charm or reason that appeals to Richmond's public employees). It is so frustrating to see our city's political officials and public servants' inability to exercise critical thinking in the interest of the public (as opposed to the general tendency to act out of self-interest). Come to think of it, Richmond's voting public probably resembles that remark as well.

People, feel free to continue this discussion via comments.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Byrd Park turns out for peaceful streets

Rather than posting my usual rambling confessional to serve as a recap of the Byrd Park neighborhood meeting against violence, why don’t I just paraphrase NBC12’s "news" coverage: About 50 people came out on Saturday morning to find out how to curb violence in Byrd Park thanks to the outreach efforts of a Richmond City Police Department flyering campaign.

Okay, that wasn’t accurate at all. Back to plan A. Personally, I’m really glad that the issue got some press, because it may help to create a buzz that something new is happening and send a message that Byrd Park is not going to stand for shootings, drug trafficking, and violence. However, it’s awfully predictable that our local media would get the story wrong, because they cannot fathom grassroots mobilizations where citizens assert their power and organize themselves.

In the days leading up to the neighborhood anti-violence meeting, my wife designed an outreach flyer and I took it door to door in the 2000 and 2100 blocks of Idlewood, Rosewood, and Maplewood Avenues. As the gateway to Byrd Park from Meadow, these residents have the most at stake and the most responsibility in taking a stand against destructive behavior in our midst (I live in the area in question). Although crime is significantly lower in Byrd Park compared to ten years ago, there has been a resurgence in recent months, particularly in this area (clearly not just a summer flare up).

On the morning of the meeting, over 60 people showed up at the Roundhouse in Byrd Park where we sat outside on folding chairs. When asked for a show of hands for people who live between Meadow and Shields, over half of the audience raised their hands. This was really gratifying. I had dropped flyers with the Byrd Park Civic League “block captains” throughout the neighborhood, but chose to make the eastern most region my personal mission. So, chalk one up for one-on-one conversations as a neighborhood organizing tool. In those conversations, I implored people to take an active role and to nurture whatever hope they have for a peaceful Byrd Park.

The meeting featured a pragmatic and manageable agenda that was set by the Byrd Park Civic League officers (text taken from the distributed agenda):

-Introduction and Civic League President’s Comments (5 mins)
-Updates on Recent Events, Arrests and Warrants by Police (5 mins)
-What the Police Want – An Open Forum for any RPD officers or CAPS officer/inspector to speak (10 mins)
-Neighborhood Watch – Why it is SO IMPORTANT (15 mins)
-What the Neighborhood Wants – Each person will be allowed to speak about 2 issues, properties, corners or areas of concern, 2 minutes per person. (30 min)
-Next Step(s) – Join the Neighborhood Watch, the Civic League and its Crime committee, or just have an evening meeting with your neighbors around your home. (15 min)

Now, I want to steer clear of saying anything too controversial about the proceedings, because we’ve all got to work together and live together, and this meeting will hopefully serve as a turning point for a safer neighborhood. However, I do think that there was consensus that the meeting became a free-for-all as soon as the police paused in their brief presentation. My neighbors peppered the police with questions about everything from litter in the alleys, to feral cat-feeding policies, rolling stops at intersections, open alcohol containers, etc. In some cases, they were speaking truth to power and in others just venting frustration. So, we spent too much time following long tangential stories.

There were questions about the two August shootings, but that was quickly swept aside in favor of a laundry list of everyone’s pet peeves including some alarming anecdotes of irresponsible and disrespectful police. Although all of these issues are connected, playing roles in chain reactions that lead to dangerous situations, I was hoping for a more specific focus on shootings, robberies, and other violent crimes. I was also left wondering why we have to pull together a meeting like this and invite police reps in order to find out the status of investigations of murders, drive by shootings, etc. So much misinformation has been circulating and now things are only slightly clearer. The Aug 1st shooting, car chase, car wreck, and more shooting WAS related to Byrd Park residents and was over a bicycle. Also, Joseph Wynn’s murder DOES NOT appear to have been a “domestic affair,” and is currently considered a botched robbery. Numerous people in Byrd Park had been dismissing both incidents on the grounds that the car chase just happened to pass through Byrd Park and that a man killed on his porch was not a neighborhood concern. Personally, I don’t like being placated or lied to when my personal safety is at stake. Strike one for jumping to conclusions. At the meeting, police circulated a picture of two “persons of interest,” but no arrests have been made.

The thrust of the meeting seemed to be that anyone with concerns about bad behavior and violence should refer all comments to the police and/or the Civic League president. My neighbors with past experience with these kinds of meetings in Byrd Park said that this has been the mantra for years and that they tend to feature residents venting about their neighbors whom they’d never imagine talking to directly. I think this is probably pretty common that neighborhood groups turn gossipy and passive aggressive. Nonetheless, some neighbors truly cannot be reasoned with. They use intimidation to strike fear into their block, and do need to be dealt with. It really seems to me that we’ve got to start thinking outside the box if we’re going to make headway in this area. Just as you would hear from any politician who says s/he doesn’t know how to vote unless you light up their switchboards, police representatives said that if we don’t tell them which houses have guns/drugs going in and out all day, then we shouldn’t assume that they know. Most people found this idea ridiculous.

It’s time to figure out how to show community power, without always abdicating responsibility to the criminal justice system (which does not work!). Suggestions on this are appreciated. Last week, I took it upon myself to contact a public safety liaison (resident, not police) from Ginter Park, where they’ve had some success with a similar initiative and hope to turn up some good ideas from that meeting next week.

Here’s an email quote from a Byrd Park neighbor who I agreed with, “I think there are different ways to approach community issues like crime & public safety, most of which have their place. I am drawn to the approach of first building relationships & then collaborative action (the conventional approach seems to be the opposite and I would argue that's a big reason why initiative "fizzle" (as noted yesterday). I am also drawn to the preventative side of the issue. As a means of better understanding the culture and issues of many who have been isolated / disenfranchised in the city...” and then they let me know about this interesting event.

So, now I’ve got to plan my next steps. My wife was buoyed by the news that the “no dogs allowed” law will soon be lifted for the actual parks in Byrd Park. But, we’ve still got work to do to make the neighborhood safer and more family friendly. Many people that I talked to after the meeting felt that there were few if any next steps offered at the meeting. It was clear to me that the only option that was promoted was to join the Civic League and restart their defunct anti-crime committee. Their next meeting is Saturday October 13th at 10am at the Roundhouse. Many people took note of this fact.

For me, joining the Civic League may be the best option. However, I really want to focus on my end of the neighborhood, sponsor community dialogues, bring in non-profit groups to facilitate issue focused events, develop block phone trees (a la Neighborhood Watch), and hold block-specific social gatherings to develop relationships and understanding. I’m not sure if these things are on the agenda of the Civic League or even if they should be (especially since my focus is only on six-square blocks). Neighbors should be able to organize themselves and in the past two weeks, we did just that.

(I hope that readers – especially Byrd Parkers – will chime in with constructive comments. Obviously, this is a personal perspective and I know there are more out there.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Violence in Byrd Park produces ripples of turmoil

My email box has been flooded with Byrd Park neighborhood organizing emails this morning and I would like to chime in with some praise for the energy that my neighbors are putting into their response to the two shootings this month in the two blocks around my home. It’s a stressful topic in my household, and I’m glad to see something moving that my wife and I can plug into (see 9/8 meeting announcement below). We’ve lived here just under three years (our first house) and don’t wanna relocate so we can start a family in relative security. I keep reminding myself that violence and crime have been steadily declining in Byrd Park for over a decade, and we need to keep up the positive momentum. Our neighborhood is a great place to live (although there is some boneheaded real estate development going on) and we should talk to our neighbors to confirm this fact and make the community we want to live in.

For starters, I think that strengthened personal relationships with the people who live in our surrounding blocks is a necessary part of a personal safety and security plan. Block parties and neighborhood meetings help, but mostly it is day-to-day openness and congeniality that maintain effective communication networks and generate a collective sense of hopefulness. I’m sure this goes without saying, but inclusivity must be paramount in community building. Not everyone has email, speaks the same language, or behaves the same way in Byrd Park. And yet, even if we don’t relate to or fully understand everyone we live near, we gotta make new connections and look out for each other. So, I expect that this work will take us to new places - out of our comfort zones.

Second, any action to make a neighborhood safer should be measured against one important criterion: Will this prevent crime? In other words, will the people planning the next shooting or robbery say to themselves, “I’m not going to do this thing because those people... had a meeting.”??? Well, it depends who is at that meeting. But, with many proposals, the answer will be “No.” There is safety in numbers, and criminals tend to show their true cowardice by focusing on those who appear isolated. So, meetings can be effective for creating a more cohesive community and make us feel like we’re doing something proactive. At best, meetings generate work. Hopefully, that work will prevent further violence in our midst. But, let’s be real. Outside of Windsor Farms, dealing with the violent and depraved conditions of acute poverty is a daily task for all of us throughout Richmond, to one degree or another. So, let’s be sure that we don’t settle for symbolic action or insular committees. The roots of Richmond’s violent streak are deep-seeded to say the least, and band-aids and barriers won’t fix it.

Third, understanding patterns in violent criminal behavior not only helps solve crimes, but counteracts fear of the unknown in the public. We must not put our heads in the sand (or let the police/press do that for us). When people fire 12 bullets into a house on Idlewood, crash into houses/cars on Maplewood, and then run off down the street in broad daylight, they surely get seen by someone. Was Joseph Wynn sitting on his porch on that chaotic day? Was the gangster credo of “silence is golden” (or “stop snitchin”) brought to bear on Wynn, and by extension intimidation of our whole neighborhood? Or is the violence attracted by the various houses/apartments/intersections that openly traffic in drugs a stones throw from the 3rd district police department on Meadow Ave? Where is the investigative reporting right now? Information is power, and right now all that is circulating is fear and anxiety. If we are going to get organized, we must first get informed (the numerous speculations and holes in my own understanding of the recent Byrd Park shootings are a case in point).

Anyhow, I hope that my message here is clear. By definition, communities do not run; they pull together. We have access to police and public officials, but we also have each other and our own creativity. I hope that we choose the right tools for the different jobs that arise in the effort to make Byrd Park a safer place.

(comments are greatly appreciated as I'm really not intentionally doing anything here other than thinking out loud)

forwarded email:

URGENT!!!!! Neighborhood Meeting
It is official that we will meet with officers from the 3rd precinct on Saturday September 8th at 9am. The meeting will be held at the Roundhouse in Byrd Park.
Please take these next two weeks to let all your neighbors know. We need to
realize that it is not a few that make a difference but the entire group as
a whole.

We are fighting for our Neighborhood.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Viva Falafel y Buena Suerte, Mexico

Last week I strolled into Aladdin Express (aka Aladdin’s at Broad and Laurel) and brought back a falafel for lunch. I’ve been going to Aladdin’s for years (10, to be exact) and I usually don’t stray too far from their savory and saucy falafel pita sandwich. For a while there, I was compulsive about falafel, ordering it everywhere I saw it on the menu and always comparing it to Aladdin’s consistently delicious hand-held meal.

Too often at other eateries, I have ordered falafel and rather than receiving fried balls of mashed chick peas and spices, what I got was a crumbly mess of rehydrated and fried prepackaged mix (yuck!). Other places go astray by tinkering with the tahini dressing, or getting too fancy with the veggies, imprecise pita manipulation, over or under-fried falafel balls, etc. Feel free to chime in and report your crimes against falafel (or to mention other good falafel venues, like the Mediterranean Bakery on Quioccasin).

What you receive for $3.99 at Aladdin’s is a 7” pita with a hole cut into the top. Dropped inside* you find a good balance of fried falafel balls, raw onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce, all topped with a thick lemon tahini sauce that slowly drips down through the ingredients to the bottom of the pita. Yes, it’s bursting at the seams and unavoidably messy. But the combination of flavors and sloppiness just seems appropriate. I usually add a drop of Texas Pete hot sauce on each bite, just to make doubly sure that all of my senses are triggered during lunch break. For a little extra, they will throw hummus, baba ghanouj, or tabouli into the already stuffed pita.

Anyhow, I'd like to take a moment to reminisce about an old friend (the sandwich and Aladdin's owner). Behind the counter, Al (god, I hope that’s his name) greeted me after a couple years of missing each other. In recent years, I have been finding vegetarian lunch-break food in places other than Aladdin’s extensive Middle Eastern menu. And Al has been doing well enough with his restaurant (thanks to hooka-toking VCU kids) to consistently delegate cooking and cashier duties. I told him that he’s looking younger and well rested.

Al’s eyes light up. “You know what my secret is?” he says? “Um, you’ve finally gone vegetarian?” “No. Whole wheat pita with fennel seeds. I don’t sell it here, because it would raise the price of my sandwiches. Would you like to try it? You like spicy, right?” “Always. Lay it on me.”

In a couple minutes, Al presents me with a toasted corner of pita bread. There are fennel seeds imbedded in the dough, along with some specs that may have been black sesame seeds. Really yummy stuff, with a warm taste of licorice that really filled my mouth with flavor. I tell him that I like the bread. Once I'm back at the office, I’m not surprised to find that he’s made my falafel sandwich with his special pita/fountain-of-youth. It was delicious, although, by the end, I didn't want to see another fennel seed for a week. Next time, I'll ask him where I can buy the stuff myself.

* At the bottom of Aladdin’s falafel, you will find the very piece of pita bread that was cut from the top to create the opening. Apparantly, they just drop it inside after they cut it of the top. Every time for the past 10 years, it’s right there at the bottom of the sandwich waiting for me. Little touches often make food that much more comforting

Buena Suerte, Mexico

I’ve been probing all of my friends who’ve visited Viva Mexico in Carytown and I haven’t heard a critical word from anyone (or any real excitement either). Maybe I’m just a food snob (do ya think?), but I was not impressed when I went there during their first week open. I know, you can’t judge a restaurant by it’s food for the first six months, but how hard is it to crank out a standard Mexican menu? If there really is a period of adjustment for all restaurants, Viva Mexico clearly needs one.

At Viva Mexico, I enjoyed speaking Spanish with the staff, but I did not eat a single bite that made me smile with pleasure. Okay, maybe the cheese dip, but I’m a sucker for chip’n’dip. The thing that has stuck with me most is that the beans were completely devoid of flavor and fat. This coming from a vegetarian who guiltily looks forward to the essence of lard in his Mexican food (don’t ask, don’t tell, ya know?). My wife didn’t want to speak ill of the place, but did mention that the meat in her taco was totally plain.

I didn’t want to blog about the experience. Karen and I are both excited to be able to walk to a Mexican restaurant. However, after eating there, I came to the conclusion that they were skimping and cutting corners to make ends meet in the high rent blocks of Carytown. It might pay off for them in the short run, but I wondered how long Carytown shoppers would fill their booths without el sabor de los chiles to look forward to.

We haven’t been back since, and I’m hoping that the cooking techniques at Viva Mexico change over time. Anyhow, Dana Craig’s review of Viva Mexico in today’s RTD hits the nail on the head. Rather than talk a bunch of trash, I’ll just endorse today’s review.

Buena suerte, Viva Mexico (that means good luck, by the way)

Monday, June 25, 2007

Byrd Park Bloggers United by Pride

I live in Byrd Park, and I love it. My neighbors are fabulous. The parks are splended and sprawling. Bars are a 10 mintue walk away. Crime is on the decline. I could go on, but I want to touch on a specific aspect of Byrd Park that makes me proud. As a community, we are diverse, inclusive, and friendly to one another. Although Byrd Park is gentrifying and ridiculous development that is hostile to working class people is sprouting up in our midst, and many of us probably have a ways to go at developing real bonds across across racial lines, I am particularly thankful that so many LGBTs call Byrd Park their "gayborhood."

Another Byrd Park blogger, Kelly Stern, has taken this picture of Fountain Lake and is promoting it as a as a symbol of gay pride and solidarity to be posted by sympathetic bloggers. So, Kelly, my neighbor whome I've scarcely shared a word with, I'm happy to respond to your challenge. This blog is home to a vision of social justice, as well as delicious food, and thrifty spending. So, in honor of the fabulous people who help to make my neighborhood what it is, please enjoy this rainbow over Fountain Lake.

Solidarity forever.

ps: I'm having a yard sale this Saturday (20 boxes of books and some clothes). Click the link and see my Craigslist description, list of book genres, etc. I'm doing minimal advertising and just hope to have a relaxing day chatting up some of my neighbors during the sale.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Washer Repairs? No "Sears Suckers" here

After two and a half years living in my Byrd Park house, my front-loader Kenmore washer kicks the bucket. Last weekend, I was pulling a fully soaked load of clothes out and draping them over everything that I could find in my back yard. With the tub full of black soapy water, I paid a call to the Sears Repair hotline listed on the machine. The bottom line: $59 to come out and diagnose the problem and then X number of dollars to fix it. Immediately, I recall my last encounter using the Sears Repair guys to fix my parents' dryer. They quickly concluded that it was only a fuse that needed replacing. For $90 (+$59), the dude walked to the truck, grabbed a fuse, and stuck it in the slot, and closed the panel (five minutes total). "I can't believe I am doing this," I thought to myself as I made the appointment.

Four days later, my wet clothes are putrifying in piles at corners of my basement and a disgusting odor is coming out of the washing machine's tub of black water. So, needless to say, I was eager today when I came home early from work to meet the repair guy. After I spied the blue Sears repair van pass my house and park at the end of the block, I sat on the porch for 10 minutes waiting for him to get out and walk up the sidewalk to my stoop.

Once inside, he asked me what's wrong with the machine. "Won't drain. Won't spin," says I. "It won't spin, because it won't drain," he clarifies. And at first I start to take offense to this snide comment. But then it starts to sink in. Okay, this fact is part of his diagnosis procedure. After pushing buttons and turning dials, he blurts out, "Bad pump." Then he opens the machine and looks at the pump and tests wires with a little readout machine. Suddenly, he says that my pump is fine, but that I need a new timer. He walks out saying that he'll see if he's got one in the truck, leaving his toolbox behind.

Considering that this was moving along at a pretty good clip, I started to get excited about washing some clothes tonight. So, I paced around the house, got my checkbook ready, and made plans for dinner. But, time went by and before I knew it 30 minutes had passed and he's still sitting in his van at the end of my block. So, I called him up. And I got one of those, "Yeah, whatdya want?" kinda responses. It turns out that he can't find a timer for this model anywhere in Richmond.

Eventually, he comes back in and says he can fix my washer next week for $300 and follows up with, "Do you wanna do it?" I couldn't help but hear these words as either rhetorical or malicious, and my blood started boiling. "I'd be pretty stupid to take that deal." The old price tag is still on the washer and it says $349. I paid him his $59 and he leaves.

Immediately, my wife and I start trying to figure out where we'll get a new washer, how much we want to spend, how to move the old one out and the new one ion, installation, etc. The Sears repair guy did, however, give us a coupon for $65 off a purchase of a new Sears washer (over a $399 minimum) if we bring our receipt from this job in the next two weeks. Hmmm...

Consumer reports shows that the front loading washers are much more highly rated than the top loaders. However, they cost twice as much, starting at $700 and topping out near $1800. The top loaders are much cheaper, but maligned in all of the reviews. Lowes and Best Buy both sell an entry level Fridgedaire for $499, but the capacity is pretty small. So, off I go to the scratch'n'dent appliance store on Westwood Ave, hoping that I can get a bargain on something.

On my way to the car, I get another idea and in a couple minutes, I've pulled up to the Cary Street Appliance store at the Allen Ave intersection. I've always seen the place as kind of an eye sore on Cary. But, it can't hurt to look, I figure. At least I'll feel out what's available at the low end of the spectrum. Inside, a middle aged black man named Lynn sizes me up and points me to his shiniest previously owned washers. They're Whirlpools and they look like cheap-Os to me, since I was replacing a new-fangled front-loader. $225 he tells me and just a little extra for delivery, installation, and hauling away the old one. Hmmm... I tell him that I'm just getting started in my research and then I high tail it out the door. But I keep thinking about Lynn. I'd been in his place a few times, but never really trusted their merchandise. He gets it used and sells it for relatively cheap. Maybe he'll cut corners in other places. Warranty? Customer service? On the other hand, his shop has been there for years. They must be doing something right. With one discount store and three big-boxes on my agenda for the night, it occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't look any further.

Before I get two blocks away, I've got my wife on the phone and I'm pitching to her the idea of a working washer in our basement tonight for less than half the minimum price we were thinking of paying. She's game. So, I haul ass back to Lynn and we both look at the washer and then at the clock. It's almost 6pm on Friday. I make my proposal. "Lynn. $250 and we go install this in baby my basement right now and you can have my old Kenmore." He's game, but he wants me to know that he doesn't have any use for front loaders. The old-timer disdains the new design saying that they're hard to repair.

A minute later, Lynn is suggesting tomorrow (when I'll be outta town). It's his delivery/installation guy's birthday and he wants to go home sooner than later. I point out that I'm only 5 or 6 blocks away and we all smile. "Shoot, I didn't know this was a neighborhood gig," he says. "Let's do it." Something about me (tattoos?) must be screaming "Southside."

Within minutes, Cory, the very young appliance deliverer is cruising by my house in his pick-up, seeing me on the porch and smiling as he circles around to the alley. Once he's in my yard, I wish him happy birthday and offer him a cold beer. Alas, Cory does not drink. His only wish is to go home, shower, and then go to Kabutos with his lady. The two of us push heavy washing machines around for 10 minutes and talk about food. He urges me to try Kabutos and I counter by suggesting that he order something with wasabi. Since he doesn't drink, I figure he should get a rush by some other means.

One day and four loads of laundry later, my wife is telling me that I did a good job handling the washer situation. Since then, I've been beaming about my knack for bargains. Anyhow, if the moral of this story isn't clear, let me clarify: Sears repair guys run a real racket. Look to the small local businesses for used stuff that'll get the job done.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Muy Sabrosa: Authentic Mexican and the Taco Truck

Yesterday, I ate Mexican food twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. These two favorite places of mine are very different and very special.

Readers of this blog will already know that I love the flavors of Latino cuisines and that I actually believe that any food served inside of a tortilla is better than any food without a tortilla. So, I'm either an authority on the subject of Mexican food, or merely a fanatic. But seriously, since my wife and I went to Mexico for our honeymoon (luna de miel, en espanol), we have raised our standards for Southwestern inspired cooking. Now, we are seldom satisfied with the combination plate, or the 7lb burrito wrapped in foil.

My new outlook first took me to Taqueria del Sol (<---- painfully inadequate website) in the Merchants Walk shopping center on W. Broad, just past the Glenside/64 (the same strip-mall where the beloved Marshalls, oasis of bargain hunters resides). I went there weeks ago on a weekend morning while running an errand and thought I'd see if they served huevos rancheros, one of my favorite dishes.

When I stepped inside this fairly typical looking Mexican restaurant storefront, I was greeted by a packed house of Latino faces turning to look at the lone gringo. A little intimidating, I must admit. Although, I'm not really a shy guy. Hardly distracted by my entrance, the crowd of customers was jovial and relaxed in the way that brunch crowds tend to be. There was only one tiny table available, and I took it.

Once seated, I noticed that at least half of the customers were leaning over large white bowls of I dunno what. What could this be? I've never been served anything in a big bowl in a Mexican restaurant (except maybe a margarita for two). Well, I ordered my huevos and enjoyed my chips and salsa while occasionally craning my neck to peek at la comida del otras personas. I also noticed some drink fountains that circulate various fruity beverages, and one of them was stark white. Horchata! This fabulously sweet drink is made with boiled and strained rice, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla. So soothing and satisfying. You have to try it and/or make it at home.

Ya know, at this point, I want to fast forward, because last night's visit was far more important than my first visit to the Taqueria del Sol. To make it quick, the huevos rancheros were awesome and the red sauce was so delicious that I wanted to lap it up like a dog. When I paid my bill, I casually walked by a few tables and peered down into the big white bowls and saw an orange/red broth with pieces of chicken (with the bones) sticking out. The server said, "caldo de pollo" is very popular at this time of day. This, I recalled, was nowhere on the menu and neither was the horchata (pronounced without the "H"). Hmmm, the real stuff is under the counter and you gotta ask for it. Nice.

Since that visit, I've been telling everyone to check this place out. But weeks and months passed before I was able to visit again, this time with Karen. Since before the place recently opened, we had both been curious about the place, because we noticed ceviche on the menu posted in the window. Although it's a classic fish dish, few Mexican restaurants serve it because it's fairly delicate (being raw fish marinated in lime juice). Surely, this was a sign that Taqueria del Sol was un poco diferente.

So, I had to order the ceviche and they had to check and make sure that they had it ready. Being a little nervous about ordering the only non-shrip seafood dish on the menu (and it being essentially raw), I asked if it was "good" in both english and spanish with my best, "please don't poison me" expression (although the real verdict would come later that night). Anyhow, the platter came out and I wolfed it down with gusto, feeling like a heel for my prejudices. The plate was brimming with a mound of finely chopped flounder meat, mixed with loads of cilantro, finely diced onions, slabs of avocado and of course copious amounts of lime juice. Tortillas were included to scoop it all up and I loved every minute of it, only to be awoken from my foodie dream-come-true by my wife interrupting my feast with, "Well, are you going to talk to me, or what?!"

Oh, yeah. This was sort of a date. Silly me. While having a transcendent experience with my entree, I'd totally neglected my wife. Speaking of Karen, she ordered the enchiladas poblanos which were served with dark rich mole poblano all over the plate. To describe this sauce would take several more paragraphs, but just imagine loads of broth, oil, and chilis blended and simmered for hours with unsweetened cocoa, ground pumpkin seeds and maybe ten different thickening agents. As they say, the sauce is the dish. But, it's an acquired taste, and probably best experienced in its native regions of Mexico. But, the stuff at Taqueria del Sol isn't bad at all. So, give it a try.

Karen and I washed this grub down with two tall glasses of iced horchata, which was actually a mistake. While delicious, the drink is just sweet enough and thick enough to prematurely fill you up. So, my tip is to split it, and if a second is in order... Oh, one last thing. On each of the tables were specials listed in those plastic encased table tents. Seven different kinds of meat are offered to make up a plate of three tacos. They also had gorditas and sopes. This style of menu was reminiscent of the offerings in Mexico and I'll bet that the target audience is local latinos. I dunno. Just a hunch. But being mostly a vegetarian, I don't think I'm going to find out any time soon. Why don't you go and let me know? I'll bet that stuff is the real star at Taqueria del Sol.


Earlier in the day, I left my VCU office on Franklin Street just long enough to visit Nate's Taco Truck, located where Grove and Stuart converge in front of the Performing Arts building and the VCU library. Nate is out there most weekdays during lunch and he's developed a loyal following since starting up in the VCU area over the past year or so. I think he first caught my eye with his flyers that morphed his bespectacled face into Any Warhol's enigmatic Che Guevara silhouette. A little bit hippy, Nate is not to be confused with those consistent purveyors of big piles of tasteless rice wraps on Main Street (aka Mobile Munchies).

What Nate offers is, however, a mysterious concoction of spices and herbs and beans and cheeses and meats (tvp or potato melange for the vegetarians), all in taco-sized soft tortillas. Whatever his secret is, the stuff he serves is delicious and prepared with a Cheshire cat's smile. My favorite is the potato taco. So good. At five potato tacos and counting, I still haven't found a potato in a single bite, but I'm not complaining cuz it tastes so good. What is that stuff anyhow? Try it and leave a comment here and end my speculation. And tell me what I'm missing out on by passing up the beef/chicken tacos.

One novelty item on the menu is a Frito Pie. If you already know what this is, pardon my naivete, but this popular convenience food was news to me. Nate opens a mini bag of Fritos and tosses everything that he would otherwise put into a taco right into the bag and hands it to you with a fork. And you know what? It's not bad at all. I guess it's all about the fixins, and that seems to be Nate's speciality.

As for me, I'm headed outta town for a week. But I should clarify something. The semi-raw fish at Taqueria del Sol caused me no problems whatsoever. The rest of the night was digestively uneventful, just the way I like it. According to a comment on this blog about my honeymoon eating adventures, that's the insurance policy of the lime juice. Not only does it cook the food with its acidity, but it also protects you from indigestion. My hat goes off to the contributions of Latin America to my taste buds, among other areas of the public sphere.

And on that note, I'd like to wish my sister in-law, Karina, a big congratulations for weathering the INS appeals process and finally getting a visa so she and my brother can relocate their family from Veracruz, Mexico back to the states.

Buena suerte.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Introducing: Grilled Ramen

Tis the season to grill, but it is always the season to eat cheap noodles. So, I have devised a frugal recipe for your grilling pleasure. Introducing: Grilled Ramen.

If you love the taste of a good char on just about anything, then this is a fun and frugal dish that you should add to your repertoire. Now the staple food of college student cooks, the apathetic, and the budget conscious obtains it's bbq boy scout patch. First, a note about our main ingredient: I am loyal to Nissin brand Oriental Flavor ramen (tasty, vegetarian, and always on sale), but feel free to use whichever brand/flavor you prefer.

There are two schools of thought on preparing ramen. The first is to follow the instructions on the packet and add 2 ½ cups of water, creating a noodle soup with a diluted flavor and slightly mushy noodles. The other is to add much less water, creating an intense flavor that evenly coats the resilient al dente ramen (my old favorite method).

There is a time and a place for both methods. However, my newly developed technique focuses on flavor and feel by taking the broth almost completely out of the equation, thus preserving the integrity of the ramen. The result is a rollercoaster of unique texture and smokey savoriness that mirrors the curlicue character of the beloved noodle cake.


Marinate ramen cake in sauce (see below for sauce suggestions), flipping to be sure of absorption throughout the noodle cake (about 20 mins, just enough time to get your fire going).
Ramen cake is ready to be grilled when it has become tender, but still cohesive.

Place on medium flame grill (charcoal is best).

Lift corner every minute or so to look for char marks (about 3 minutes). A little smoke should inform you that it's about ready to flip.

Flip when it’s getting crunchy and black/golden brown spots cover one side. Be sure to detach the whole thing with your spatula before moving it, or else the cake may pull apart, creating a much less appetizing mess (and frustration).

Serve plain or with chives, scallions, grilled tofu or veggies, etc. If there is any remaining marinade drizzle it over top of the noodles

Your grilled ramen cake will have chewy spots and moist spots, but every bite will be flavorful and fun to eat. Tear it apart with chop sticks. Invite friends to dig in with you. It's fun, romantic, contemplative... Whatever mood strikes you, I am sure that a few minutes before the hot fire will sooth your savage beast and satiate your appetite with fire-cured noodle goodness.

For a soupier version, serve "au jus" by pouring the desired amount of boiling hot water over the grilled noodles and letting it sit for a few minutes (but be careful not to dilute the flavor too much). If you have any ideas for grilled ramen, I'd love to hear them. Post your experiments here as a comment. The sun is shining and it's time to have fun by the fire.

SAVOR THE FLAVOR: a sauce for any occasion

For "Grilled Ramen Sauce" you basically just need a concoction that is somewhat syrupy, so it glazes the noodles, watery enough to be absorbed by the noodles, slightly sweet, so it caramelizes, and packed with tangy flavors that will compliment the charred spots.

A lazy method: use 1/3 cup of hot water to dilute 1/3 cup of your favorite asian sauce/marinade like terriaki, szechuan, etc.

An easy method: whisk together the following ingredients

Flavor packet from ramen
2 tblsp soy sauce
Squirt of sriracha (or favorite hot sauce) to taste
Couple dashes of rice vinegar (or lemon or lime juice)
A few drops of toasted sesame oil
½ tsp sugar
¼ cup of hot water
A sprinkling of sesame seeds (optional)

Master sauce: whisk the following ingredients together

2 tsp fresh ginger, minced and ground or passed through a garlic press
1 clove garlic, diced and mashed to a pulp
2 tblsp soy sauce
1 tblsp rice vinegar
squirt of sriracha/sambal (or your fave hot sauce)
a couple cranks of black pepper
2 tblsp olive oil
1/4 cup hot water
1/2 tsp sugar/honey/maple syrup

Well, now it's your turn. I am continually experimenting in the kitchen (and on the porch), so you'll see some more suggestions from me about this in due time (plus, I've got more pictures). But, I'd like to know about the versions of grilled ramen that you come up with. So, dig in and write back.