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)


  1. Melanie12:06 PM

    I once ordered a veggie burger at 4th Street Cafe, which they make themselves instead of using some frozen Boca Burger patty. It was more like falafel. It was extraordinary! This was a few years ago. I haven't been back since for fear that another veggie burger would fail to live up to my expectations.

  2. Matthew12:32 PM

    Viva Mexico was totally disappointing, but I went there in the first few days it was open. Haven't been back since, I was kind of hoping to hear some good reviews of the place. Plus I no longer live in walking distance... Sorry to hear they haven't improved.

  3. Last night, we had a ton of people over and I grilled homemade veggie burgers that consisted mostly of black beans, diced mushrooms (four types), and goat cheese (chipotle chili powder, cumin and fresh cilantro for kick). They weren't bad. Next time, I won't be running the mixture through the food processor.

    Anyhow, there are tons of food adventures in my life right now. I should try and stick to the positive experiences. But that Dana Craig just made me feel like I needed to chime in about Viva Mexico. Oh, I also grilled potato wedges drenched in butter and chili rub. The ramen was just about to get grilled as well, but we all had to run out the door to Lakeview and Shields to catch the fireworks.

    Highlight of the night: braised fennel spread (with parmagiano reggiano).

  4. Speaking of Mexican food... there is a new Mexico Restaurant opening in the fan on Cary Street next to Golds Gym... Should be opening in July or August...yummy...

  5. Having lived in Mexico, everything I've tried in Richmond disappoints bigtime. Rather than Mexican cuisine, I find the menus offer the usual Tex-Mex. Note: nachos, fajitas, etc. are not found in Mexico, and the only good beans I've tried are either in that restaurant that used to be at Stony Point or at a more Peruvian-influenced place in Petersburg called Andrades.

    I would love to find a place that offers: topes, huaraches, huitlachoche/cheese bowls or huita. on steak, CHILES EN NOGADA!!!, chicken en pipian, tastes from the Yucatan (I recall the use of blood oranges on pork or some such thing), puntas de bistec, etc etc etc.

    The best place for kick-arse Mexican cuisine I've found close to home is Andale in DC, not far from the Spy Museum. Not only do they offer a real chef in the kitchen, but their drink menu offers a boatload of tequilas and mezcals, from which you can order a flight.

    If only the I-95 traffic weren't what it is...

    Anyone who gets Andale to open a satelite in Richmond gets my undying admiration and thanks.

  6. BP, glad to have your comments here. They make me crave the food of my luna de miel. I can still taste the huaraches that you can see me eating in the pictures on this blog. Soon, I will revisit Taqueria del Sol and watch my wife eat tacos al pastor. There are highlights among the Mexican restaurants of Richmond. If I were more willing to explore the Southside, I'd probably have formed opinions on the many bodegas that I've heard about down there. Oh, well, back to the old tortilla press and the dregs of the chilis and mole sauce that I brought back with me in January.

    Kelly, thanks for the tip about Mexico. I was wondering what was going on with that construction at Cary and Randolph.

  7. Foodie -- thanks for pointing me to your other recent posts that involve authentic Mexican (this post was the first one I had come upon in your blog, so obviously I missed prior gems). I had not heard of TdS, and am tickled to learn about it. Hope to see you there some time. :-)

  8. There is decent to excellent Mexican in Richmond..

    Cerro Azul at Flat Rock out Midlothian

    La Milpa,
    Happy mart
    El Tacorrey.. all on Hull.

    the Amigos on Brook & on Midlothian are pretty good and may soon be serving cabrito..

    Cielito Lindo has nice ambience but es muy gringified..

    El Paso, Mexico & Casa Grande are all serving glop.

    And how the hell did that gloppy cheese dip from La Casita get spread everywhere? It's freaking salad dressing!!

    T (who grew up 40 miles from the Mexican border..)

  9. I'm such a sucker for Mexican food. My beau and I went to Viva Mexico during the first week it was open as well and I thought the food was okay. Our experience was worthwhile only beacause the server and staff were so nice. There are a lot of Mexican restaurants around here and so many are bad. Recently, I've really been enjoying El Caporal (, which is just off of Parham Road across from Regency Mall. I don't know much about the authenticity of the dishes (the sauces aren't like what I've encountered at Mexican restaurants before), but I do know the food is darn tasty.

    Love your blog!


  10. After the dismal meal I had at the Mexico Restaurant near my house this past weekend, I am going to take up your suggestions in eating Mexican food. Love your blog, Jason. You write great food columns.

  11. Mount Rainier Mark4:48 PM

    Gotta promise you'll take me to Alladin's when I come back down to Richmond!

  12. Never been to Aladdin Express. Now I am curious.
    Thanks for the heads up on Viva mexico

  13. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Kept reading your various posts here and elsewhere about Taqueria del Sol. I went last night and it was great. The mole poblano was some of the best I've had in town. Thanks for the tip.

  14. I too was disappointed by Viva Mexico. It's astounding that a decent Mexican restaurant does not exist in Caryton. What are there? Like 8 Thai places?


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