Ain’t That America: Exploring America’s Restaurants on Soccer Road Trips

I was once asked what’s missing from the Charlottesville food scene. My response:

With more than 200 countries in the world, each with their own diverse cuisines, Charlottesville could never begin to scratch the surface of them all.  Sure, I miss some foods I enjoyed when living in larger cities, but we do awfully well for our size.

As for some of those missing foods, a silver lining of the travel that youth soccer programs can require is the opportunity to explore elsewhere. In anticipation of a weekend away for soccer, extensive food research is invariably focused on experiences unavailable in Charlottesville.

On a recent trip up the East Coast, a stop at Baltimore’s Greektown was non-negotiable. Greek food is not prolific in Charlottesville, and Greektown’s blue-collar neighborhood of brick-lined streets where Greek immigrants began settling decades ago is bursting with  restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries. Greeks-in-the-know directed us to Karellas, a storefront café run by the Karela family. Originally opened as a place where Greek-Americans with common interests could meet for coffee or watch soccer, the restaurant refocused on food in recent years led by chef-owner Emmanuel Karelas and his son Nikolakis. “The food, recipes, preparation, cooking, and service are all from the Karellas Family,” says Nikolakis.

While a police officer and regulars with thick Baltimore accents shared stories about their week over bottles of coke, we took in the scene at a nearby table and feasted on pork gyros, grilled octopus, and, a house specialty tyrokeftedes – oozing fried balls of cheese, with a wedge of lemon for brightness and acid.

Breakfast the next morning took us to Wilmington, DE, where we enjoyed an experience difficult to find outside a city: a grand hotel. Le Cavalier is a stunning brasserie beside the lobby of Hotel Du Pont. As a start to the day, there are few things more energizing than the buzz, grandeur, and polish of a restaurant like this.

Vietnam is another country whose cuisine is underrepresented in Charlottesville. In Lancaster, PA, we found Sprout, a restaurant with an American story of opportunity and resilience. It began in 1975, when the Cao family fled Saigon for the United States for a better life and new beginning. They landed in New Orleans, where, in 1982 they opened the city’s first Vietnamese restaurant. Over time, they opened two more restaurants, and, by 2004, ran three of the most popular Vietnamese restaurants in the New Orleans area. Then, tragedy struck in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed all of their restaurants. The family sought refuge with an aunt who lived in Lancaster, PA. There, they started over, and opened a restaurant in 2006. Ten years later, they opened a second restaurant, Sprout, where we dined, in historic downtown Lancaster City. It was outstanding, with family recipes enhanced by Bodo’s-like cheerfulness and efficiency from decades in the industry together.

Once a stage coach tavern stopover between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, the building for the Brickerville House Restaurant was built in 1753. In 2008, it was purchased by brothers Tony and George Agadis, industry veterans who left New York City for a calmer pace of life, which they found in central Pennsylvania. With an economics degree from NYU, George runs the front of the house, while, in the kitchen, chef Tony brings the attention to detail of a Culinary Institute of America graduate to the fare of a countryside family diner. It’s a winning combination, with lines already forming by 8 am outside the 225-seat restaurant. Details like coffee in a French Press from a wall full of various house-selected beans and blends, and pancakes some call the best ever.

An endearing aspect of ethnic restaurants in America is that they can pop up anywhere. Wherever an immigrant with a dream may choose to settle, you might enjoy the culture of another country. In Lititz, PA, a town established by Moravians in the 1740s, sits The Bulls Head Public House. Once named Coolest Small Town in America, and home to one of the oldest Independence Day celebrations in the country, Lititz is quintessential Main Street USA, an ideal setting for a charming British pub. There’s hand-drawn ale on tap, a beer list recognized as one of the nation’s best, and a well-executed menu of traditional pub favorites, like sausage rolls.

Neshaminy Creek County Line IPA, on cask.