Globetrotting in Charlottesville: At These Ten Restaurants, Immigrants Are Enriching Charlottesville with Flavors of the World
(Note: In honor of Independence Day in 2021, we celebrated immigrants of the Charlottesville food community and their American Dream. To celebrate this year, this is an unabridged version of an article published in The Local Palate for the Charlottesville Albemarle Covention & Visitors Bureau.)
When visiting Charlottesville, it would be easy to spend a whole trip at its most well-known attractions: spectacular vineyards, breweries, and cideries, historic sites, and scenic hikes. Locals know, though, that another reward awaits those who scratch beneath Charlottesville’s polished veneer – a food community bursting with flavors of the world. That community is the product of a virtuous cycle that has been enriching the area for more than a decade. It goes like this. The desirability of Charlottesville as a place to live attracts talented and passionate people, who, in turn, launch projects that make it even more desirable. Repeat. Charlottesville routinely tops national lists like best place to live. And, among those who have found it especially attractive in recent years are immigrants, who come to Charlottesville and share their culture and cuisine with the community. As a result, in addition to the region’s signature Southern fare, Charlottesville now boasts a greater variety of cuisines than ever before.
Turkish: Sultan Kebab
When Deniz Dikmen and Serhat Peker arrived from Turkey in 2006, they fell in love with Charlottesville. And, it didn’t take long for Charlottesville to love them back. The humble strip mall restaurant that they opened north of town in 2012 became so popular that in 2016 they moved downtown to a bright, airy space that they designed in tribute to their birthplace. There, they serve traditional dishes from Dikmen’s native region of Izmir and Peker’s region of Adana. Key to their success has been a slow and deliberate approach to their menu. They never add an item until convinced it is just right. As a result, regulars know it as fool-proof. Just close your eyes and point. For a kebab place, vegetable dishes are particularly strong, including a vegetarian plate that rates among the most coveted dishes in town. Sultan Kebab’s vegetable appetizers are delicious on their own. Hummus, baba ghanoush, kisir, white bean salad, dolmas, and Turkish-spiced mashed potato. But, when enjoyed together on a plate around a mound of buttery rice, their flavors seem to shine even brighter.
Mexican/Pueblan: Al Carbon
It was a longtime dream of Myriam Hernandez and her husband Claudio to run their own restaurant. So, when that opportunity arose in 2014, Myriam quit her job as an elementary school teacher and Claudio left his construction work so that they could devote all their energy and money towards their shared dream: bringing the cuisine of their native Mexico to Charlottesville. At Al Carbon, their no-frills order-at-the-counter restaurant, the focus is what they call “street food” or “carnival food” – informal foods of their ancestors. One is a cemita – a sandwich from Claudio’s native region of Puebla. On a round roll, a choice of meat joins avocado, papalo red onions, a slice of ham, adobo chipotle peppers, heaps of shredded cheese, and a choice of sauce. As delicious as the Mexican food is, the most popular item is not Mexican at all – whole chickens marinated for 24 hours in a Peruvian house spice blend before being roasted over coals in a rotisserie oven imported from Peru. For some locals, the chickens are a weekly necessity.
For those who prefer their Mexican cuisine more refined, and who can live without chips and salsa, there is Conmole. In the hip, tree-lined neighborhood of Belmont, Benos Bustamante left a job he held for sixteen years as a server and manager at local institution Mas Tapas to open a tiny restaurant across the street celebrating the food of his native Oaxaca. Recipes draw from Bustamante’s mother and grandmother, with highlights being the moles that give the restaurant its name. While each is distinct, what the moles all share – mole negro, mole verde, and mole guajillo – is uncommon depth of flavor. Bustamante is partial to the frijol molido mole, a smoky sauce of black beans that he likes with shrimp. Beyond the food, Bustamante’s two decades of management experience are unmistakable in the earnest service and well-curated drinks.
Vietnamese: Vu Noodles
Almost from the moment she arrived in Virginia from Vietnam at the age of eight, Julie Vu has had an itch to share her family’s culture and cuisine with others. In 2013, she finally turned that itch into a business with Vu Noodles, which at first sold do-it-yourself noodle bowl kits at area grocery stores. Bit by bit, her business grew, and she now has a restaurant on the Downtown Mall where she serves food through a takeout window from her tiny kitchen. Her food is “almost” vegan, as the one ingredient she cannot do without is fish sauce, a seasoning essential to Vietnamese cooking. Despite the reliance on vegetables, even the most devout carnivores find nothing missing from her flavorful food. Like, the umami bomb Tofu Caramelized Onions Noodles. Or, a vegan banh mi, which might sound odd, given the traditional sandwich’s reliance on livery pate and grilled meat. But, Vu’s is so satisfying that for some Charlottesville chefs it verges on an addiction.
Szechuan: Peter Chang China Grill
It would be no hyperbole to call Peter Chang the most acclaimed Szechuan chef in the United States. And, he chose Charlottesville for his first restaurant. After cooking at the Embassy of China in Washington D.C., Chang caused an internet sensation with a series of brief stints at non-descript suburban restaurants around the Eastern U.S, moving quickly from one to the next as if to evade his ever-growing cult following, which ranged from online message boards to national food writers. Eventually he landed in Charlottesville, where he opened his first restaurant in 2011, an instant hit. Since then, Chang’s expanding restaurant empire means that he is not always in the Charlottesville kitchen, but the restaurant still bears his stamp. Even when he’s not in town, the cooks who he trained ably dispatch his signatures: hot and numbing shredded tofu skin, dry fried eggplant, scallion bubble pancake, and Szechuan style stir fried hot pot.
French: Café Frank
A local Charlottesville legend is the odd story of how several French chefs have been lured to the city by their lovers, only to be abandoned there. The chefs’ exes’ loss is Charlottesville’s gain, as several talented, thick-accented natives of France now call Charlottesville home, and are driven to educate locals about a style of cuisine for which their passion runs deep. The latest place featuring such a chef is Café Frank, the first restaurant of his own for James Beard semifinalist Jose de Brito. Chef de Brito insists his focus is “simple” food, but guests often find it delightfully complex. Sure, there are bistro standards such as beef tartare and moules frites, but there is nothing simple about specials like quenelles de brochet, cloud-like oval dumplings of creamed pike in a rich, pink sauce of shellfish. De Brito had the good sense to team up with Wilson Richey, Charlottesville’s most accomplished restaurateur, and the result is a restaurant experience that, just a year in, is already as complete as any in town.
Thai: Pad Thai
“Homestyle” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the restaurant industry. But, if anyone can lay claim to it, it is Utaiwan and Santi Ouypron. At their restaurant Pad Thai, they offer the same food that they once served in an eatery out of their home in Thailand. When they came to Virginia in 2006, the Ouyprons didn’t change a thing about the homestyle recipes they had been cooking for years, which may explain why their pungent, pull-no-punches preparations have earned such passionate patronage. Heady broths form the base for noodle bowls, and fiery curry pastes infuse traditional red, green, and Panang curries. In addition to familiar stir-fries like drunken noodle and pad kapao, there are specials like Grandpa’s Favorite – an unusual combination that Santi’s father always loved: fried catfish nuggets, a Thai omelet, and a curried shrimp roll, over fried rice flavored with green curry.
Filipino: Manila Street
Twenty years ago, Charlottesville City Council officially changed the name of Azalea Street to Manila Street. The move came at the urging of the Biazon family, whose ten siblings and their families gradually immigrated to Charlottesville from the Philippines and came to occupy an entire row of houses along the street. The first Biazon arrived in 1969, and more than sixty members of the family have lived on the street over the years. In 2012, Fernando Biazon Dizon and his mother Maura began selling Filipino food from a stand at the weekly farmer’s market. Next came a food truck. And, in 2021, he and his wife Jessie opened a brick and mortar. The menu of traditional dishes – lumpia, pancit, and adobo – attracts both nostalgic Filipinos and local food lovers. Manila Street’s location in Dairy Market, Charlottesville’s bustling new food hall, allows visitors to sample other foods of the world while they are there, like Thai from Chimm Street and South American from South & Central.
Haitian: Pearl Island Café
Pikliz is one of the signature foods of Haiti. And so, it was an ideal starting point for Sober Pierre, son of Haitian immigrants, when he set out to share the food of Haiti with Charlottesville. In 2013, he started selling jars of the spicy, pickled condiment he makes from a family recipe of cabbage, carrots, onions, vinegar, lime juice, orange juice, and habanero. That morphed into a food stand at farmers’ markets, and, in 2016, became his café, serving food inspired by Haiti and other Caribbean islands. If you happen to visit on a Friday, you’re in luck. That’s Oxtail Friday – the one day of the week to enjoy Pierre’s braised oxtail. It’s just the type of rich, meaty dish that pikliz pairs with best. Even on other days of the week, Pearl Island still warrants a visit for platters of slow roast “16 hours of love” pork, jerk chicken, sous poulet (Haitian curry chicken), or sous shu – vegan and gluten-free tempura cauliflower in a sweet and spicy sauce. All platters come with kale salad, rice and pigeon peas, fried plantains, aioli, and, of course, pikliz.
In 2003, Charanjeet Ghotra, his wife Rupinder Kaur, and business partner Jaswinder Singh opened Milan, which quickly became Charlottesville’s standard-bearer for Indian food. Nearly two decades later, they added a second Charlottesville restaurant, but with a twist. Beyond standards like vindaloo, korma, and biryani, Kanak broke new ground with dishes rarely seen at Indian restaurants in the U.S.. And so, guests who never deviate from chicken tikka masala can dine happily together with friends who prefer exploring new flavors. As is often the case with Indian cuisine, vegetable dishes shine, such as Paneer Bhindi Nayantara, cheese and okra in a tomato-based sauce, spiked with star anise, coconut, and mint. Seafood also gets the royal treatment, such as Doi Chingri – a Bengali dish of prawns in a creamy yogurt mustard sauce with panch poran, coriander, and green chili.