The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

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Spring Roll: Barbacoa and Ramp Kimchi Aioli on a Three Foot Sub

A three foot sub of barbacoa and ramp kimchi aioli?

The idea sprung from Spring, an inspiring time of year, when gardens and farms burst with flavors and the promise of the year ahead. Two traditional ingredients of Spring are lamb and ramps, and our inspiration was to join them on a sandwich for a springtime gathering with friends.

The lamb was barbacoa from Carnicería Vale Meat Truck. Barbacoa means “barbecue” in Spanish, and just as the English word has come to mean different things to different people, “barbacoa” has varied connotations as well. Ours was one of barbacoa’s most traditional forms, a whole lamb cooked overnight in a pit in the ground.  Samuel Bernardo, who sets up his meat truck on weekends on Bitternut Lane, learned to make barbacoa from his father, while growing up in Puebla, Mexico. He has been making it himself since he was sixteen years old.

The ramps were in kimchi form, from Sussex Farm. For more than a decade, Jen Naylor has lived on an Esmont farm with her husband John, where they grow seasonal produce, and raise chickens, turkeys, ducks, and quail. Naylor is a passionate and talented cook, with a particular fondness for the cuisine of her native Korea. Under the label Sussex Farm, she sells kimchi, sauces, dressings, and other creations — formerly at farmers’ markets, and now out of Umma’s, the restaurant she opened in 2022 with her daughter and daughter’s partner.

While all of her food is delicious (Jean-Georges calls it “amazing”), ramp kimchi is a springtime release for which regulars wait all year. What began as a request from chef Ian Redshaw has grown so popular that Naylor now buys as many as 14,000 ramps each spring. Unlike many of the ingredients she uses for her cooking, she does not grow the ramps herself, as they can take years to cultivate. In lieu of growing them, you usually have to find a source, and Naylor is thrilled with hers, as the ramps resemble the beautiful ones she remembers from Korea. No, the grandfather-granddaughter team who forages them for her won’t tell you where in the mountains they find them.

She makes kimchi from the ramps using the traditional Korean method she learned from her mother. Part of its appeal is that unlike many vegetables used for kimchi, ramps are so assertive. The earthy and garlicky notes of the ramps join the sweetness, sourness, heat, and umami of the marinade, to yield a new flavor unlike any other kimchi.

While there are many uses for it, ramp kimchi has a special history with sandwiches, even propelling one to the 2016 Dish of the Year. Naylor herself likes to start the day with a fried egg and ramp kimchi on an English muffin. For our sandwich, we made a ramp kimchi aioli. Chopped finely and blended with mayo, the kimchi made a salty, spicy, tangy, umami-rich spread to lather on a three-foot-long roll. Pile atop Bernardo’s tender smoky lamb, and what more do you need?

Board on loan from The Catering Outfit.

And, since it was Spring, there were of course strawberries. Ours were in the form of a strawberry and pistachio tart from Cou Cou Rachou.

A beautiful spring evening.

Olla Café and Bar: A Passionate Chef Living his Dream in Stafford, Virginia

Nothing to see here. Just Juaquin living the American Dream.

I love finding places like this when traveling for kids’ sports. Food has been Juaquin Alfaro’s passion for all his life. After growing up in Costa Rica and El Salvador, he spent five years training in Spain, before coming to the United States. Here in the U.S., he cooked for Marriott hotels for fourteen years, dreaming of one day opening his own place.

Olla Café & Bar opened March 2, 2020. Then the world changed. But, that didn’t stop Alfaro. Three years later, Olla is thriving. Tucked into a storefront in a strip mall in Stafford, Virginia, Olla has become part of the community. Families pile in after church. Men sit at the bar for tequila and a snack. And, groups of friends laugh around bowls of chips and made-to-order guacamole.

For the Stafford community, the hospitality of Alfaro’s cheerful staff must be a big part of the appeal. “I love working for Juaquin,” my server said. “Whenever I go back in the kitchen, he asks me if I am doing okay.”

But, the biggest reason must be the food of a man who has been cooking for nearly all his life. Alfaro’s menu draws on both his Central American roots and his time in Spain. Handmade pupusas, empanadas, and his mother’s pozole are alongside Spanish classics like gambas al ajillo, chorizo, and Alhambra Cerveza. I couldn’t resist the shrimp quesadilla, a personal favorite ever since I enjoyed them daily decades ago in Zihuatenejo. Delicious. Made with love.

Though full, I had to try Alfaro’s pupusas, as I didn’t know when life would next bring me to Stafford. I am glad I did. The pupusa de queso con loroco rivals any I have ever had.

Among the many reasons for Alfaro’s success, the Costa Rican native credits most the country where he is achieving it. “There is no place in the world where you can have more hope than America,” said Alfaro. “If you want to dream big, you have to work hard, but if you do that, you can live the American Dream.”

Two hallmarks of restaurateurs who live that dream are love and passion. Another? Gratitude. All three are unmistakable with Alfaro. Just look at his post celebrating Olla’s three year anniversary this year. Here’s to many more.


Five Finds on Friday: Sylvia Chong

Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from UVa professor Sylvia Chong, co-chair of VeryAsian VA, a community organization focused on uplifting Asian American voices, which next month is hosting the VeryAsian VA Celebration. May 13 from 2 – 5 pm at The Yard, VeryAsian VA Celebration will include food, wine, art, music, performances, and more. Details and registration. Chong’s picks:

1) Isan Sausages with Sticky Rice and Isan-style Papaya Salad at Chimm. “I was first drawn to Chimm by its amazing menu of soup noodles, which is one of my favorite categories of food. I love their Pho and the Boat Noodles. But after a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, I was introduced to Hmong and Lao cuisine, which shares some overlap with Northern Thai / Isan flavors and ingredients. The Isan sausages at Chimm are very dense and slightly sour from fermented rice, and they go really well with the freshness of the Isan-style green papaya salad, which has an extra kick of heat and a salty-umami flavor from fermented fish sauce. If you’ve never tried green papaya salad, it’s more like zucchini ribbons than the sweet pink flesh of ripe papayas. Sometimes these dishes aren’t available—I think they run out of the green payaya periodically—so I really stuff myself with them while they’re around.”

2) Tuna Poke and Watercress Salad at Mochiko. “The box meals at Mochiko remind me of the plate lunches I had when I visited Honolulu with a friend who grew up there, especially the Mochiko chicken and katsu chicken, and these are among my childrens’ favorite meals. But the poke at Mochiko is what draws me back there, as the flavors are so much more intense than what you find at the typical poke-bowl restaurants that are popular now. Hawaiian-style poke is made out of raw tuna and flavored with soy and sesame oil, which again gives you a great umami kick. It goes great with a side of their watercress salad, a slightly spicy bitter green which is also heavy on the sesame. It’s a classic Japanese American flavor profile with a Hawaiian influence.”

3) Lumpia and Carioca at Manila Street.I was so happy to see the Manila Street chefs open a storefront at Dairy Market so we didn’t have to chase them down at the farmers’ market or in their food truck to eat Filipino food in town. The lumpia, which is a meat-forward fried roll, are done to crispy perfection at Manila Street, and their small size makes them easy to munch on while waiting for our main meal of barbecue pork belly or chicken adobo with pancit fried noodles. Although they don’t always have dessert for sale, I get the carioca every time I see it. A lot of Asians have a chewy tooth rather than a sweet tooth—by which I mean we really prize toothsome textures like boba pearls, Japanese mochi, chicken gizzards, beef tendons, and sticky, glutinous rice desserts. My Taiwanese relatives would call this texture “Q”. The carioca is a dense sticky rice-based fried pastry with a subtle coconut flavor, and it comes in a set of three to share with your friends. Dense but delicious.”

4) Pan-Fried Steamed Pork Belly and Dry-Fried Eggplant at Peter Chang’s. “I’ve seen a lot of lovely Chinese restaurants come and go since 2004—a few on the Corner whose names elude me, and the first iteration of Café 88 that used to serve the only bubble tea in town. Peter Chang’s arrival in Charlottesville was rightly heralded, and its take on Sichuan cuisine filled a particularly cool niche. The pan-fried steamed pork belly is fairly decadent as main dishes go, with a lightly-breaded slice of fatty pork dressed in a spicy-numb spice mix – the Sichuan peppercorn “mala” flavoring. That same flavoring accompanies the dry-fried eggplant, a surprisingly light dish if you’re used to eggplant parmesean or saucy-heavy Chinese eggplant dishes. They’re like the best French fries you’ve ever had, if you like your fries spicy and tongue-numbing.”

5) Firnee at Afghan Kabob. “Afghan cuisine sits at the crossroads of South Asian and Middle Eastern food cultures, and I’m always excited when my UVA colleagues order catering from Afghan Kabob. Their various kabobs and rice make for a highly satisfying meal, but my weakness is their firnee, a pudding-like dessert flavored with cardamom, rose water, and pistachios. It reminds me of Indian kheer, a rice pudding with a similar flavor profile, or the cardamom gelato at Splendora’s, but feels much more decadent and creamy. I remember one conference at UVA where I simply filled up a coffee cup to the brim with Afghan Kabob’s firnee and snacked on it for the rest of the afternoon.”

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