The Charlottesville 29

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

Category: Uncategorized

Missing El Tepeyac? – El Comalito Serves Mexican Home Cooking With Love

Remember El Tepeyac? The restaurant earned such a following in Charlottesville that some were devastated when the chef-favorite restaurant closed its doors in 2015. If you’re among them, consider El Comalito, whose vibe and heartfelt food bring to mind the much-missed El Tepeyac.

The analogy is not perfect. For one, El Tepeyac’s chef was from El Salvador and so, beyond its Mexican dishes, pupusas and other Salvadoran specialties were standouts. El Comalito’s chef, on the other hand, is from Mexico, and so Mexican home cooking shines.

Lucia Ambrosio’s career in the food industry began while working in the fields of South Carolina soon after she came to the U.S. In the brevity of their daily lunch break, she saw an opportunity: cook food to bring to work to sell to her co-workers. It was a win-win. Her peers would get a delicious, homemade lunch without having to go anywhere, while she would make a few extra bucks and savor the pleasure of witnessing people enjoying her cooking. Every day Ambrosio would make two new dishes from scratch, never the same as the day before.

Fast forward two decades, and Ambrosio is serving that same food at her own restaurant. In the interim, she moved to Charlottesville and launched a food truck, El Comalito, which grew so popular that in late 2021 she turned it into a brick and mortar. The space at 905 E Market Street beside a Shell station is ideal, with an unfussy décor that she transformed into a joyous setting with bright colors and pulsing salsa music.

Ambrosio grew up in Veracruz and Puebla, and her food draws on both regions. One standout is enchiladas verdes – shredded chicken wrapped in Ambrosio’s handmade tortillas in a pool of green chile sauce, topped with fresh cheese, and sliced avocado.

Also delicious are crispy, fried empanadas, stuffed with your choice of cheese or chicken.

Other menu highlights include gorditas, tacos, sopes, huaraches, and (acclaimed) tortas, all with a choice of meat, like steak, chicken, tongue, pork, or chorizo sourced locally from Carnicería Vale Meat Truck.

Much like El Tepeyac, El Comalito is a family affair. While Ambrosio cooks, her son Calet and daughter Gisselle preside over the front of the house, where regulars gather, sipping  horchata, agua fresca, margaritas, micheladas, and giant mugs of Victoria lager.

El Comalito is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 am – 8 pm, and Sunday from 11 am – 4 pm. Closed Mondays. Phone: (434) 227-1936.


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.


%d bloggers like this: