Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie

Food 202

4916 Plank Road . North Garden, VA . (434) 245-0000

Best pizza in the Charlottesville area?  Best cheese bread?  Best wings?  Best french fries?  Best nachos?  Best fried fish?  Best strombolis?

For any one restaurant to merit all of these superlatives would be remarkable.  For it to be done by a 38-seat dive nine miles outside town would seem downright impossible.  Yet, a good case can be made that Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie deserves all of this praise.

“We don’t do a lot,” says chef/owner Michael McCarthy.  “We just try to do everything the best we can.”

McCarthy’s passion for honest, simple food is behind the continued success of Dr. Ho’s, the venerable dive in North Garden that serves not just the best pizza in the area, but much more.

The Path to Charlottesville

A career chef who grew up near Baltimore, McCarthy was never the studious type.  All through high school, he could not wait for it to end.  When graduation finally came, he could hardly believe that his parents expected him to attend more school.

College?  The very thought of it seemed inconceivable.

McCarthy managed to strike a compromise.  School, yes.  But, culinary school.  In high school, McCarthy had begun washing dishes at a local pub, and soon worked his way up to food preparation.  He was hooked.  His time in his Polish mother’s kitchen as a child was his early inspiration, helping her prepare classics like pierogies.  McCarthy says he is forever grateful to his parents for enabling him to pursue his dream.

So, culinary school it was, at Baltimore International Culinary College.  After graduating, McCarthy replied to an ad from a restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia called Ivy Inn.  His interview with owner Angelo Vangelopoulos went so well that McCarthy was off to Charlottesville.

This, it would turn out, was a pivotal moment.  The choice to leave Maryland for a small city in central Virginia to which McCarthy had no connection would ultimately come to shape McCarthy’s life in ways he never could have expected.  It was in Charlottesville that McCarthy would one day find his wife, his children, and his own restaurant.

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Learning from Experts

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Still 21, McCarthy had a lot to learn.  Fortunately, in Vangelopoulos, McCarthy found an ideal mentor  — a perfectionist with meticulous attention to detail.  “He always demanded a lot out of people,” says McCarthy.

While McCarthy valued his time at Ivy Inn, after two years his passion for food inspired him to move on in search of big city dining.  “I was young, and wanted to see what the big boys were doing,” says McCarthy.

So, without a job, an apartment, or much else to his name, McCarthy set off for San Francisco.  “If it doesn’t fit in the back of a pick-up truck, it doesn’t go” was his rule for the trip.

In San Francisco, McCarthy found that jobs were scarce for a young Maryland chef just two years removed from culinary school.  “Where’s Maryland?,” some would ask him. But, McCarthy persevered, and managed to snag a job at one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants: Boulevard, whose kitchen was headed by nationally renowned chef Nancy Oakes.

After a year at Boulevard, McCarthy was again ready for a change, and headed to Las Vegas.  His “pick-up truck rule” for traveling applied again, but was not much of a constraint for a young cook whose pay in San Francisco barely covered living expenses.

In Las Vegas, McCarthy scored a job at Renoir (now closed) with celebrity-chef Alex Stratta, a protégé of culinary legend Alain Ducasse.  Again, McCarthy was learning from the best.   Yet, city life continued to wear on him, which may have made him especially receptive to a call he received one day from Vangelopoulos, who wanted to lure him back to Ivy Inn as chef de cuisine. Ready to return to Charlottesville, McCarthy accepted.

Over Fine Dining

For nearly all of the next seven years, from 2001 to 2007, McCarthy’s home was Ivy Inn, his final stop before Dr. Ho’s.  The only interruption was a brief stint to help Jose DeBrito open Ciboulette, Charlottesville’s much-missed gourmet shop and restaurant.  After that, McCarthy returned to Ivy Inn, this time waiting tables — both for a change of pace and to round out his restaurant experience.

While waiting tables at Ivy Inn, McCarthy had a life-altering experience.  He was introduced to a beautiful girl named Nancy Payne.  Payne, who had restaurant experience of her own at Palladio and Moondance (now closed), would not only one day help McCarthy acquire his own restaurant.  She would also become his wife, and the mother of his two children.

In 2007, when McCarthy and Nancy were still newlyweds, Nancy overheard that a real estate manager named Ian Wren was looking to sell a pizza place south of Charlottesville.

The timing could not have been better.  Like many young chefs, McCarthy had been itching to head out on his own, and was particularly interested in purchasing an existing restaurant, preferably nothing fancy.  While McCarthy appreciated all that he had learned in the fancy kitchens of gourmet chefs in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, he felt like he was “over fine dining.”  “Maybe it’s just me,” McCarthy says, “but I don’t think you should have to spend $30 for a plate of food that tastes good.”

Convinced that food does not have to be complicated to be good, McCarthy longed for a return to simple, honest food, like the kind his mom used to make.  The type of cuisine, oddly enough, did not much matter to McCarthy, who thought that, so long as he brought his passion for honest food, he could succeed in taking over almost any decent existing restaurant.

When his wife told him about the opportunity to buy Dr. Ho’s, it struck him as a near-ideal opportunity.

To some, Dr. Ho’s remote location might have made it an unappealing restaurant to buy.  But, McCarthy, ever the optimist, saw the location as one of Dr. Ho’s many strengths.  In fact, McCarthy says, if there were a checklist of things to look for in buying a restaurant, Dr. Ho’s had almost all of the them.

The remote location meant there would be almost no nearby competition, as zoning laws generally prohibit new eateries in the area.  In addition, Dr. Ho’s is perched on a main artery into and out of town, meaning there is a large amount of traffic that passes by each day.  And, there is plenty of free parking.

The only downside may have been that McCarthy himself is not wild about pizza, Dr. Ho’s featured food.  Thankfully, Nancy is “a pizza freak,” as McCarthy puts it.  And, that’s all the inspiration he needed.

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Taking Over Dr. Ho’s

In Dr. Ho’s McCarthy also found an ideal place to bring his food-first philosophy that it doesn’t have to be fancy to be good.

Dr. Ho’s had been founded nine years earlier by Gerry Danner, an eccentric Charlottesville restauranter who had run places like Blue Moon Diner, Pie in the Sky, and The Flamingo.  A self-taught chef, Danner began cooking at age twelve because his parents were always at night school.  “I was tired of the same old crappy meals,” says Danner.

From that humble start, Danner would go on to a career of running many successful eateries in downtown Charlottesville.  In 1998, he was looking to open his first place outside of town, in a remote area like North Garden.  Through mutual friends, he met Ian Wren, who lived in that area and was interested in financing Danner’s restaurant.  Together, they purchased a failed North Garden hair salon, which Danner turned into Dr. Ho’s.  Wanting it to feel like his living room, Danner decorated his restaurant with items from (where else?) his living room.

As for the name, in college Danner had cooked so often and so well for his classmates that they dubbed him the “doctor of foodology.”  Danner’s full name is Horace Gerald Danner.  Hence, Dr. Ho’s.  The “Humble Pie” part of the name was meant to capture Danner’s mission to serve “exceptional food without fanfare.”  It also was inspired by Danner’s interest in rock-and-roll, in homage to one of Peter Frampton’s first bands.  Danner, who once worked at the Charlottesvile music hot spot Trax, says he has cooked for many musicians passing through town over the years.  “I have made a double pepperoni pizza for Bob Dylan,” says Danner.

In Dr. Ho’s, Danner wanted to create pizza with passion.  And, he experienced immediate success.  “The big difference is that we really did give a damn,” says Danner.  “We wanted the food to taste as great as it can.”  What a perfect place, then, for McCarthy to bring his own passion.

The Crust

When McCarthy took over, he had the good sense to leave well-enough alone, and asked all of the existing staff to stay on.  Knowing he had a lot to learn, he sat back and watched – spending most of his time in the kitchen washing dishes and just observing.  It was quickly apparent to McCarthy that he had taken over a special place.

Perhaps the best thing he inherited was the pizza crust.  Even to this day, it remains the thing about which McCarthy is most proud.  McCarthy is not sure what the secret is that makes it so good.  When pressed, he speculates that a number of factors are likely responsible.

The stone in the pizza oven is the same one used on the day Dr. Ho’s opened, wearing fifteen years of seasoning.  The pizza dough rests for 48-72 hours after it is made, allowing it to go through cold fermentation, where the dough’s yeast digests carbohydrates, giving the crust its airy texture and very slight sourness.   And, the water is also distinctive.  People often cite New York’s city water as a possible explanation for the excellence of pizza in the city.  Behind the shopping center where Dr. Ho’s resides is a well that it shares with other tenants of the shopping center.  McCarthy suspects that the well’s water, which he calls “delicious,” might have some of the same properties that help make New York pizza so distinctive.

McCarthy’s Stamp

While McCarthy has left that crust alone, he has made other refinements, as well as additions to the menu.  All the while, McCarthy accepts no short cuts.

Take the nachos.  McCarthy starts with chuck, which he leaves overnight in Dr. Ho’s own dry rub.  The next day, the chuck is seared and then braised in a tomato-based sauce with chilis, carrots, onions, and garlic.  It then spends the night in the pizza oven, which has enough residual heat to continue cooking the chuck and breaking it down slowly until the next morning, when the meat is shredded for use on the nachos.

To this, McCarthy adds “Ho-made” salsa of fresh roasted corn, red and green peppers, cilantro, onions, lemon, cumin, and chilis.  To gild the lily, he adds a cilantro lime cream, made from roasted onions, cilantro, garlic and poblano chilis, all pureed with lime and sour cream.  And that’s all for just one appetizer.

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Photo by TK.

For another appetizer, the Crusted Cornmeal Catfish, McCarthy coats finger-sized pieces of fresh catfish with a spice blend that he and the staff call Bam Bam!  They then flash-fry it in oil that is just the right temperature such that the fish comes out perfectly flaky every time, and rivals any fried fish in the area.  Given than McCarthy brings this same approach to everything on the menu, it is no wonder that there are so many dishes that many consider the best in the area.

Room for Improvement

At a pizza dive like Dr. Ho’s, it would seem odd to critique the décor, the dingy bathrooms or the less-than-doting service.  Dr. Ho’s is all about the food.  And, most of the customers appreciate that.  As McCarthy puts it, he hopes that the food “overcomes some of our other deficiencies.”

For food-focused folks like us, if the deficiencies in decor and service are a problem at all, it is only that that they can make us reluctant to drag along some friends and family who might be less tolerant of such deficiencies.

The only other tweaks we might make are adding a line or two of draught beer, and improving the wine selections.  But, now we’re just being greedy.  Dr. Ho’s is a treasure just the way it is.

McCarthy himself believes that there is quite literally room for improvement.  The small kitchen and dining room constrain the extent to which McCarthy can be creative.  A solution to that problem is underway.  Construction has begun on an expansion project that will double Dr. Ho’s size by this summer.   Who knows?  Maybe there will even be room for draught beer.

What to Order

McCarthy’s small menu and narrow focus on honest food mean he has perfected nearly everything.  Close your eyes and point, and you’ll probably be happy.  The ever-rotating specials, however, are often standouts.

Among the pizzas, one that deserves special mention is the Bellissima, which is a riff on the prosciutto-and-arugula combination popular in parts of Italy.  Instead of prosciutto, which can be expensive, McCarthy uses thin slices of Turner Country Ham.  Atop that, McCarthy places a salad of arugula tossed in a lemony vinaigrette, and shavings of parmigiano-reggiano.  McCarthy considers it his favorite pizza on the menu.  Ours too.  And, we are not alone, as the pizza seems to have developed a cult following around town.

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Photo by TK.

Other picks:

Our Picks

  • The Fat and Sassy, mozzarella, cheddar & roasted garlic loaded on to Dr. Ho’s heady crust! Served with the best ranch dressing you’ll ever have and marinara sauce.  ($9) add $2 per topping
  • Wings with Buffalo Sauce, served with celery & homemade blue cheese or ranch dressing ($10)
  • Cornmeal Crusted Catfish, served with roasted corn salsa, old school tartar sauce, cilantro, fresh lemon ($9)
  • Hand Cut French Fries, tossed with old bay and sea salt ($5)
  • Stromboli, Just what the doctor ordered. Choose three toppings from the list and we will make you a mind blowing stromboli sure to cure what ail’s you. Served with mozzarella cheese, ho-made marinara sauce and ranch dressing. ($10)
  • Pizza, any kind you like!

Chef Picks

  • Dr. Ho’s NacHo’s chili rubbed braised beef, cheddar, pickled jalapenos, roasted corn salsa, poblano lime cream, scallions ($11)
  • French Onion Soup, (special) ($5)