Thursday, November 6, 2014

New South Roanoke Circle Article!

Hole In The Wall Lunch Bunch (aka HITWLB, The World’s Worst Acronym)

Back in the day, before we had an acronym, it all started something like this.

Amy: Are you playing tennis today? Because we are planning to go to lunch on Melrose.
Me: No need to drive out, I am headed back to The Bubble after.
Amy: No Katie, we’re going someplace specific, El Charley’s.
Me: ????

My confusion was not without merit. While I had passed our intended location many times, it did not appear to be a venue that served lunch. But desiring companionship over staying in my comfort zone, I arrived in the Jeep, top down, dressed in pink tennis gear and pigtails. I was also early. After surveying the scene, I determined this HAD to be the wrong place and waited in the parking lot.

But finally, it was just too hot to stay outside, and I made my way in. The gentleman behind the counter looked at me quizzically, as though he wasn’t sure I was in the right place either. There were only two small tables, no readily apparent place to order, and wares for sale all over that did not indicate food service, like candles and baptismal suits. But when I mentioned I was there to dine, he waved me over to a table to wait for the rest of the crew. I clandestinely sent picture texts appealing for a change of venue.

My concerns were quickly dismissed once flanked by my lunch companions and we settled in for what turned out to be some excellent Mexican food. My taco fillings were pretty standard, chicken or the like, but Fiona, ever the culinary adventurer, braved the beef tongue. What was lacking in fancy was more than compensated for in delicious.

Emboldened by having found a diamond in the rough, we were off on luncheon adventures in establishments of all types, sampling a wide variety of ethnic cuisines all over Roanoke. And not only did we get to try new foods, we’ve learned all sorts of life lessons.

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover (Or a restaurant by its strip mall.)
Tim joined us the day we went to Wonju Korean Restaurant (5524 Williamson.) As we turned into the dated strip mall, he wondered aloud if we were in the right place. But sure enough, tucked back by the beer brewing store and the hookah bar is a place that makes awesome Dolsot Bibimbap (bunch of stuff in a sizzling stone pot topped with an egg.) Their kimchi is spicy and delicious too.  It also had lots of seating, something I didn’t fully appreciate as…

Chairs Are More Optional Than You Think.
Call me spoiled, but when someone suggests a restaurant for lunch, verifying they have seating never comes to mind. Never used to anyway. After enjoying a variety of parking lots, parks, and the occasional homeless guest, we started calling in advance, a mostly successful tactic. In the case of Cliff’s Jammerican (1025 Orange,) the definition of having tables and chairs was exactly one of each. And the table had a tv on it. Luckily, the jerk chicken and oxtail more than made up for the lack of seating. And if you are so inclined, there is a laundry mat next door. Go multi-tasking!

Trust Your Waiter/Waitress.
Sometimes you are presented with a menu containing a dazzling array of dishes with names that mean nothing to you and descriptions that inspire caution. Let go, put yourself in their hands, and order the waitress’ favorite item. I ate some really good pad thai at City Corner 2 (3005 Plantation) but had to watch with envy as Fiona, smart enough to be brave, had the far superior, and recommended by the staff, short ribs.

That Last Piece Of Advice Is Not Absolute.
Café Vina (2942 Hershberger,) has some of the best spring rolls in town but when Noelle tried to determine the difference between the regular and red pork, she was  told that the red pork is red, which, in the end was not super helpful. Trying a completely different tactic, she asked what was the best item on the menu and was informed “all good.” Bringing us to our next topic…

Be Prepared For Some Language Issues.
Ann, the sole vegetarian of the group, found out on more than one occasion that when you are told, “Yes, we can make a vegetarian burrito” the more accurate translation is “We will make a burrito with vegetables. It will also contain pork.” [Locations redacted.]

Become A Regular.
One of the absolute jems we’ve found is Viet Sub (1403 Williamson.) It is a spartan, but spotless, Vietnamese sandwich shop that serves the best bahn mi in town (and great pho and iced coffee.) A sweet couple owns the place and if you’re luck, you get a glimpse of their baby, who hangs in the back with dad, the chef. Most of the orders are take out, so they don’t mind us staying way too long and sometimes laughing way too loud. [We offered to have the owners in the picture with us, but they declined, much to our disappointment!]

Looking back on that first outing, mostly my own apprehension, the whole situation seems laughable. Most of these places are owned and run by recent immigrants on a tight start up budget. And that sometimes means you will be in cinder block building or the back of a convenience store or next to an unlikely neighbor. But having found great people and food in all those places, we can’t wait to see the next hole in the wall. It has become almost a competition among the Lunch Bunch to find the most out of the way and unexpected locations before the rest of Roanoke discovers they are there.

Despite the occasional fail, including the place that turned out to be a Kung Fu studio, not a restaurant, it has been a blast. Get out and live your own Roanoke version of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. You’ll never settle for a gourmet hamburger again.

1 comment:

  1. Just possibly earlier dining practice comments were registered after all. Earlier as in years and years ago

    When dining in a foreign country (or locally in a foreign restaurant) with only menus in a foreign language, I adopted the following practice to select Starter, meal and dessert:

    Day1: Starter-1st item in the list, meal-2nd item, dessert-3rd item
    Day2: Increase each value by 1, thus, Starter-2nd item on the list, etc
    Day3: See day-2
    etc, etc.

    I referred to that as "Adventure in dining"
    Were there surprises, yes but they were always good