Monday, August 31, 2009

Best Hotdog in Williamsburg? The Wiener is...

Although it is not as pertinent as it once was, the all-American hotdog remains a staple of the carnivore's diet. Food networks have devoted entire shows about the regional manifestations of the dog...from Mexican potato-chip toppings to the tomato and pepper vegetation of Chicago. The local Williamsburg hotdog has no specific cultural or geographic affiliation. It is truly a mutt among the more pedigreed types found throughout the country- i.e. the cheese coney of Cincinnati.

For this evaluation my friend Hank joined me for a lunchtime jaunt through five of Williamsburg's hotdog joints in search of the best bite. Hank's qualifications include a healthy appetite and the realization that spending the day eating hotdogs was probably a bad, bad thing to do. But boy did we have fun.

We started with Gus's Hotdogs out on Richmond Road which occupies a modest building (once a Dairy Queen) on the tourist strip. The Williamsburg restaurant is part of a Greek-owned "chain" in nearby Newport News and has a loyal local following. The modest (and extremely affordable) menu is very direct with grilled hotdogs on squishy white-bread buns and the regular assortment of toppings. Cheese and chili covered fries are a speciality item. The general complaint about the Gus hotdog is its slim size. The girth challenged dog is something that champion hotdog eaters could fantasize about. The experience set the stage for implementing Hank's "bun to meat ratio" for the rest of the day's evaluation. If you have a carful of small, hungry kids...Gus's is your place! A grown-up could easily eat 2, 3, or more hotdogs here. Since we were on a mission, we stopped at one apiece. As a bonus, the hotdog sculpture seen in the above photograph is probably the best contemporary folk art in town.

The next stop was the Williamsburg General Store on Richmond Road. This store wins hands down for the amount and variety of tourist trinkets for sale under one roof. They also have a huge road sign advertising Nathan's Hotdogs-the New York standard. We were really looking forward to this but apparently the inside restaurant has not opened all summer...a disappointing non-starter here. (PS...take the darn sign down!!!)

We next ventured down to Retro's Good Eats on Prince George Street adjacent to the Historic Area. Retro's has long advertised "Williamsburg's Best Hotdog". The gimmick that draws you into believing this is the huge selection of toppings that are offered: from blue cheese cole slaw to bacon to jalapenos. Retro's is not for the indecisive. We found our hotdogs overpowered by the toppings and the large, yellowish bun. It was hard to actually enjoy the meat (I know that's an arbitrary hotdog term) and we left feeling the most queasy of all the stops. The fresh cut fries and limeades are definitely worth the visit though. You could spend some money here if you are not careful. I would probably visit more often except for the blaring canned doo-wop music which creates an old-timey, soda fountain experience.

I was looking forward to our next hotdog destination - The Golden Horseshoe Grill overlooking the 18th hole of the famed Green Course at Colonial Williamsburg. In years past, lunchtime dining in this beautiful spot generated fond memories both from the ambience and one of the largest hotdogs available to the general public (outside of a Love Shop catalog). The hotdog was particular well served by a wonderful sweet red-pepper relish.

But like memories, expectations often pale in light of current economic realities. When we arrived today, not a soul was seated in the lovely dinning room or outdoor veranda. A lone barkeep/server suggested the grill was still in operation but offered only a limited menu of pre-packaged sandwiches and -thank God-hotdogs. So we sat and wondered how things had changed. We heard the microwave "grilling" our dogs which arrived as plump as ever accompanied with the beloved red pepper goop and a handful of potato chips. The mustard came in little plastic packages (how far the mighty CW dining experience has fallen). This used to be a contender for Williamsburg's best hotdog experience but I guess all good things come to an end.

By now the romantic notion of eating our way through Williamsburg's hotdog genre was beginning to wear off. But I had one more place to try - The Queen Anne Dairy Snak located on the eastside of town on Route 143. The Queen Anne Dairy Snak is one of those picturesque, circa 1950s, slices of roadside Americana. Its staff and clientele clearly represent a cross-section of the demographic spectrum--all good things.

Here you order at the window and take a number. I have long frequented the QADS for their soft-serve ice cream and had studied the menu of fried seafood, subs, burgers, etc. religiously but always have been too chicken to order anything but ice cream. Boy my reticence was clearly a mistake. For $5.70 we got two hotdogs all the way and two medium cokes which by far turned out to be the best, authentic experience of the day. Grilled to perfection and topped with fresh chili, mustard, and onions, these dogs were clearly made with love and attention. They even came cased in these colorful wrappers that vividly proclaimed "HotDog" on the inside. We sat at the rickety picnic table on the "veranda" beneath the large air-handling unit and congratulated ourselves about finding the best hotdog in Williamsburg at the The Queen Anne Dairy Snak.

South of the Border - No Burma Shave Here

This Mexican restaurant's name may evoke memories of those family trips down I-95 to Florida and the fantastically tacky tourist trap just on the North Carolina/South Carolina state line but you won't find Pedro in this place. Like many towns across the nation, Williamsburg now has a plethora of the typical chip and salsa"Mexican" eateries. Without question, South of the Border on 2nd Street is the best of this genre in the local area. It is a family run establishment and great care seems to go in making every meal fresh and consistent. The tortila chips and salsa greet you as you are seated but I guarantee they are better than most. In addition, a small bowl of bean con queso broadens the dipping experience.

Based on my observations, the standard burrito, taco, and enchiladas plates seem to carry the day with most of the local patrons. Big crowds of CW employees can be found during the lunch rush. I would recommend however, the carne asada, or the carne asade tacos, and my favorite, camarones diablo-the devil shrimp. The latter are large shrimps in a spicy tomato sauce. When this dish was first introduced, I would end up drenched from head to toe from the heat. Unfortunately, some namby pamby customers complained about the spice level and the cooks have toned it down considerably. But you can insist on it extra hot. Always ask for a bowl of the hot salsa regardless to drench any of the menu items.

I eat here a lot but the best recommendation is the crowded tables of the local latino community enjoying the food and the wide-screen Mexican soccer channel. There is a cool bar with a good selection of Mexican beer--some on draft--and good margaritas. I need to remember to order the tamales more often. Or as that famous billboard on I-95 points out: Chili today, hot tamale! Try South of the Border and tell them Pedro sent you.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Capitol Pancake House - Where the Local Constabulary Eats

There are plenty of caricatures about the eating habits of our men and women in blue but you know it is a good sign when you see the police cars congregated in a restaurant's parking lot without a misdemeanor in sight. Such is the case (no pun intended here) with the weekday breakfast scene at the Capitol Pancake House--one of many of the town's Greek owned syrup and batter places. What's sets the Capitol PH apart is the local following of both LE and civilians of many sizes and shapes. (Warning: eating daily at any pancake house tends to push the shapes towards the rotund side of the spectrum.)

The Capitol is conveniently and coincidentally located on Capitol Landing Road near the Historic Area. The large restaurant is staffed with a core group of long-time waitresses who will remember your preferences after you become a regular. Besides the competent but standard breakfast food, the locals are tempted by a discount card that the Capitol offers to its regular patrons. And the tenth meal is free! It's a shame they don't offer a discount for a local gym though.

The Capitol also offer a nice lunch selection but you won't find any health food among the burgers, sandwiches, and pasta dishes. The close proximity of the restaurant to Colonial Williamsburg entices many of the hard working employees for can expect to see someone in colonial garb at every lunch hour without having to buy a ticket.

I would recommend the Capitol to all locals looking for a decent breakfast spot. If you are a tourist, it is great as well. I can't imagine how a visitor goes about choosing a pancake house given the wide variety of names and locations. If you are indecisive, come here!

Now let's see...if I eat breakfast and lunch here on Monday and Tuesday (Tuesday is double stamp day on your discount card) only three more meals until my free one! Or is it four? No matter how you do the math, I hope to see you there. Just don't have any outstanding warrants.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hog Wild Smokehouse - Perhaps Hog Mild is More Appropriate

I was looking forward to trying this restaurant for several reasons.  I have driven by the ramshackle looking frame building way out on Route 60 past Toanao several times in the recent past noticing the overflowing parking lot and wood smoke belching from the cooker-both good signs.  I had also read several positive reviews on the internet.  I also love barbeque. And finally, it was my birthday celebration dinner with my sweetie.

Maybe because we had sat through the new Julie & Julia movie and were sated by digitally mastered French dishes.  Or that maybe we had a little too much popcorn.  But I wanted desperately to like this restaurant.  I was even mentally planning to bring my British friends for an American-style pig out. But as you may predict by now, I did not have a great experience.

The restaurant bills its fare as: "Traditional smokehouse barbeque and authentic Creole cuisine."  We tried the barbequed chicken, pulled pork, and brisket and ended up asking for a to-go box but not because the portions were too large.  We left the seasoned plank fries behind. 

Several Cajun/New Orleans specialities are featured on the menu and perhaps we may try them at some point.  Fortunately for me, my son spent a year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette-so I know something about Cajun food. But based  on this one dinner, I would say the food was OK but the dim interior was oppressively uncomfortable.  Service however, was both earnest and pleasant.

The best part of the meal was coming home to a Craig Claiborne recipe cheesecake made by my special birthday chef.

How You Eat So Much? Try Mystic Jamaica - Guest Review by Mighty Sasha

There are dogs all over the world, so it should come as no surprise that we occasionally get cravings for good ethnic food. Mighty Sasha is especially partial to Mystic Jamacia. Located in a small, run-down shopping center at 15513 Warwick Blvd., the restaurant offers a wide range of island fare including a variety of savory pasties, piquant jerk chicken, rich oxtail stew, tender Jamaican barbequed ribs, and Mighty Sasha's favorite -- curried goat. 

On weekends and by chance, the menu at Mystic Jamaica might also feature mannish water (a tasty goat soup reputed to be an aphrodisiac), cow foot ("the good gummy mon"), select seafood specialties, freshly made juices, and tangy ginger beer. Mighty Sasha often treats her delivery service to a large ginger beer, which is sufficient for making several dark and stormys. If you can't travel to Jamaica, do the next best thing. Load up your MP3 with Peter Tosh and your belly with curried goat. You may need a nap, but you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Backfin Restaurant - The Finest Seafood in Virginia?

Bill O'Reilly would like the Backfin Restaurant.  Keith Olbermann would not.  I actually have no idea if either of these statements is true but I use the example to suggest that most people either love or hate this long time Williamsburg establishment.  This assessment is partially based on internet reviews at Yahoo and TripAdvisor as well as informal interviews with area residents.

The Backfin is off the beaten path located on Ironbound Road making it primarily a local's haunt.  It is fair to say that the restaurant has a large local following.  At lunch, you will see contractors in their short-sleeved oxford shirts and kahki slacks.  You also will see a number of older women with white hair who fill the tables in the early afternoon.  Sports, especially William and Mary sports, seems to be the common denominator that draws much of the predominantly male, beer drinking cliental.

In spite of being miles from open water, the decor is nautically themed - a cross between Long-John Silvers and an Outer Banks tourist trap.  There is even an outdoor deck to take advantage of the sea breeze generated by passing traffic.  The well-worn bar suggests that many a sailor (golfer) makes it a regular spot of anchorage.  The seemingly pleasant servers wear the beach restaurant uniform of brightly colored tee shirts (on sale at counter) and kahki shorts.

The menu boasts that it offers the best seafood in Williamsburg- a sentiment that must be shared by many.  I have never had much luck in confirming this for myself among the many deep fried offerings that one could find at most college cafeterias.  Even the signature (and award winning) crabcake seems devoid of the prerequisite lump backfin having instead a lot of claw meat and filler.   Today, I tried the lunch 'special'-a backfin crab quesidilla to re-assess any previous biases.  What showed up was a large flour torilla, filled with disappointing crab meat and melted cheedar cheese.  Dollops of sour cream and 'salsa' a la Taco Bell came along to embellish the entree.  I would like to report that the crunch that accompanied each bite was not bits of crab shell but I can't.  I also tried the award winning seafood chowder in hopes of redeeming my experience.  I found it to be a concoction of stewed tomatoes with bits of fish and/or crab and a lone shrimp.

It is possible that some of the broiled fish entrees have merit as well as the raw bar items.  But my overall impression is that no matter what you choose, I would rate it as C food.  But then again, Bill O'Reilly has over 3 million followers, so each to his own.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that I saw Fox news playing on the TV over the bar when I left today.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What's Inn and Out in Williamsburg - Guest Review by Hungryman

For the canine gourmand, restaurant options in Williamsburg are limited to take-out.  A shiny black and white coat will open a lot of doors, but you need a tie to get in the Williamsburg Inn. On a recent trip to Anderson's Corner Animal Hospital, Hungryman had the great fortune to sample the cuisine at Taco Mexicali, located at 6572 Richmond Road. As the name implies, their specialty is tacos. These are not your typical gringo-style wraps overflowing with watery iceberg lettuce and flavorless cheese, which are a nuisance to anyone with respectable jowels. Taco Mexicali tacos are the real thing. They are simple, delicious, and offered with several irresistible fillings — pastor, marinated roast pork; barbacoa, smoked and steamed beef; carnitas, braised pork butt; chorizo, spicy sausage to name just a few. At the condiment bar you will find green chili sauce, chipotle sauce, whole fire-roasted jalapenos, diced onion, cilantro, and other traditional toppings. The restaurant also makes very good guacamole and refreshing margaritas. Hungryman has not actually tried the margaritas, but his people say they are excellent. If you are a hungryman or hungrygirl and want delicious Mexican fare at bargain prices, leash up, pack some paper towels for excess drool, and have your chauffeur drive you to Taco Mexicali. 

Friday, August 14, 2009

New York Deli - Yamas! (You won't hear a single Oy vey)

One of the most venerable Williamsburg's dining institutions is the Greek deli. Located near another venerable institution-The Williamsburg Pottery-the New York Deli and Pizza Restaurant is a high energy version serving the Greek classics -"The Jefferson"; "The Virginia"; and "The Gringo." Translated into American, these are heated submarine sandwiches stuffed with a permutation of deli ingredients-ham, roast beef, salami, turkey, etc. The large menu includes pizza, salads, Gyros, and other so-called "Greek" items.

Greek food you say? But the name is New York Deli...and I can't remember ever visiting a single non-Jewish deli in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The menu selections of the Williamsburg version (Williamsburg, Virginia that is) are decidedly not New York kosher. To be fair, they do have pastrami and corned beef, but you won't see chopped liver, tongue or egg cream. What they lack in authentic New York food is compensated in the hustle and bustle of the atmosphere. Katz's at lunch time is perfectly recreated! During the rush lunch hour, you wait on line to place your order at the counter and receive your number. Once your salad, sandwich, or souvlaki platter is ready, your number is called and you find a table and enjoy.

Williamsburg's New York Deli is both a tourist destination and a hotspot for the local lunch crowd. I would guess it's a nice 50/50 mix on any given summer day. It helps to be ready to order when you reach the head of the line and first timers may be a bit confused by the tremendous selections on the menu board above the counter. Hesitant orderers are treated with patience though (try that in New York and you will be handed your hat for being slow on the uptake!) The Greek salad is a good healthy choice as you could get in trouble ordering the bacon, cheeseburger platter on every visit. If you are visiting Williamsburg and don't mind crowds, I would bypass the cheesy chain restaurants and head to the New York Deli. If you live here and have not ventured out of the safe confines of the City, I would head west on Route 60 and try a lunch here. But I would arrive at 11:30 or wait til 1:30. Either way, study the menu on their website ahead of time, so you can order like a New Yorker!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Chez Trinh - Vietnamese Meets Korean

If there is one place in Williamsburg made for contemplative types, then Chez Trinh is it. (I understand that live folk and gospel music is performed in the evenings, so extraverts rejoice!) Located in the remnants of a once thriving shopping center, this is Williamsburg's first and only Vietnamese Restaurant. The original owners were a Vietnemese family but the current owners are Korean. As a consequence, the menu is fairly broad and includes some traditional Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean dishes.

This a great place for a quiet and polite lunch with white table cloths and attentive servers. You see a lot of starched oxfords from the college crowd. I sat by two Catholic priests on my most recent visit. The food is good and usually very even although somewhat bland compared to other ethnic experiences. I would think the owners have plenty of room to err on the more adventurous side with some very spicy seafood or vegetarian dishes. (Perhaps they don't want anyone to get hot under the collar!)

The prices are certainly right for either lunch or dinner. I think the noodle and soup dishes are the best but I recently tried and liked the Bul Gal Bi, a Korean dish of B.B.Q. marinated beef served with onions with a side of rice and kimchi. Although, the food at Chez Trinh has its limitations if you are a devotee of this type of cuisine, it is nice to have this option in Williamsburg.

Williamsburg Farmer's Market - Going to the Dogs

One of the best things to hit Williamsburg in recent years, is the Saturday Farmer's Market held in Merchants Square from 8 a.m. til noon. While not strictly a dining experience, the weekly event (from Spring to Fall) provides a wonderful variety of fresh produce along with gourmet items like goat cheese, organic buffalo meat, baked goods, and herb plants. This upscale market usually has live music and cooking demonstrations but the real show is the people (and their pets) that religiously turn out for the one-block stroll.

Besides the fresh produce, the market has become the social nexus for much of the community. It is refreshing to see college professors, lawyers, dentists, and curators, turn up for the 8 a.m. opening bell in their ratty weekend duds, limited make-up, and still sleepy countenances. In fact, if you step back and watch the early shoppers, many of who have hip and knee replacements installed, the street resembles a zombie parade from a scene in Dawn of the Living Dead. By 8:30 the crowd is dominated by leashed dogs of every size and shape--many dressed for the occasion. This weekly canine Easter parade is a sight to see especially if you are animal lover.

Traditional farmer's markets are a way for local farmers to directly supply their communities with the freshest produce available. Many of the vendors at the Williamsburg market cater to and are themselves a more polished cliental. This is not to diminished this fantastic event but don't expect to see any crusty, tobacco chewing, overall wearing, country boys hawking collards and hogs feet.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Crab Deck at the River's Inn

This scenic seafood option is located in York River Yacht Haven at Gloucester Point, Virginia -a short drive down the Colonial Parkway to Yorktown and then across the York River Bridge. Without question, the dock front seating is conducive to an enjoyable and relaxed experience. Although it retains the name -River's Inn-of its previous, somewhat uptight incarnation, the restaurant has recently changed owners and fortunately has a much more laid back feeling than before..  The quality and selection of the food on the outdoor crab deck has increased exponentially.  They even have steamed blue crabs by the dozen--something the previous owner only offered in a pre-cleaned and oil coated version.

Today's warm Saturday afternoon dining experience included some great conch fritters and a shared soft-shell crab basket with cole slaw and steamed corn.  There were so many specials that it was hard to stop ordering.   An interesting selection of beers are available but today we had refreshing club sodas (someone has got to work).

Many of the clients are residents or short term dockers at the marina but the cars in the parking  lot indicated a fair number of landlubber diners from some of Williamsburg's more affluent housing developments.  Nonetheless, shorts, t-shirts, and sunburns are the uniform of the day for the outside deck.  The inside bar has the makings of a serious watering whole for the area's rich and famous.

With a little imagination, the Crab Deck could pass for many a tropical restaurants that I have visited in the Keys or in the the very least, it's far closer than having to drive to Virginia Beach for a comparable experience.  Its worth the trip alone for the hushpuppies and a cold draft.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Coffee Beanery - The Anti-Starbucks

I'm probably not the best judge for evaluating the experience of this local coffeehouse and eatery since I don't drink coffee.  But I have found it is a convenient alternative to the fast paced rush of Starbucks as it has a touch of personal service.  Located in a small shopping center off of Jamestown Road, the Coffee Beanery seems to have attracted a morning cadre of the area's retirees who take full advantage of the spacious layout for social contact.  The young owner/manager of the restaurant seems to know many by name and quickly remembers their orders from previous visits.

Along with coffee and teas, the fresh salads,breakfast breads and sandwiches are definitely more appetizing than what you find at a Starbucks counter.  The waits are non-existent and the counterhelp will bring your order to the table.

I wish they had a selection of newspapers...particularly the New York Times for sale.  There are coin-operated boxes outside the shopping center but who carries $2.00 in quarters everyday to get a paper?  The WORST part of the experience is the unexplainable running of FOX news on the TVs.  But wait a minute...this is Williamsburg...what else would be on the TV?

Coffee Beanery also offers free Wi-Fi and laptop users take full advantage of the laid back environment throughout the day.  Coffee Beanery is a nice quiet place to start the day, (bring you own paper) and grab something to eat before work.  At some point, this blog may be written while sitting at one of the table while sipping green tea.

I Ordered The Tuna And It Came Raw

Sushi used to be an acquired taste for many Americans but it seems to be everywhere these days. Williamsburg is certainly not a mecca for Japanese cuisine but there are several dedicated restaurants in the area to choose from. Of these, Hayashi Japanese Restaurant, at Old Town Road and Route 60, seems the nicest, the most consistent, and the most fun.

The large restaurant is primarily devoted to hibachi cooking which is popular for tourists and locals out for a special group celebration. A separate seating area is available for a la carte diners along with stools at the sushi bar.  Hayashi has a large assortment of house specialty maki or rolls but the basic sashimi is my typical choice.  For the last few years, Christmas Eve dinner at Hayashi has been a special ritual for my family.  The green tea and basic salad are worth going for alone.  The owners/staff will make you very comfortable.

I have never been disappointed with Hayashi and their sashimi is on par with many New York experiences.  For the very best sushi in the area, head to Sushi Yama in Newport News, otherwise Hayashi is Williamsburg's best.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Berret's Tap House Grill

Berret’s Seafood is located in the heart of Williamsburg’s Merchant’s Square…a quasi high-end shopping experience and community gathering place. The best thing about summer in this city is Berret’s open air Taphouse Grill. While it seems to mainly attract tourists, there are occasional locals who find there way to the bar stools. An abbreviated menu is available with burgers, crab cakes, and barbeque. There are a number of specials that rotate on a regular basis.

The greatest asset of the Taphouse Grill is that it's outside! Instead of a tropical water view, however, you overlook the adjacent parking lot where drivers circle endlessly to find available spaces. In spite of this, a real sense of energy is present amidst the Jimmy Buffet tunes and the perspiring tourists decked in Hawaiian shirts, madras shorts, and Topsiders.

There has been a growing attempt to include a number of good local and regional beers in addition to the tooty-fruity tropical drink list that might be found in a Duval Street dive. Tonight's $45 tab (+$10 tip) included a shared order of garlic sauteed blue crab clusters, a barbecue sandwich, with sides of corn and cole slaw and several beers. There are no OMG moments with any of the menu items (the crab clusters are a poor excuse for not serving whole steamed crabs and are a waste of time and money). The most memorable aspect of the experience was simply the experience!

Since the restaurant is primarily geared to the tourists, most of the servers are seasonal, college students who have an unusually wholesome countenance. No tatooes or piercings are seen which would indicate a more bohemian attitude that I feel is necessary for a truly committed food and beverage experience. In spite of the very conservative appearance of the staff and management, Berret’s is a great way to spend a warm, muggy evening in one of Williamsburg’s busiest parking lots.

Lovely Rita's Gelati and Custard-Best Family Dessert

Although a part of a national franchise, Rita's Italian Ice in the standalone building on Monticello Avenue is a must visit destination for cooling summer desserts. I wouldn't bother with anything but the Gelati...a mix of flavored ice and custard. Flavors change on a regular basis and on today's visit I had vanilla custard with the mango ice. Rita's isn't cheap but is very high quality. I used to order the large size but now I'm usually content with the small cup.

Lines can form quickly but service is always swift. My best friend and partner once coined the phrase "4th of Gelati" in tribute to our annual visit on the 4th of July. The ideal time to visit is right at that magic twilight moment when the heat of the day gives way to a cool evening breeze. If the winds fail to blow, frosty relief can be found in the green, red, and white cup--the emblem of a Rita's Gelati.