“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” wrote the American poet Emma Lazarus late in the 19th century. Long before these words were immortalized in the lower level of the Statue of Liberty, America had become a cultural epicenter, a place where nationalities converge to create something much greater than the sum of its parts. While this may be a lofty introduction, we believe it applies to food, and especially to food in Charlottesville. To this end, we’ve compiled a handful of categories loosely based on regional origin and selected our favorite spot for each one. And speaking of community, most of these restaurants use locally-sourced ingredients from just around the way, so where applicable, we will be giving shout-outs to the central Virginia farms that made these meals possible!
French: Petit Pois
For a small mid-Atlantic town, Charlottesville sure does have its fair share of French restaurants. This charming bistro is right off the pedestrian Downtown Mall, and you couldn’t ask for a better location. On a good day, patio dining is a must. From escargot to trout amandine to steak tartare…Petit Pois serves up authentic French cuisine with aplomb. This writer’s favorite meal is probably the confit duck leg, served with roasted Brussels sprouts, panisse, and apple cider gastrique…yum. Every bite is deliberate and delectable, with well-balanced flavors and thoughtful wine/cocktail pairings. The wait staff is cheerful, attentive, and extremely responsive. In addition to a slew of delicious offerings, there is also an extensive wine selection. And Petit Pois has fairly affordable fare, especially considering where the ingredients come from. The connection with farms in the Greater Charlottesville is especially encouraging. The folks at Petit source their food from several different central Virginia farms: chicken from Polyface Farm, beef from Wolf Creek Farm, beautiful cheeses from Caromont Farm…the list goes on.
Lampo is Italian for “lightning,” and what is more Italian than authentic Neapolitan pizza fresh from a 1000-degree wood-fired oven? Located in a neighborhood in Charlottesville (the Belmont area near downtown), Lampo’s quick-fired pies are usually ready in a matter of minutes. Don’t limit yourself to the classic margherita pizza, no matter how enticing the thin, buttery crust and the gooey combination of San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Shop around…the menu has something for everyone. We heartily recommend the polpettine…with pecorino cheese, basil, and organic pork and beef, it’s probably the classiest interpretation of a meatball sub we’ve ever seen, much less devoured in two bites. Beautiful, refreshing wines and cocktails to go with any meal. Supplied by JM Stock and Provisions, Down Branch Farm in Albemarle, Caromont, a dairy farm in Esmont, and countless others. Check out their website for a full list.
Mexican: Al Carbon
This Peruvian-inspired Mexican joint wins points for uniqueness. Everyone’s done the taco shop and the burrito bar. We think it’s fair to say that chips and salsa have become appropriated into the continuum of standard American snack fare. But the sight of Al Carbon’s mouth-watering whole chickens as they rotate inside a coal-fired broiler is something you just don’t get to see every day. This is street food, plain and simple. This is especially true for the giant rotisserie ovens, which you are far more likely to find on the sidewalk in Mexico City than in a person’s home. These juicy, flavorful birds are carved up into quarters and halves and served up with spicy, savory, and creamy sauces on the side. And the array of side dishes includes everything from the usual suspects like tortillas, rice and beans, and guacamole but also yucca, plantain, and, the piece du resistance….deep-fried churros filled with Bavarian cream and topped with ice cream. Okay, that’s less a side and more a dessert but you get the idea. Head chef and owner Myriam Hernandez hails from Mexico, but she gets her chickens fresh-never-frozen from a farm in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
No town is complete without a good Indian lunch buffet, and Charlottesville is lucky to have a handful of options. Milan stands out for its sophisticated aesthetic and measured, down-tempo ambiance, as well as its deviation from standard Anglo-Indian cuisine. That’s not to say you can’t get a piping hot bowl of chicken tikka masala and some charred, buttery garlic naan. These Punjabi classics are among the most recognizable to Americans. Head chef and owner Charanjeet Ghotra hails from this region, so you know there will be food you love on this menu. Milan (like most Indian and Thai restaurants) is a great place to bring vegetarian or vegan friends. The scallop patia features sweet and sour curried mangoes and ginger; the khumbh til ka paneer features creamy chunks of paneer and shiitake mushrooms simmered in curry and sesame seeds; or the lasooni gobhi, an appetizer of crispy cauliflower sauteed with garlic in a tomato-based sauce. A great lunch or dinner spot, for sure.
Chinese: Peter Chang’s
So much has been said and written about chef Peter Chang that it’s difficult to know where fact ends and fable begins. But there are a couple of things we do know about the legendary chef. He specializes in Szechuan cuisine, was trained in China before moving to D.C. to cook at the Chinese embassy, and he’s opened up a slew of Peter Chang restaurants in various Virginia cities. Szechwan cuisine is characterized by liberal use of garlic, chili pepper, star anise, and broad chili paste. Legend has it that at any given night, Chang is cooking at one of the Virginia locations, and there is a legion of fans dedicated to tracking him down. Needless to say, the food is awesome. The scallion pancakes–big as dodgeballs and barely able to sit comfortably on a plate–are a great way to start off a meal. The dry-fried eggplant, stir-fried with scallions and cilantro? The mouthwatering lamb chops, marinated to perfection and pan-seared with chili powder and cumin seed? Has a single meal ever reduced you to asking a series of rhetorical questions while your stomach rumbles? Has it ever brought you to tears? We don’t even want to mention the fact that you can get a meal for under $20, because price shouldn’t be a consideration when it comes to food this good.
Thai: Pad Thai
Thai food appears to be experiencing a surge in popularity in recent times; the fear is that Thai chefs will alter their cooking to suit Western palates, but in an age where “authentic” cooking can mean many things (and, consequently, nothing) chefs Santi and Utaiwan Ouypron are serving up delicious “home-style” cooking straight from their kitchen. This was literally the case a few years ago, when the Ouyprons operated an eatery out of their home in Bangkok, Thailand and it’s the case now, at their restaurant Pad Thai on Carlton Avenue, not far from downtown Charlottesville. They have offerings you don’t typically see on Thai menus, which tend to serve up variations on pad Thai, drunken noodles, pineapple-fried rice, and a great many curries. Compare that with the litany of brothy noodle bowls, the Chinese broccoli sauteed with shrimp or roasted pork belly, or the Grandpa’s favorite (green curry-fried rice, beneath a curried seafood roll, a Thai omelet, and fried catfish chunks, wow) and you’ll wonder what all the other guys are doing. The Ouyprons don’t really source much from the local farms, but they do use local eggs, chilies, basil, lime leaves, lemongrass, mint and some bell peppers.
Burgers: Citizen Burger Bar
The modern burger is as American as the assembly line, and don’t let anyone from Hamburg tell you different. Our list of celebrated ethnic foods wouldn’t be complete without something homegrown, and for that we come to Citizen Burger Bar, one of the heartiest, tastiest burgers in town. Go try the Southern, a giant half-pound burger with pimento cheese, yellow mustard, iceberg lettuce and tomato. Eat your fill and take the rest home, or stay and try to wash it down with the bevy of local beers on tap. The place is not strictly a burger joint; they have other fare like chicken, salads, grilled cheeses, truffle fries, and a genuinely delicious vegan burger made from quinoa, millet, and beets. The meats and cheese are locally sourced from Timbercreek Organic farm in Albemarle County and Mountain View Farm in Fairfield respectively. Grass-fed beef and free-range chicken make for a good meal every time.
And there you have it…our take on Charlottesville and its diverse culinary offerings. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ethnic food around here, so don’t just take our word for it. Get out there and eat!