Welcome to the New South.
And in the spirit of the new, let’s get accustomed to calling it the RVA, cuz that’s how the locals do. Oh, you think this is some last second ploy from the tourism board? Then do this: type “RVA Richmond” into Google and you will get hit with all kinds of the “new Richmond”. I’m talking links to Richmond groups associated with strings like reddit, LGBTQ and TEDx. That sound new enough for you?
When it came to Cheap Eats, and really just food, one thing popped into my mind as we researched RVA: Is this the new Charleston? Long held as a darling food town of the South, the comparison of Richmond to Charleston would be inevitable though that’s more a reflection of the mutual size of the two cities in relation to say Atlanta or Nashville. Richmond doesn’t boast the same level of tourism numbers that Charleston does nor tout culinary heavyweights like SNOB or Sean Brock, but that doesn’t mean stuff like that isn’t on the horizon. Look, this is where people like me have a lot of fun: predicting the future of a food scene. So consider this post to be something akin to reporting from Florida during Major League Baseball’s spring training or, maybe a little later, like after the first month of the regular season. The hype has well been out there and now the signs of promise are starting to deliver real numbers or in this case: real entrées.
the spot: Citizen RVA 1203 E. Main Street Richmond VA 23219
the eats: Shrimp and Grits with Surry Sausage, BBQ Shrimp Po Boy
the bucks: $17, $11 respectively
the full nelson: The reason why the South is vying to become the most important food region in America
Having proper shrimp and grits in the South should be an experience that falls somewhere in between “edible revelation” and “the Earth just shattered”. That certainly described where I was at when I dug into my first bite at the venerable Hominy Grill back in 2005. The reputation for real Southern eats and the wait in line at Hominy has become so formidable that locals in the know put me onto Sunrise Bistro Xpress when Cheap Eats came to Charleston last season. No matter the wait or the cost, a good plate of Shrimp and Grits is certainly worth your hard earned bucks. So when I came across this darling plate at Citizen RVA – the answer to “what are you having?” could not have come any quicker.
A couple quick earmarks in identifying quality shrimp and grits. For starters, can you identify the grits? In this case, yes. Byrd Mill grits are featured here at Citizen. We might take name drops in menus for granted but just imagine grits from Waffle House and tell me there isn’t a difference. Exactly. And then there is the shrimp, aka the reason why a dish like shrimp and grits should sail well past the $10 mark. Shrimp shouldn’t be cheap. Good shrimp seldom is. But what made these great shrimp was more a reflection of technique rather than ingredient. These beauties had the perfect cook on ’em. Just enough color to bring out the pink but still maintain a tender center. What also drew me to this dish was the inclusion of Surry sausage; a hickory smoked link native to Virginia. Beyond it being a nice local touch, the hearty porcine supplement makes for a complimentary addition of flavor. Bacon gets made love for showing up to the party all salty, smokey and sweet but consider the entrance chorizo makes to a paella or in this case’ smoked sausage knocking on shrimp and grits’ door. If you are looking for a little more bang for your shrimp buck look no further than the BBQ Shrimp Po Boy. A sandwich this massive always makes for an earnest dinner and more a than fair one at $11.
the spot: Early Bird Biscuit Co 119 N. Robinson Street Richmond VA 23228
the eats: Jalapeño Queso Fresco Biscuit with Cilantro Crema(biscuit of the day), Ham Biscuit, really anything
the bucks: $2.65, $4.25, menu tops off at $5.95
the full nelson: Not just the best biscuits I have ever had but the reason why simple foods can be the very best foods
We live in a renewed age of food specialization. Butcher shops and cheesemongers are popping up everywhere. And high end supermarkets are making room on their shelves for artisanal this and small batch that. I don’t know if there were biscuit shops back in the day, but I do know that Early Bird Biscuit Co serves up biscuits from back in the day because these recipes came from Chef/Owner Tim Laxton’s grandmother. Almost as compelling as the lineage is the price tag: $2.65. Of course you will be tempted to try one of the more substantial biscuit offerings with local country ham but rest assured that balling on these biscuits won’t take your wallet much farther passed a $5 spot. Beyond the price tag, know that you will take on a marvelously light and airy biscuit thanks to the way Chef Laxton works the dough. A perfect cheap eat right here my friends because the star of the show is technique, and a grandmother’s one at that.
the spot: Millies’s Diner 2603 E. Main Street Richmond VA 23223
the eats: Devil’s Mess
the bucks: $12
the full nelson: A diner that runs on the soul of a real deal rock n roller
Diners are about people really. Sure, we say we come for the food. Stacks of pancakes griddled next to crackling strips of bacon. Eggs that are haphazardly flipped over by a well seasoned spatula into a perfect over easy. And my personal diner fav of all time: corned beef hash and eggs. But the diner experience is defined not just by a menu. There’s the breakneck table service efficiency. Atmosphere: the older and the grittier, the better. And finally, the people. Even if you are averse to eating alone, always remember the diner is practically a dining companion. The good ones make for the best people watching – whether that be customers or the staff. Speaking of staff, I have to say the staff at Millie’s know how to have a good time. Whoever came up with the whole “the hair of the dog is the cure for a hangover” must have worked a shift or two there. We came to Millie’s because of the great food reputation that it has in Richmond, because the Devil’s Mess totally fit our budget and was one heck of an omelette that can work for lunch or even dinner. But the truth is fate brought me to Millie’s. Paul Keevil, the owner of Millie’s is also a musician who did a serious stint in LA in the 1980s. He, like many other musicians would call a funky neighborhood called Silver Lake home. A far cry from this the bourgeois hipster temple that it is now, Silver Lake is home to the original Millie’s. A diner Paul worked at, a diner I frequented, but with a 20 year gap in between. When he came to RVA in 1989, the restaurant biz came with and he opened up Millie’s, keeping the name as an homage to the owner of the LA Millie’s who shares the very same. Beyond the LA connection, there is Paul Keevil, a true rocker dude. A guy who loves music and performing and loves running this restaurant. It is no secret that many an artist turn to the restaurant and bar business as a means of support. What’s special about Paul is that the same passion I see when he talks about playing gigs in London 30 years ago also comes out when he talks about the food he serves at Millie’s. The proof of this passion stares right back at you when stepping up to the Devil’s Mess. An omelette with curry and cheese sounds like Pink Floyd played on a toy piano, but trust me – it really really works. The food is eclectic, all over the place and just really good. Millie’s reminds me of Greenwich Village NYC in the 1990s. A place I first turned to for my burgeoning brunch needs. It was there that I encountered flavors of Thailand intermingled with a menu of salads and grilled cheese sandwiches – Shopsin’s anyone? It was an era before this current crazy awesome food world we are in and, yeah we ate pretty good back then too. Millie’s reminds me of that time. Knowing that Paul and I share some diner lineage through our separate but important times in LA makes Millie’s seem like a diner of destiny for me. And it reminds me that there are so many ways that a restaurant can be special. And Millie’s certainly is.
the spot: Shyndigz 1903 W. Cary Street Richmond VA 23220
the eats: Salted Chocolate Caramel Cake
the bucks: $8.89
the full nelson: If Willy Wonka took you out on a blind date you would go here
If I had to pick only one sweet to eat for the rest of my days it would no doubt be one with a deep affiliation with chocolate. I don’t consider myself someone who has a sweet tooth. My PC way of this declaration comes out something like “I am a savory over sweet kinda guy”. But chocolate isn’t just a sweet. It is a food that that features bitterness and earthiness as much as sweetness. Chocolate is a sweet that is more than just a sweet just like how the Salted Chocolate Caramel cake is more than just a cake. This stunning display of decadence isn’t just the almost $9 price tag or the size(this cake is almost half a foot tall); it is a display of the sheer power of chocolate. Chocolate is interpreted in three different flavor directions here. First there is the richness of the chocolate cake itself. Then there is the whipped buttery cream binder of the cake: the chocolate mousse. And finally the real kickers of the Salted Chocolate Caramel Cake experience are the bitter and salty chocolate flavor directions the cake goes into thanks to the infusion of coffee in the batter and the salt in the caramel. The coffee is by far more subtle than the salt but one thing is for sure: this chocolate cake ain’t a one hit wonder – there is serious dimension here. You really can’t finish this cake alone so don’t fret over the price tag. It’s no different than wrapping your head around a $70 tomahawk rib eye. Both meals are good for two, even three, or in the case of the Salted Chocolate Caramel cake – even 4. But beyond the bucks, this is a Cheap Eat find first and foremost because of the sheer dessert skillz Shydigz brings. An experience that usually comes with a tomahawk rib eye in tow. But at Shydigz you only have to worry about the dessert part of the bill. And hopefully Willy Wonka aint a cheap date.
the spot: Mama J’s 415 N. First Street Richmond VA 23219
the eats: 1 pc catfish entree with one side(mac n cheese), fried chicken entree(white) with two sides(pasta salad and collard greens)
the bucks: $9, $15
the full nelson: the kind of home cooked soul food you would expect in the South – an RVA staple.
Mama J’s is the kind of experience you travel across the country for. A place that assures the weary traveler that he or she has clearly found “the spot”. I didn’t grow up on Soul Food but I now have bar to test others against, thanks to Mama J. Margarine and wholesale catfish doesn’t seem like much on paper but goodness did that Mac n Cheese just taste sooo right! And the Catfish was fried PERFECTLY – something that happens when you have spent a lifetime in the kitchen, like Mama J has. There are numerous restaurants worth trying in Richmond but I can’t imagine myself not coming to Mama Js every time I am in town because there is something just so right about eating Soul Food like this in the South. Some places try and get away with “authentic” but cut corners, like not swapping out the oil in a fryer. Not so at Mama J’s, which is why the catfish doesn’t taste like fried chicken and vice versa. She brings it with the sides too. The Pasta Salad is loaded with shrimp and crab. Collard greens hold that bright hue because they haven’t been boiled to death. Hell, they have a full bar here. The scene is popping too – Mama Js is in the Jackson Ward, a historic African American neighborhood in Richmond. It’s kind of amazing to think of a time where Jackson Ward was place where a group of people thrived because they were not permitted to do so elsewhere. Times have changed in the Ward. And while the history of the South and segregation is well known, it is still a triumph to see a sea of faces of different races, eating together. And eating incredible Soul Food at that.
There is a lot going in Richmond, I mean the RVA, these days. So much so that I think it is more than fair to call it “the New South”. But what draws me to the RVA is the trend of Southern food becoming a cornerstone in our grand 21st century American Food Renaissance. How dishes redolent of comfort and tradition are capturing the imagination of chefs and diners alike. We are rediscovering the great regional cooking of our own country and understandably the South has something to say about that. There is a lot of history in the RVA, a history rich in food. But it’s a history that is fast becoming glances in a rearview mirror as a slew of new chefs and ambitious eaters seek to make a New South of their own. And that’s what the New South is really about: making a history of their own.